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

Governance or water?

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.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, Social and economic policy

India Water Portal review

I had promised to review the India Water Portal and discuss what I found together with the team before I left India. I was a bit scared that I would run out of time, but I managed to get some time in on Monday to actually dive into the content on the site and understand what they have there. Maybe my ideas and feedback will help a little in improving this great resource.

The India Water Portal is probably the only one of its kind at the moment. It is a fabulous effort and it is surprising that there are not more like it. I mean, it isn’t like Bangladesh or Brazil couldn’t do with something like it, right?

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

VJNNS gravity fed water system at Narsipatnam

Where the women collect water before they get a VJNNS gravity fed water system.

Today we went to see three villages in the hills close to Narsipatnam together with the Argyham partner VJNNS. The purpose was to see villages which have the gravity fed water systems which the engineers at VJNNS have perfected, and also see the difference between villages which have had the systems installed for a number of years and those that have not.

The visit was incredibly inspiring and nearly overwhelming in the warmth of the reception. I will be posting some videos of this later and more photographs.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, Hydrology, India, WASH technology

Quick chat with Niteen about Water Information System

Niteen Shastri, manager of technology, Arghyam

Today I had a short but very effective talk to Niteen Shastri, who is the manager of technology at Arghyam. He has been working on a design and the idea of a Water Information System for India, which I talked to Sunita Nadhamuni about last year. There is much data about water which isn’t tracked or shared properly in India, and this team has taken on the task to try to define how can one track water data and make it really useful at the gram panchayat level (local elected government, 5-10 rural villages).

The rest of the day has essentially been a day of preparations for the rest of the week. Among other things there is a review of the India Water Portal which I have promised to do for Friday, which I spent much of the day doing. We have also been packing for the travel tomorrow.

Filed under: Arghyam, India, ITC technology

Ecological sanitation

First we visited the office of the organisation Utthan, who works with Arghyam. With people from Utthan we went to a small village (more like a hamlet) outside of Ahmedabad (about 3 hours drive). There we saw some examples of ecological sanitation facilities installed and I filmed a 30 minute conversation with the woman in the house, when Nelson Royale from Arghyam talked to her and a project officer from Utthan about their installation. Very interesting and insightful.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, WASH technology, Water and gender

A community meeting in Gafh

A community meeting in the village of Gafh, 1.5 hours drive south from Ahmedabad, Gujerat, India.

We went with Arghyam and the local organisation Utthan, which is implementing drinking water, sanitation and hygiene projects in this part of Gujerat. We went to attend a meeting with about 20 or so village community members. These villagers are responsible for 2-3 villages each in the effort of improving hygiene in their villages.

The have been encouraging all households to install leach pits to take care of all household waste water (washing, dishwashing etc.) instead of letting it run out on the street. This was achieved in the end by essentially threatening to cut off water supply to households which didn’t comply with the new rules. So far the effort seem to have been a real success and everybody is really liking streets which are not like public sewers.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, Social and economic policy, WASH technology, Water management

Urine as a resource, not waste

S. Vishwanath explains the function of a urine separating toilet to students from Iowa State University

Today we went to the Agricultural University of Bangaluru, where we were shown field experiments with human and cow urine as a replacement for commercial fertiliser. The university project is the first of its kind in India, at a higher education facility, and the country’s first two PhD students showed us their work. In short the result is that human urine is better fertiliser than commercial fertiliser and cow urine is nearly as good. The test crops produced yields which were within 5-10% of each other, but the human urine fertilised crops flowered up to 10 days earlier, with a product which was as good or better than the crops which they used commercial fertiliser on. The main benefit is that the urine is free and you also remove the urine as a waste as part of the process.

(Picture and a video to follow.)

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, WASH technology

Stormwater management

Today and tomorrow I will be going with a university course from the University of Iowa, who are visiting a number of Arghyam’s partner organisations.

Today we went to Rainbow Drive Layout in Bengaluru where we learned about how rain water harvesting can help a community who has borewells which are running dry. Also good rainwater harvesting and ground water recharge wells can be superb infrastructure to have when the monsoon is causing flooding in the neighbourhood. Managing communities of this type (Rainbow Drive is an affluent community) can be a real challenge and the gentleman who was managing the residence association showed a superb skill and parted with some very interesting advice on this subject.

Filed under: Arghyam, Hydrology, Water management

Heroes – Sunita Nadhamuni

Sunita Nadhamuni at the old Arghyam offices in 2008, at a meeting with Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia

Sunita Nadhamuni is the CEO of Arghyam. Sunita is a very interesting woman. She is without doubt one of the most dynamic, intelligent and humble people I know. Sunita has a background from information technology and has moved over into water and sanitation only recently.

Argyham has, under Sunita’s direction, moved from being a completely new NGO to being a real powerhouse at the national level in the world’s most populous democracy. After only 4 years they are already called in at minister level to help “sort things out”.

Today I had the privilege to compare notes with Sunita and discuss the progress of our respective organisations over lunch.

Filed under: Arghyam, Heroes, India

About Bjelkeman

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

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