Today I had some very inspiring and challenging discussions with Amitangshu and Sushmita about development aid and different approaches. Amitangshu works with Arghyam in the grants team and Sushmita works with forestry governance in South India.
India is like a person who received had a bad stab wound which is bleeding (abject poverty) and a dangerous infection (corruption and partially functioning democracy) as a result. How do you treat the patient?
We discussed this back and fourth and our joint suggestion was that you have to staunch the bleeding with band-aid, i.e. fix poverty, here and now, as anything else will kill the patient and apply antibiotics, i.e. support good governance and fight corruption, in the long run. There are measures you can take in decreasing poverty which have very quick results, whereas introducing good governance, i.e. a functional democracy at the local level and fighting corruption is a more long-term effort, like taking antibiotics. And taking antibiotics is pretty pointless if you are going to die of blood loss in the meantime.
I used providing sustainable clean water supply, as an example of good tools against poverty. Many water projects can be achieved with projects that are quick to implement, but with good long term results. Sushmita and Amitangshu argued quite strongly that this is not enough though.
In India local government supplies water systems to villages, in an effort to decrease poverty. The programmes are highly centralised and things like pump design are decided in New Delhi. The pumps used are the of the piston pump type, which are very reliable, but when they break down they need a skilled technician and special tools to repair. The result is that many of the pumps in rural India are broken and it takes a long time to get a repair. But even if the pump is functional the capacity of the system is often not enough for the village and there are better alternatives that fit the local context. But the centrally controlled bureaucracy does not allow deviation from what Delhi has decided. So there you are with in-appropriate technology for the context, which you can’t afford to replace and which break and you can’t repair it.
The result is that the villagers don’t turn to the local government for support to fix their water problems, but to an NGO. The NGO is often funded through other means, like international development aid, and is free to implement a solution that fits the context. If you are lucky the NGO is also not corrupt, which means that it is cheaper for everyone getting the work done. This is good to steam the flow of blood, i.e. implement water solutions which help fixing poverty, but it has a negative effect on the local government, as the work of the NGO essentially displaces the work of local government and as a result weakening the structure and effectiveness of local government, or doesn’t give the people the incentive to force the reform of an ineffective and corrupt local government system.
The result of our discussion was that we need both band-aid and antibiotics to solve the problem.