NGOs fostering transitions towards sustainable urban sanitation in low-income countries: Insights from transition management and development studies

M.J. van Welie, H.A. Romijn

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Globally, 756 million people in urban areas have no access to improved sanitation, while the urban population is increasing rapidly. Providing toilets has often not been a sustainable solution because of failure to link them to the necessary service infrastructure. Resolving urban sanitation problems in low-income countries requires innovations in approaches covering infrastructure, technology, social embedding, financial mechanisms and cost recovery. This paper explores the potential challenges and contribution of NGOs in facilitating new, integrated solutions to urban sanitation problems that address the entire sanitation chain, promising better social, financial and environmental sustainability. A case study of a sanitation project initiated by a large Dutch NGO is presented, using reconstruction of project documentation and interviews with project stakeholders. The analytical framework combines elements from Transition Management (TM) with insights from process approaches to development projects and community development. The choice of the TM concept is motivated by the notion that the new NGO approaches could be conceived as efforts to initiate a sustainability transition process in urban sanitation, whereas its complementation with insights from the development studies domain answers to the need to attune a TM-based framework to participation in the socio-institutional context in low-income countries, to understand the progress of governing transition processes in informal, low-income settings. This context requires special attention for capacity-building and creation of organizational structures in poor local communities. The case study shows that this entailed specialised groundwork, with which the NGO laid a crucial foundation that enabled transition frontrunners to act. Simultaneously, this focus on bottom-up empowerment created challenges for the NGO in effectively involving the right frontrunner actors who could put pressure on incumbent societal structures and institutions. We conclude that transitions in low-income contexts require extra attention to local empowerment and institution building to lay the required foundations for a locally rooted transition process. Development NGOs like the one in our case study have the skills to do this, but need to learn how to combine these with additional necessary competences to facilitate systemic change.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)250-260
Number of pages11
JournalEnvironmental Science and Policy
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018


  • NGOs; Transition Management; process approaches to development projects; community development; urban sanitation; low-income countries


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