Who benefits?

Last week it was a vaccination programme disrupting my fieldwork, this week it’s the 50th anniversary of the independence of Burundi. It seems that for four days everyone is very busy with the celebrations so rather than doing interviews, I’m watching endless parades and traditional drumming. The sound of drumming is incessant and very loud but it is pretty incredible.

I’ve been doing fieldwork for a month or so now and this has mainly involved visiting the villages where the projects are taking place and talking to people in the communities. To do this, I’m using a variety of research techniques with a focus on participatory research. Participatory research, as the name suggests, involves people’s active participation in generating knowledge through research. There are many different ways of doing this, such as asking a community group to draw the structure of their community or doing a group analysis of a problem they are facing. To encourage people to discuss problems together and to think about how they can overcome them, I’m using research tools such as spider-web diagrams, Venn diagrams, problem trees and community mapping. Spider-web diagrams, for example, require the participants to identify their group’s key activities and to evaluate how well they do them, while to make a problem tree, participants discuss the causes of a shared problem and what solutions there could be. These activities show me how the different community organisations work and how they perceive their power to solve problems. More importantly perhaps, these activities also provide a way for people to reflect on their own situation and power and to formulate solutions to problems they face.

Participatory research is not, of course, appropriate for all types of research and a few focus groups will not transform a community but it is really encouraging when people tell me that they’ve learnt something from doing a research exercise. This might be deciding how to improve their group’s work or noticing which people are excluded from community associations. I’m therefore finding that participatory research really can generate knowledge for the participants as well as increase my own understanding of how community groups work.

I am conscious that research in international development has been criticised for not sharing the knowledge developed with the people who gave their time to participate. Therefore, I hope that by using participatory methods, the people I work with can benefit directly from my research activities. Finally, when my fieldwork is finished, I hope that by providing clear, concrete recommendations to the NGOs I’m working for, the communities will also benefit from projects which are better targeted at their needs.

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Power relations and community organisations

It’s a quiet week for me in Gitega as every village in the province is taking part in a vaccination programme so my field visits are write-off. Still, it’s a chance to catch up and reflect on what I’ve learnt so far.

During the last couple of weeks, I’ve been doing lots of focus group discussions with community-based organisations in different parts of the province. I’m using participatory methods to encourage the groups to discuss what their strengths are and how they can overcome problems in their community. It has been really interesting to see how some groups are more effective than others in changing their community and some of the results are quite inspirational. At the centre of it all is the question of social structures and power relations. While some groups really include people from the most marginalised social groups, such as widows and repatriated people, others groups are dominated by the local leaders and offer little hope for raising the status of the most vulnerable people.

The groups which include people from a range of social positions and which have been well-trained in advocacy and conflict resolution have shown that they really raise the voices of their members. Women, who said they never used to speak out, now say that they challenge injustice and that local leaders are afraid of them because they know that they speak the truth. Such community groups have managed to reduce the elite’s monopoly on power and have increased their own power through their collective action which has gained them greater respect from the community too. Other groups, however, are led by the existing male leaders who do not give the women and young people in the group a chance to speak. Despite being encouraged to respect women’s rights and advocate for the most vulnerable, I saw the leaders ridiculing women as they tried to participate in discussions. It’s hugely frustrating to see this but it underlines the importance of recognising the power structures in a community and making sure that any intervention addresses the imbalance of power which is reproducing inequalities in the community.

Changing power relations and social structures is, of course, not an easy thing to do or something that is easily measured and documented but I’m convinced that this is essential for reducing poverty and increasing social justice.

Visiting the collines

I’m settling into life in Gitega and the daily chorus of “mzungu! mzungu!” as I walk to work is becoming normal.  Day-to-day life here is calm and people are friendly, especially if you greet them in Kirundi.  I began my fieldwork last week by visiting several ‘collines’ (villages) and conducting focus groups and interviews with people there.  The collines consist of small houses, mostly made of mud, which are nestled into the hillsides amongst the small holdings.  There are a few central buildings in each colline, such as a school and there are unmade roads connecting the collines together.

