Field visit- a joke on folks who are visited!

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A set of school kids engaged in making quill greetingcards post school hours to raise funds for their community work. Location: Agra slums, 2013

Field visits (of sociological nature) , from my limited understanding, were a part of Masters in Social Work (MSW) courses alone in the past. Nowadays its mandated for program that study Development, Public Policy and others dealing with matters of public or social nature.

The whole idea of field visit and exposures is to help people see from real close quarters what it means to – live under certain conditions, do a particular job, and understand many aspects of their lives. It is to de-number the identity of the people whom we statistically study from census data or quantitative reports. It is to see them as peolpe like you and me.  When I started to do these  field visits it was as a part of my Master’s theisis to understand the impacts of a marine engineering project on lives of fisher community. Since then I have been learning and absorbing everytime I go into the field. These visits have helped me bridge the knowledge gap I have due to irregular readings. More than this, they have helped me stay more rooted, human and reminded me about the values like humility (Not that I claim to be humble all the time, I do tend to have my own streaks of arrogance now and then, 😉 ). A field visit can be to a village, surban slum, a factory floor, a manufacturing unit, some local organization or school or any place that is relevant to study that one is engaged in.

As a part of this course there was a mandatory month long field visit in the first year.In the second year of the course few electives have field visit as part of thier curriculum. I am writing this post to just reflect on the attitudes some of us have towards these visits, and how it is uselesss for people with certain attitudes to make such visits.

During the first visit of mine as a part of this course, the attitude certain members of the team visiting exhibited was that of entitlement. It is as if, just because you are from a city ( which in the heads of the visitors is a proxy for developed) the vilagers should be obilidged to share information about all the things we vistors question. This is pretty evident from the way we sat, questioned and interacted with people. It is amazing how we would want to pay and stand in quess to go to some places and act all civilized and nice, for instance a famous pub in a city. At the same time when we are recived with warmth and given the space to interact, we act all bossy and cocky. The villagers/laborers or slum dwellers have no reason to spend their valuabel time in talking and providing information to you. Our research and study is useless to their lives, if anything they are doing favour on us by sharing about their lives.

Similarly when few of the classmates came back after visiting a labor union organization, their remark  about the life of an indiviudal shared is  – “it sounds like a hindi soap opera” or mock at the fact that, now they may be assigned a project to write a biography of the live of the lady who shared her life story with them. Another set of smart alec from the class  want to practice their ability to argue and debate with these poeple by asking “smart theoritcal” questions on gender discrimination – about not having a “single” male members on the organization board. This is being asked to a woman who has  just shared her life story on the kind of  discriminations done to her by men all her life.

I have felt quite sad seeing the way these people go about doing their field visits. I dont mind if one doesnt like to do field visits. Its ok to not like it. But when engaging with it , the attitudes that these folks carry is not right. The attitudes of – carelessness, of disregard, of disrespect and of lack of sensitivity. This is sad, utterly sad. I am not excluding myself from this. There have been times when I have also been careless, I have my share of faultlines too! I am taking an opprtunity to reflect on myself and other in this program with respect to these attitudes.

Why is their experience of life, be it difficulty or struggle less valuable than our own struggle to study late nights to get good grades? Why is their life less important than our lives? If we all cannot appreciate an individual sharing their lifestory with us and if we can not respect them just like we will want anyone else to do to us, what policies will we create? What public policy professional will we become?

The idea of these visits and interactions is to atleast have a peak into the lives of those individuals differnt than us. We most of the times visit people who have lesser social and economic capital than us. Experineces shared usually are about their struggles-matters that are quite close to their hearts and minds.  Fieldworks of social orientation are sledom on rich lives. Just because these people are weaker, should we be careless about it? Simply asking.

No point being a gold medalist or knowing all the books. By the end of the day experience of our lives is enrichened not by our shopping experineces, or moments of arogance or ruthlessness but by the number of moments of gratidue, happiness and humility.

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Where Does Charity Lie? A Day At A Project Site

I am cross-posting this piece I wrote for Frank Water from here

This week another water supply project goes live in a distant village in Eastern Ghats of India. This idyllic day of the monsoon month can easily fool a visitor into thinking that the households here are as abundant in water as the streams appear.

