Sunday, July 31, 2005

Learning to aid I: problems and solutions

About a week ago, we at Asha Seattle had Ravi Kuchimanchi (who founded AID with his friends in 1991) come over for a chat. Ravi and his wife left the States in the mid nineties, and have been working in India with AID since then. He brought with him a plethora of experience from the ground. What makes him a delightful speaker is his ability to deeply understand complex socio-economic issues, and then explain them in a remarkably simple way, by just presenting situations and the facts.

I just thought I would share some of Ravi’s deep insights that we gained.


Ravi took us to a village where AID was working. This was somewhere along the Orissa-Andhra border, but could be anywhere in India. When AID first went there, a wizened old freedom fighter there took some of the AID volunteers around, pointing out a problem. He first pointed at a silted well (which still had water), and the volunteers didn’t realize what the problem was. Then he took them to a large tank, deeply silted, with reeds growing all around it, but still with water. The volunteers still didn’t get it, as they saw water there (something missing in many dry villages). Then they realized how badly silted the tank was, and what its consequences were.

So, they met the farmers in the village, and asked them about the tank. The villagers understood that the tank was silted, and worried about water. The older farmers said that the silt was actually rich in nutrients, and in the old days farmers would come by before every planting season, and take silt away from the tank on their bullock carts to use in their fields. That way, the tank would remain well maintained, while their fields would benefit. So, the volunteers asked why the practice no longer continued.

They discovered that the farmers were quite marginal, and over time they were unable to afford to keep bullock carts (though most had bullocks to plough their fields with). So, there were no carts in the village. The few large farmers that existed in the village (who had carts) had shifted to using fertilizers, and did not need silt. So, the tank was dying, and they now worried about future water sources.

Invariably, government or even some NGO “fact-finding” missions do not bother to involve villagers. They come. They see. They “understand all”. ”The problem: silted tank. The solution: de-silt the tank.” So, thousands of rupees are spent on desilting the tank, which is silted again by the next monsoon. Or else, some well-meaning person somewhere far away will come up with a brainwave like “lets give them a tractor. This will be modern and efficient, and we’ll be really helping them then.” And a tractor will be thrust upon the villagers.

But if they had involved the villagers, they would have heard the following questions from the villagers. You may desilt it this year, but what happens next year? Who would pay for the fuel that a tractor needs? What happens if the tractor broke down, how could they repair it? Spare parts were expensive and available only in distant larger villages. Fuel itself was available only in villages 15 km away. Who would maintain the tractor? Who would be responsible for the tractor?

Clearly, just desilting the tank is a stopgap effort, and a tractor would not be an effective solution. Instead it would create 6 new problems!

In this case, AID found that a bullock cart would effectively help solve the problem!

But, does it end there? Would just giving a bullock cart have solved this problem?

AID talked to the villagers further. It could have ended right there, if AID had just given a bullock cart and two bullocks to the village, thinking the problem was solved. But the villagers very quickly pointed out that that would not work. If two bullocks were given, it would be very likely that the bullocks would be beaten to death, or underfed, or ill treated, since belonging to everyone meant that they wouldn’t belong to anyone. So, if bullocks were given, they would need to hire some one to look after them as well, an added expense! So, the villagers themselves proposed to use their own bullocks, to the cart that would be provided.

But even this wasn’t the complete solution.

There is more than one type of bullock cart. The “modern” cart, popularized by various groups and government subsidies, is a cart with pneumatic tires. This is effective in improving mobility and reducing load on bullocks, but only on even, level roads. The villagers, who clearly knew much more about bullock carts than any city-slicker did, collectively and unanimously said that the modern “tire” carts would never work. This was because the axles for these carts were extremely low. The tank was in marshy ground, didn’t have a road leading to it, and in order to take the silt out effectively, the cart needed to be taken into the tank itself. The old-fashioned large wooden wheeled bullock cart was perfectly suited for this task, but the “tire” carts were hopelessly inadequate.

In addition, repairing a traditional cart was something any farmer could do, but the rocky roads and rough terrain would easily puncture the tires of the modern “tire” carts, and repairs would be tedious, difficult and costly.

So, incredibly, the best solution in this case proved to be an old fashioned, cheap bullock cart. And the villagers themselves came up with the solution.

There were more levels of effectiveness. If a cart had been given to the community, in all probability in a few years it would have been broken down and become useless. Instead, if the cart was given as a cooperative loan, with the promise that once the cost of the cart had been repaid the same money would be given back to the community for another new need, the villagers would feel a strong incentive to use the cart well, AND repay it, in order to gain new benefits.

