Social Mobilization and WASH

Social Mobilization: An Innovative Approach to Meeting Water-Sanitation Related MDG Targets in the Larger Context of Eradicating Poverty

By Badiul Alam Majumdar* and John Coonrod**

Presented at the Thirteenth Sustainable Development Conference (SDC)
21-23 December 2010, Islamabad, Pakistan and published in Peace and Sustainable Development in South Asia: The Way Forward, SDPI, 2011.



Meeting the Millennium Development Goals for safe water and sanitation is an enormous challenge, and Bangladesh is unlikely to meet its targets. Traditional top-down, service delivery approaches have not produced sustainable results or led to the behavioural changes necessary. The Hunger Project has partnered with Bangladesh’s Hygiene, Sanitation and Water Supply (HYSAWA) programme to develop and assess a systematic bottom-up methodology based on social mobilization and partnership with grassroots-level government, namely the Union Parishads, in eleven clusters of villages. External evaluators have concluded that this approach has advantages in terms of cost, ownership and sustainability.

The Challenge of the Century

Access to clean water is widely seen as the challenge of the 21st century (UN-Water 2007; Voelker 2004). The World Health Organization has identified water-borne disease as the world’s deadliest killer, taking 3.4 million lives per year, mostly children (WHO 2001). Some 900 million take drinking water from unsafe sources, and 2.6 billion lack safe sanitation – a Millennium Development Goal that the world is not on track to meet (WHO / UNICEF 2010).

Water and sanitation are not isolated problems – they are inextricably linked with poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation, including climate change. In Bangladesh, inadequate access to safe water and sanitation, along with poor sanitation practices, kills 110,000 children every year from diarrhoea, cholera, typhoid and other water-borne diseases.

Although Bangladesh has made great strides over the years in providing water and sanitation facilities, it still has a long way to go to meet the MDGs. Available information shows that the proportion of the Bangladeshi population with access to improved water sources increased from 94 percent in 1994 to 98 percent in 2006 (Government of Bangladesh 2009). However, arsenic contamination of 22 percent of the tube wells in the country has lowered the access to safe drinking water to an estimated 78 percent during the early 1990s. The most recent MICS (Bangladesh Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey) of 2009 found that access to improved sources of water, adjusted for arsenic contamination of 50 microgram per litre, has increased to 86 percent (Haq 2009). However, if the WHO’s standard of 10 microgram of arsenic per litre is to be applied, only 75 percent of the population in 2009 used safe water. But the MDG target for safe drinking water for 2015 is 89 percent of the population having access to safe drinking water. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the safe drinking water-related MDG target will be achieved, if we are to use the more stringent WHO standard.

The prospect of achieving the sanitation-related MDG target appears to be even more unlikely. According to the latest MICS, access to improved sanitation facilities has increased from 39 percent in 1990 to 54 percent in 2009. UNDP points out that the MDG for 2015 of reaching 70 percent “needs attention” (UNDP 2010). Universal coverage would obviously take a much longer time.

Limits to the Traditional Approach

The Hunger Project’s field experience (described below) is consistent with the findings of others (Kar 2003) that large expenditures for subsidised tube wells and sanitary latrines has not produced sustainable results, and has not convinced rural communities to practice safe sanitation. We have seen latrines installed, but not used, or used but not coupled with safe hygiene.

In fact, one can see with one’s own eyes an innumerable number of tube well pipes sticking out of the ground, with missing heads, around the country. It is our assessment that this is because of a lack of (often minor) repair of tube wells. When tube wells remain inoperative, their heads typically disappear, usually because of theft. Such lack of repair, we feel, is a natural consequence when tube wells are installed by “outsiders” with no ownership by the local people. The non-governmental organisations did not make the repair because the duration of their projects had expired.

The Patnitola Experiment

Based on these experiences, we have come to realise that in order to make the water and sanitation coverage effective and sustainable, a markedly different approach is needed – an approach where people themselves will have ownership in the solution of the problem. The Hunger Project-Bangladesh has been experimenting with an innovative “social mobilisation approach” in one Upazila of Bangladesh. We have reasons to believe that the social mobilisation approach is more cost effective and it will help us go the extra distance needed to achieve the MDGs within the shortest possible time.

