Participatory action research to address lack of safe water, a community-nominated health priority in rural South Africa

Background Despite international evidence supporting community participation in health for improved health outcomes and more responsive and equitable health systems there is little practical evidence on how to do this. This work sought to understand the process involved in collective implementation of a health-related local action plan developed by multiple stakeholders. Methods Communities, government departments and non-government stakeholders convened in three iterative phases of a participatory action research (PAR) learning cycle. Stakeholders were involved in problem identification, development, and implementation of a local action plan, reflection on action, and reiteration of the process. Participants engaged in reflective exercises, exploring how factors such as power and interest impacted success or failure. Conclusion The process offered new ways of thinking and stakeholders were supported to generate local evidence for action and learning. The process also enabled exploration of how different stakeholders with different levels of power and interest coalesce to design, plan, and act on evidence. Creation of safe spaces was achievable, meanwhile changing stakeholders’ level of power and interest was possible but challenging. This study suggests that when researchers, service providers and communities are connected as legitimate participants in a learning platform with access to information and decision-making, a shift in power and interest may be feasible. Results The local action plan was partially successful, with three out of seven action items achieved. High levels of both power and interest were key factors in the achievement of action items. For the achieved items, stakeholders reported that continuous interactions with one another created a shift in both power and interest through ownership of implementation processes. Participants who possessed significant power and influence were able to leverage resources and connections to overcome obstacles and barriers to progress the plan. Lack of financial support, shifting priorities and insufficient buy-in from stakeholders hindered implementation.