What It Takes to Effect Social Change in a Community
Through the foundation’s work with partner organizations, we’ve earned a number of lessons about what it takes to effectively address community needs. However, the residents of each unique community we serve—in India, typically urban slums—have shared the most valuable insights into igniting change.
If You Build it, Will They Come?
Our work in water and sanitation in urban India spans two areas of practice: microfinance and health. With the support of the foundation, Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT) has provided nearly 25,000 families across 70 urban slums with access to water, sewage and toilets. By creating awareness about health and hygiene issues, MHT has also mobilized government and community funding (primarily through access to microcredit) for infrastructure costs. The goal of MHT’s work is to provide people, primarily slum dwellers, with low-cost loans so they can build toilets or put running water in their homes.
Create simple technologies that address basic needs and people will be eager to get them, right?
MHT understands communities, and through our work with them, we’ve benefitted greatly from their expertise. We can’t assume that just because a solution is needed, people will adopt it. We also have to understand the environment in order to create demand. Only then will people take action.
When introducing a new solution to anyone, it’s crucial to identify what will truly motivate them to adopt it. In the case of water and sanitation, motivation seems simple: clean water, proper sanitation, better health. However, even among neighbors, different motivations are often at play. While some families might want a toilet for health reasons, others might want it for greater dignity, improved social status or safety for female family members. Some families do not think the benefits are worth the upfront cost. Addressing motivations can make a huge difference in helping to close the gap between perceived need and actual demand.
Barriers to adoption can be difficult to demolish: access to financing, lack of infrastructure or clear title to land. Lack of buy-in among neighborhood leaders who can mobilize community members is another common obstacle. High cost or low quality discourages customers as well.
Overcoming each barrier depends on understanding how and why it comes into play, and then devising tactics to shift the rules of the game. In water and sanitation in slums, cost is often a barrier to demand. So, MHT introduced pay-per-use community toilets to demonstrate the concrete benefits of better sanitation. As people understood the benefits, demand for other solutions—such as individually owned toilets—grew. Then by linking buyers to microcredit, MHT helped reduce the upfront expense of building individual toilets.
Neighborhood influencers who understand the value of solutions can be mobilized to build further demand. In many India slums, MHT relied on influencers. They were women who were concerned about creating a safer environment. They were parents of young children, who were aware of and ready to address health issues. They were low-income workers, who had stable enough incomes to make investments in housing improvements. Identifying them and converting them to advocates is another way MHT creates broad success in the community.
Context matters. And in development work, the context is humanity with all its complexities. Until we address that, we’ll fall short of our goals.
- CASE STUDY: Mahila Housing SEWA Trust: Provision of Water and Sanitation Services for the Urban Poor
- BLOG POST: The urban poverty paradox: It’s good for you. Why won’t you do it?
- BLOG POST: Context counts: Five development lessons from India’s urban slums
- BLOG POST: Water and sanitation in India's slums: What corporate best practices can teach the development community
- BLOG POST: Will reinventing the toilet solve the global sanitation crisis?
- BLOG POST: Linking microfinance, water and sanitation: Real challenges, real benefits
- GIVING REPORT: Mahila Housing Trust