Walk to the source of spring for Debametla

Full streams or not, either way, the people must hike a kilometre at least to fetch water at any time of the year. Water quality isn’t even a distant concern. This is a situation that our new Gravity Water Flow System (GWFS) based water supply project changes as soon as it goes live.

Distribution tank where the spring water gets filtered

Gravity water flow system uses springs that are found in hills as the source of water supply. The community chooses the spring that will supply the water needs with technical support from a project members of our local partner after a selection procedure. The selection procedure is conducted to ascertain if the spring is suitable to build a GWFS using it as a source. That involves observation of spring’s perenniality, its yield, altitude of the spring and discussion with locals to know the history of spring.

Stand post from where villagers fetch water to their house. The farthest house is 50 meters from the post.

Once the source is decided, with the participation of community, expert from VJNNS (our local partner) looks at the route to get the water to the village and the location of distribution tank is decided. Sometimes the spring is as far as 3 or 4 kilometers from the distribution tank. This process is technically challenging in the case of GWFS because unlike most other supply systems GWFS doesn’t use any energy to draw water from the source to the distribution tank or from the distribution tank to the stand posts near the households. With zero energy consumption GWFS are the best for remote regions where electricity is limited in supply and unreliable.

A villager carrying water from the standpost.

But for such a project to work this requires cooperation in the community.  Like in the case of the first village Debametla that I visited today, the spring that was identified as a suitable source was located in a private property of an individual from another village. And if the spring was developed he or his village will not benefit anyway as his village was located upstream of the spring. But he still generously accepted to let the spring be developed and used to supply water to Debametla. Whereas in Vamegada Kotur village, the distribution tank had to be located in a particular elevation and that happened to belong to Samalingam and Krishnapadal. Both of them gave away their land for the purpose without a second thought.

Samalingam and Krishnapadal who donated their land for distribution tank, Vamgada Kottur .

As an inspiring day comes to an end, I begin to think where does real charity lie in this project. Is it an act done only by those who help finance it? Or is it also those two brothers who chose to donate a part of their land to set up the distribution tank for the supply system. The concern is not about whose act of charity is greater. Its about being able to see the unnoticed and often unacknowledged ones. They make a difference as much as any other act of charity.

Our work with the communities finishes that last mile which makes or breaks a project through these acts of charity. It is humbling and overwhelming to see the communities step in to lead the charge. Ours is perhaps a charity inspired by these million little charities happening in these distant corners of the world.

Thoughts on using Randomised Control Trials (RCT) to understand , evaluate and conclude how development program work

Its been many months I wrote any post here at TMN. Since the last post I have been busy traveling on personal and work trips. Many discussions, debates and conversations I thought were worth sharing here. But they failed to make it here sheerly because of my lack of discipline to write regularly. One particular subject which I wanted to write and still want to share remains to be the use of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs) by development economist to understand development programs and schemes rolled out by governments.

The pioneers and starts who made RCTs the vogue are Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. I have read their book in parts, read criticism on their approach (RCT) to development economics and many other articles and interviews by them. To not be judgemental about the approach I wanted to understand it further. That took me to  ‘IGC-ISI India Development Policy Conference’ 2014 in July. But the cases, experiments and presentations made in the conference did not change but made my opinions and doubts on the approach stronger. A recent interview of Esther Duflo, made me revisit RCT and compelled me to write this post.

What is RCT?

A randomised controlled trial (or randomised control trial;RCT) is a type of scientific (often medical) experiment, where the people being studied are randomly allocated one or other of the different treatments under study. The RCT is the gold standard for aclinical trial. RCTs are often used to test the efficacy or effectiveness of various types of medical intervention and may provide information about adverse effects, such as drug reactions. Random assignment of intervention is done after subjects have been assessed for eligibility and recruited, but before the intervention to be studied begins.

Source: Chalmers TC, Smith H Jr, Blackburn B, Silverman B, Schroeder B, Reitman D, Ambroz A (1981). “A method for assessing the quality of a randomized control trial”. Controlled Clinical Trials 2 (1): 31–49. doi:10.1016/0197-2456(81)90056-8. PMID 7261638

How can RCTs help development or alleviate poverty ?

