Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Learning to aid II: walking tightropes

This is the second part a set of posts, sharing Ravi Kucchimanchi’s (AID’s founder) conversations with us on a visit here. The first part can be found here.


This discussion was about how sometimes good intentions can go wrong, when the understanding of local dynamics are incomplete. The discussion was free flowing, and allowed plenty of room for us to come to our own conclusions. The discussion also reiterated the fact that villages comprise of different communities, with fragile threads holding them together.

Consider a small village (Ravi used a specific real example), which has one large well as the source of its drinking and cooking water (with say a tank or pond farther away, used for bathing and cattle). Now, all the women in the village go up to this well with their pots and carry back the water. The road leading to this well is not particularly fantastic, and this daily ordeal for the women is tough.

This village has three different communities living in it (say A, B and C, where A, B and C can be people of different religions, castes, linguistic groups or any such difference). All of them live together in peace, and use this same well for their water. Now, it so happens that the three communities live in different parts of the village, A being closest to the well, B a little farther away, and C being farthest. Also, A has the largest population, followed by B and then C.

It would make a world of difference to the people of the village if the water could reach their houses directly, instead of them trudging up to the well, drawing out the water, and carrying it back on their heads. A simple pump and pipeline could take the water from the well to their houses. Let us say a well meaning NGO decides to help out the villagers by building such a simple pipe, and providing say a single tap per household.

Now, most NGOs (at least most of the sincere and efficient ones) are cash-strapped, and try to make every cent count. The “most bang for a buck” is the unofficial motto. If the funds are limiting, an organization will often decide that it is better to help some rather than help no one at all. So a “cost-benefit” analysis is done, purely with economic and financial criteria. They find that the cost of laying pipelines to colony A is cheapest (since the distance is shortest), AND the number of people benefited is the highest here. Deciding purely on these economic criteria, and the fact that at least say 60% of the population of the village benefits, the NGO might go ahead and construct pipes to provide water only for A, with the intention that they will go back a year or two later (when there are more funds) and complete the task for B and C.

This good intention can immediately acerbate relations between A on one side, and B and C on the other, as one (A) suddenly becomes a “have” while the other two (who already have to put in more effort to reach the well in the first case) become “have-nots”.

Sometimes even this does not damage relations, and let us say B and C agree to wait a year for their pipes. Meanwhile, A, since it has tap water, dramatically increases water usage (since there is no longer a need to walk up to the well to fill buckets, careful rationing of water ends). This results in a fall in the water table in the well. In order to “solve the problem”, A could decide to go and cover the well to minimize evaporation losses. Now B and C are far worse off than they were before all this started, and this will strain relationships between communities. This situation thus has all the ingredients necessary for a communal riot.

So, the original “good intention” of the NGO (to at least provide piped water to one community) can unintentionally result in tremendous social unrest.

A corollary to this analogy is that when you create opportunities for the “have-nots” to bring them on par with the “haves”, it will not create much animosity. For example, take three other communities A, B and C in a village. A and B have water hand pumps or electricity lines, but C does NOT. In this case, if a group or an NGO decides to provide C alone with a new water hand pump, there rarely is serious animosity in the village from A and B against C. This is because A and B already have hand pumps, and what is offered to C is not something that is creating inequality, but is creating equality. You are not taking something AWAY from them.

Usually aid and NGO agencies are outsiders to the community. It becomes paramount for outsiders to be aware of these aspects and dynamics, because they are outsiders. And seemingly simple decisions can result in vastly diverse results.

postscript: The third and final part of these posts is also up, here.


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Very interesting.
I think I will post something about water.
One thing stands out here very clearly: once you pipe water into people's homes, you definitely need to meter it and charge for it, or else it will be wasted - perhaps severely. Leaky faucets and longer baths will drain the water from the collective source very quickly, and people really don't have an incentive to conserve if they don't pay for it. If they have to physically go to the well, that's a different thing, people won't waste that water because it required labor to bring it to the home.

chappan said...

