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‘Same fate’: community cohesion meets co-design to create resilient communities

12 November 2021

RISE's community engagement (co-design) activities have had a meaningful effect on social dynamics in RISE communities, preliminary findings show.

Researchers in RISE’s Water for Women sub-study find that cognitive aspects of social capital – like feeling a sense of belonging to a community, the degree to which folks in a community get along, and trust for neighbours and community leaders - were higher in Makassar communities that took part in RISE workshops to co-design water and sanitation infrastructure, than communities who have yet to participate in infrastructure co-design.

The early insights come from a survey seeking to draw out the experiences of a sense of community from one man and one woman in each RISE household. The survey was collaboratively produced by our Water for Women researchers in Australia and the United States, together with our Indonesia and Fiji teams.

Grounding data in Indonesian and Fijian contexts

Insights from our Indonesian and Fijian colleagues on the data and survey responses has been critical to help ground the information within local culture and context.

In Makassar, RISE Community Facilitator and Architect Liza ‘Icha’ Marzaman says that communities with a sense of compassion for each other can bring people together to tackle common challenges.

‘In Indonesia, we call this spirit gotong royong – the feeling of sharing the same fate, whether it be a burden or happiness. At RISE’s demonstration site Batua, for example, everyone in the settlement automatically takes part in building a bridge during floods – some with their money, some with manpower, or other resources. So, it can be an ‘unseen’ sense of connection that can bring people together’.

Strong formal leadership structures can also be an indicator for positive change, according to Icha, where improvements in a neighbourhood are made possible when they are initiated by respected elders in the community.

In Senior Co-design Facilitator Alex Wilson’s experience in Suva, sometimes it’s the water and sanitation programs themselves that can be the catalyst for community cohesion, by helping to establish formal governance structures through which community decisions can then be made.

‘When the RISE program began, in some of the informal settlements there was no formal structure that governed them, and there was very little community cohesion,’ he says. ‘RISE helped them establish Community Engagement Committees to help implement the program activities, and bring a sense of formal structure.

‘Introducing the green infrastructure and the program’s objectives, these communities have jumped at the opportunity to create a clean and healthy environment. There are ethnic, cultural and religious differences that exist within our sites, but all aspire to have a clean and healthy environment,’ Alex says.

Social capital and healthier, resilient communities

Research has demonstrated that communities with higher social capital tend to have better outcomes (such as higher rates of latrine construction and use) from community-based Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programs, than participating communities with lower social capital.

For RISE Water for Women Research Associate Allison Salinger, based at Emory University in the United States, engaging communities in participatory design processes is important, before any infrastructure is installed.

‘RISE is creating an opportunity to first bolster social capital before introducing the infrastructure’, she explains. ‘What we hypothesize is that an increased sense of community cohesion would then help or motivate residents to work together towards shared community goals – like maintaining RISE’s water and sanitation infrastructure once it’s built’.

What’s next for this research?

RISE’s Water for Women researchers will conduct qualitative analysis to further understand the specifics of how the program’s effects on social capital are playing out in day-to-day life in Makassar and Suva. Early next year, they will produce an evidence-based toolkit with recommendations for how WASH practitioners can co-design water and sanitation infrastructure with communities inclusively, and thus ensure all community members have equal access to its benefits.

Cover image: co-designing RISE's water and sanitation infrastructure with a partner community in Makassar, Indonesia.