Saturday, November 21, 2015

Rajanitai's Speech at Vibha Pragati Conference - October 2015


            Mrs. Rajanitai Paranjape’s speech at VIBHA’s Pragati Conference on 1st October 2015 discussed various issues related to ‘impact’ of a program. Here are a few important points she raised to help us understand the various implications associated with the term ‘impact’.

            The focus here is on the issue of ‘impact’ and looking at it through each stakeholder’s eyes. The main stakeholders are obviously the two partners, the ones who primarily take the responsibility of supporting a project - call them financial donors or attending partners; and the other who sees to it that the project runs as per the plan or the proposal i.e. the NGO or NPO. The third stakeholder is of course the party who is at the receiving end - the beneficiary, or a client, or a client group.

            I am here to talk about the impact our programs make on this beneficiary- an individual or a group.

            The term ‘impact’ has two meanings: one is shock, collision - the action of one object forcibly brought into contact with another; in other words, to strike forcefully. The other is effect; influence; or the result of a particular action.

            Here we are using the word impact as effect or influence and has more to do with the force exerted by a new idea, concept, or ideology.

            The word impact has been used as a verb from 1960. The verbal use of impact is associated with business and commercial writing. It has the unenviable status of jargon which makes it doubly disliked. I came across this interesting information while I was looking for the definitions of the words and was amused to know its connection to business world and its recent origin as a verb.

            In NGO’s vocabulary also, this word has entered relatively recently and mostly via the corporate world. It has given us uneasy feelings while writing reports and we struggle hard to show the effect of our project or the actions on the beneficiaries. Now why is that?

            We start a project with definite goals in mind and we surely want to bring about a change in our beneficiaries. Then why do we find it difficult to show ‘Impact’ when we write our reports?

            I have been thinking of this question since the time I agreed to speak on this topic. And although I cannot claim to have found the answer, I have identified certain factors which are characteristic of our work and the kind of people we think we are. We, as NGO’s, always believe, that we are more emotional than rational - and to a certain extent this belief is justifiable. We are the doers and not just the armchair philosophers; and we get so carried away by the work that needs to get done at the earliest, that a few important factors are ignored without even being aware of it! You may wonder how this happens. For this, let me walk you through ground realities:

Lack of relevant data
            We do feel that keeping records and analysing the data is a luxury we can only partly afford. And to show the impact we require data: the data which shows ‘before and after’ status; the data that will show the difference between two samples - one with the inputs we have given, and the other without (the control).

            For example, if I claim that a Balwadi has brought about some change or desirable change in the children I dealt with, I can show the change only if I have the data about the status of children before we started the Balwadi, to compare with the results after a given period of time. I see now that at many a times, we do not have the ‘before’ data with us and by the time we realise we should have collected it thorough maintaining regular records from day one, it is too late! Alternately, we should have a comparable group of children who has not received inputs that works as a control group to show the results or the impact of our work. This means additional work and time - both of which are not provided for in our sanctioned budget.

            There is yet another problem with the ‘data’ or its availability which is not only about our attitude towards maintaining records but about the set of skills we work with.

Limited skills of grass-root workers
            We work through our field staff, that is not highly educated or the ones who excel academically. For example, at present we have about 700 members of our team out of which not even a third has completed four years of college. Most of them have finished 10 or 12 years of schooling; but let me assure you that they are doing an excellent job.

            They are best suited for the work they are selected for. They work hard; they are comfortable working in the poorest conditions; for example, on construction locations where we work, our teachers work for eight hours a day, all six days of the week. Initially, we did not even have toilet facility for their use. We had to struggle for toilets for our teachers for four to five years in the beginning and I am really ashamed to admit it here that it took us some time to realise that our teachers worked without a toilet facility for eight hours a day; and in order to survive in such conditions they did not drink water during the day! And yet they never complained about it! When we realised this, we did not start negotiating with builders for toilet facility on the site because we knew, like many other things, it would take time! On some locations we did make arrangement ourselves by providing mobile toilets for which I had to get funding from abroad - an individual donor, whom I did not have to convince for the need of toilets on the site, immediately obliged.

Lack of infrastructure
            There are no chairs to sit on and no desk to write on, fans are not even thought about! During summer, it is extremely hot because the classes are held in tin sheds; and in rainy season, they leak. The surroundings are all full of mud and debris and not even safe from children’s point of view. In spite of such challenges, the teachers make each class as safe as possible and conduct various activities to keep the children suitably engaged.

            You may wonder or even ask, why do we agree to work in such conditions?
This happens because we work from a position which has no power. We are powerless first because the nature of work we do is not perceived as ‘required’. Secondly we are not highly educated or qualified, thirdly we do not generate income and we have to depend for our survival on others who are our partners. Our funding partners and we have to depend for our success on the beneficiaries who in turn look at us as somebody who is ‘showing’ kindness or concern for them for his or her own livelihood. To turn them into a friendly welcoming group is the skill we have - in fact, we must have, if we aim at bringing about a change even for an apparently simple thing like motivating a parent to send a child to school. Developing rapport with parents and winning their trust is a difficult and time consuming process. In our work schedule, we hardly count the time that is required for ‘take off’ - the initial time during which we cannot show any ‘impact’ or results of our work.

            This is a picture after completion of three years. But during this time, we showed ‘impact’ after the end of every financial year. In fact, as per the donor’s requirement, we got the assessment done from a reputed institution, an outsider, who barely spent a couple of days on field and assessed the progress.

            I want to highlight two points here - one is our lack of orientation and training in maintaining and analysing data which is partly responsible for our fear of the word ‘impact’ assessment and second is the lack of orientation and training of our funding partners of ground realities which they sometimes fail to see - the difficulties we face and the interim time we need to show real impact of the work we do.

            The lack of orientation of ground realities is a fact for which I can give you two examples which show how the India and Bharat are two different entities who stay side by side but hardly know each other. In our campaign ‘Every Child Counts’, we work with many corporate volunteers. Some of the volunteers are not even aware that public primary education is free for everybody. They are really concerned about who will pay the school fees for the children we enrol in school. At the same time, the same volunteers willingly and many times on their own make arrangements for school transport for these children once they are in contact with them and see the ground realities. They feel like supporting the children’s education and do not hesitate to spend from their own pockets. This change comes through contact and this is also an impact which we have not envisaged and which we forget to count.

            I have many examples and many stories collected over last 25 years or so. For example, a group of students from NICMAR (National Institution for Construction Management and Research) helped us in our survey of construction labourers’ children back in 2003-2004. In a feedback meeting after the survey, all of them said that they had never visited a labour camp before and were not aware of the poor conditions in which the labourers live and in spite of that how very welcoming they are.

            I strongly feel that for both the sides, there is an urgent need to understand each other and develop a real partnership between the financial partners and the NGOs. Let us call them executive partners. They are the partners who work for bringing about desired goals which are decided and agreed upon by mutual consent. I say this because I have experience of the NGO’s ground realities and know the difficulties we face in our routine work  - difficult and unwelcoming conditions, lack of orientation and training for maintaining and analysing the data, lack of appreciation of analysis for improving and innovating field practices, apparent lack of interest in review, analysis objectivity, etc.

            These are our drawbacks. At the same time the funding partners are at a far higher level than us in academic achievements, technical knowledge and orientation to maintain, use, analyse, review and improve the practices. However, they do lack in practical field level experience and first-hand knowledge.

            We work with street children at the university circle. In fact, the work was started by the VAMNCOM Institute, a Government Institute for management training. Their Director is from Civil Services and is interested in working with these children. He started a project along with members of Mohalla Committee and started gathering children every morning, bringing them to the institute, providing facilities for bath, mid-day meal and a room to sit and watch TV. The children did watch TV, ate food, etc., but were not manageable; they were very restless and rowdy at times and the people concerned were not able to manage them. We offered to help and our teachers did wonders. Within a day or two, they could discipline the children, conducted activities with them, and generally brought quiet and peace and order to the group. We have even enrolled them in school. However, all days are not equal. Children do become restless; at times they do not like to sit in school; and during festive season, many of them are on the roads as it is there prime business time.

            This part is not appreciated by authorities as they should really do. If they see less attendance they are upset with our teachers (forgetting the days when they were not able to manage the children). ‘Does Door Step School pay you for bringing four children?’ is a comment our teachers have to hear and bear also.

            This is the lack of understanding I am talking about. We experience it almost every year when the budgets are submitted and discussions are held to get them sanctioned. The programme expense is one part, and in any case, they define programme expense so narrowly that it is always a smaller part of the budget. I remember the time when I even had to argue to get salary of teachers included under programme expense. Other supervisory staff, their salaries and expenses on general administration is always questioned and we are forced to work on a minimal administrative budget.

            I personally think and recommend that we should really sit together and work out the plan, the budget, the human resource needs and outcome goals stage by stage. There are experts - management experts who are debating about the use of the word ‘impact’ and saying that instead of the word ‘impact’, we should use the word ‘Outcome’.  I am not going into that debate because I am not equipped to do so. I think it is not important which word we use, but we should chalk out stage by stage expectations or the expected results of a particular project, the data, human resources and training, etc. required for achieving the goals should be worked out at the time we enter into partnership, and then assess the progress accordingly.

            This will ensure the smooth running of any project. This will remove our uneasy feeling of ‘what can we show them in such a short period of time?’ And even the funding partners will get what they are looking for.

            This suggestion brings in another point which is not exactly in the scope of today’s subject but which is closely related to it. It is about the funding tenure as decided by different corporates at different levels. Majority of them have a policy of supporting an NGO for a period of three years or some such similar time limit. Then they shift to another NGO. I fail to understand the logic behind this. Are you there to support new NGOs every few years and help them grow, or, are you aiming at a cause? And the reality is that there is a need everywhere. So why leave one NGO in the middle - make that NGO work all over again to find a new funding partner for the same program? And if it fails to do so, leave the project and many times even let go of the project staff that is trained to do a good job.

            In any situation, understanding others is always desirable. Discussions, debate, exchange of ideas will only help the executive partners to work towards the desired goals.

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