Saturday, 5 March 2011

Report on an inspection visit to an Indian NGO

Report on visit to an NGO in a state capital, a district HQ and a village - which was sent to the NGO concerned following my visit for the purpose but (presumably as it was less flattering than expected) has not even been acknowledged, and the NGO refuses to communicate further with me.

I will not name this NGO and will mention only that it operates in the broad field of education and culture, and is being run by a sort of Gandhian group of Hindus. The following are EXTRACTS from the comments that I sent them, partly modified in order to maintain anonymity for the NGO.

1. In the village:
Here an existing primary school has recently been taken over by the NGO after the school was run unsuccessfully by two previous parties - first it was run by a matth (that is a monastery belonging to a Hindu religious order), and then it was run by a couple of private individuals. In the first case, the local community asked the matth to leave because the matth was apparently less interested in teaching the children and more interested in getting the 30 additional acres of land which are contiguous with the school's land; in the second case, the individual(s) simply absconded with as much money as they could put in their commodious pockets!

In the grounds is a good borewell, apparently proviidng very pure water.

The existing facility consists of a few solidly-built classrooms that are in a poor state of repair - damp seems to be creeping up the walls and extensive work needs to be done to ensure the continuing health of the structure. Two classrooms were spick and span, and are being used, while the rest have been cleaned but do not seem to be in use as there are not enough kids coming to the school yet. Children are being ferried in by bus from neighbouring areas - but not many seem to have taken up the offer of free transportation for the first year. This makes one wonder if there is sufficient demand for the school though I acknowledge that it is not easy to re-start a rural school after two such false starts.

However, the potential demand for the school does, in my opinion, need to be checked in order to establish whether earlier demand has now been largely satisfied by other suppliers. The extent and quality of the competition also needs to be assessed in any case. If the quality and quantity of other suppliers is sufficiently high, there may not be a case for trying to re-open the school.

There is also a concern about whether re-opening a "failed" school in this remote rural area is the best use of the NGO's financial and human resources - the nearest electricity supply, for example, is two miles away - though the leading politician has promised to extend the supply wiring to the school entrance for no cost, in India there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

Two young female teachers were present, one male teacher and a motherly old lady whose exact function was unclear but who was no doubt a good addition in terms of the psychological health of the children.

I am not sure whether the NGO will be able to attract sufficient teachers of the right calibre to this remote location and sustain them there.

The proposed Outbound Training Centre to be built on the contiguous land will require massive investment, not only in the buildings but also in the infrastructure and in marketing. There seems to have been no integrated planning so far of such a facility, and the danger is that there will be ad hoc developments based on individual fancies and whims and enthusiasms. What is needed is than a study of the size of the market, and of what exactly the market needs, of the amount of money needed for infrastructure development, for the capital spend on buildings and facities, staff and other running expenses, for operating expenses/cashflow and related matters, so that the time-horizon for making the facility profitable can be clear as well as the potential Return On Investment could be worked out in order to enable a comparison with other possible projects or investments.

There also seems to be a misunderstanding re whether the costs of the transport wd be subsidised by the state government or perhaps by the national organisation of the NGO.

I notice, in this context, a mismatch between the communication style of the local NGO leader and what is needed to be effective in this setting (he doesn't ask any questions, doesn't listen, interrupts...).

And there is a mismatch between expectations and reality - he apparently first told them "to just do it; all I am interested in are results", but when the locals just did it they are now being told in front of me that they should not have done it - that their understanding of the agreement was inaccurate and that the money for transporting the children may not be forthcoming. One of the locals mentioned to me that where they wait for agreements to be clear in writing, they are told that they are not being efficient and not producing fast results.

Though the NGO is supposed to be secular, it has a particular idol prominently displayed, which may discourage even those Hindus who do not owe allegiance to this particular idol from being involved.

2. In the district HQ
The NGO has a building in which it has a bookshop as well as a facility for events. As far as I can discover, not many books are sold, and there is not enough participation in the events. So some questions arise: Is the propeerty being used optimally? Is it being well managed? Shoukd it be sold and the money devoted to something else? The answers to such questions are not clear to me, because the purpose of the existence of the building is not clear. As the NGO does not seem to believe in clear objectives, let alone quantifiable ones, no proper review is possible.

3. In the State capital:
I get the overall imprssion of sleepy, overcrowded, and cramped operation which exists not because it is top quality but because a sufficient number of people are willing to part with their money while tolerating mediocre quality (either because they don't know any better or because don't want to be bothered to find out what is happening to their money - after all, their religious merit has already been earned by simply donating money).

Further, there are some new and incompeletely thought-though initiatives being grafted on to poorly-maintained older facilities.

The institution seems to have more money than it knows how to use to best advantage. It is paying over the odds for part-time teachers, who seem to be motivated more by the money than by the desire to teach.

In theory, the organisation also includes research among its objectives but little of that seems to be done - at least none of which I can find any evidence.

However, even in the face of poor management and direction, I find evidence of several well-motivated and experienced who are trying very hard to make a difference to the lives of poor and disadvantaged people.

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