There was a similar story that I had read about some ppl called "muasahar (rat eaters)", if I am not mistaken in Bihar and their interaction with the Yadavs, who in social standing are only fractionally better off than the musahars. Since Lalu Yadav politics had accorded the Yadavs with electricity and running water, they think they now are better than the musahars. Earlier when on even keel, they interacted with each other, now there is supposedly stress in the relations. This was published sometime during the Bihar elections.

Michael, to regulate the water there needs to be some body that will monitor the usage of the water. NGO's typically do not have funds for such elaborate niceties.

Eswaran B said...


Regulating water usage by charging for it is not an "elaborate nicety". If the NGO lays pipes free of cost for all the communities, the same problem will happen - over usage of water and possible drying of the source. This is just another aspect of good intentions translating into bad outcomes that Sunil is so effectively talking about.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
This post inspired me to write Water, Water, Everywhere.

chappan said...

I agree with your point, totally. But then you need someone to administrate the water usage. In a country where poeple steal electricity from overhead lines, you think it will be easy to keep track of how much water people have used-up ? Their funds will be used just to "police" these water lines, IMHO.

Sunil said...

Michael, Sourin, Eswaran, thanks for your comments.

Michael, yes, in the case of water there definitely needs to be some regulation and awareness. But for an NGO that is working from far away, it is difficult to carry out something like this, like Sourin points out. But, as Eswaran said.....if its not done, the same problem will happen over and over again. But really, this is the job for the government (which should have effective local units). The NGOs will not be there if the government did its job.

Sourin....there are way too many stories like that of the MUsahars and Yadavs that keep repeating themselves all over the country (though if I recall correctly, Yadavs were higher than Musahars in social standing, but DID interact with them, as you pointed out, when their lot wasn't too much better).

Another point is that with water, the most effective systems are when communities themselves regulate their own water (collection/harvesting, and use). When they have the most to gain or lose, they do a better job of it all. Just giving it free causes havoc, and regulating it, like Sourin said, is easier said than done.

@mit said...

The penning of the thouhgts of Ravi Kucchimanchi is great. Insightful. Thanks for that

Iyer the Great said...

Indeed, look at the larger picture.

Michael, you make an interesting point. Will read your post and comment there.

One More Reason said...


What you said is totally true. I remember when in college we were part of a polio vaccination / eradication campaign. We went to a village and with permission started taking a census of who needs the vaccine and things like that. We couldn't cover the entire village. We decided to come back a week later. Apparently, we had left out (unintentionally) a poorer (among the poor) section of the village. This created a lot of complaints and grudges when we visited later.

Lessons learnt. Always involve the panchayat and the village sarpanch.

Agree with Michael, anything given out for free looses its value. I am thinking local village leaders should be made responsible for regulating use.

Sunil said...

amit....you're welcome.

Iyer the great.....yes, but its very easy to miss the big picture completely...

One more reason.....absolutely. Without local involvement, an effort is almost totally likely to fail.

In India, what's happened is a little complex. There were local village authorities earlier that controlled village resources (including water), but that was not a really equitable system (with the lowest rung suffering). So the government did the right thing by (for example) removing the authority of the zamindars (or in rare cases religious authorities). But it was a typical case of a job half done. They didn't simultaneously come up with another method to regulate and take care of local resources (its a typical government top-down approach, and the center of authority is some distant district headquarters).....the end result being a loss of what was there, and a lack of responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment on what One More Reason says - about involving the village panchayat and the village sarpanch - this assumes that they are interested in access to all of the resource in question (water, polio vaccination, or whatever). This is not always the case. Village panchayats do not necessarily represent the best interests of all.

Taking the example of govt. removing control from the Zamindaris, while it did do that, it just transferred control to the govt. bureaucracy. Which has been equally bad. Control should be transferred to the people (and some govt. policies do work towards that).

In monitoring usage, resource distribution, etc. the community should be involved from time 0 ensuring equal representation of all ... whether its an NGO project or a govt. project. Govt. projects fail quite miserably on that front, and so do many NGO projects.

Sunil said...

anonymous, yes indeed!