Unlocking the potential of social accountability to improve water and sanitation services

Carmen Fernández Fernández Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

Achieving the targets within Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG) will require huge infrastructure investment to improve services and to extend them to those they currently do not serve.

Social accountability

Sustained universal coverage and water security will also need financial and institutional strengthening. This is particularly challenging for the water sector as it is highly dependent (75%) on donor funding and needs to be more self-sustaining. Much of this lies in improving ownership, maintenance and holding those who install, maintain and manage services to account. If this is not done well, people won’t pay for it, so the emphasis on trust and accountability is important in bringing people and providers together.

Social accountability aims to improve institutional performance by encouraging citizens to engage and authorities and companies to respond publicly. Social accountability in the WASH sector emerges as a promising approach to promote improved water security through increased levels of trust and local ownership in water governance.

Trust and ownership

Promoting trust implies finding a common ground where consumers and water service providers can communicate with each other and make progress together. Both stakeholders are interested in closing the communication loop: consumers want their WASH needs to be addressed and providers want to increase willingness to pay.
Increased ownership of water services and processes is aimed at increasing (1) their effectiveness in addressing community needs and (2) their long-term sustainability resulting from responsible use and from holding decision-makers to account.

A learning process

Oxfam is working in diverse humanitarian and development settings and countries to facilitate an enabling environment where social accountability can be exerted.

Increasing local ownership and trust are central to Oxfam’s objectives. Accordingly, Oxfam supports the creation and strengthening of legitimized and approved local platforms and processes where consumers, water service providers and authorities can engage with each other. The objective is that all 3 actors work together to ensure that roles and responsibilities are upheld and that water and sanitation rights fulfilled. More generally, these platforms are aimed at increasing community confidence and provide a space to address other priority issues.

Continuous learning and adapting has been essential in finding the best social accountability models for each context. This is still an ongoing internal learning process. Some of the crucial questions in which Oxfam is working are:

  • How far should Oxfam’s support go without hindering local ownership of the process?
  • What are the best models to promote community monitoring?
  • How to ensure the translation of the monitoring information into actions?
  • In fragile contexts, at what stage do we stop being the interlocutor and to whom do we handover and when?

Find out more about what we have learned so far and which social accountability strategies have proven successful in Lebanon,  Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Tajikistan.


Cecile Pomarede