Community Maintenance

The Role of the Community in Road Maintenance - Participation or Contribution?

This contribution has been prepared by Dr. Rachel Flanary of IT Transport

As highlighted by Dr Robinson's article in the January 2008 gTKP Newsletter, road maintenance is a critical issue that requires not only consideration of the technical aspects of maintenance, but also the 'softer' institutional, financial and managerial issues. Inadequate maintenance is often blamed on budget constraints. However, in many cases, the problems of rural road maintenance are not simply a matter of inadequate finance, but also relate to poor planning, inadequate information relating to the state of the network and institutional factors such as unclear responsibilities for planning, budgeting and implementation at the various decentralised levels. This means that issues such as the identification of the work to be done, the definition of who is responsible for the works, the specification of the budgets required and identification of the sources of funding is neglected.

In some contexts, one solution to the maintenance problem has been to pass over a certain amount of responsibility to the local community. This has been seen as a means of saving on maintenance costs in budget constrained environments and also building a sense of ownership and responsibility among those who have most to gain from improved access i.e. road adjacent communities. This is particularly the case for the lower order rural and community access roads. For the higher order road network, community participation is less likely to work without financial incentive.

Many of the initiatives to involve the community in road improvement and maintenance have been on a project (generally donor-funded) basis with considerable support in the form of community mobilisers and technical support. Many of these initiatives have raised a number of important issues, including: the level to which communities can and should participate; what communities are technically and financially capable of taking responsibility for; what incentives should be provided to encourage community participation; what are the appropriate institutional arrangements to support community participation; and, what is the legal status of the community over the public road network, amongst others. Some of these issues are discussed in more detail below.

One key issue relates to the level to which communities participate in or contribute to the process. In simple terms, participation requires the active involvement of a community in a particular process. There are various levels to which communities can participate. At the lowest level is participation by virtue of living in the area of the maintenance initiative. This is passive participation wherein community members may contribute labour or other resources but are not generally consulted during the planning or implementation process for construction or maintenance of the road. A more ideal level of participation is where the community have demanded the intervention and play a full and active role in the planning and implementation process. Where there has been limited experience of involving communities in infrastructure construction and maintenance and where communities have not been consulted or involved in any meaningful way, it is often difficult to change the perception of the community that it is the government's responsibility to provide and maintain infrastructure. In any case, it is necessary to be sensitive to the cultural and socio-economic context since community responsibility for maintenance may not be the most appropriate or attainable solution in all cases.

The level to which a community can participate and take over responsibility for maintenance is partly dependent on what they are financially and technically capable of undertaking. Under SEACAP 15 in Vietnam, communities were empowered to decide for themselves on levels and kind of contribution for maintenance (see Mekong Economics, 2005). The level to which communities have participated prior to and during the road construction phase, is another factor affecting a communities willingness to participate. Unsealed roads can impose a heavy maintenance burden, which can be beyond the resources of a community to meet. This is particularly the case for gravel surfaces, where the gravel material lost due to the action of rain and traffic has to be regularly replaced, often with considerable transport resource requirements. Other problems occur in mountainous areas, such as Bhutan and Nepal, which are prone to landslips and landslides, or areas with very low population densities leading to long distances between communities, such as many low rainfall or remote areas in Africa and Asia.

In Bhutan, inaccessibility is one of the primary causes of rural poverty. With altitudes ranging from 200 to 7500 metres, and many areas being unstable and prone to landslides, the area of land suitable for agriculture is very limited and the population is widely scattered in remote settlements. Long stretches of road are likely to exceed the community's ability to maintain unassisted, especially if there are few households in the vicinity of the road. This poses major challenges for building and maintaining an efficient and cost-effective transport system. This is also a big problem in countries such as Zambia and Ghana, where there can be big distances between relatively small communities.

Because of this situation, the top priority of communities at the lowest political level in Bhutan continues to be the provision of access facilities, in particular farm roads and power tiller tracks (PTT). The government, supported by donors, has been trying to meet this need and the current 10-year plan proposed constructing a further 2,000km of farm roads and 1,200km of PTT. The work of constructing farm roads is generally contracted out to private sector contractors procured by the District (Dzongkhag), with labour paid for under the terms of the contract. According to the current guidelines, routine maintenance of farm roads, after the contract maintenance period (1 year), is intended to be undertaken on a voluntary basis by the benefiting community. However the Dzongkhag is required to assist in the case of more serious maintenance work. This is similar to arrangements set up between municipalities and rural communities in parts of Nicaragua.

The two main donor funded programmes in Bhutan (the Decentralised Road Development Programme and the Agriculture, Marketing and Enterprise Promotion Programme) are both using community participation to carry out maintenance. DRDP has mandated the community with maintenance responsibility for both farm and power tiller roads, whereas AMEPP assists districts in setting up a regular budget for farm roads (except where the road only provides access for a single village), and relies on communities for power tiller tracks. In both cases, the beneficiaries are expected to form an association with responsibility for fund raising and road maintenance. Road committees have also been set up in Western Uganda and in the Nyanza Province of Kenya in order to facilitate consultation and dialogue between the district engineer and communities on issues relating to road construction and maintenance.

