The Towards Transcultural Transparency research partnership looked into the perspectives of communities, service providers, development cooperation actors and local authorities regarding how water and sanitation services could be organised more efficiently and sustainably in indigenous areas.


  • Explore the interface of modern and traditional institutions in sanitation and water supply through exercises of institutions-mapping, assessments of contradictions and complementarities in the intercultural interface.
  • Facilitate dialogue meetings, to suggest ways forward that serve the needs and aspirations of the indigenous and afro-descendant peoples as well as the requirements of modern/ bureaucratic service provision.
  • Develop and disseminate recommendations and lessons learnt about how development actors and agencies can work with an effective intercultural approach in water and sanitation projects.


Throughout the world indigenous peoples suffer from a lower water and sanitation services coverage than non-indigenous populations. Indigenous peoples’ disproportionate representation among the poor and historical political, social, cultural and economic marginalization and also hold them back from benefitting equally from national development opportunities.

Even though most development work in water and sanitation advocates a comprehensive intercultural approach in indigenous areas, few organizations have a clear idea about how it should be translated into practice. Consequently, most projects are based on a standard approach to providing rural water services, with different degrees of sensitivity towards indigenous peoples, which is not well adapted to the local reality of indigenous communities. This standardized approach has contributed to a low level of ownership and a lack of sustainability in many initiatives.

The Transcultural Transparency initiative arose from the demand of development practitioners working with water and sanitation in rural indigenous communities. They expressed a need for more systematic information about issues to keep in mind and ways of dealing with the different worldviews of the various actors involved, and what would be the most efficient way to intervene in these areas.


By making the often hidden – implicit – cultural differences that hamper the implementation and sustainability of water supply and sanitation services explicit they can be analyzed and compared through intercultural dialogues. The mutual understanding and building of trust between the parties allow them to explore ways forward that serve the needs and aspirations of the indigenous and afro-descendant peoples as well as the requirements of modern/ bureaucratic service provision. The long-term benefits being more cost-effective sanitation and water services, designed and operated in a way that sustainably meets the needs and aspirations of indigenous peoples.

Sharing the findings and lessons learnt from the project with practitioners, researchers, policy makers and development actors future water and sanitation investments can be made more sustainable, appropriate and respectfully implemented. Therefor the project has produced and published a set of recommendations on how to apply an intercultural approach and two research articles – one summarizing the research field related to indigenous peoples and water and one article about cooperation between cultures for improved water management.


The project applied two parallel research strategies:

1.       Extensive literature reviews of research findings and experiences from development projects in the Latin American and Caribbean region.

2.       Field research in six communities with indigenous, afro-descendant and mestizo population in the Autonomous Regions of the Nicaraguan Atlantic coast.

The applied research was highly participative and action oriented; with co-production of data and conclusions, and has produced both scientific material and hands-on policy advice. Innovative features included the equal recognition of the legitimacy of the institutions pertaining to the different groups and the emphasis on the interfaces between them. Further, with most previous water-related research pertaining to indigenous peoples having focused on water resources, the research project delved into domestic water use, hygiene and sanitation.

The project was led by the WGF, in close collaboration with the MDG-F Secretariat and researchers and students from Universidad de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Caribe Nicaragüense (URACCAN).

The project benefitted greatly from an Advisory Panel consisting of representatives from academia and practitioners from organizations and cooperation agencies working with indigenous peoples, among them Estuardo Velásquez (CONASAN, Guatemala), Laura Calle Alzate (Universidad Nacional de Colombia) and Rolando Marín (CLOCSAS).