In this article, we link NGO-supplied drinking water infrastructure projects with collective action development approaches. Although governing local, shared drinking water systems (DWS) requires users to act collectively, users rarely organize such collective action successfully by themselves. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are therefore frequently called upon to support local communities to set up or consolidate the kind of local collective action required for governing DWSs. However, the effectiveness of such forms of NGO support remains unclear. Therefore, this paper attempts to assess the form and impact of this kind of NGO support. Combining insights gained from theory on institutions for collective action in the context of shared resource systems, we develop a set of requirements presumed necessary for guaranteeing both day-to-day and long-term collective action among local shared DWS users. We apply this framework to empirically explore if, how and why NGO support targets these requirements, and whether this support influences users’ capacity for collective action. To this end we examine 11 cases where NGOs have worked with users of Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) systems in Bangladesh. We collected data through focus group discussions, semi-structured interviews with local leaders, NGO officials, and project staff, and by reviewing project documentation. We find that NGO support favors long-term requirements over the requirements for day-to-day collective action. NGO activities seem based on applying standard approaches to training and awareness raising, and less on empowering users to craft their own solutions. A case for a lasting impact of NGO support on any of the requirements is hard to make. Our results imply that when attempting to organize effective and long-lasting forms of collective action among the users of shared resource systems, both NGOs and commissioners of projects need to engage more explicitly in learning what works and what doesn’t.

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