Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket., Swedish development aid transparency

This was originally posted on the Open for Change blog screenshot

Today I attended the launch of the new aid transparency effort,, which is a joint effort between the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), to show where Swedish government development aid money is going. The Swedish minister for Development Cooperation, Gunilla Carlsson, presented the effort and went into some depth to describe the work.

I together with Akvo was asked by the Swedish Foreign Ministry to review and give feedback on the site before the launch. I was also part of a review panel which discussed the work after the presentation together with a very engaged audience.

I think is a very good effort to start showing the Swedish aid budget. The team working on this clearly were very passionate about this work and has put in a lot of effort bringing both budgets and thousands of documents visible online. We would like to commend everyone involved on a great start.

openaid-tv picture

To see the video of the launch event, click the above picture. The panel, which I was part of starts at 34 minuts in.

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Filed under: Development aid, Open source

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

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

Comics as manuals

Anil is the cartoonist for the socio-political cartoons in the Bangalore Mirror. Anil is an architect and has combined his love for drawing with his education in architecture to make cartoon instruction manuals for the Nepal government. The manuals describe how to build a school. Not just how to slap up any old shed, but doing it properly.

This is a very intriguing thing and I have talked to Anil about doing this for some other things which we have been thinking about with I love meeting new people like Anil, as suddenly you have a new possibilities to do things which just didn’t exist before you had met them.

A picture from the school building manual comic book which Anil have created.

Filed under: Culture, Development aid, India

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

Watershed as the foundation to stand on

Abhijeet Kavthekar from WOTR is explaining about the Darewadi watershed project.

Today we visited a small watershed management area, Darewadi, which has been implemented by WOTR and the inhabitants of the villagers in the watershed. The project was implemented between 1996 and 2001.

The improvement of the ecosystem is visible to the naked eye and the groundwater level has risen from 6 meters depth to 3 meters. Villagers have managed to go from one crop per year to two or three crops. There is no need to bring in tankers for drinking water, there is less distress migration, the ecosystem is healthier, children spend more time in school, there is much better collaboration in the village, there is less soil erosion, over one hundred thousand trees and plants have been planted which soak up carbon dioxide (more than 95% of the trees survive today). The list just goes on and on.

The villagers have gone from selling 2 million Rs worth of agricultural products per year to nearly 12 million Rs. The total budget for the watershed work was 9 million Rs. In other words, after the work has been done, you earn back the investment every year. With a return like that you should be able to make a business case for this, rather than hunting hard to find grants.

Filed under: Development aid, Hydrology, India, Water management

Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR)

Today we travelled to Pune, in the state of Maharashtra. Pune is about three hours drive from Mumbai. In Pune we are visiting the Watershed Organisation Trust. We first met the executive director, Dr Marcella D’Souza, and the co-founder of the trust, Crispino Lobo, at the World Water Forum conference in Istanbul last year. We got an overview of WOTR’s work and then travelled to their Darewadi Training Centre and also visited an ongoing watershed project with a tribal population in the nearby hills.

Filed under: Development aid, Hydrology, India, Water management

No water, now what?

Women who work with textiles at the Mahalar Aran Trust.

Today we went to visit Mahalar Aran Trust at Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu, India. The trust offers counselling, housing, job training and support for women in need (abused, divorced, abandoned, widowed). They have about 100 women housed there at the moment including some very young.

One of the three wells on the lands of the Mahalar Aran Trust. This is a deep open well, traditional south Indian style, with hardly any water. During the monsoon the well can be full up, but this soon infiltrates into the ground and back down to the base level of the groundwater.

They grow much of their own food in the fields, have a textile production facility and a small poultry farm. One of the major challenges is that they have a real shortage of water were they are. The wells are often very low on water and growing food is not possible during large parts of the year, due to water shortages.

We got to see the biogas production, from cow dung, which allows for free cooking gas for 100 people. They have started installing rainwater harvesting, but currently recharge the groundwater with this through the open wells. They don’t actually store it in a drinkable form. They are looking for advice on eco-sanitation, urine separation and rainwater harvesting, which we will discuss with Biome here in Bangaluru tomorrow.

Filed under: Development aid, India, Water management

About Bjelkeman

Co-founder/director: Akvo Foundation

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