Incentive and involvement. Two key aspects that AID understood came from talking to the villagers.

It is easy now to understand why so many million dollar top-down government or World Bank schemes have failed miserably. Schemes, especially those determined by some distant office, are very ineffective, and sometimes cause new problems.

Ravi used a nice analogy to explain this. He asked us what Thakur Baldev Singh had told Jai and Veeru (in Sholay) when they asked him why he wanted them to catch Gabbar.

Remembering my Sholay lines well, I said ”Kyon ki loha lohe ko kaatha hain” (because steel cuts steel).

That beautifully sums up the situation.

The villagers did indeed represent the problems, but they represented the solutions as well.

Just as we do.

Update: The second part of this discussion can be found here, while the third and final part can be found here.


Anonymous said...

That is a nice, feel-good blog. I too have heard Ravi speak, at AID-TAMU, and sure enough...that is one talk I remember from start to end! He is one of those who leaves you with a YES-it-IS- possible feeling.

...thakur's words fit the situation.. though loha is iron , not steel. Steel is ishteel ...or something like that ;-)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Simple solution, simple logic.

Dilip D'Souza said...

Say hi to Ravi for me. A clear-thinking, forthright dude.

Anand said...

Nice post.
Yes, as they say, We have seen the enemy, and he is us.

Iyer the Great said...

The best solutions are always simple. Good post.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
What exactly was the value-added of the charity in this case? It seemed that the villagers were capable of solving their own problem.
Btw, your link above is broken: here is the link to AID.

gawker said...

Very enlightening. As my boss says "The simplest solution is often the best one"

Sunil said...

A....correct....loha is iron, not steel....

Suj...this was a specific are not always nearly as simple.

Dilip....what I liked most about Ravi is that he is very practical in both his vision and approach. There's no fire-brand radical about him....nor is there with AID or Asha really.....the effort is on looking for addressing problems with practical solutions involving those involved.

Yeah Anand....the approach to solving problems becomes very different if we realize that we are part of the problem.


Michael....there were a number of things AID did that facilitated change, though it looks a little subtle.
1) It got the villagers together to meet (this sometimes requires an external catalyst)
2) it got them discussing their problems frankly, without internal conflicts (which always exist)
3) It provided the bullock cart (which villagers found expensive. They weren't able to come up with their own way of cost-sharing, and it took this little push to get that going)
4) The villagers were capable of solving their own problems...this is often the case. But usually they don't realize that the can....or are mired in differences. Related to point 1)
5) A cooperative loan is almost like start-up funds for a new venture. Once the money is recovered, it is put back in to the same community for new efforts, creating a cyclic process of progress.

Gawker.....most of the time, now always.
I need to find more simple solutions at work though...that seems harder :-)

Sujatha Bagal said...

Unfortunate, but true, as I'm discovering with schools, roads, garbage, finding something on the grocery shelves two weeks in a row, getting contractors to show up on time (although, i admit, this was as big a problem in the US)...

Anonymous said...

Nice one Sunil, now if you can excuse me for relating this with a movie.

This one reminds me of the sequence in Swades where the guy gets a electric foot massager for his mother-like aya(?). Only to realize that the town rarely has any electricity. That is what happens when people sitting in the capital make decision about fixing the problem in a place that hardly resembles their surroundings.

What I infer from this(blog) is that more than "simple" you need "relevant" solutions.

Linking my blog with yours, very interesting reads man!

And, Steel is not ishteel, its faulad ;)

Anonymous said...

I thought steel was ispat in Hindi.

Sunil said...


Prashant.....thanks for linking to your blog, though I'm disappointed in you. You're using the msn blog interface :-(
Swades actually did a pretty decent job in pointing out some such aspects. Interestingly, Gowarikar was partly inspired by an AID project which used a mini-dam to create electricity (in the credits, you'll see Ravi Kuchimanchi's name, as well as Dilip D'souza, who wrote one of his exceptional articles on the story)

Vishnu...i think you are absolutely right....steel is ispat....:-)
"Ispat bhi ham banate hain" (we also make steel, Tata Steel).

Anonymous said...

Hmm, without actually using blogspot I might say there are some features of MSN that I like (RSS/Messenger notification). Also, being one of the citizens of evil empire I decided that the only way to help them get better is to use and provide feedback ;). Btw, blogspot has its own advantages (html tags in comments).

