What is the best way to achieve lasting change in poor communities around the world?

At Water1st, we believe the answer lies in community empowerment. Community empowerment looks very different than international aid. Community empowerment begins with the belief that the most valuable and most effective force of change exists within the people living in these difficult conditions. They are smart. They are resourceful. They know their environment. They are motivated to create and sustain change. With support and organization, they are the ultimate force of change.

So when we visit projects to evaluate our work, we are not only monitoring the engineering and functionality of the project, we’re also evaluating community outcomes. Of course we make sure that the project has its intended benefits, but we also make sure that the community has been empowered through the development process.

Our recent site visit to the Bangladesh community of Mukragul was testimony to the enduring power of community development. Makragul is a slum dwelling of 800 people on the outskirts of the city of Dhaka.

The community invited us to a simple celebration. They were celebrating their accomplishments over the past five years. The presenters were two local women, Thamina Sultana and Shainur Begum (yes, women). Thamina and Shainur held important committee positions—they were responsible for the organization of the community to identify priority activities and to facilitate the implementation process. [photo above: Community leaders, Thamina Sultana and Shainur Begum, with Water1st staff in Mukragul, Dhaka, Bangladesh]

Their presentation was outstanding. In the five years that our local partner, DSK, has been working in Mukragul, progress has been dramatic. In 2009 there were only 9 clean water sources in the community. Now the community has 30 sources. Collection time for water has been reduced by 80% and cost has been reduced by 15%. Meanwhile, the quality and quantity of water used has improved dramatically. The community is getting much more for considerably less.

On the toilet side of the equation, the number of available toilets has increased from 7 to 16. The number of unhygienic toilets has been reduced from 12 to 6. Tahmina and Shainur also reported that diseases are much less prevalent and expenditures for medical treatment are down 35%.

This valuable information exists because we believe in the process of community organizing. Back in 2009, before project construction began, a local committee was formed to develop a community map that detailed baseline statistics and identified community needs and priorities.

The local Mukragul water committee was formalized and they started working toward the community-identified goal of 100% access to water and toilets. At the 5-year mark, the committee conducted a research study to determine what progress had been made. The statistics shared above were derived from that follow-up analysis. Seeing the impact of the program on their health, time, and pocketbooks reinforced their enthusiasm for the work and provided incentive to reach 100% water and toilet coverage by 2018.

Thamina and Shainur were able to successfully demonstrate the accomplishments of the community because they carefully followed processes that we believe are tried and true to sustainable development. Water1st, with our local partner, DSK, support and facilitate their work, but the community itself is the ultimate force behind its transformation.

Local committee in our Bangladesh projects are trained to use data to make decisions and track their progress. This community map details baseline statistics and helps the community identify needs and priorities.