Here is an apt description of what RCT can do to development according to the authors of Poor Economics:

The authors propose that although we do not know  “what works,” careful observation  of the poor to help design interventions, cemented by randomised trials to assess  these interventions, can help us identify what does. Those who have the power to intervene (governments, international organisations, NGOs, philanthropists, and the  global middle and upper classes) are assumed to be well motivated, so that once  the deficit in their knowledge is overcome (in part through the good offices of the  authors), they will act.

Source: Randomise This! On Poor Economics Author: Sanjay G. Reddy*

Here is what I feel about RCTs used to implement  development projects and evaluation of development projects:

  1. The method as a tool to evaluate how development program have been delivered, seems to do a good job at it, as the sample size are vast enough and wide  spread and well ‘randomised’. But everything that makes a program click or fail is not measurable.
  2. There are ethical issues when RCT is used to implement a development program and see how the program  pans out. But I do not feel so strongly about it, because implementing a program that will fail to a large set of population is worse than trying it out on a small population and learn from it.
  3. The outcomes and conclusions made after RCTs (especially the ones I heard about during the IGC conference and read in Duflo’s interview) are very strong. Most times RCTs are only trying to test a particular aspect of a program. For examples : how does teacher’s attendance have impact on learning and therefore how to improve it. I find that approach quite narrow. It assumes many other factors that  play an important role in the success or failure of a program to be constant. It neglects the context of these programs. There is very little of context taken into consideration, eg: social structure and norms where the program is implemented,which the conclusions are made. I find this over simplifies complex problems and addresses the reasons for their failure only superficially. There is very little ethnographic outline to any program that is evaluated with this method.
  4. Most of the RCTs are designed with an inherent belief that human beings respond to carrots and sticks and THATS ALL! There is very little time spent on dwelling upon deeper reasons for dysfunctioning of institutions, programs and individuals of a particular society.
  5. Importantly there is too much arrogance when any economist concludes based on their RCT experiment. Which only makes one want to dismiss it immediately.

Abijit Banerjee , Esther Duflo and cohort who practice RCT seem to be  in fashion. As much as 100 RCT programs are on in India only from The Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab alone.  Many state government agencies  here are already engaging with them quite a bit. And in all 500 odd such experiments across the world is happening .RCTs are very expensive. If only they could just make it more holistic, their work will have the impact they desire and more.

Leisure to field notes to ethanography

A roadside samosa stall in South India

The days when I am not on the road, I am in Mumbai. Its been 10 months of making Mumbai my base. I live in a locality which is composed of a mixture of both low and high income housing. Its raining incessantly in the city. The Methi dam has enough to supply the city for the year to come in a month’s rain. So you know how much rain has happened here. I hardly step out into the city, except for the clear evenings when I take a stroll or sit by the sea front. When I don’t  step out I take a peek from  my terrace briefly i.e if it stops raining , otherwise the house’s window is my window to the world.

From my terrace today, I saw some households laying tarpaulin sheets on their roofs to stop the rainwater from leaking into their houses. And this also reminded me of  the number of people who walk in their rain shoes to work, who commute in the local trains/buses, the hawkers trying to sell their produce under a camping umbrella and many others.  I have always wondered what must “life of the hawkers” be like.

I have too many questions like this that come to my mind as I travel:when I see a young 12 year old child knocking my hotel room to clear up the tea cups, when I see a young boy ( may be 15) from Pudukotai district briskly serving a cup of coffee from morning to evening in a restaurant in Bangalore or a watchman from Kuppam standing daylong in front of a building wishing you every time you cross him with a question ” have you eaten child? “.  But I also felt that if I approach this quest of mine without much purpose,  I would not come out with anything insightful or of any value to myself or the lives of the people whom I am curious about. I have been hesitant to brazenly walk into their lives and ask delicate questions about it. I have not had the confidence that I could do it without hurting or overstepping into their space.

Few weeks ago, I finally took a step towards working on “How I would enquire into lives of people that I am interested in purposefully with sensitivity?”. I did it not by myself, I owe it to a friend who gifted me a book on  ethnography, Ethanography- Step by Step by  David M Fetterman. It takes me quite a bit of effort to pick up a book read it from start to end. But I was able to read this book effortlessly.  I have been doing few things that this book suggests intuitively during my field visits. But there were many things that were new to me, especially the organisation of notes, terminology and methods used to conduct ethnographic studies.

Its intriguing how one thought triggers another and another and another and a random post happens. But writing this post has helped me summarise some lessons from my reading the book.