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Action Learning: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan’s missing master key

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(Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) is the new Clean India Mission launched by Prime Minister Modi)

I wrote this in some frustration hoping for interest and action.   Happily things are moving now, even before it has been posted! First, some background.

Context and challenge

The number and nature of the many forces that intertwine to trap rural Indians in filth and infections are still not fully recognised. Widespread preference for open defecation (OD), subsidised toilets, corruption, caste and divided communities, concepts of purity, population increase and density, faecally-transmitted infections (FTIs)  causing undernutrition (‘shit stunts’), diminishing cognitive ability and damaging immune systems, and the multiple physical and social harms inflicted on women and girls – these are among the forces that interlock  as a syndrome - a net, a trap, a prison - escape from which is fiendishly difficult. Any one of them would be a challenge.  Combined they are daunting.  And not only that, but we have learnt recently that some are getting worse:  there were more rural Indians defecating in the open in 2011 than in 2001 with the result that in many Districts the density of shit per km2 and so of exposure to FTIs has been rising.  This is markedly so in North India which is home to by far the largest concentration of undernourished children in the world.  Then we have learnt that diarrhoeas are only the tip of the much larger iceberg of other FTIs and effects of filth.  And from the work of Dean Spears we have learnt that in many contexts open defecation and population density can account for a half to two thirds of undernutrition and stunting (www.riceinstitute.org).

No other country faces a challenge remotely similar either in its wicked, messy intractability or in its scale – India has some 600 million defecating in the open every day, and 60 per cent of the OD in the world.

The new campaign

Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech on  August 15th in which he stressed sanitation, his  launch of the SBA and his commitment to a target date of 2019 for Clean India give new hope of change.  They also make it tremendously urgent to find out what works and to learn from what does not.  While many African countries, and Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Indonesia, have moved forward fast in rural sanitation through policies of no individual household toilet subsidies, or in some cases with them limited and strictly targeted, India has languished, trapped by providing  generous subsidies in large-scale national programmes.  These not only persist in the SBM but have been aggravated by being ramped up from Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 for a household.   So India continues with what has made previous campaigns fail: the subsidy or incentive has inhibited self-help, fuelled local corruption, littered rural India with toilets that are half-finished, dilapidated, abandoned,  not used or only partially used, impeded efforts at collective behaviour change, and as a result lost ground, failing even to keep pace with rural population growth.

Against that major negative, other changes are positive:  the prospect of a massive, multi-media, multi-organisational, multi-sector, multi-level and sustained national campaign led and inspired by the Prime Minister; the streamlining simplification of delinking the rural employment guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) from construction; the strengthening of monitoring to include usage of toilets; the recognition that a major transformation of social and behavioural norms is imperative; and most significantly, giving top priority, on paper at least,  to triggering of communities and collective behaviour change. 

Action Learning: the Missing Master Key

Shortly after the election I wrote to colleagues in India whose views I respect with this question.  If you had ten minutes with the new Prime Minister, what would you say?  One reply was: ‘If anyone tells you they know what to do, don’t believe them!’

This may have been extreme.  But turn it around and one can see that the situation in India is without parallel, and the challenge unprecedented in scale and difficulty.   Given this, and the failure of previous programmes, dangerously little is known about what will work at scale and what will not work.  I say ‘dangerously’ because of the perils of instant reflex of ‘one-size-fits-all’ programmes determined in the Centre and rolled out on a national scale without giving discretion to the States.
Master keys open many doors. The missing master key is action learning.  By action learning I mean learning from past and current action and experience, and learning through acting in an action research mode to try out innovations.  There are many doors that action learning can open.

There is no provision for this in the campaign.  There is no established effective means for rapid, realistic action learning and sharing what is learnt.  How much this lack can cost is shown by the 3 to 4 years it has taken to abandon the disastrous convergence with MGNREGA, which slowed up the previous programme so much that disbursements halved. Had there been small scale trials and rapid learning and feedback first before rushing instantly to scale, this major national setback would have been avoided.  On the positive side there are innovations waiting to be learnt about and tested, to see which of them perhaps might be fit to be taken to scale.

