The Lens of Connectedness

Unpacking a small town’s external connectedness

Looking at how a small town is connected to its rural hinterlands, other nearby small towns, bigger urban centres or the capital city is one way of understanding connectedness, ie connection to a world outside the boundaries of the small town. In this light, small towns serve as transfer and transition points, stepping stones and conduits for people, goods and services. Literally based on how connected the transport systems are, they may also serve as less complicated places for certain agricultural or industrial investments where land and other resources (natural and human) are more readily available. Proximity to other urban centres or the capital city, though, may not have any bearing on a town’s connectivity. Not being connected via economic or social links or, even at a more basic level by good transport links, can result in even those towns near to urban centres being seemingly quite isolated. Whether close or distant to other urban centres, this isolation can hamper the transfer and uptake of ideas, resulting in stagnation or alternatively, bolstering the resilience of a small town, creating innovative, home-grown approaches to problem-solving.

One element that needs to be understood is how present the State is. What is the actual (as opposed to the designated) role of national and regional decision-makers in the functioning of the town? Does the policy arena actually support more tailored approaches to each town? We started to see evidence of this in Nepal where the discourse at the national level was very much about recognising an emerging typology of towns and how they fit into regional development.

As noted, a town can be connected through political processes as well as political biases towards or against them based on demographic makeup, historical or cultural significance, or charismatic leadership. More broadly, small towns can be seen in the national psyche with nostalgic yearning (ie ‘I wish we could move back to the small town I grew up in where life was much simpler’) or they can be seen as bastions of traditionalism that are not keeping up with the times. Some of these perceptions may be a function of who you ask and how many generations of their family has lived in a big city. Interviews did suggest though that big cities in the developing world may not hold the same kind of pull as in the developed world. Although they may offer economic and educational opportunities, big cities may not be seen as desirable places to live. These biases could have relevance, for example, in terms of who is taking decisions on how national funding is allocated and whether small towns are seen as an integral part of the country’s development plan. It also has a bearing on whether small towns are seen as capable of acting on their own or whether they need to be told what to do and have their hand held every step of the way.

Other aspects of these wider linkages relate to a town’s specific reputation. In other words, do people want to move to the town because of perceived economic, education, social or other opportunities? Similarly, do people with money want to invest? These aspects speak not only to the nature of demand and the demographics at household level, that will be touched on again below, but also to whether the town can attract and keep professional staff (including the water and sanitation professionals required to run more complex systems). A town’s reputation is also a function of an expressed vision for its future. This may very well involve the development of high-end water and sanitation technologies based on the kinds of people and companies that it envisages will be a core part of the town’s make-up in the future. The key will be whether the town’s population buys into this vision and are thereby willing to pay for it upfront or find ways to build up gradually through various stepped or phased approaches.

Based on these and related issues, a series of questions begin to emerge as follows:

Table 3: External tier analysis – guiding questions at the external level

Demographics Economic Drivers Autonomy & Decision-making
  • What national policies are in place with regard to supporting (or slowing) small town growth?
  • What are attitudes towards adjacent towns? Are they in competition for resources or profile? Do they work together on other services or projects? Are there economies of scale to be gained from clustering adjacent towns?
  • Do people want to move to the town (because of economic, education, other opportunities or social linkages)? Do people with money want to invest? Are there aspirational issues that influence types of investment or technology choice?
  • Is there likelihood of the town being swallowed up by other nearby cities?
  • What are the external sources of finance for the town? Can the town raise local revenue? Are there government investment and other economic policies in place that influence small town economies?
  • What aspects of the wider economy currently, or will likely, influence supply – deforestation or shrimp farming’s impact on water quality, for example? Are there flows of goods, people, services from the town to rural or other urban areas that impact on demand? Are there remittances or other (seasonal) income sources that could affect demand?
  • How present is the State? What are the actual roles of national, regional and local decision-makers? Does the policy arena support more tailored approaches in each town? What is the interface between politics and national technocracy? Is there technical support available?
  • How much access to information and ideas does the town have? How isolated is the town?
  • What professional capacity does the town have – both in admin istration and in other sectors? Can it attract professional capacity?
  • Is there a vision for how the town would want to be in 10-20 years? What (externally) influences this vision (exposure to other towns, for example)? Is the town cut off from resources due to political or social biases from the regional or capital centre?

Learning from country visits

The town of Paikgacha in Bangladesh exhibits the isolation that stifles local government but spurs on entrepreneurship through local business. In essence, perhaps as a function of distance, although other factors may also be important to unpack, the local government appears to be quite isolated from the wider influences of national government. They did not suggest that there were thriving channels for small towns to share information, ideas and learning. However, a family-run business was clearly taking advantage of the gaps in the delivery of water supply by operating a borehole and then selling water to 800 customers in neighbourhoods near the family home. The incentives for them to expand their profitable business into other parts of the town or adjacent small towns, however, were not clear to them, despite some obvious demand.

