Sharpening our Focus and Improving our Collaborations

Presented at West Coast meeting of AID held in the Bay Area in July 2005 and at  East Coast meeting of AID held in Mohegan Lake, New York, August 2005. 

All of us agree that we need to work to improve the quality of our projects. By the term projects we loosely refer to our collaborations with individuals and groups in India but specifically mean our formal, financial support to registered organisations.

To get beyond the us-them relationship: One way is to acknowledge and make it as reciprocal as possible. In the matter of improving our project collaborations, there are two sides to the coin. On the one hand we perceive that we must work with ‘better groups’ and have devised various criteria on which to evaluate the quality of an NGO, whether by degree of volunteerism, extent of mass base, gender balance, etc. We must also focus on improving ourselves. Remember that the leading groups that we have sought to work with over the years are also trying to improve their relationships with the supporting community. How would they evaluate AID’s role in providing support? Are we an organisation worthy of collaborating with these leading groups?

We need a touch of humility, keeping in mind that AID support is not necessarily helpful to everyone. There are people who are used to dealing in much larger dimensions of funding, as well as people working at the micro-end of the funding spectrum, collecting Rs. 1 / month per family or perhaps 1 kilo of grains. There are people who patiently go door to door in the cities explaining their village work and taking donations from those who are interested. We have even met people who depend on making and selling greeting cards to earn their livelhood and then take no institutional support for their own community work, though they
work full time.

It is important to respect this kind of committment and not seek to wipe it out with the magic wand of AID support. While we have earned the trust of some of these people and persuaded them to involve AID, we should not presume that this form of support is inherently or automatically superior to the more cumbersome processes. If there are reasons that the more grasroots approach to fundraising was not as successful as hoped, these reasons do not necessarily lie with any fault in that method.

Why, for example, is it more difficult to go door to door and hold corner meetings to involve the public in community work? One simple reason is
that this is seen as ‘taking a lot of time.’ There are no standard forms, spreadsheets or development lingo, but one must broach the topics afresh each time. People are by default in a rush, and have longer hours at work, longer commutes and less time at home. Many people who contribute to AID are in a sense delegating to AID volunteers the responsibility of attending meetings, studying issues, and forging strong collaborations with those who are working for social change. This itself is part of the problem. A society in which people can not spare the time to meet and discuss issues is more vulnerable to inequality, exploitation, restrictions on civil liberties, and and other problems that result when time and space to question is so limited that authority is strengthened and the questioners themselves are easily labeled and marginalised. So we do need to fight for this time and space and find creative ways to keep on involving the community in supporting causes and forming opinions on issues. This is as important if not more important than the funding of programs through institutional mechanisms such as AID.

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Much of our communication with NGOs occurs only during the pre-approval phase where we have the upper hand. However we should perhaps be even more interested in finding out about what is actually going on and what people are thinking while the project is underway. We can grade the quality of our collaborations by asking ourselves some questions. In what projects have we had at least as much if not 5-10 times as more correspondence and communication with coordinators in the field after approval than we had prior to approval? Could we describe them as vividly as our ex-roommate’s love affairs? With which groups are we
regularly responding to appeals, petitions, action alerts, and visiting eagerly just as we visit other places and people of our own interest? In which projects do we disappear until we are called upon for the next installment, like a deadbeat dad being sued for child support?

Whenever we think about improving our projects, we should think in terms of improving our collaborations, and ask tough questions of ourselves as well as our partners. AID, that is, all of us, have to change the quality of our project support if we expect to improve the quality of projects we support. It is not enough to say, here we are, let the best projects to come to us. We also have to change ourselves.

Because in fact the best grasroots development work is being done by folks with no funding at all, no organisation at all. Organisations play their role best when they sustain and build their links with the most grasroots, unorganised and unfunded development workers, those maintaining home and family, sustaining natural resources and keeping traditional livelihoods alive for the next generation. The farmers, forest dwellers, coastal communities, artisans, weavers, spinners, craftspeople are practicing the solutions for sustainable development and living lightly on the earth with least ecological footprint. When their communities, social fabric and natural resource base are intact, they are able to utilise the democratic structures such as gram sabha to plan and implement their own development projects, as well as tools like Right to Information to check and balance accounts and nip corruption in the bud. No central government or NGO program can come close to restoring livelihoods once they are lost and the most sustainable livelihood is land on which the majority directly depend for livelihood and all of us depend for life’s essentials.