Action learning is not the same as monitoring.  Improvements in monitoring are in hand and are now intended to cover use of toilets as well as their existence.  Monitoring does not cover the activities of action learning.  

Action learning leading to a few innovations that really work at scale could make a major impact, and even be transformative.  And feeding back insights into what was really happening in field implementation in the programme should have considerable value.  The costs incurred for this feedback and in evolving and disseminating a few successes from action learning should be trivial compared with the benefits.

The proposal: Rapid Action Learning

Here is the proposal:  to set up alert, nimble and proactive Rapid Action Learning Units grounded through contact with local realities, one at the Centre and others at their discretion in States.  RALUs would search for and learn from promising innovations, initiate, promote and monitor trials, sponsor rapid investigations and research, and quickly share laterally and vertically what is happening at the grass roots.  They would also provide an early warning and quick learning system to know what was working in the campaign and what was not.  They would continuously share experience and practical lessons.

As soon as one starts to reflect, and in addition to grounded feedback on the campaign’s implementation, there are many areas for action learning.  To illustrate, here is a list of some:

  • Methods for collective behaviour change.  Selecting and developing methods for triggering and accompanying collective behaviour change that can realistically be taken to scale.  This requires evolving and testing what Swachchhata Doots (village level sanitation workers), women’s Self-Help Groups, Natural Leaders (including spiritual leaders) and others can realistically do.  The sources for these would include methods used in CLTS. 
  • Training and mentoring. Evolving and spreading a participatory culture and practice of training and follow up mentoring into training of facilitators, Swachchhata Doots, and others, avoiding the mechanistic rigidities of classical training of trainers
  • Minimising disincentives. Finding out how to minimise the extent to which the incentive system inhibits self-help and collective behaviour change
  • Problematic communities.  Exploring how to trigger collective behaviour change in multi-caste conflicted communities like many of those in North India
  • What works for changes in norms and behaviour.  Understanding the dynamics of changes in social behavioural norms – including gender, caste, age and other dimensions. What and what combinations work and what do not work.
  • Hotlines. Trials with hotlines for reporting on dirty or dysfunctional toilets in government buildings, schools, markets, anganwadi centres, hospitals, clinics, railway and bus stations, prisons and other public places
  • Unexpected visits. Unannounced inspections by leaders and officials and how effective these are
  • Public pledging. Public written and verbal pledges by all in a community that they will no longer defecate in the open
  • Accessible materials. Finding ways of assuring adequate, cheap and timely supplies of materials (pans, pipes etc) through the market (including trials with coupons, subsidising transport, encouraging local entrepreneurs and groups of masons……)
  • Supporting the least able. Evolving and learning about ways in which communities can be facilitated to help those least able to help themselves (and learning from Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries)

And there will be many others linked with the national, state and district campaigns.

In sum  

Action learning and sharing entails

  • Proactive searching for innovations and experience, including from other countries

  • Rapid small-scale trials of innovations

  • Honest, accurate, insightful research and feedback from the field, much of it qualitative

  • Sharing between Blocks, Districts, States and the Centre

  • A culture of learning and adapting, to evolve approaches and methods that can be taken to scale

Rapid Action Learning Units should accelerate progress towards the dream of Swachh Bharat.  They would fit well with diversity and local innovation and with the decentralisation proposed to States.  Without them India would be vulnerable to repeating the MGNREGA mistake.  Without them promising approaches and methods might remain undiscovered or not taken to scale.  2019 could be a miserable disappointment, falling far short of what is possible.  With effective RALUs, much more might be achieved towards 2019 being a fitting tribute to Gandhi and his vision, bringing many long-term benefits to India and all Indians.

I do not know any other country that has set up RALUs.  That may be because no other country has faced India’s massive impediments and mountainous challenges.  Indian RALUs would be innovations from which other countries would learn. 

Until now I have been frustrated by the lack of interest shown in this idea. But that is changing.  This will never be seen by the Prime Minister. But I hope those who do see it will reflect on how he might react.  If Rapid Action Learning Units would bring Swachh Bharat closer faster, as I believe they would, would he not surely support them?
And I wonder how this will appear, looking back from 2019?

Photo credit: Press Information Bureau (Government of India)

Date: 8 October 2014