We have been experimenting with this approach in the Patnitola Upazila of the Noagaon district consisting of 11 Unions and a population of about a quarter million. The experiment involved first mobilising the Union Parishads (UPs) and then with their help, a large number of volunteers. The volunteers then mobilise the people to address not only water and sanitation problems, but also good hygienic practices.  They also address ways to improve the overall quality of life, as demonstrated through the formation of self-help groups, increased income-earning opportunities and so on. The important assumption behind this volunteer-based approach is that since poverty is a multi-dimensional problem, its solution also requires multi-sectoral interventions focusing on as many problems as possible, for isolated and piecemeal interventions are unlikely to be sustainable. Another important assumption is that those who are in poverty must be the primary “actors” ending their poverty. That is, those who lack water and sanitation facilities must be the principal stakeholders and initiators for solving the problem, and they must not be given tube wells and sanitary latrines as handouts and treated as helpless “clients”.[1]

The experiment began in August 2008 and is being carried out in partnership with the HYSAWA (Hygiene, Sanitation and Water Supply) Fund, a statutory company formed with the support of the Government of Bangladesh and the Government of Denmark to address the water and sanitation related issues employing a decentralised approach.[2] The approach basically calls for using the democratically elected Union Parishad (UP), the lowest tier of the rural local government bodies of Bangladesh for solving water and sanitation related problems.[3]

Key Elements of Social Mobilisation: Vision, Commitment and Action

Social mobilisation has been used extensively in Bangladesh for a broad range of awareness-building activities and to increase people’s participation in development. The Hunger Project, however, goes a step further, and recognises that people must never be considered “objects” of development – they must be empowered as the key authors and actors in development.

In a society such as Bangladesh, where centuries of feudalism have been followed by decades of donor dependency and corruption, empowering people to be the authors of development requires a profound change in mind-set – in both the people and the government. People must generate and be inspired by a vision of a self-reliant future for themselves and their community.

This is the starting point for The Hunger Project, and it begins with a one-day workshop known as the Vision, Commitment and Action Workshop (VCAW), led by trained volunteers known as “animators”.

The initial inspiration people experience in the VCAW, however, will quickly go sour and will actually reinforce a sense of powerlessness and resignation if it is not quickly translated into concrete, meaningful progress. In the VCAW, participants take a stand to translate their vision into reality, and then identify a priority action process – consistent with their vision – that they will take immediate action to achieve. The animators help them select actions that can be achieved in a short time, with people’s own resources. Once people achieve this initial victory, they gain confidence. Leadership begins to emerge, and many participants step forward to be trained as animators.

The VCAW also introduces participants to the issues of gender. As they analyse the situation in their village, they come to see that women are key to progress in all development issues, yet by tradition they have been devalued and denied access to the information, skills and freedom of movement and that they need to be a full and equal partner in development.[4]

The animator training is an intensive, four-day workshop that empowers participants to fully understand – own – and be able to apply the principles of bottom-up, gender-focused development. They discover their ability to provide a new model of leadership – not the top-down, patriarchal form of leadership so endemic to feudal societies – but a transformative mode of leadership based on co-equal partnership and co-learning. Animators discover how to “animate” the process of development such that others discover and express their own leadership.

The animator training has proven to be life-altering for many of its participants. Hunger Project animators display a strong identification with their animator “batch” and with the programme as a whole, sustaining their volunteerism year-after-year. The Hunger Project supports their activism through regular meetings, additional training inputs, and annual “reunions” which attract as many as 15,000 animators who travel to Dhaka at their own expense to participate.

Building People’s Organisations / Social Units

In addition to animators, The Hunger Project provides specialised training and empowerment to mobilise key sectors of the society and enable them to build sustainable organisations for mutual support and empowerment. This includes:

  • Youth Ending Hunger: A programme to unleash leadership and creativity, and foster a sense of social responsibility among 100,000+ students across the country.
  • National Girl Child Advocacy Forum (NGCAF): An alliance of all organisations in the community committed to the rights of girls, that coordinates the celebration of National Girl Child Day with rallies, essay and art competitions, debates and media events. The NGCAF carries out a year-long campaign of actions for the rights of girls and for gender equality more broadly.
  • Women’s Leaders: The Hunger Project works to provide intensive training in gender issues and women’s rights to at least two women in each Ward, who in turn reach out to all of the women of their villages.
  • Barefoot Researchers: Volunteers from the poorest areas, the vast majority of whom are women, who are empowered, using the Participatory Action Research (Rahman 2007) methodology, to analyse the obstacles they face, devise strategies and carry out campaigns of action to build lives of self-reliance.

