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.