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Opinion | How must Gram Vikas pursue ‘scale’?

Feature

By Suvojit Chattopadhyay

4 October 2019

A community meeting in progress in Satapatia village, Nayagarh district, Odisha. Photograph by Ajaya Behera

A common complaint one hears about large service delivery-oriented NGOs is their inability to scale-up rapidly. This could arise from both outsiders (donors, governments, etc) and insiders who may mistake size for influence and recognition. Here, the underlying assumption is that ‘scale’ only has one dimension – that of reaching larger numbers. For the development sector at large, this is the widely-held conventional view of scale – an NGO reaching large numbers of communities and families directly. Big numbers are important in a vast country like India, but more often than not, ‘scale’ is deemed to be an acceptable trade-off for quality, and is conflated with higher impact. 

With this prevalent view and pressure from new-age donors, ‘going to scale’ can represent a trap. In a complex intervention such as ‘water and sanitation’, this can translate into organisations chasing targets, compromising on the key design elements that made their smaller programmes a success. Given these dangers, an organisation such as Gram Vikas needs to redefine ‘scale’. 

Redefining scale

First, one needs to understand that it is solutions and ideas that need to be taken to scale. This does not imply that an NGO takes sole custody of a large number of communities. Rather, it is that organisations focus on transferring know-how – design and implementation capability – to more local, more cost-effective channels on the ground, and work in partnership with others. Second, the agents responsible for scaling up a solution could be local governments or other smaller local community-based organisations. Scaling solutions will require robust networks of organisations on the ground. It requires an ability to influence the discourse in the development sector, through both research and praxis. 

The desire to scale-up also throws up interesting questions about ‘withdrawal’, or the process of starting to disengage from communities in a time-bound manner. In the classic sense, the relationship between an NGO and a community begins with near-complete one-sided dependence, and over time, local institutions grow in capacity and stature and take charge of delivering the services that communities used to access through NGOs. For instance in the Gram Vikas model, once the toilets and bathing rooms are constructed and water supply system is established, village committees lay down a code of conduct to be followed by everyone in the community. Families are also expected to pay a monthly fee to cover the operation and maintenance costs of the sanitation and water supply systems. Gram Vikas helps the community learn technical skills to service the infrastructure, reducing dependence on external support. As Gram Vikas has experienced, from its engagement with village committees as well as elected local governments, building this level of local capacity takes time.

Disengaging from the community

An organisation focused on scaling up might feel compelled to disengage faster from its older areas of operation, and there are several key issues to consider when making this decision. Who assesses that a community has graduated to a stage where it can be seen as self-reliant? In areas that are still not served by the government, or where the public facilities are very poor, at what point should an NGO pack up and move on? Even if the NGO installs a basic service delivery mechanism and promotes local institutions that take over management, should it continue to have an oversight role to ensure basic service delivery is sustained? 

A hasty exit from communities before interventions have been able to trigger transformative processes might undo gains very quickly. In the contexts where NGOs such as Gram Vikas operate, this would also reflect badly on the organisation’s reputation. On the other hand, an interminable engagement might be a sign of an unhealthy dependence (this can, of course, be mutual). There are no easy answers of course, but what one can say is that conversations about eventual withdrawal must be seeded into community engagement processes from the very beginning. This is something I believe Gram Vikas has always emphasised in the field.

Tackling a new set of challenges 

The selection of programmes and implementation strategies will have a direct impact on Gram Vikas’ organisational form. In many ways, an NGO such as Gram Vikas, with its presence in 27 districts, faces many of the same challenges that an arm of the state government might face. Questions, such as – what is the appropriate level of decentralisation within the organisation? – will need to be answered afresh. This is a time when NGOs are transforming the way they finance themselves and are seeing rapid changes in modes of operation, perhaps most prominently, in the way they use technology in their operations. With the steady expansion of physical and digital infrastructure, people on the ground now experience change more rapidly, and their expectations of service providers are higher now than ever before. Not only the state, but NGOs too have come under greater pressure to justify their existence, and questions about relevance and impact will continue to be asked. ‘Going to scale’ will remain a core question – however, it is important to reimagine scale as I have explained above, and to break that question down to its various components. 

All of these will mean a new set of challenges – and in its fifth decade, I believe this will be one of the main issues that Gram Vikas would have to tackle.

Women gathered to hear about a nutrition programme in Udiguna village, Kalahandi, Odisha. Photograph by Ajaya Behera.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

This featured article by Suvojit Chattopadhyay is part of a series of opinion pieces by leaders and experts in the development sector reflecting on Gram Vikas' work in relation to social issues, solutions and government.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suvojit Chattopadhyay is a Principal Manager at the development consultancy firm, Adam Smith International, based in Nairobi. Suvojit blogs regularly on issues of global development, public policy, and politics in India. He started his career at Gram Vikas (2005-07), working on monitoring and evaluation of Gram Vikas' water-sanitation and tribal development programmmes. Suvojit has an undergraduate degree in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi and masters’ degrees from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand, India, and the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, UK.

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