The Critical Role of Local Democracy

The Hunger Project began applying a bottom-up approach to development in 1994, yet quickly discovered that changes were only society-wide and sustainable when implemented in partnership with the level of government closest to the people – namely, the Union Parishads. We discovered that the animator training itself was transformational for elected UP representatives and chairs, and when integrated with additional information on good governance and democratic values, it served as the basis for a strong, specialised training for UP chairs and members.

The institutions of local governance are currently weak in Bangladesh, and have never been fully implemented as called for in its Constitution. UPs in particular are starved of resources and powers of autonomous decision-making. In this climate, UPs have welcomed the power provided to them through the “social capital” achieved through social mobilisation.

Stronger local governance, of course, must be coupled with stronger mechanisms of social accountability. The Hunger Project has been a staunch proponent and strongly supports the recently enacted reforms calling for Ward Sabha, and has – in the meantime – been organising them in many of the Unions where we work. In addition to Ward Sabhas, The Hunger Project builds and works with bottom-up civil society (as cited above) through the formation of social units among all sectors of society, and also provides pathways for citizen advocacy at upward levels through coordinated actions at Upazila, District and national level. These include:

  • Shujan, Citizens for Good Governance, which organises respected members of society to provide a non-partisan forum pressing for reforms and accountability;
  • Self-governing UP Advocacy Group, a form for elected UP representatives to make their voice known at higher levels of government;
  • Unleashed Women’s Network, the network of our trained Women’s Leaders, which advocates for women’s rights and gender equality at every level of society.

Applying Social Mobilisation to HYSAWA

The ultimate goal of the above methodology is to empower rural communities to achieve all the Millennium Development Goals on a sustainable basis. What the Hunger Project has learned in Bangladesh (and 12 other countries including India and countries in Africa and Latin America) is that this process occurs in roughly five stages or steps, which are described below in the context of the HYSAWA example.

While the Hunger Project’s approach has produced results in all sectors, it has proven to be particularly effective in sectors where attitudinal and behaviour change is a big component, and where the consequences of inaction are readily understandable. Halting water-borne disease is perhaps the best example of this, and Hunger Project mass-action campaigns for installing sanitary latrine, testing wells and training in oral rehydration have been held in hundreds of Unions over the past 15 years. The concrete steps encompassing this methodology include:

Step One: Initial Mobilisation

The Hunger Project-Bangladesh conducted two five-day residential training for the Chairs, Members and Secretaries of the 11 Unions at Rural Development Academy in Bogra at the end of 2008.  Participants undertook a rigorous process of self-questioning. The process was intended to create awareness among the participants that (1) they are the elected leaders of their communities, (2) they were elected to help solve the problems faced by the people of their Union, and (3) they must work in partnership with their constituents to build a better future for all.

The training focused on the goals of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS). At the end of the training, all participants made a public declaration of their commitment to ending hunger and poverty – by creating better (1) livelihood opportunities for their constituents, addressing important (2) social problems, achieving (3) transparency and accountability in their UPs, and creating better (4) infrastructure. UP representatives would start by implementing a community wide sanitation campaign using the CLTS methodology.

Following the five-day residential training in Bogra, UP representatives organised four-day trainings of “animators” – volunteers who are the main “sparkplugs” for social mobilisation. Animator trainings were held for 18-20 volunteers from each Ward (a Ward is a cluster of around 3 villages, and there are 9 Wards in a Union), creating approximately 180 volunteer-animators in each Union. Volunteer-animators included teachers, imams (religious leaders), social workers, political activists, students and conscious citizens. Nearly 40 percent were women. Across the 11 Unions, a total of 22 animator training sessions were conducted, empowering 1,953 volunteer-animators to take concrete steps towards improving the quality of life of their area – starting by improving sanitation, good hygiene practices and ensuring access to clean water in their communities.

