Empowering Communities

Article | 31 May 2009

Beyond the obvious impact of infrastructure, the ADB project gives a sense of empowerment to villagers

It was Sunday afternoon and the children had just finished Koran lessons at the local mosque in Geger village. Two boys quickly ran across the mosque's gleaming tiles and headed to the washing area where they cleansed their faces, hands, and feet under cool running tap water in preparation for prayers. The act seemed simple enough, but it was one that had not always been possible.

Until 2006, Madiun district-one of the poorest in the region-had no piped water or sanitation facilities. "Villagers had to perform all their sanitation activities in the ditch, and waste matter was just washed away into the river," said Faridah, the village midwife. "This was a problem especially during the dry season when the river dried up."

Thus, when the government granted the community a $25,000 fund for rural infrastructure needs, the first proposal was for public washing areas-MCKs as they are called, referring to mandi, cuci, kakus (bath, wash, toilet).

The grant was part of a $50 million ADB loan to the Government of Indonesia to rehabilitate and improve rural infrastructure in about 1,800 poor and isolated villages in East Java, Nusa Tenggara East, South East Sulawesi, and South Sulawesi provinces.

When the government granted the community money for rural infrastructure needs, public washing areas were quickly proposed.

Freedom to Decide

The project gave the beneficiary communities some freedom to decide what to do with the money, allowing them to propose the subprojects they needed most. All subprojects were selected, designed, and constructed by communities with technical support from village facilitators.

In Madiun, sanitation facilities were clearly needed. "The situation before was causing high rates of diarrhea among the villagers," Farida said.

In 2003, a national socioeconomic survey showed that only 15% of rural households in the country had access to drinking water from piped or pumped sources, while only 21% had septic tanks. "This contributes to the high incidence of waterborne diseases like diarrhea, intestinal worms, and skin diseases," said Bobur Alimov, an ADB project officer. "Diarrhea is the second-largest cause of death and stunted growth among young children."

Today, with the MCK in the mosque and another by the village hospital, Farida said the situation in Madiun has improved considerably. They also used part of the fund to reinforce a bridge's retaining wall destroyed by floods and to asphalt a 13-kilometer stretch of road that connected the village to markets and social services like schools and the hospital.

When the project was completed in September 2008, beneficiary communities had rehabilitated about 4,000 kilometers of rural roads, 351 bridges, 23 boat stands, and 365 irrigation systems. They had also established about 550 wells, more than 500 drinking water reservoirs, and constructed 345 communal sanitation facilities. This helped improve the lives of more than 2 million people in more than 400,000 households.

Empowered Villagers

Beyond the obvious impact of the infrastructure projects, a sense of empowerment was apparent among the villagers who benefited from the project.

In the upland Ngreco village, in Pacitan district, about 2 hours away from Madiun by car on roads that snake through mountains, residents had long wanted the hanging bridge that connected them to the main road replaced with a wider, concrete one. However, the $25,000 grant was not enough to cover this and the proposal was initially rejected.

"The community decided to contribute to the bridge project," said Haryono, the village head. To make up for the balance, which was almost equivalent to the grant amount, the residents were mobilized, with groups of households asked to contribute sand for the construction work. Able-bodied villagers worked in shifts, with 30 people working each day for 3 months until the bridge was completed.

"The workers were only paid 50%-70% of what they would have earned in their regular work, but they knew that this project was for them," said Wasi Prayitno, head of the task force that carried out the project in the district.

"Poor access to villages," Alimov explained, "means that the communities do not receive fair prices for their produce. They also pay higher prices for their consumption and for accessing outside services."

The bridge now carries timber and produce, such as cassava and cloves, from the village to markets, allows students and teachers to ride motorbikes instead of walking 2 kilometers to schools, and has increased the access of health workers to the village.

Haryono said an immediate benefit was the drop in transportation costs. "If you wanted to build a house before, you had to pay Rp3,000 ($0.25) to get a sack of sand carried across the bridge," he said. "Now, you can have 10 sacks carried across by a vehicle for the same amount."

Enrollment rates have also shown improvement, and malaria incidence has drastically gone down, from affecting 80% of the village of about 5,000, to just 20%.

"Participatory projects are very good," Wasi said. "People know what they want, and so they'll take ownership of the projects."