And yes I read Dilip's name in the credits(having seen the movie twice in the stinky Roxy Cinema). Plus I read the article too under the headline(The xxx that inspired swades). May I add, I am one of the regular readers of Dilip's article on rediff.

Funny enough, Gowarikar was running with us during Mumbai Marathon and was thrilled when my cousin said he liked the movie. I wish the movie had fared better than this.

Vishnu, you got me on that one.

Anonymous said...

I think you last line sums it up - they repreented the problems but they represented the soutions as well. community involvement :)

Suhail said...

Nice story sunil. And you wrote it very well. Everything I wanted to add, has already been said. lagging you can see :(

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
Thanks for explaining that to me. I'm sure AID does a lot of good work.
I like the idea of the cooperative loan. If the villagers cannot pay it back, then the person who authorized the loan knows that his choice was poor. Over time, they would have a scorecard of what works what does not.

It seems a pity that the villagers are not more cooperative with each other.

Sunil said... will remain a slave to the evil empire :-))
I will highly recommend Dilips blog, where he posts almost daily, and where his writings are not constrained by limitations of print media. I saw Swades in stinky Roxy also, and it was one of the few times i forgave that pathetic cinema hall.

Charu, community involement indeed.....but it takes time to achieve that. AID and Asha had long learning curves (because we were new to it all), but it's clear that without community involvement and incentives, no project is going to succeed.

Suhail...come back tomorrow (when hopefully part II should be up), and be the first to comment :-)

Michael, you are welcome. The co-operative loan usually creates incentives for the villagers to pay up, since they benifit more. And its surprising, but villagers (in India) go out of their way to try to pay up their loans. Defaulting loans are very rare, especially when interest-free loans (that free them from the clutches of village money-lenders) are provided.

As far as not being too's basic human nature, and the breakdown of systems to "mine" and "yours". But sometimes, a good external catalyst which does not have any partisan motives can be very successful. This kinda leads up to the second part of these posts...which i'll hopefully have up soon.

Riot said...

Has Asha or AID come across situations were people have tried to exploit the system ?

I have heard of situations where villagers have done just that in the name of rain water harvesting.

Sunil said...

one more reason.....


that does happen. Sometimes an aid effort is highjacked by some people in a community, where funds for a specific purpose are used for something else. This is especially hard for groups which function supporting villages or communities far away. This can be prevented only by regular visits and a close involvement with the effort. Efforts where supporting groups are not closely involved, but play only a superficial role have failed for this and other reasons.

You yourself might have seen this happen with some government scheme, where a local official is incharge, funds are sanctioned for something, but get the job isn't done......

instead of a rainwater harvesting check-dam, there's a small pile of mud :-((

But if a group is aware of such possibilities, and stays closely involved, and involves the community (clearly indicating the benifits), such problems can be reduced.

Anonymous said...

A very thought provoking article. But after reading such articles in general, I am left with the feeling, so what exactly is the point?

OK, we "city slickers" and well meaning ignoramuses sitting half a world away do not understand the local dynamics. Does that mean that the village folk had all the stuff figured already? Are all the problems the creation of the modern society and they were living in a paradise before? Are these people forever condemned to using bullock carts with wooden wheels, because apparently, modern technology (tractors, pneumatic tires etc.) are part of the problem. So, how exactly do the women of this area free themselves from the drudgery of hauling water everyday, so that they can have time to follow more meaningful pursuits? Or is hauling water really the meaningful pursuit?

The overwhelming message is that if we had just let them be, there would not have been any problems. But is that really true? Were we really so much better off before the advent of technology?

Sorry, I have so questions and so few answers. But surely the original post did make me stop and think.

Anonymous said...

well there is a difference between advent of technology and having it forced down your throat, isnt' there ... because the person peddling the technology will never know or care for your interests as you do. so who has the power?

Sunil said...

Anonymous, you said But after reading such articles in general, I am left with the feeling, so what exactly is the point?

Well......actually, it was a learning experience for me, and i hoped it would be a learning experience for readers as well. But you may have missed one point.....that an external catalyst (in this case AID) was extremely successful in helping bring about change. Sometimes, the catalyst just brings together local forces that cause change! The key point is that often outsiders (with better technology or experience) can bring about rich changes.......but without understanding the local context, efforts are often wasted (by very broad generalizations or blanket decisions).

Anonymous II.....perhaps my comment above answered that as well.

Anonymous said...

FYKI...Steel in hindi is ispat