Community Engagement: What it is and Why it Matters

The fact is simple: There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution for addressing a community’s water, sanitation or other basic needs. A water supply solution for one community in Kenya can look drastically different than a water supply solution for another community only a few kilometers away. The geographic, cultural and political fabric of each community Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) partners with is unique, which is why the engineering solutions are unique, too.

EWB-USA’s Impact Standing Content Committee (ISCC) focuses on this intersection between effective community-based development and appropriate engineering solutions. Comprised of passionate EWB-USA volunteers from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, the ISCC provides support for EWB-USA’s community-based development projects through the Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning (PMEL) Program. The committee’s goal is to equip project teams with the tools and resources to successfully implement the PMEL program, keeping community engagement at the core of EWB-USA programs.

What is community engagement?

Community engagement starts at the beginning of the project cycle. Projects are proposed and led by the communities themselves, with community leadership continuing throughout the life of the project. For EWB-USA projects, community engagement takes a variety of forms, including:

  • Working with a community to support development of a project proposal;
  • Conducting community surveys and focus groups to determine the community’s opinions and perceptions of issues they face as well as proposed solutions;
  • Developing relationships with community leaders and stakeholders;
  • Supporting communities to develop committees (such as fundraising, implementation, and/or operations) in order to build a sustainable project;
  • Collaborating with community members to implement project designs.

Community engagement looks different for each  community. In order to identify challenges and opportunities, EWB-USA project teams need to be well-versed in various engagement strategies.

Why is community engagement important?

It is well-documented that more than half of development projects fail. Often, these projects fail because solutions are provided for communities instead of being driven by the community. This approach proves to be a short-term bandage for larger systemic problems, ultimately failing to be integrated into the community. By engaging with the community appropriately, EWB-USA makes sure the projects are developed in alignment with the unique local culture, geography, social determinants and political dynamics. Just like no two people are the same, no two communities are the same and therefore neither are the solutions.

The ISCC aims to provide guidance and parameters that are applicable to a diverse portfolio of projects. The committee doesn’t provide project teams with a standardized survey or pigeonhole projects into using methods that worked for another team. Instead, they’ll help keep teams informed through a “toolbox” of strategic engagement options.

If you’d like more in-depth information about the committee, feedback about an EWB-USA project or to participate in the ISCC, e-mail


About the Author
Engineers Without Borders USA builds a better world through engineering projects that empower communities to meet their basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges.