Blog – FIN Kameshwaram

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Dear Friends,

One year back on the 27th of April 2005, I wrote an intensely personal letter to many friends in India, in an attempt to gather support for the Franco-Indian Reconstruction Project FIR that I had initiated. I blush to think of it now and I am very thankful to my siblings and parents for not having disowned me immediately afterwards (I wasn’t worried about my husband…wives are too indispensable for cooking, cleaning, childminding, entertaining, shopping!!) Well, the project has come a very long way since then and though it’s been a roller-coaster ride, we’ve landed safely and apart from some hitches, the whole operation has been conducted in an ambience of camaraderie and fun.

Before explaining further, I would first like to thank everyone who has encouraged me in any way and every way. I couldn’t have made it here without your moral support!!! I would especially like to thank my dear parents, sisters and brother, relatives and friends on the Indian side who’ve helped me: (given in alphabetical order) Gita Balakrishnan, Nikhil Khot, M.P. Krishnan, Neela Laxinaryanan, Usha Raja, Aniruddho Sanyal, Lalitha Shankar, Nupur Shankar, Raji Srikant, Vijayanthi Venkataraman and Sangeeta Venkatesh.

AND A BIG WELCOME TO ALL NEW MEMBERS!! People are joining from all parts of India and I can’t tell you how good this feels and what a boost it’s going to give us all!!

I started typing the story of the first year yesterday morning and by the night I had typed 15 pages single-space!!! ….But to spare you the moral agony of reading so much…I am presenting the shorter version here; those who want to read the longer version (which is still shorter than the original!) can find it at http://project-fir-tsunami.org/english/Eval-April-2006.pdf

How have the objectives of the project evolved over the year?

When I started this project I wanted to reconstruct a village or a couple of villages, without having the slightest clue about the costs or how I would be covering them. Fortunately, the Government of India resolved this problem for me by insisting that all reconstruction projects had to be of a minimum of 80 lakhs rupees (approx. 160,000 $) which I didn’t have. I also discovered what at that time seemed to be rather embarrassing: the Tsunami hadn’t introduced any new problems; it had just made the old ones that existed before even worse. And it wasn’t clear if all the flurry of reconstruction work was going to touch the heart of the old problems.

So I started announcing that the project would initiate actions that contribute to “sustainable development”. Now, this must be among the catchiest phrases of today. It is being used so widely that it could mean a lot of different things to different people in different contexts. So how is one to choose? Thankfully, I was introduced by a colleague to the millennium project. And I discovered a simple set of goals which I decided to take as the indicators of sustainable development in the case of our project. These are 8 simple goals enunciated by the UN in 1990, in terms of income security, basic sanitation and health standards, gender equality and security for children. Take a look: http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/
These indicators are very useful because they give us a yardstick in terms of selection of projects. When someone makes a proposal, then we can check, how many of the millennium goals does this project achieve? How can it be formulated to get the maximum synergy between the different kinds of efforts needed to achieve the different goals?

Now my ambitious idea is that even though as an individual I am unable to bring about even the most basic changes in my own life (ex. reduce my tummy, run for more than 3 minutes or sit down and write that best seller!!), I can with your help, contribute significantly to the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals in three villages: the dalit zones of PMC and CMC and the village of Kameshwaram.

Introducing the game of FIR and figuring out the players and how they tick…

A game is any situation where what turns out in the end, depends on what everybody involved does, rather than depending on the action of just one person (or one group or one organization). Now, in project FIR, we have initiated a game and the end result is going to depend on what each party does. So who’s playing this anyway?
(I am sorry to have to explain things to you this way, but this is just too much of a temptation for me being fond of game theory.!!)

The stake holders, that means you and me…

First, there’s you (and me) the donors: As the donors we play a double edged role. We don’t control much and yet the whole project would fall without us. What is the payoff for the donors? It’s the good feeling that they have contributed to making the world a better and cleaner place and therefore a safer place for our children. Hopefully, you will also get a better understanding of the development process in marginalized zones through my news letters. But the biggest advantage from participating in a project like this, for you as donors, is that you know what’s happening and how your money’s being used. The project is definitely not a black box like the big national and international charities. That’s because I’m here as a coordinator to interact with all parties including donors. And, comments from donors have also helped me greatly.

Then there’s me as the coordinator: Besides, administration, management and fund raising, my main task for Project FIR is to constantly evolve and construct a strategy keeping in mind two constraints:

We are in competition with our other donor groups to help the villagers: Don’t think we’re the only ones wanting to do good to the villagers. Our competitors here are political parties, religious groups, NGOs, self-styled do-gooders, clubs… and you will understand by the end of the letter, that we are certainly not the most attractive donor group for the villagers. Our representatives with the villagers are in turn the NGOs that we are working with.

We are in competition with our other financial agencies for the services of the NGOs: As a business opportunity, we are not the most attractive clients for our NGO friends. Since, we are working with NGOs with a good track record and established networks, we are competing with national and international donor agencies for their services.

For both these reasons, it is necessary for me to communicate regularly and well with our NGO collaborators so that the project goes where we want it to go in an ambience of trust and friendship.

Nothing comes free in this world. And that goes for my coordination activities too. As I have learnt, the hard way, the cost for me is the strain of having to practise strict discipline and stick to my time allocations, so that I have time for myself and I don’t neglect my duties to my family and friends (though I must confess that my sisters are complaining that my letters are still too boring and only full of instructions for them for project FIR!!!)

Second, there are the NGOs. They come in a lot of varieties. Foreign, Indian, religious based, spirituality based, international organization based and political party based…by base I mean that’s where they get their money from. An NGO basically runs like a consultancy company and there is an enormous heterogeneity among the NGOs in terms of their internal structures, mode of governance, pay scales, fees charges and fund base. In short, it’s a wild world out there, and there is the good, the bad and the very ugly. Let me now give you the good news: we’re with some nice and cute NGOs. (for details see long letter) http://project-fir-tsunami.org/english/Eval-April-2006.pdf

Why are they working with us? Because we present another business opportunity for them to put into practise their competencies, a lot more people will get to know about their work and of course, because of my great smile!! However, as a group of individuals, we are very small fry clients for them. That’s why it’s very important to make sure that we vibe, that there weren’t major differences in views, that they willing to accept my interference and requests and experiments. Because money is not the factor by which I can control or influence the manner in which this project will be implemented. The money involved is too small. It is just good will and friendship and trust.

Third, the beneficiaries, that means the villagers…

Imagine yourself in their place.

First, you would want more money rather than anything else in the world.

Second, you would want a stable source of money (=a job) and face less risk.

Third, given that the world seems very unfair (and of course that’s true), the dice totally loaded against you and improvement so uncertain, you wouldn’t have much incentive to invest in projects that do not yield immediate returns.

Fourth, you would exercise your choice between the various donor agencies so that your disutility from accepting aid is the least.

Finally, you wouldn’t want anybody interfering with your life, your cultural norms (ex. dowry, blowing up money on festivals, keeping women indoors), your sanitary and hygiene practises or your drinking habits.

The last player: Nature or the context or the things you can’t change for a long time… These refer to all the conditions of underdevelopment and the socio-cultural norms that characterise the lives of people in these marginalized and isolated zones. (for details see longer letter….)http://project-fir-tsunami.org/english/Eval-April-2006.pdf

In the above context, the equilibrium of the first round of the game… or what we got done the first year is not bad at all… but it’s very boring to explain and so if you want to know go to the longer letter (http://project-fir-tsunami.org/english/Eval-April-2006.pdf).

And what about the future? What’s going to be the equilibrium of the second, third and fourth rounds?

I see two strategic options:

The low risk-low effort option: Identify projects with the villagers (ex. toilets). Get the money. Give it to the NGOs. Let them do their job, as they’ve been doing in other places so well. And leave structures behind with the logo of Association Un-Ami on it. Everyone can be happy. But if you’re a villager….would it make you a more intelligent person? Would it teach you a lot? Would it make you more dynamic and take initiatives? Would it give you incentives to launch new projects and experiment?