In Nigeria, as population densities increase and with them land pressures, resulting in falling yields for urban agriculture in many small towns, a clear potential exists for sludge re-use.

Bandipur in Nepal is a clear case where reputation as a picturesque mountain top community with potential as a tourist destination is encouraging investment. There are strong sustained linkages between the people in the town and those who have moved to Kathmandu and even further afield.

In Madagascar, the financing of infrastructure can be a major barrier to the development of small town services. However, one dynamic mayor has managed to circumnavigate this challenge by creating links with over 15 different donors, including ‘twinning arrangements’ with other towns and cities, to get projects sited in his locality.

Unpacking the linkages within small towns

Unpacking the demographics, economic drivers and autonomy and decision-making processes within a small town raises some issues that might normally be overlooked when designing water and sanitation projects or interventions.

Beginning with the drivers of inward migration, understanding these dynamics at a town level can ensure that the planning and design of water and sanitation services more effectively meet the changing needs of the town. In all towns visited and in all examples looked at during this work, we did not find much evidence of decision-makers going beyond predictions of basic numbers of users. In-migration disproportionately impacts small towns compared to the absorptive capacity of large cities. Understanding these dynamics should lead to different discussions around investment strategies.

Similarly, as other changes occur in the town, these may have additional impacts. For example, improved services may cause land prices to rise, encouraging people to sell their land. The impact of this on poor households may be significant. On the one hand, this might provide significant cash injections for poor people with land title, enabling them to be able to start a business. On the other hand, it causes populations to be displaced, moving from serviced areas to un-serviced areas. The scale of land valuation increases proved to be dramatic for the small towns visited, particularly those in South Asia. In both Bangladesh and Nepal, land prices in several small towns has risen by 500-1000% in just five years. At the town level, this potentially makes land unaffordable for infrastructure investments, and urban planning for infrastructure and other services more problematic. The internal displacement process that occurs is similar to what happens in larger urban areas, but the ability of small towns to respond adequately to these rapid shifts is much more limited. Again, current planning and design processes simply do not take this factor into account.

Additionally, understanding the local economic drivers and the economic cycles or seasons is necessary to understand cash flow in the town, what water is or may be required, what waste is generated and when, whether the needs change at different times of the year or other factors. Water and sanitation professionals have a tendency to over-design. To draw a parallel from solar lighting, we tend to design as if people immediately require three lights rather than understanding that they need light (at different times) in three rooms. As noted above, we may need to understand the actual needs and requirements better. Understanding economic activities in the town may also help to identify who else might be able to invest in water and sanitation services or the potential to tap other economic activity revenue streams to cross-subsidise for basic service development. The longer term effects of such a strategy might well foster an increase in local economic development overall which in turn may increase the user revenues to be able to pay for improved services.

Finally, a detailed understanding is required of what decisions small towns are allowed to make around issues such as land use, financing for investment priorities and staffing. Equally important is an understanding of the interplay between the roles of national ministries and departments, elected officials, public servants, local elites (business, traditional or otherwise), poor people and citizens more generally. In all the countries visited, we heard about the exceptions of towns or projects that have done something different and got it right. In almost all such cases the key to their success appeared to revolve around the fact that they were implemented at a time when the ‘rules’ were not yet in place or that an individual or organisation took creative leadership within or around the ‘rules’.

The sector often cites the lack of proper local governance and capacity as a key barrier for development at small town level. The IDS work (IDS, 2010) provides some insight into how more informal governance processes (including mixing the traditional and new bureaucratic) may allow for a re-shaping of the incentives and influences towards more comprehensive development benefits rather than those that are skewed mostly in favour of elites. In other words, understanding which households or individuals have influence over local decision-making and what incentives they may or may not have to take decisions that meet the needs of the entire town’s population, is as important as developing mechanisms for the poor to participate in decision-making. In most places we visited, the local government or municipal structures were by and large influenced or directly managed by the local business elite. Water and sanitation service investments through existing channels appeared to be clearly skewed towards this group’s own needs. Where other external agents such as NGOs were involved, efforts focused on the poor as a means to redressing the balance. However, such efforts will have little effect unless they include attempts to work within or even change the decision-making processes.