Some difficulties are being experienced with the arrangements in Bhutan. These difficulties stem from a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities; community responsibilities not being clarified prior to implementation; confusion over contractor liability during the defects liability period; inadequate planning and budgeting for maintenance on the part of the Dzongkhag/government; and in some cases, poor quality construction.

At present, Dzongkhags are not planning and budgeting for maintenance of farm roads, which means they are often unable to respond to requests from the community to assist with maintenance beyond the capability of the community. Without adequate funding to support periodic and monsoon restoration activities, the current maintenance arrangement is likely to breakdown. It is unlikely that communities will continue to carry out routine maintenance when it becomes clear that Dzongkhags are unable to respond when more serious maintenance is required.

Lessons learnt from these and other experiences is that, for a community to take over some responsibility for maintenance they must be fully involved in the inception of the work and informed of the detailed requirements for routine maintenance before implementation. The arrangements for the probably more onerous periodic or emergency maintenance requirements must also be agreed. Otherwise it is equivalent to signing a blank cheque. This should include an estimate of funds or other resources (including free labour) that will need to be contributed by the community, and what contribution can be expected from the government. Communities will also require some training in the technical and financial aspects of maintaining their roads to ensure that committees are equipped with the relevant knowledge to function in a sustainable way. In cases where communities are expected to raise local funds to support maintenance activities, communities need to receive training in book and record keeping ensuring accountability and transparency.

One important issue relating to communities raising funds is the legal status of communities and/or their representative committees to carry out this function. This problem was raised in Bhutan and some Dzongkhags felt it necessary for lower local governments to pass local by-laws to enable communities to collect revenue. However, it is important that appropriate checks and balances are in place to ensure transparency and accountability in the use of these funds. Toll arrangements on rural roads can be extremely problematic and counter-productive.

As this article has highlighted, in order for people to participate effectively in road maintenance, it is necessary for them to first be informed about the process and what role they can play. To participate more meaningfully, people also need to be considered active stakeholders and decision-makers in the process and mechanisms need to be put in place to allow this process. Enabling participation not only as beneficiaries and recipients but also as decision-makers will encourage transparency in the process and greater ownership and responsibility on the part of stakeholders at all levels.

However, a maintenance system that relies solely on the voluntary labour of the community could be problematic and is unlikely to be sustainable. There is generally a need for government and/or donor/NGO support in this process. For community participation to be sustainable, training and capacity building of communities and community groups is necessary to ensure they have the requisite skills to take up this responsibility. Local government personnel also need appropriate training to ensure they are able to support the activities of the community both financially and technically. Where a division of responsibilities for maintenance exists between the community and local government, this should be backed up with clear guidelines on what this means in practice. Because of the heavy burden of capacity building and technical assistance required in the process of promoting community participation, much of the efforts to date have been largely donor driven. It is now necessary that the lessons learnt from these experiences are taken forward so that the appropriate policy framework and institutional arrangements are in place to support this.

From the experiences in various regions it appears that some of the main issues for consideration for successful community road maintenance initiatives include:-

  • Determine the status of the road and legal responsibility for it. If necessary the responsibility may need to be formally delegated to the community;
  • Involve the community from the outset in the planning of the construction and maintenance initiatives;
  • Assess what the future routine, periodic and possible emergency maintenance liabilities will be;
  • Consider available resources and equitable contributions;
  • Look at established community practices for public infrastructure or services (e.g. through religious organisations or established community organisations) and discuss whether these concepts and arrangements can be extended to road maintenance;
  • Be sensitive to the local cultural and socio-economic context to determine whether community participation is a viable or sustainable option;
  • Develop clear responsibilities for each of the stakeholder groups;
  • Ensure legal framework allows communities to work on the specific public roads;
  • Define clearly where contractor maintenance liability extends regarding construction contracts;
  • Reach agreement on implementation and monitoring arrangements prior to design and construction. Each stakeholder group should be happy with the balance of their contributions and benefits;
  • Decide what will happen in the case of extra-ordinary work, e.g. caused by flood or landslip;
  • Ensure that adequate arrangements are in place for safe working;
  • Ensure that community contributions are equitable and do not fall as a burden on women or other disadvantaged groups;
  • Investigate opportunities for positive interventions such as paid or assisted labour inputs for disadvantaged groups;
  • Ensure that the constructed road is of adequate quality and is 'maintainable';
  • Ensure that any government commitment or resources contribution for maintenance is incorporated in plans and budgets
  • Arrange awareness creation and technical/management training as appropriate for all stakeholders;
  • Develop simple training and support documentation in the local language;
  • Monitor the maintenance and provide information to stakeholders on inputs and performance - transparency;
  • Allow mechanisms for feedback and improvement where necessary.


Further sources of information

This review has focused on Community Road Maintenance. Further information on road maintenance in general and related issues can be accessed through the following links:

Related Pages


If you would like to make a contribution to this topic or help to 'sign-post' any key documents on the topic for gTKP partners and users, please contact Rob Petts:

Updated March 2010