The high risk-high effort option: Identify projects that give immediate utility. Discuss it with the villagers to make them understand that:

We are not pursuing the “pure charity” route. We don’t believe that’s the best way to make a population dynamic and take initiatives.

We are not pursuing “a simple financial participation route” whereby a project is initiated with a minor participation from the beneficiaries. For me, financial participation is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to make a population invest in long term goals. It’s a necessary condition because it ensures that the structure being offered is useful and will be used, because the beneficiary will need to amortize his/her investment. Otherwise we might be offering them an inappropriate gift. Don’t we accept all presents, and then exchange or get rid of the ones that we don’t like? Therefore, unless financial participation is imposed, a project may be yet another undesired gift and add to the mounds of garbage.

We want to pursue the “immediate-offer-of-benefit-against-effort-in-long-term development” route. This involves discussing with the villagers so that clear tradeoffs are identified between the short term benefits given by any of our actions and the investment of the beneficiaries in attaining one of the millennium goals, which may yield returns only after a few years. Let me give you an example. Suppose we build toilets for them. We can use the process of financing the construction of private toilets as an instrument to attain other developmental goals like better sanitary conditions by requesting the villagers that in return they introduce a waste management program in the village.

This demands more efforts on the part of all the actors concerned:

  • It’s a lot more effort for the villagers. In addition, to the sheer disutility of investment effort in a long term development project, they might feel that such moral pressure is not appropriate. They might feel that we are stepping beyond the line of interference. Then we might lose out to the other sources of aid that are being offered to them, and which come with much less demands on the villagers.
  • It’s a lot more work for the NGO’s because in addition to their jobs, (ex. build the toilets) they have to discuss at length many times, to convince the villagers of this type of exchange. It’s a very delicate process to make the villagers feel absolutely comfortable and yet get them to agree to this principle. And for them also, time is money. So the opportunity cost of spending time on negotiation with the villagers and winning their trust can be quite high for NGOs.
  • It’s a lot more effort for the coordinator too. Instead of just saying to the donors, “we’re going to help build a 100 toilets and I need x Rs. for this”, the coordinator has to convince all parties to take the “high-risk-high-effort option” and discuss it through without spoiling the relations of trust and friendship that have been established. For the coordinator, time spent on project FIR, is time lost out with the family, sleep or relaxation, and so her energy left to invest on other aspects of her professional and personal life might suffer!!! (and here I’m not even mentioning moods !!)

Guess which one I want to take? Of course, the high risk option. Why? Because you see, it’s high risk or low risk only when you’re thinking in terms of the short run. Haven’t you ever been told (or haven’t you ever told someone?) “Don’t give up, you’ll get what you want sooner or later if you keep on trying!” That’s the same with the project. Our choice will depend on how impatient we are to get results and how much it’s going to cost us to sit it out and wait. As I see it, it’s worth the cost of the wait. So going on the assumption, that it’s a high risk only in the short run, that eventually, in the long run, by just hanging in there, we will get the high returns, I want to go for the high-risk, high-effort, high-long term returns option. The future will tell if I’m right to do this or not. In the mean time, you are most welcome to give your opinions.

Last, but not least, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the teams of the three NGOs that we are working with: SCOPE, AuroAnnam and FEED, for making our dreams come true. On behalf of all donors, I would also like to give my hearty congratulations to Mr.Subburaman for his latest award in March 2006 (and he has won many others!!) : The Nirmal Gram Puraskar in recognition of his path breaking work on the diffusion of eco-sanitary toilets in rural areas, a type of toilet that is affordable to most of the poor, conserves water and turns solid waste into compost.(for details see website).

On the photo (from left to right): Mr. Subburaman (SCOPE, Managing Trustee), Dr. Abdul Kalam (President of India), Dr. Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (Minister of Rural Development), Mr. A. Narendra (Minister of State for Rural Development), Mrs. Rajeswari Subburaman.

With Best wishes to one and all and heart felt thanks for joining this collective effort to make a real change in three villages,

Shyama V. Ramani

Coordinator Project FIR / A project of Association Un-Ami
http://www.project-fir-tsunami.org/