Understanding existing cultures of solidarity or social cohesion might help to unlock discussions with decision-makers around issues of ensuring equitable and inclusive service provision. Small towns may still offer traditional support and solidarity structures, though significant growth may undermine these aspects. Although limited, some evidence was found of communal funds being invested in social services. Examples include community forestry income being invested in schools and clinics and in one case, water connection charge subsidies for poorer families. Examples exist from other countries of communal savings schemes for house improvements or even charitable assistance for funeral costs. Whilst these practices may very well shift as a town gets bigger, this kind of social capital could have a bearing on, for example, whether community labour would work for construction of water services.

As this relates to in-migration, in some places there appeared to be a clear welcoming attitude towards in-migrants. In other places, for a host of reasons, be they ethnic or religious, economic or political, in-migrants were not welcomed and their increasing numbers provide a source of fear that they will tip the political balance in a town. The key elements here are around whether there is a culture of cross-subsidising or internal solidarity and what limits households already residing in the town think are reasonable as a cost to bear for a growing town.

When speaking to national level actors, bilateral and other international organisations, much was said about the lack of capacity at local level to plan adequately. What seems to be most important for small town planning is getting the overall analysis right, establishing the development vision and clearly defining the main planning principles, time horizons and mechanisms for monitoring and updating. All of this relies on understanding the interconnections among demographic, economic and political processes and the impacts that these have on service delivery.

As noted in the previous discussion around stakeholder interests, incentives across the board encourage large one-off infrastructure investments. Either the sector needs to think harder about how to overcome the challenges that this approach may heap on small towns, or we need to think more carefully about how staged or phased investments might more sustainably meet the needs of small towns.

Table 4: External tier analysis – guiding questions at the town level

Demographics Economic Drivers Autonomy & Decision-making
Town / internal
  • How do higher levels of service delivery impact on in-migration?
  • Is there a culture of crosssubsidisingor internal solidarity? (How does this impact on financial flows?)
  • What influences social capital and social cohesion? Is participation consistent or issues based?
  • Are ‘communities’ (spatial or by group) able to hold providers and decisionmakers to account? What is the influence of (changing) demographics on decision-making?
  • Is there scope for crosssubsidising within the town from one sector to another (or from one season to another) to allow for sufficient cash flow for the provider?
  • What is the dominant industry?
  • Who, beyond local government, is investing or would invest in water supply or wastewater treatment and why?
  • Is in-migration or economic investment influencing land availability and cost?
  • Are economic activities seasonal or constant?
  • Is there scope for re-use?
  • What decisions are taken at the local level (on municipal finance, on investment priorities, on town planning and zoning)? How is budgeting done?
  • What is the interplay among elected officials, public officials, elites (business, traditional etc)?
  • What is the town’s capacity for managing (including borrowing)?
  • How does the town regulate service provision?

Learning from country visits

Towns in Nepal were attempting to use population projections over a 20 year period but not necessarily with any degree of analysis of what demographic was moving in to the town and what their expectations and requirements might be around service delivery.

The town of Hai Bomang’ombe in Tanzania noted an extremely rapid level of growth and in-migration as a result of investments in water supply that made water available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

As noted previously, in the town of Paikgacha in Bangladesh, a private water vendor was providing services to neighbourhoods adjacent to his house. The authorities were happy to allow him to provide the service but the provider was reluctant to expand the business too much lest the authorities begin to take another approach to his investments.

As is common in many small towns, the town of Kibibi in Uganda only has electricity three days a week. This seems to be the primary determinant for water services.

In an attempt to bypass unreliable formal service providers, poultry farmers in one small town in Uganda were investing in the construction of their own wells. The presumption is that the huge financial outlay involved will be more than recovered by the additional growth in business made possible from a reliable and plentiful source of water.

The town of Bandipur in the mountains of Nepal was re-fashioning itself as a tourist town and subsequently trying to understand how to meet the seasonal fluctuations in demand for water supply. The town of Mwapwa in TanzaniaM sees casual labourers living in the town during the dry season, also creating significant seasonal fluctuations in the demand for water.

In one town in Nigeria, economic activity was severely hampered by lack of water availability in the dry season. The collection of rainwater in the rainy season though, made investments, cash flow and financial planning difficult.

Looking at the small town household level

The bulk of our thesis on wider connections and inter-linkages takes place at the upper two levels – looking at influences that affect the town from beyond the boundaries and at the town level. Many of the factors at the household level are similar to what one would look for across different densities of settlement, such as income and affordability, consumption patterns etc. For small towns though, some specific questions may need to be asked at the household level around the demographics of who is moving into the town, what they expect the town to provide, where they came from and how long they intend to stay, or what skills or investments they might bring with them.

As in other settings, most people’s living status has a direct bearing on whether they will invest themselves in either water or sanitation and what they expect the state to provide. Whether householders see themselves as permanent or transient and whether they have land tenure or are untenured are two factors. If they are renting, the onus to invest is probably on landlords who may be on-site and sharing the same facilities or managing the property from a distance. If the latter, landlords’ primary incentives are around economic return which could suggest that the availability of local water supply commands a higher rent but toilet facilities may take away space from other rooms that can be rented out. A further consideration is whether the provision of higher levels of service will impact adversely on the poor by increasing rents or encouraging them to sell their land. Again, these are issues that are relevant certainly to urban, peri-urban and small town settings, though perhaps to a lesser degree in rural settings.

For small towns, a heavier emphasis may need to be placed on the issue of transience or permanence. In many places in Nepal, for example, informal interviews suggested that many families wanted to move back to their rural areas of origin after the Maoist conflict subsided. The usual assumption that, having become part of the urban landscape families will want to remain there, may not prove true. Even if families do end up staying in small towns or urban areas, their own perception that they will stay there for a short period of time will influence the demands they make on service providers, the levels of investment they would be willing to make more directly or the level of participation they might seek in the town’s development processes. Understanding users’ investments in other areas (land, materials, education) should help explain their attitudes towards whether they intend to stay or not (or whether they intend to ‘return home’ or move to a bigger urban centre). Understanding the underlying dynamics in a small town’s demographics (at household level) will provide more accurate projections and appropriate decisions for services provision.

From a household economics perspective, whether people work outside the home or are home-based makes a difference to demand, as obviously does the issue of whether they are using water for uses beyond those inside the home such as urban agriculture or small cottage industries. Understanding how much of household economics is based on a cashless economy is important in order to gauge what money is available in the system to pay connection charges or tariffs more generally. Again, these are generic to many settlement patterns.

An exacerbating problem for small towns is the fact that, in many places we visited, a large proportion of poor households seemed to be predominantly female-headed while men were off working elsewhere and sending back remittances. A closer understanding of these dynamics from an economic perspective would be helpful. Are remittances seasonal? Under these circumstances, how are funds likely to be apportioned?

Similarly, understanding the political voice of these generally poorer households and whether they can make any demands on the system in small towns needs to be juxtaposed against the decision-making roles of business and other elites. Are communities of people (be they determined spatially or as a group of people with common interests) able to hold providers and decision-makers to account?

In order to hold providers and decision-makers to account, households and communities need information about what the town is meant to provide, how tariffs are set, mechanisms of re-dress when services are promised and/or paid for but are not provided, and other aspects. Small towns are where traditional forms of decision-making begin to ‘break down’ or create power vacuums as they bump into local government and their administrative and technocratic rules and restrictions.

Table 5: External tier analysis – guiding questions at the household level

Demographics Economic Drivers Autonomy & Decision-making
Household / micro
  • Do households consider themselves to be permanent or transient residents? (Do they rent or own their house/ property?) How does this impact on investment (by household, landlord, town, other)?
  • What are the influences on household demographics? How do these influences shape expectations for and demand on service delivery?
  • Are there seasonal or other influences on household economics that could affect service delivery?
  • Do people work outside the home or are they home-based? How do higher levels of service impact on the poor (raises rent, encourages them to sell etc)?
  • How much of household economics is based on a cashless economy?
  • What are in-migrant expectations around services? How are in-migrant user preferences incorporated into decision-making?
  • How are users made aware of options available? How are they expecting to be involved?

As noted throughout this document, the ideas that have led to the framework are still very much in a gestation phase. Given that successful models for and approaches towards small town water and sanitation provision are not readily apparent, policymakers and practitioners need to understand more about the various dynamics that influence these settlements. Again, we are not suggesting that traditional lines of inquiry be sidelined or ignored but rather that small towns need to be seen through a more systemic lens.

Learning from country visits

In one town in Nepal, poor in-migrants were not looked on kindly as they were stretching the resources of the town. Difficult decisions had to be taken as to whether to provide everyone with the same level of service. Initial and foreseeable investments were primarily focused on central areas. In other towns, in-migrants were seen to be boosting the potential of the town, bringing new skills, cash and increasing the population in such a way that it pushed the town into a different administrative category that brought more funding from the central government.

In some countries we visited, water scarcity has led to rules being put in place regarding urban agriculture. In Hai Bomangombe, Tanzania, households within the town’s boundaries are permitted to use household connections or public water points to water only small subsistence gardens at the household level. Water for large-scale agricultural purposes must be found elsewhere.

In both Bangladesh and Nepal, massive increases in land prices in small towns were seen to be pushing poor people to the margins and reducing available land for infrastructure.