I was struck by how isolated people are from the main towns.  The distances between the collines and the towns are not that great but there are only public buses on the main roads and most people live from their own small holding, only selling their crops if the harvest is good.  This means that the ‘commune’ (district) administration, never mind national government, seems very distant to most people and so it’s local governance which matters to them most.  For this reason, researching local governance structures in Burundi is important for finding ways for small communities to better manage their basic public services.

Each colline has an elected council which raises local problems with the commune council and oversees local development activities such as planting trees and protecting water sources.  Local communities are largely expected to develop their villages themselves through ‘community works’.  For example, if the school needs a new classroom, the colline inhabitants must come together to buy the building materials and construct the classroom and then the district council may provide the roof.  While this means that people take responsibility for public services in their village, it also means that those who cannot contribute, such as handicapped people and the very poor, may not be valued by the rest of the community.  Even though it is the very poor who need the most support from their community and local leaders, their inability to participate in community works means they are often marginalised, with no-one to advocate for their needs.  This is why I am researching how NGO projects can ensure that the most vulnerable people can participate in local governance and have their needs recognised by the rest of the community.

No easy answers yet though so here are some more photos instead.

Bonjour Burundi

It’s been more than a week since I flew into Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, gazing down at the expanse of green hills and mountains below. Most of my first week was spent in Bujumbura, meeting people and getting to know the city. It’s a quiet place, not as you might imagine a capital city, very green and quite tidy and clean. Bujumbura is on the edge of Lake Tanganyika which is home to freshwater crocodiles and hippos. At the weekend, a colleague took me to a bbq by the lake which was organised by the Bujumbura boat club. As we were eating and chatting, a group of five hippos swam over to have a look. Amazing as it was to see the hippos, I was glad they kept their distance.

After a lovely weekend taking in expat life in Bujumbura, I travelled to Gitega, the second town of Burundi, where I will spend the next three months. Despite being the second largest town in the country, Gitega is more like a village. It’s right in the centre of the country, surrounded by rolling green hills and with a beautiful climate. It also has the only museum in the country so that will be something to visit next weekend! This weekend a Burundian colleague kindly took me to the market to help me buy some sports clothes. The market was nothing like the Latin American markets I love which are full of life and entertainment. The market here doesn’t have food or juice stalls, people were all selling the same few vegetables and the clothes were a strange assortment of items, many which looked like free promotional t-shirts made in Europe. As a result, I now have a nice t-shirt saying “Do you football?”. I am, however, genuinely pleased with my new clothes as they meant I could join a Sunday morning running club. It was really fun to head out on the roads around Gitega with a large group of Burundians, all singing and clapping constantly as we jogged!

So, apart from discovering life in Burundi, the reason I’m here is to study some of the projects which two international non-governmental organisations are implementing in the Gitega province. A lot of effort is being put into strengthening local-level community organisations so that they can work with local authorities to improve basic public services. I’ll be researching the local governance and community structures to try to understand how different community organisations can influence service provision and highlight the needs of the poorest members of the community. I’ll write more on this later as my research gets going but for now, here are a few photos from the “field”:

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The ups and the downs

When I first arrived in Chennai, my research went very quickly, so quickly that I thought I would be finished after a month!  I spent the first five weeks concentrating on the situation in Kannagi Nagar and the social movements there.  It was very easy to talk to people since many are unemployed and so are simply at home during the day.  The NGO employees and local government staff all work in Kannagi Nagar and so all my respondents were close at hand.  In the last month however, my research has focused on government officials from various departments, academics, journalists and activists and suddenly doing research has become a slow and sometimes exasperating process.

In the last few weeks, I’ve begun to experience the frustrations which I had originally anticipated when I imagined doing fieldwork.  One day, last week, I had three interviews pre-arranged only to have them all cancelled one by one.  After a hot, noisy and crowded bus ride, having an interview cancelled when you arrive is a rather annoying experience.  At times it is hard to remind myself that people are doing me a favour by talking to me at all and that I have no right to an interview with them anyway.  Still, on days like that it’s not so easy to be tolerant of the crowded buses and the constant noise of the horns and of people staring at me.  I have to tell myself again that it was me who chose to come to Chennai and so what can I really expect?

