Is community management an efficient and effective model of public service delivery? Lessons from the rural water supply sector in Malawi

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Reform of the rural water supply sector occurred widely in the 1990s, when many low-income countries replaced state-led
service provision with decentralized community management in the hope of generating improved technical and financial performance.
This article asks whether these expected benefits have materialized in practice, and whether community management has
strengthened institutional capacity at local, district and national level. Findings from a mixed-methods study in four districts of
Malawi show that both technical and financial performance under community management is weak. Maintenance is rarely done,
repairs are slow and sub-standard, and user committees are unable to collect and save funds: Average savings are just 2% of
expected levels. Despite these failures, community management has ‘worked’ for the state (and donors) as a means of offloading
responsibility for public service provision. The article suggests elements of an alternative framework for rural water supply that
would tackle the technical and financial failures of community management, and notes that efforts to promote ‘local ownership’
in development must be undertaken with care.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)263-276
Number of pages14
JournalPublic Administration and Development
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2015


  • community management, water, sustainability, public service, reform