Friday, 10 June 2011

Changing Lives In Western Orissa

The recent debate about whether the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID) should continue to fund projects in India led to ministers stressing the importance of “value for money” and highlighting the fact that DFID will focus its spending here in three states: Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. In an attempt to get a glimpse of the reality behind the headlines, I decided to do some digging and take a look at one example of where DFID is actually spending our money.

The Western Orissa Rural Livelihoods Project established in August 2000 and is a partnership between DFID and the state government of Orissa. Western Orissa is a largely rural area with a large tribal population. The environment makes life tough for farmers: rainfall is irregular but sometimes brutally heavy, which leads to intermittent crop failures. Safe drinking water is hard to come by, a problem exacerbated in times of drought. Social infrastructure is noticeable by its absence. In short, the project had its work cut out.

The plan was wide-ranging but at its heart lay watersheds. The term might be more familiar to us as the time after which TV is allowed to get steamy, but in this case we’re talking about ways to manage the limited water supply to help irrigate farming land and provide drinking water to communities. The project worked on 290 watersheds in four of the most disadvantaged districts of Western Orissa: Bargarh, Bolangir, Kalahandi and Nuapada.

What made the project different from other watershed programmes was the central importance it placed on the choices of farmers in the affected regions. In keeping with this participatory approach, it also asked communities to set their own targets. Defining at what moment people are no longer living in poverty is a notoriously fraught business, so the project used as its measure the perceptions of the very people it was trying to help. At the outset, villagers were asked to classify the population into three distinct categories: ‘Well Off’, ‘Manageable’ and ‘Poor’ based on criteria they chose themselves.

A household study completed early in 2011 has found that in ten years of work approximately 29% of households in project villages consider that they have moved out of poverty due to increased availability of work, increased returns from agriculture, and other income generating activities. That’s 33,989 households or 169,945 people better off.

So what had happened? Well the watershed projects – things like dams, contour ditches, farm ponds and open wells were cited by farmers as ‘highly significant’ in improving their lot. Additionally, they talked about the importance of the improved communication systems that the project set up, which gave them more information about seeds and fertiliser as well as training and support to obtain agricultural credit. It also allowed them to make more money by helping with actually selling their products at market, in particular by encouraging collective marketing.

The project had other influences that extended beyond the financial. About half of all communities said that through getting involved in managing the project their community had become more inclusive to hearing the views of women and other vulnerable groups although it remains the case that access to resources is still primarily controlled by men so there is some room for improvement.

As well as increasing the amount of food produced, better management has also meant that a lot less people have to deal with shortages in the lean season – 5% of people now say they’ve had days where they had to go without food, compared to 25% before the project started. Similarly people are now better equipped to deal with disasters like floods and droughts. 86% of marginal farmers in the project watersheds reported improvement in disaster coping capacity, compared to 55% in areas where the project was not involved.

Perhaps the best endorsement of the project is its legacy. The initiatives it introduced are now being adopted across Orissa as well as in other states such as Maharashtra and has influenced the National Policy/ Guidelines on watersheds. A further 2332 watersheds in Orissa have now added the participatory management approach that the project based itself around.

This widespread uptake of ideals is the true measure of the importance of DFID’s involvement. Through a relatively small, localized intervention they’ve not only helped make a significant number of people better off, they’ve set a touchstone of best practice for many more projects to follow - which sounds a lot like getting value for money to me.

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