After the animator trainings, day-long workshops were conducted in each Union where 27 Ward Catalysts (three volunteers from each Ward selected by the animators) were trained. The training focused on the formation of Community Development Forums (CDFs), Social Mapping and how to assess sanitation and safe water needs. A total of 297 Ward Catalysts were trained across the 11 unions.

Step Two: Organising the People (Creating Social Units)

As the Unions were mobilised through animators training and VCAWs, women and men began to receive specialised skills training, especially to conduct agro-based group enterprises. Particularly dynamic women received intensive training to be Women Leaders and to be part of the Unleashed Women’s Network. Women from the poorest communities were trained as People’s Researchers, and were empowered to constructively analyse and identify solutions to end their own poverty.

Step Three: Bottom-up Planning and Transparency

Communities mobilised by volunteer-animators were trained to prepare short and long-term plans for taking action in their Unions. In addition, Ward Sabhas were organised in some UPs to set priorities, develop action plans and report progress to the communities. It may be noted that Ward Sabhas – a Ward level assembly of voters twice a year – are mandated by the new Union Parishad Act 2009, and are yet to be fully implemented.

Step Four: Establishing Sufficient Infrastructure

Once the communities were mobilised, the goal is to ensure that the communities have sufficient infrastructure to achieve their development goals, including latrines, tested water taps and points, etc. With this goal in mind, the volunteer-animators worked with their communities to assess their needs and plan actions. Based on community inputs, they prepared and submitted 526 sub-projects to HYSAWA for investment for building water points or sinking tube wells and installing sanitary latrines for use of the entire community. The users paid 10 to 20 percent cost of building these community level common facilities. In addition, the individual households made their own plans of installing tube wells and sanitary latrines. The animators also mobilised Para Unnayan Forums, consisting of few households to pursue overall development of the community.

Step Five: Mass Action to Achieve Development Goals

From the beginning of the intervention, CDFs, led by volunteer-animators, have been holding rallies and carrying out mass action campaigns to promote CLTS. Campaigns were carried out to give information about the necessities of using safe water and hygienic latrines as well inspiring the local people to install those facilities. Campaigns were also carried out to promote good sanitation practices such as hand washing.

Campaigns are continuing to achieve all locally set priorities. These include mass awareness campaigns not only on water and sanitation related issues, but also on an array of other local priorities, such as birth registration, immunisation drives, school enrollment, halting of dowry and early marriage, reducing school dropouts, mobilising for self-reliant actions and so on.

Challenge: Delayed Local Elections and Lack of Coordination

The greatest challenge facing our experiment is that local elections have been delayed and the terms of the current Union Parishads expired in early 2008 and the energy and responsiveness of these bodies has undoubtedly waned to some extent. UP elections are expected to be held sometime in the next few months, at which time the Hunger Project plans to provide extensive training to newly-elected UP representatives and office-holders in the principles and advantages of bottom-up, gender-focused development.

Successful implementation of the HYSAWA goals also require effective coordination between HYSAWA as a fund management entity, local government support unit (LGSU) and the functionaries of the Public Health and Engineering Department of the Government of Bangladesh. The present structure is quite complicated, which makes coordination at times difficult to achieve.

Monitoring and Evaluation

At the start of 2010, the Hunger Project implemented a web-based programme planning and result-tracking database, which records priorities and results on a monthly basis for every Union mobilised in its programmes. This frequency of reporting may seem excessive compared to “professionalised” development projects. However, it appears to be essential to maintaining a high degree of mobilisation in a volunteer-based development movement.

The tracking system provides gender-disaggregated information on participation. For example, 38% of the 1,961 animators trained were women, compared to only 20% of the 11,947 who participated in the formation of Community Development Forums.

The system also tracks outcomes, such as the number of tube wells proposed (1,283), approved (874) and installed (673). It tracks improvements in access over time. For example, the percentage with access to safe sanitation improved from 36% to 71% from October 2008 to October 2010.

