First, I've done international development work since 1980, so know something of where you're coming from.
I agree with some of John Hamerlinck's comments. ABCD is not about getting communities to do stuff decided by outside experts, but rather but rather enabling (or halt the disabling) of communities to set their own agendas, and then mobilise their own resources to get things done.
I'm not sure I agree with John's categorisation of ABCD as an "antithesis" of expert or institutional programs. There's a certain strand within ABCD which I think is hazardous is to become anti-institutional. (I'll save that argument for another time.) But I think institutions do valuable jobs, which can't be done well in other ways.
Possible implications for WASH:
The concern that McKnight and Kretzmann raised is that institutions have acquired some dysfunctions in the way that they operate with respect to communities, which can be summarised as: (a) they disempower communities, rather than empower them, (b) they see communities as collections of deficits, rather than as sources of knowledge, insight and power. These attitudes are driven by the economics of professionalism, which legitimises professional incomes through the marketing messages "we know better than you", and "you need us". A good text here is "Professionalised Service and Disabling Help", by John McKnight. Also, "Politicising Health Care".
In addition, there is a major critique of aid programming by A. O. Hirschmann which interlocks nicely with ABCD, which is that aid programs target weaknesses through "needs analysis". I read this in David Ellerman's Helping People Help Themselves: From the World Bank to an Alternative Philosophy of Development Assistance. Ellerman is a former WB economist. Hirschmann (whom you should explore further, BTW) suggests that they main reason for a community's weaknesses are that they are not really that collectively that interested in them. However, if offers of funding come, they will go along with it and take the cash and/or employment and/or benefits. So aid programs end up bribing communities to do the things that in fact that are what the aid program want done. This is not sustainable.
So the promise for WASH programs of this kind of analysis is that by getting rid of the dysfunction, WASH programs can achieve more of what they want to see (though over time, that will require changing their goals
So, what's the alternative to "we know what you need", and "you need us."?
One alternative is to see that WASH programs also have needs, which they need to have met. Thoughagencies no doubt believe that WASH is good, WASHagencies also have a great "need" to get WASH done. If you're a WASH organisation, you need to get WASH done, or you're out of job. It's a livelihood need. McKnight (who points this out) says that there's nothing wrong with this. But we have to approach the relationship between professionals and communities without covering this up. Objectively, there are TWO sets of needs in any program encounter with a community. The first, is the perceived needs of the community, and this should be voiced by the community, through their own internal institutions andsources of knowledge. And then there are the needs of the donor/agency/program to get more WASH done. Let's not conflate the two.
From this standpoint of equality and transparency, we can proceed differently.
1. What Hirschmann suggests is that rather than look for deficiencies and attempt to fund them, programs look at community strengths, and what groups within community really wants to do, and find areas of potential alignment. Then there's the space to negotiate a common program. This requires that a WASH program be more flexible (and humble) in its approach to communities, which involves developing an open dialogue about what the community concerns and goals are, and seeing how the WASH programs internal requirements and goals can be aligned to them to the benefit of both. It suggests that conventional expert-driven design and implementation are going to bump up against limits.
2. Programs might need to drop the marketing spiel that they are there for the good of the community, and accept that within the boundaries of the community, the community is sovereign, and they and only they get to say what is a community benefit. After all, they live with the consequences. So, the interaction needs to be negotiated not as a delivery of good from one party to another, but as an exchange. THEY get something they want and need, from their perspective (not, notably, something that we have decided is good for them), WE get something that we want and need, which is a successful WASH program, including all those conditions that we have worked out satisfy our need to be convinced that it is indeed good for them.
Note: this may seem like a torturous way to speak, but its important in the interaction between you and me, say, to distinguish between what I think is good for you, what you think is good for you, and not have them obscured in the agentless phrase: What IS good for you, which is objectively meaningless. It's interesting to see how the Western medical profession has evolved in this light, as it now common to insist on free and prior informed consent (FPIC) prior to any medical act. FPIC has also been adopted in one standard (some want weaker standards) in resource projects involving indigenous communities. FPIC is a legal standard for the validity of contracts, but might be useful in thinking about better program-community negotiations and relationships.
3. Programs, in seeing communities as co-equal program developers and implementers, need to learn to treat them as also possessing critical expertise, which has to be respected. This might not include pipe diameters, water treatment procedures, or knowing the relative germicidal properties of various soap products, but it almost certainly includes questions of community resources, priorities, relationships, social complexity, and politics. (Looking at this list, one has to ask: which is the higher expertise? In my mind, not the bit about pipes or soap.) This is knowledge is not there to be mobilised in the program's interests. But by sharing knowledge between program and community, the idea is to enable both parties to achieve their own separate goals.
Note: What I called the "marketing spiel" of professionals (and I am one) are often fully internalised by professionals themselves. You can get a visceral reaction to the suggestion that communities need WASH, or that WASH is good for communities. This gets inculcated in professional training and culture from the get-go. But more objective view is that any professional service can have negative side-effects, such as distracting the community from more important tasks, conditioning them to be service recipients from aid organisations, shifting power and privilege in ways that cannot be understood or predicted by outsiders, impacting overall social processes of which WASH activities are a part (the breakdown of communal communications when wells are replaced by pipes come to mind), and I think ABCD requires professionals to internalise the clients right to say no: and even more difficult, that when they say no, that is is the "right" answer because human autonomy is a deeper (Western) valuethan following technical rationality. Ultimately, good health is good because it enables me to have more control over my life than does ill health.
Thanks for helping me write a future blog post.
Hope this helps.