Questions and Observations

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.

Waste Segregation in Motihari
Waste Segregation in Motihari

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.

Motihari, Bihar
Motihari, Bihar

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!

Caitlin's interest in social enterprise began while working at a nonprofit research and consulting firm in Boston. This interest intersected with international development shortly thereafter while on a field study with Northeastern's Social Enterprise Institute in Cape Town, South Africa where she consulted with local township entrepreneurs. Following the field study, she worked in Hubli, Karnataka at the Deshpande Foundation for six months as a Junior Fellow. During this time, she focused on a number of the Foundation's educational programs to develop, implement, and evaluate curriculum. She also completed a research grant on the Indian higher education system and the impact social enterprises can have in higher ed. Wanting to gain more from her time in India, Caitlin later spent time studying beginning Hindi in Jaipur, Rajasthan on a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State. She also has experience in program assessment, research, and data analysis. Caitlin looks forward to combining all of these interests back in India as a Fellow.

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5 thoughts on “Questions and Observations

  1. Ah, I can totally relate! I spent last week on the ground, speaking to students and local leaders and gathered data from “primary sources”. It was such a humbling and an eye opening experience.

  2. Are you suggesting it doesn’t make sense to invest in tablets for data collection in a city where you might not be able to charge them?

  3. Unless they are Advils and you have those people who can write a novel on a single grain of rice .
    Seriously . In my experience theories, simulations and best practices often do not work in India even if they should. The human element will not allow it. Never ask why multiple copies / versions of every document is needed . Never ask the car park attendant at the exit why he needs to see your ticket when the only way to enter the car park is through a barrier manned by another attendant who collects the fixed fee. There will be a “logical” reason . Practically everything needs to be “custom” to the facts on the ground. A little bit of Jugaad( frugal innovation) always helps. But once you realize that western round pegs often need to fit Indian square holes you adapt pretty quickly and more importantly come up with new paradigms unthinkable in the west. Cash on delivery for online purchases is one example.
    I am glad that you learned this early in your Fellowship. The M&E system you will create will be uniquely Indian and there will be elements of sheer brilliance and human insight not available in a logical linear model.

  4. I can very much relate too Caitlin! Going to try and incorporate your advice and see these challenges and frustrations as crucial on-the-ground understanding towards implementing our projects. Great post!

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