Community engagement is a goal for achieving sustainability
For the last 20 years, there has been increasing emphasis on community engagement to achieve sustainability goals, highlighted recently in the United Nations’ Agenda for Sustainable Development (of which Australia is a signatory), with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Within many of these goals is a focus on community participation. One example of this is SDG6 – ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all – comprised of eight targets, of which one focuses on the importance of ‘community participation’ (SDG6b) in recognition that communities can affect the long-term success and impact of clean water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) projects. Community participation is also a key consideration to the related UN SDGs for gender equity (SDG5.5) and urban planning (SDG11.3).
Yet much of the research looking at the success of community engagement in achieving sustainability outcomes is inconclusive. Though there are examples of great success, there are more examples of failure to achieve intended outcomes resulting in an even greater disadvantage for the most vulnerable communities.
In their 2013 book, Ghazala and Vijayendra  looked at hundreds of case of community participation development projects. Topics covered were: decentralise the identification of beneficiary households and communities for poverty reduction and social insurance programs; greater resource sustainability and equity; local infrastructure delivered through participatory mechanisms; efforts to induce greater community oversight in the delivery of health and education services; and the evidence on the poverty impacts of participatory projects. Key findings (italics from the book followed by author’s interpretation):
• On balance, the evidence appears to indicate that local capture can overwhelm the benefits of local information. That is data collection over action.
• Demand-driven, competitive application processes can exclude the weakest communities and exacerbate horizontal inequities. Those who have money, time, education and networks are more successful.
• Co-financing requirements—which have become the sine qua non of participatory projects—can exacerbate the exclusion of the poorest households and communities and attenuate the impacts of poverty reduction programs. The wealthier can participate; the poor cannot and so their voice is not heard.
• On balance, the evidence suggests that greater community involvement tends to improve resource sustainability and the quality of infrastructure. Yet in the book, there are also many examples of where outcomes were worse, where success was dependent on the quality of the engagement and the ability for participants to be empowered.
• Decentralising education and health – The most successful programs are implemented by local governments that have some discretion and are downwardly accountable. Some autonomy in decision-making, the ability to respond locally and accountability to their community are the key aspects here.
• Improving livelihoods – There is some evidence, however, that projects with larger livelihood components (credit, skills) perform better than other participatory projects, at least in the short run. Creating benefit for participants; celebrating and rewarding them for their input into the project and their community through investment into their skills and ability to develop
This is not the only research that has shown that participation can be hit and miss in the long-term. Yet, there is a sense that community participation is essential for a sustainable future. So why is it that the results aren’t what we might expect? Again, there is much research on why participation fails and that is not the role of this paper, but if we accept that participation is something that will lead to a more sustainable future, how do we learn from what hasn’t worked? The discussion around this question is the key contribution of this paper.
The paper argues that the issue is that we are trying to create sustainable outcomes that improve social and ecological wellbeing within the same worldview or framework that created the degradation. After decades of working towards sustainability, findings from a number of recent international studies, such as the Millennium Assessment Reports  and the 2014 IPCC assessment report on climate change, indicate that the situation is getting worse, not better; prompting the World Watch Institute, in their 2013 State of the World report, to ask whether sustainability is still possible . Our current framework structuring sustainability practice is couched in the language of quantitative, performance-based indicators reporting on performance in isolated categories, compliance with which is largely driven by individual interest: reputational, financial, or simply ‘compliance’. Much has been written about the flaws in this framework and its foundation in the so-called mechanistic worldview, as well as the need to shift towards a more relational worldview that will help us develop frameworks suitable for working with living systems ,.