Yet, while there have been frustrating days, I’ve also had some unexpected luck.  One day, having not been able to find the person I was looking for, I was sent to a different resettlement site to look for ‘the engineer’.  I would never have planned to speak to an engineer from the other site but he actually gave lots of valuable information and opinions as well as the phone numbers of three other colleagues.  I may not be entirely in control of my research but it has its fruitful moments all the same.  I’ve also finally been able to speak to the managing director of the slum clearance board so things are looking up.  It was an interesting interview and he was very happy to talk to me.  He gave the usual answers for the poor conditions in Kannagi Nagar, blaming the expense of providing water to individual houses and the high land prices closer to the city centre.  He seems genuinely concerned by the problems with the infrastructure in Kannagi Nagar but he’s unaware of the extent of the problems.  I had to show him on a photo that some houses do in fact have to share a toilet.  Despite being managing director, he has never been to Kannagi Nagar and I have found that in general the higher officials have no real idea of the current conditions in the resettlement site.  The slum board only has to submit reports to the state government and these reports concern only construction details, not information on the public services provided or the welfare of the resettled people.

As I see it, the slum board is basically a construction agency, consisting mainly of engineers, whose focus is to build as many resettlement houses as quickly as possible. The nationwide goal for slum-free cities drives the relocation of slum dwellers to the suburbs to make way for large infrastructure projects like a metro rail and elevated expressways.    The government claims that is simply does not own any land in the centre but, by evicting slum dwellers from its land along the river banks and other areas, it can claim back small parcels of land.  Having said this, some of the reclaimed land has been made into parks, which to me suggests that the government prioritises ‘beautifying’ the city over improving the slums in the location where they are.

Ultimately, I think that urban development in Chennai is creating a city in which commerce and expensive housing is concentrated in the centre, ghettos of resettled slum dwellers are built in the outskirts and migrants and other poor people sleep on the pavements rather than searching for work in the suburbs.  The city population is growing, the land prices are rising, the housing shortage is severe and so unless the government makes affordable housing a priority now, I think the slum clearance board will have many more slums to clear in the future.

Politics and politicians

In the last couple of weeks I have been focusing more on the politics and politicians involved in slum resettlement.  Slum resettlement itself is not a very political issue.  The programmes for resettlement mainly come from the central government and are unaffected when the parties in power at the state or central level change.  The resettlement trend which emerged about 20 years ago is part of a more general vision to bring economic growth to Indian cities and to ‘beautify’ them so that they have the appearance of world class cities.  This involves building new infrastructure in cities, in particular expanding public transport and so, in order to make space for new bridges, roads and train tracks and to ‘clean-up’ the city, the slums are demolished and the people resettled to the suburbs.  The government claims its increasingly high value, city centre land back from the squatters to use for city development projects and the slums are no longer an eyesore in the city.  Killing two birds with one stone so to speak.

However, the reality of the resettlement process is that once the people have been relocated, they are no longer of much concern to the government.  The living conditions is Kannagi Nagar are far from adequate and so I have been investigating the role of politicians in bringing improvements to the area.  On the local level, I think that the political leaders have very little power.  Most have hardly had an education, some are even illiterate and many appear to be part of the ‘rowdies’ or yobs in the area.  I spoke to one lady who will stand for councillor in the upcoming local elections and asked her why she wanted to stand.  She said that the MLA (member of legislative assembly) from her party, for the constituency covering Kannagi Nagar, had chosen her to stand because she is a woman and from one of the lowest castes and so she fits the quota.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the MLA that she is illiterate and doesn’t appear to know anything about the problems or issues in Kannagi Nagar.  It just so happens however that her husband is also political representative for the area from the same party…  It is not uncommon apparently for the wives of (sometimes imprisoned) politicians to stand and win positions in local and even state governments acting as puppets for their husbands.

Despite all this, people in Kannagi Nagar still express a lot of faith in the local politicians and will ask them to take their problems to the slum board on their behalf.  Many admit that the politicians don’t provide immediate solutions but they prefer to do this than organise their own campaign.  The opposition leaders do sometimes organise a protest to demand improvements, such as a better water supply to the area.  This usually brings some temporary improvements since the protests attract media attention but the politicians’ ulterior motive is to damage the image of the ruling party.  While local leaders are not very influential, they are the community’s leaders and so they influence the way in which people living in Kannagi Nagar engage with the government.