Putting our development work in perspective …. the kinds of activities we have normally counted among our projects and which the average chapter project coordinator eagerly leaps to adopt, such as a little vocational training here and schools, libraries, and clinics there are not going to make a significnat dent in the larger development issues, even if these are scaled up. Natural resources and livelihoods are the fundamental stakes and the people’s own voice in the development process is the key way to protect these. While doing so if they are able to access the resources and expertise of organisations such as AID in implementing any of the above programs then they have a much higher chance of being appropriately adapted and making impact immediately as well as in the long term.

All this to say that we need a touch of humility. Let us not imagine that we can identify and support the ‘best’ projects out there. Let us remember the invaluable role palyed by our own support as individuals, the importance of plugging into what is happening, listening, being there in time of need rather than surveying people’s needs at the time of our own leisure. Let us not settle into a habit of expecting answers but not answering others, but cultivate the art of listening and making connections. This means actually reading the newsletters and reports issues by organisations such as South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP Update), Kalpavriksh (Protected Areas Update), Intiative (The People’s Movement) and keeping up with events and issues of public interest through media like India Together, Frontline and other mass media. We need to fight for the space that the media gives to these issues by writing letters to the editor and also by ourselves becoming a media and passing along these articles, magaziens, and reports to our friends and through CSH, AID table etc. Though we have detailed spreadsheets to answer the question, “what does the dollar I donate to AID do?” we sometimes still get stuck with questions like, ‘what will my signature on this petition do?’ or ‘what use is it for me to read these reports?’
We must not give up on these questions … nor can we delegate them to anyone else. Each of us must answer to and for ourselves.

In my presentation last year in Austin called “Pace of the People” I highlighted the importance of keeping pace with the work going on in India. From a distance it may seem that in some area ‘nothing is happening’ or ‘the more things change the more they stay the same,’ and then suddenly one day a headline will make you scratch your head, ‘when did all that happen? or ‘ what is the real cause of this?’ Through AID we have the opportunity to get close and personally in touch with what is going on at the district, tehsil and even village level where the pampered media fears to tread (a STAR TV reporter actually turned back from reporting on the submergence in Narmada because the roads were flooded. AID has footage of that time because we were ready to walk long routes through the hills when the roads were flooded.)


— identify key knowledge areas pertaining to a given project or campaign and identify ways volunteers can access, discuss, debate and build on this knowledge

proactively and interactively. For example, if the project concerns education among families affected by bonded labour, how can we learn more about labor laws

and working conditions, educational practices, etc? If the project involves land rights, what are the categories and land concerning land, application processes and

how has the movement worked, what challenges has it faced theoretically and practically. A tutorial conducted along the same lines as the Narmada Tutorial,

available to volunteers from all chapters, would serve as an important mechanism to raise these and many more questions, and motivate the search for answers. We

should steadily meet and raise this standard of support that we expect ourselves to provide in our collaborations.

— get project info in local langauges and use this to forge closer and more informal ties with the community that is invovled with the work of our partner NGO.
— create a culture where people plan project visits before reaching india. Project Coordinator should work with chapters so that any interested volunteer visiting India gets advised on which projects s/he may be able to visit. S/he may then contact the project coordinator, the folks in India, fix dates and even book train tickets all in advance, thus saving valuable time in India which always seems to run out when people begin the ‘which project should i visit?’ process only after landing.
— generate a habit of collecting reports and publications of the groups with whom we are working and actually reading and discussing them, putting them online if need be
— seek opportunities to support local livelihoods by buying village products esp when they are being produced or marketed by our NGO partners or other outlets.
— systematically catalogue the various writeups, photos and videos that come out of project visits.