 Other Outcomes

  • In addition to sanitation and clean water campaigns, literacy campaigns were initiated in South Haripur and Shomvopur village in Patnitala UP and Singhondi village in Matindor UP.
  • Social action campaigns were conducted on such issues as drug abuse, child marriage, and the mistreatment of women.
  • Approximately 400 farmers received training in how to utilise vermin compost, organic fertiliser and herbal pesticides to ensure sustainable agricultural practices.
  • A total of 38 Participatory Action Research (PAR) organisations were formed by the poorest of the poor, catalyzing about 1.4 million taka as savings. As “Barefoot Researchers” they analyse their own poverty to find creative ways of transforming the condition in which they live. The achievements of these groups include establishment of tree plantations, halting early marriage, formation of savings and credit groups and establishment of handicraft businesses. Animators formed another eight self-help groups. Students organised science clubs, community information centres, English learning centres and adult literacy centres.

Technical evaluation

In May 2009, Ausaid and Danida commissioned a Joint Review Team of external consultants to evaluate various aspects of HYSAWA including four different implementation modalities – three based on paid implementers, and the volunteer-based social mobilisation approach described in this paper.

The report stated “The success of the social movement approach depends to some degree on the organisation and personalities that instigates the activities. The Hunger Project appears to have performed well. Given such organisations to instigate, organise training and guide, the social movement approach has many advantages in terms of spread of effect. It is also clear that at the community level separating hygiene, water and sanitation from other development issues does not make sense. Sustainability considerations with regard to intended impacts on health through hygiene practices; sanitation and water would also point to the social movement approach as a better option than hired NGOs. Internalisation of hygienic behaviour takes a long time, and the continuous presence of local change agents is more likely to sustain this.”

The report also recommended that the social mobilization approach be extended to additional areas.


Achieving MDG targets, such as those for access to water and sanitation, requires not only infrastructural improvements but also behavior change. Social mobilization offers significant advantages over direct implementation by NGOs in that it establishes deep ownership by the people and by their elected local governments.


The data collection for this experiment was carried out by the volunteer-animators themselves and coordinated by the Hunger Project staff member Manjurul Hoque and Asir Uddin.


Government of Bangladesh 2009, ‘The Millennium Development Goals: Bangladesh progress report 2009’, Planning Commission, The Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Haq, Naimul 2009, ‘Surveying the needs of children and women in Bangladesh through ‘MICS’, 4 August, UNICEF Bangladesh, <> accessed 17 February 2011.

Kar, Kamal 2003, ‘Subsidy or self-respect?’, IDS Working Paper 184 < >  accessed 17 February 2011.

Rahman, Md. Anisur, 2007, ‘Gonogobeshona in Bangladesh and the poverty and development discourse’, <> accessed 17 February 2011.

The Daily Star 2008, ‘1.6 million children under five die a year for lack of clean water’, 9 Nov. viewed  <> accessed 17 February 2011.

UN-Water 2007, ‘Coping with water scarcity: Challenge of the twenty-first century’, United Nations Water, <> accessed 17 February 2011.

UNDP Bangladesh, 2010, ‘Millennium Development Goal 7’, <> accessed 17 February 2011.

Voelker, R. 2004, ‘Access to clean water and sanitation pose 21st century challenge for millions’, Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 292, no. 3, pp. 318-320.

WHO 2001, ‘Water for health: Taking charge’, World Health Organization, <> accessed 17 February 2011.

WHO / UNICEF 2010, ‘Progress on sanitation and drinking water: 2010 update’, World Health Organization and United Nations Children’s Fund, Geneva, Switzerland, <> accessed 17 February 2011.

* Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar is the Vice President and Country Director of the Hunger Project in Bangladesh.
** Dr. John Coonrod is the Executive Vice President of The Hunger Project.

[1] It has been demonstrated by Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan and his associates through Orangi Pilot Project (OPP) in Karachi, Pakistan, involving 1.4 million slum dwellers that at the neighbourhood level people can at low cost build, finance and manage facilities like sewerage, water supply, solid waste disposals, clinics and provide security.  At OPP, government roles have been to work with larger facilities like trunk sewers and treatment plants, water mains and water supply, main solid waste disposal, build college/universities, hospitals and provide land fills. The OPP experiment has also clearly demonstrated that when government partners with the people, sustainable development can be achieved and managed with local resources. For more details see: <>

[2] For details, see <>

[3] It may be pointed out that although HYSAWA paid for some the training costs, there was no fund transfer between HYSAWA and The Hunger Project.

[4] The Hunger Project mobilises based on a goal of full gender equality, and has achieved 40 percent of all animators being women.