Small is Still Beautiful: A year in programmes

By Sachin Tiwari  

Most of our daily work at FRANK Water, and especially in India, is about taking stock – of situations, projects, funds and relationships. The end of the calendar year then, is just another occasion to take stock of the year as it unfolded, to note the highs and the lows, what keeps us upbeat about our work and what we hope in the year ahead. The following is then an account of some observations from programs and a few lessons that I think my colleagues would agree with.

January at FRANK Water sounded like those bees in high Himalayan meadows, busy with too much to gather and too much to explore. Most of us were involved in setting up new partnership and FRANK Water's small steps into Nepal. By the end of February we were almost ready to begin operations in Nepal with our first partner – Friends’ Service Council Nepal (FSCN) in Kathmandu. There were equally compelling reasons to consider working in Nepal’s terai region. But our experience of working in such remote areas was limited to India’s geography. To do the same justice in Nepal required more time and resources that could be committed at that time.

With the distance of these months, we can see now that in the intent of doing real, absolutely need-based interventions is also a matter of making difficult choices. There we were - looking at a glaring need for the kind of infrastructure we support in building in Nepal’s far-Eastern villages and at the same time feeling limited by our need to deliver on it to a satisfactory level. Work not done, is sometimes better than work done that is incomplete or one which works up hope among people but doesn’t deliver. We stepped back.

The new financial year began with equally fast pace of activity in India as well. We got back to our partner VJNNS with our friends at Arup, to begin understanding how our (and other agencies’) work in supporting gravity-based water systems is affecting the environment and especially, water resources at a catchment scale. This was the kind of work we hope to do more of, in years ahead i.e. to complete the chain of problem-intervention-change-assessment-follow-up. The follow-up part of our work was enhanced this year, especially with Arup’s support. Long term monitoring is being strengthened and we are glad that this could happen.

The other major change that my colleagues Jon and Praveena have contributed the most is introduction of Adaptive Programme Management (APM). Our programs need to change, as the social, political, financial and environmental contexts changed in the areas we work. A hard set program would render the intervention ineffective and more importantly irrelevant. Hence, this was done on priority. This has been conducted through the year with some of our partners. And we plan to carry it forward next year as well. Our partners now operate with a confidence that they can change a program’s specifics should there be a need to. We will have results to share by this time next year.

With March and April consumed in financial reporting and routine project work, it was summer when most of the drinking water infrastructure that we support gets a real test. This is the most useful period for us to gather lessons from. This brings me to a significant and certainly a progressive realization – that small is still beautiful! In these times when programs are assessed on scale, we find that small is still relevant. Insights from small-scale interventions have driven us in meaningful and relevant directions that have helped communities we work with. That can’t always be said of large-scale projects. Even though one can draw satisfaction from having notionally impacted a large number of lives or a vast geography, one can’t walk from door-to-door and hear firsthand those stories of change and impact. Until that happens, the world goes on believing that bigger is always better. The year’s lesson is that small-scale projects serve a tremendously important role in serving a community with appropriate technology and lead to an empowered status for all – for people as well as for those NGOs, groups and funding agencies that were a part of the work. The argument is not made in opposition to large-scale projects. Neither is it an argument of convenience because FRANK Water's funds don’t appear anywhere close to the world of development and aid agencies. It is to acknowledge the merit of small-scale and its relevance to our work. Further, that Schumacher’s words from Small is Beautiful, may still be relevant and at times support of a kind of world view that is worth considering –

“Wisdom demands a new orientation of science and technology toward the organic, the gentle, the elegant and beautiful.”

When I hear the gurgling stream of water flowing out of the pipe that brings it from high mountain springs and down the course see a kitchen garden flourishing in that water, in the hills of Eastern Ghats, I imagine this gentle, elegant and beautiful.

It is perhaps this ears-to-ground style of working at FRANK Water that helps its partners find confidence in working together. In the last few months of 2017, we have had two large, multi-year partnerships coming through. These, in part, are a validation of our work and of the spirit that we espouse. We close the year with confidence and faith in the work that we are committed to.

Happy New Year to our readers!