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Achieving development outcomes by building practical authority in WASH participatory collectives in Melanesia

Katherine F. Shields
Department of Geography, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, USA; The Water Institute at UNC, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA; kfs@uoregon.edu

Dani J. Barrington
School of Population and Global Health, The University of Western Australia, Crawley, Australia; School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK; International WaterCentre, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia; Department of Marketing, Monash University, Caulfield, Australia; dani.barrington@uwa.edu.au

Semisi Meo
Institute of Applied Science, University of the South Pacific, Suva, Fiji; smeo2011@gmail.com

Srinivas Sridharan
Department of Marketing, Monash University, Caulfield, Australia; srinivas.sridharan@monash.edu

Stephen G. Saunders
Department of Marketing, Monash University, Caulfield, Australia; stephen.saunders@monash.edu

Jamie Bartram
The Water Institute at UNC, Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, USA; School of Civil Engineering, University of Leeds, Leeds, UK; j.k.bartram@leeds.ac.uk

Regina T. Souter
International WaterCentre, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia; r.souter@griffith.edu.au

 

ABSTRACT: The strength of the 'enabling environment' for development is often considered to be one of the key elements in whether development initiatives fail or succeed. Attempts to strengthen the enabling environment have resulted in a series of checklists and frameworks that imagine it largely to be fixed, static, and separated from 'beneficiaries'. In the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector, there is a preoccupation with fostering an optimal enabling environment that will result naturally in 'ideal' and formalised user participation, which will in turn lead to universal access to water and sanitation. In this paper, we challenge this simplistic and linear view of an enabling environment that is perpetuated by checklists and frameworks. We conducted a three-and-a-half-year transdisciplinary participatory action research (PAR) project which sought to foster WASH solutions in impoverished informal settlements in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. In a critical reflection on this project, we analyse the ways in which we both perpetuated problematic checklists and worked collaboratively with our participants to reimagine the enabling environment. We show how individuals challenged the expert–beneficiary dichotomy as they built 'practical authority' from their peers through taking action. Our study demonstrates that conceptualising the enabling environment as a dynamic ecology of actors, relationships and processes that includes the users of WASH as active participants was essential to supporting progress towards universal WASH access. We argue that working within the politics of development rather than seeking to render problems as technical was crucial to fostering WASH improvements that were determined by residents themselves and supported by stakeholders. Such an inclusive approach is essential to fully leveraging the co-productive possibilities of participation. If development practitioners and scholars are to achieve development outcomes in an equitable and participatory manner, they must shift their conceptualisation of the enabling environment as being a checklist of things 'out there' to one where they work to find their place within an ecology of participatory collectives.

KEYWORDS: Participation, participatory action research, Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH), enabling environment, practical authority, Melanesia