Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Governance is the last mile problem

Picture by Mark Charmer

Yesterday I had the privilege to spend several hours with Sunita Nadhamuni. We had a lot to talk about, as we hadn’t met since the summer. Sunita sits on the board of as well as running one of my favorite organisations in development aid, Arghyam, which means I am lucky enough to be able to book some time with her and make it seem legitimate.

As usual the the topics of discussion ranged far across the board, but what really made me grab for a notebook to quickly scribble down a quote was something she said when we were discussing fundamentals around development aid. Sunita said:

“Governance is the last mile problem.” – Sunita Nadhamuni

The last mile is an expression often used in the internet and telecommunications business when discussing how to get people connected to telephone or internet services. There often is sophisticated communications infrastructure available locally, but often no money, or rather a perception that it is too expensive to get everybody hooked up. The investment in the required “last mile” connection is often unpalatable, but without it there is no point of building of the infrastructure in the first place. It may be easiest to understand the challenge economically for a northerner, like myself, when looking at it in an example: The single biggest cost in transporting food to your table is not where one would expect it to be, to the supermarket, but from the supermarket to your home, i.e. the last mile. 1

But back to development aid. In our discussions yesterday we noted that in the segment of development aid in which we work, water and sanitation, there seem to be a particular challenge in getting these services deployed on the ground related to the local situation. It doesn’t matter if the national or state government sets goals, understands the problem and sends out decrees, if there is no capacity locally to both understanding the problem and to understand how to approach solving it. The most successful efforts around solving water and sanitation problems (and I believe this applies to education, healthcare and other areas as well), are when you manage to engage the local community to the point where the local community not only understands the problem, but owns the solution. It doesn’t matter how many NGOs there are who works with the issue in a country like India, or anywhere else for that matter, if you can’t successfully get the local community to engage with the problem. In countries or regions which have functioning water and sanitation systems the solution nearly exclusively involves the local community and the local government.

In communities which do not have these services the main problem is not what technology to use, or how to build it, or who should be responsible or own it, but a matter of getting people to sit down together and discuss the issue and working together to solve the problem. It is nearly always a matter of governance.

At university I spent four years studying environmental problems and water related issues, but I only had three (3!) days learning about governance. When discussing water and sanitation issues there seem to be no end to the discussions about what technology to use, is access to clean water a human right or not, and government policy on the subject. But good examples to learn from how to make it work locally are harder to come by, or maybe harder to share, as the context in a successful solution is often what I would call “hyper-local”. In India, central government actually seems well aware of that the solution should local, but until now it seems to have had a hard time translating it into action. This may be about to change. Arghyam is currently working with the Indian central government in reviewing the current progress of the five year plan and planning the next five years, and this time, possibly for the first time, there is organized feedback from the grass roots level. Hundreds of participants from the gram panchayat level of government (village council) are participating and collaborating with other participants from state and national level to give feedback on the central government plans.

Technically we know what to do. The money is there to do it. The challenge is to engage people in an open discussion to make it happen. It is democracy. Governance is the last mile problem in water and sanitation. When you make that work the rest is easy.


1. The Validity of Food Miles as an Indicator of Sustainable Development, DEFRA, July 2005

Edited: 13 January 2011, fixed a spelling error. Thanks to @PraveenaSridhar for finding it.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India