On the higher level, the MLA responsible for Kannagi Nagar has more power.  He has government funds which he can allot to development projects for his constituency.  However, Kannagi Nagar is only a small part of the constituency and the MLA only shows interest in the area around election time. An even greater problem is that if an MLA is from the ruling party in the state, they do not confront their own party on issues in their constituency.  Both local and higher politicians are very loyal to their parties and generally do not seem to work to represent the people but to keep their party in power.  For this reason, one of the NGOs which does lobbying work in Kannagi Nagar approaches opposition politicians instead.  The opposition leaders are far more willing to confront the government since it causes problems for the ruling party.  Unfortunately, democracy in India is such that opposition leaders have very little power to influence the ruling party or government departments.  As a politics professor explained to me, if a road passes through two constituencies, the road will be very well maintained in the area where the MLA is from the ruling party but where the MLA is from an opposing party, the road will be left pot-holed and broken instead.

Sadly, for the people in Kannagi Nagar, unless they manage to organise themselves and campaign with determination for better public services, they will be left with only the politicians to make their voices heard.

“The Indian mind believes in karma…”

It’s been a busy week back in Chennai and the cool mountain drizzle of Kodaikanal is a distant memory.  My hardworking interpreter has helped me to complete 76 household surveys in Kannagi Nagar.  I haven’t analysed the data yet but from listening to people’s answers, it was clear that many of the resettled people have had no education at all.  These people struggled to formulate an opinion about their situation and knew very little about how was responsible for which public services or who the influential people in the area might be.  People often complained about the lack of public services but said that they were afraid to protest in case they got into problems with the police or the slum clearance board.  Those who do approach the slum board to complain about problems in the area say that the slum board just tells them to wait.  There’s a strong sense that protesting or complaining is simply pointless.

In terms of the politics of the resettlement site, this proved to be a very sensitive issue and people were very reluctant to reveal which party they support.  Local politicians were generally said to be powerful and to have a high social status.  Although some people were sceptical, saying politicians only work around election time, the majority of people still felt that politicians were the people who could solve the problems in Kannagi Nagar.  In fact, in Tamil Nadu the state political leaders are revered as icons.  There is a tradition of film stars becoming political leaders and their faces are painted on walls all over the city.  So while in Kannagi Nagar people consider the local politicians to be powerful, they also often said that the Chief Minister, the leader of the party in power in the state, would be the one who could fix all their problems.  Aside from believing that the political leaders will bring improvements to Kannagi Nagar, I have found that in general people are too busy looking for work to campaign for basic public services.  People often don’t know what they are entitled to nor how to form a campaign and many people are afraid to speak out.  The community is also divided politically and anti-social problems make people suspicious of each another which prevents them from uniting to demand solutions to their problems.

Last week I also has an interview with a politics professor and one of the interesting things which he told me was that it is not in Indian culture to demand anything from the government.  In his opinion, this is a very Western concept which simply does not enter the mind of many Indians.  Instead, he told me, the Indian mind believes in karma and so people accept their situation and do not demand that others change it.  The Indian mind is taught to be content and so this is why poor people in India do not fight the government for better living conditions.  This is also why the government does not make more effort to improve the lives of the poor.  It’s an interesting explanation but I don’t think that belief in karma is the only reason for the lack of mobilisation among the poor.  It does seem true, however, that many people in Kannagi Nagar do not aspire to have a much higher standard of living and many are fairly satisfied once they have found work and have basic facilities.

As well as working on my survey, I’ve had a cultural week in India too.  Thursday was the start of a Hindu festival for Ganesh, a Hindu elephant-like god so on Thursday morning I was invited to join the pooja (worship) ceremony for Ganesh which my hostel had organised.  I was really pleased to be invited and it was intriguing to watch the priest offer bananas, coconuts, curd, chickpeas and sweets to the statue of Ganesh.  I am often surprised by the mixture of formality and informality in India.  This seemed to be a particularly special and holy ceremony and yet people would answer their mobiles in the middle of a chant and no-one seemed to mind.  The festival will end in about week when the statue of Ganesh will be carried to the beach and given to the sea.  I’m imagining the coast of Chennai to be lined with Ganesh statues.  I will take some photos…

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