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By: Benjamin Zimmermann
Host Organization: ACCESS Development Services
Blog Entry: Feb 28, 2011
In the past two weeks I have been lucky enough to join my boss for meetings with representatives of both UNICEF and the World Bank. I am sure many of you are aware of these organizations due to their global presence. The media seems to be pretty polarized in their opinions regarding the results of interventions sanctioned by large International actors like the WB, so I was pretty excited to get a small dose of both of the entities to see what I could gather about what they have to offer.
The first meeting with the UNICEF representative went quite smoothly, but I became acutely aware of the bureaucratic nature of their institution. UNICEF is in the process of engaging in a project similar to one we are kicking off in coordination with the Rajasthan State Government regarding child migration, but it seems that UNICEF will be waiting for some months before they can move forward. Not because they lack the staff, resources, or funds to get rolling, rather because the sheer size of UNICEF allows them to work directly with central governments. So they are working against their own convoluted system as well as the at times incredibly inefficient Indian Central Government (hopefully they aren’t monitoring this blog or I may be in for some trouble, well actually I will be leaving in four months so I am sure any action against me would occur long after my departure). I wish them the best of luck with their project in South Rajasthan, hopefully they will coordinate matters to get things moving.
The following week my boss told me he would be bringing me to a meeting with World Bank representatives. I imagined I would be in store for the same kind of meeting – a handful of people informally discussing their organization and plans over some chai (who’d have thought?).
Not. Even. Close.
A focus group discussion in Pratapgarh where we were identifying households with child migrants to neighboring states for cotton labor. The next part of the project will be engaging them with local livelihood programs in an attempt to mitigate such migration
Over thirty of us, each with our own neat mounted microphone, sat around an oval race track table, arguably taking up more room than the entire ACCESS office, and went through brief introductions. It was at this point that the leader of the meeting informed a handful of us that we were at the wrong World Bank meeting. Five of us belonged at the meeting in a completely different building. Ok. Not the best start in an intimidating environment, but it actually loosened me up a bit. We set off to find the other meeting for development agency representatives. The meeting was already in session, and to my delight the setting was much less formal and more development sector-like. We had roughly the same number of people but we were in a much smaller room, crowded around a table without the obnoxious microphones blocking everyone’s face.
I was shell-shocked by what I witnessed the ensuing hour and a half.
All of these development organizations working passionately towards the same goal – sustainable interventions to lift the overwhelming rural agricultural dependent poor from poverty – devolved to the point of petty arguments. And all in the name of the World Bank. The NGOs called upon to engage in this dialogue regarding best practices in the development field were unaware of the World Bank’s intentions but had no problem pleading the supremacy of their strategies relative to others, often by subtly, or not so subtly, delegitimizing other’s work.
The entire process brought me back to the typical anti-aid/NGO argument so popular among a strong constituency in almost every country – direct aid efforts do nothing to spur growth, instead, they put a band-aid on a massive wound and cause recipients to become increasingly dependent. I began to see this same dependency among the development groups in that very room. Just like beggars extending an open palm for money from a tourist or, tribal people grinning at the thought of handouts from a government agency, many of the NGO representatives in that room sank to the level of arguing for the World Bank’s attention because they themselves view international actors like the WB as nothing more than a source for vast funding, an inevitable dependency for some given the not-for-profit status I suppose. Though the more I dwelled on it the more understanding I began to feel. I couldn’t help but think of how infrequent meetings of this scale must be. The name recognition of the World Bank alone undoubtedly coerced the behavior. I can’t imagine how I might act if The Artist formerly known as Prince invited a bunch of drummers, myself included, to a meeting and opened the table for discussion. I know that is a poor analogy because Prince is far cooler than the World Bank will ever be and I am not near funky enough to be invited to such a meeting, but you get the point. Things settled down when the World Bank people took the reins and started directing questions rather than letting the participants continue to plead their case. In the end everyone came back to their senses and went back to their respective organizations for a good afternoon’s work. We will see what the World Bank decides to do with the information they gathered. The exposure to all these organizations at once prompted me to reflect on my own as we drove across the city to return to the office, and the scene I encountered upon walking back into ACCESS put my heart and mind back where they needed to be.
Meeting with the Chairman of the Board of Jhambukhand Kisan Producer Company Limited and two other member farmers with that Producer Companies CEO
It was funny to think back to my first days in the ACCESS Udaipur Office nearly five months ago. Back then I would often find myself as one of only three of four workers in the office on a given day. It is difficult to imagine that I am still working in the same office today that I was in September and October. Our work with neighboring Producer Companies has really taken off; add to that our inclusion into a government backed three year research project and one can imagine how much more work we have. That afternoon, following the WB meeting, I couldn’t help but crack a deeply satisfied smile when I walked back in the office, which is actually a two bedroom flat with a nice entryway and small kitchen. The room where three of us typically work at our own desk was swamped with 2-3 people and their laptops around each desk collaborating on projects. I peered into my supervisor’s office to see another three people opposite his chair having an interactive meeting. I then swiveled my head to look down the long corridor leading to the backroom we use as a meeting hall. I had to look beyond three people hastily sifting through documents near our only desktop beside the kitchen to see that the meeting room was filled with well over a dozen people engaged in a meeting regarding one of our Producer Companies. That smile carried right on through the entire day. All of those people joining forces in a make-shift office (perhaps by western standards) to work towards something they deeply care about. Moments like that lead me to not mind the periodic shortage of chairs and workspace on certain days.