When asked by so many why I wanted to join this Fellowship, my primary response is that I want to get more on-the-ground experience in international and economic development. It is easy to study development theories in classrooms, read case studies, and critique failed social enterprises from afar. It is quite another thing to really know a community and work through the successes and challenges of the development sector from first-hand experience. Luckily for me, within my first two weeks back in India, this goal was beginning to be met.
After orientation in New Delhi, I flew down to my placement organization’s—Waste Ventures—headquarters in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. With no time to settle in, I boarded a 36-hour train ride two days later, along with my coworker, up to one of our project sites in Motihari, Bihar. (The train ride in sleeper class could be a blog post in itself, but I will stick to other takeaways from the trip.)
Waste Ventures works to create sustainable and socially inclusive solutions to collecting solid waste throughout tier two and tier three cities across India. They do this in a number of ways such as employing waste pickers, door-to-door collection of waste, and composting of organics. A large part of my project while working with Waste Ventures is to define metrics and implement a measurement and evaluation system to track social impact.
Measurement and evaluation (M&E) has been a hot topic across the development and social enterprise sectors for the past few years. During university, I researched best practices for M&E, examined leaders in the field, and tracked key indicators for nonprofit performance. At work in Boston, I managed projects on assessment and data analysis, and prior to arriving in India, I did much research on the new software with which Waste Ventures plans to run their M&E. From afar, I was prepared, and it seemed obvious and easy enough.
Then, Motihari happened. It was hot and slow. The electric workers and city sweepers had been on strike for over a month, so power was very limited. Infrastructure was lacking as we crawled through traffic on motorbikes as pilgrims clothed in orange took over the street. The lake nearby was green with trash and emitted a foul odor. Our local team could often be found taking catnaps or reading the paper.
One day, while we went around distributing invoices and collecting payments from our customers on foot, I caught myself asking a number of cynical questions. Why on earth does it take a team of four to collect payments? How come things work so slowly here? Why is simple data being collected in numerous different formats? Why am I listening to this hour-long meeting with waste pickers with my limited Hindi? In the midst of my questions, though, came just the lesson for which I was hoping.
These questions and observation were essential for my future work, and were just the on-the-ground experience that I needed. In order to really take my M&E project forward, I needed to experience the circumstances and context in which it would be implemented. I needed to know our local team and their dynamics. I needed to understand that it’s not always possible for high-tech devices to work when power supplies are low and that “real-time data” isn’t always real time.
Solutions are easy to prescribe from afar, but will not make a lasting impact if the communities in which they are being implemented are not taken into account. Experience in the area and commitment to the communities where you work are essential for sustainable development. I’m now ready to tackle my project—and Motihari—with a fresh understanding and a frame of reference. Here’s to many more observations and questions along the way!