Friday, August 19, 2011

Week 6: Rebecca

SHG  members gather at SST center to participate in survey

SHG member filling out survey
After many discussions with SST staff and faculty at CUSSW, JC and I developed a project for the remainder of our time here. We are examining the impact of SST supported SHGs on the wellbeing of women. We are assessing the level of improvement across SST’s six development sectors: environment, agriculture, economic development, health, education, and infrastructure. We also included a brief section on women’s empowerment.

Narrowing the project questionnaire was far from an easy process. When the survey was originally drafted it was a whooping 18 pages. It was too long, but there were so much content to explore within each sector that I found it hard to compromise depth for length. Knowing that a three hour survey was unrealistic for both staff and SHG members, we collaborated to prioritize certain question types.

The SST surveys we have reviewed generally assess quantitative measurements, therefore this survey could be used as a tool to also assess qualitative measures. The questions are structured to elicit responses which assess the member’s perception and priorities. 

SST staff administered the survey to a small focus group and three problems arose: length, complexity and literacy level. The main challenge was the 15 or so open-ended questions. SST staff informed us that many of their surveys are filled out by the administrator in a face to face interview, so this may be the first time participants were asked to write their responses. I assumed that the question format would be somewhat self-explanatory and took for granted that surveys are culturally specific documents. SHG members had difficulty understanding questions that asked them to rank their responses numerically. Most skipped over the open-ended questions. I thought that rating questions could be answered regardless of literacy level, however, illiterate women could not recognize the numerical values. SST staff suggested reframing open-ended questions into rating questions and to offer more assistance to women with low literacy proficiency.

The entire process was tedious and frustrating, but worthwhile. Once finalized, the survey was successfully completed by 103 participants (possibly more if it is administered today). JC and I are beginning to analyze the results for an internal report to the Chairman of the organization. I feel proud of the questionnaire we’ve developed with SST and hope the results provide insight for future development programs. None of the work over the last few weeks would have been possible without the insight of SST staff, our advisors at Columbia University School of Social Work and the SHG members, thank you all!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Week 6: JC

Rebecca and I have been developing a survey tool that SST can use to evaluate its impact on the lives of SHG members. It has been a wearisome process involving several false starts and many modifications. The first time SST administered the survey, the frequency of one entry stood out significantly in the Excel results: “NR”. As Rebecca and I examined the data we talked about the many reasons for these No Responses. A combination of miscommunications, delays, confusing survey questions, and other factors contributed to participants’ survey-fatigue and my own feelings of exasperation. With these things in mind, we then strategized with SST staff to prepare for next time. What could be done to improve the survey and the survey-taking conditions so as to encourage total question response?

I learned some sound advice about working with people during my first year studies. HBSE made me more cognizant of the way multi-level factors influence individual and collective action. In Research Methods I was taught that making one’s own measurement tool is extremely difficult, and that one should use an existing tool whenever possible. In Intro to Community Organizing students discussed ways to run an effective community meetings, such as offering refreshments as an incentive and courtesy, starting the meeting on time, and making sure that administrative tasks were delegated beforehand. Had all of these learning points been implemented perfectly, there is a much larger chance that our first survey attempt would have run more smoothly. But it’s harder than it sounds to put it all into practice. The reality on the ground is that even with the best theories behind you, and even with the best of precautions in place, unforeseen challenges may still surprise you. There’s nothing to do but to roll with it and problem-solve as best you can. The way you approach the situation can help too, as one’s expectations are culturally informed. Baskar reminded me that patience is a skill that social workers must learn, and he’s right. I would rank patience right up there with empathy. It’s frustrating for me at times to have to work through translators or to have our schedule changed last minute, but patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor have helped me re-frame these otherwise stressful situations into golden learning opportunities.

SST administered another round of revised surveys again this week. This time I had a good feeling about the results. As SST staff thoroughly explained the concept behind the Likert scale questions, Rebecca and I offered tea and biscuits to the attentive women whose time and honest answers were greatly appreciated. There were also some delays this time around but more importantly there was good participant turnout and an excellent response rate. Rather than being exasperating, the experience was pleasurable—which is how interacting with others is supposed to be.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Week 5: JC

Yogaramar Temple Exterior

Renugamban Temple Festival at night

These days SST is a well respected and trusted NGO in the Padavedu area.  The organization encountered many challenges when it first started working here ten years ago, and had to develop innovative strategies to gain communities’ trust. One of these strategies was helping communities renovate important cultural and religious sites that had fallen into disrepair. In addition to restoring temple architecture, temple grounds were also outfitted with basic infrastructure needs such as a compound wall, toilet, and drinking water facilities for visitors. Temple functions and personal poojas comprise an important part of people’s lives. For SST to recognize and act on this fact reveals its sensitivity to community priorities.  It is no surprise that working with people to preserve and strengthen an important cultural asset helped SST express its collaborative mission and become a stakeholder in the community. By partnering with temple officials, SST demonstrated its respect for existing socio-cultural leaders who—because of their standing within the community—then legitimized and promoted SST’s other projects and awareness campaigns. 

Government housing structure and SST staff member

Community toilet built by SST using government and community funds
SST now has a wonderful working relationship with temple swamis who can often be seen in the SST office. Since we've arrived here the temples in the area, especially Padavedu’s Renugamban temple, have seen an increase in pilgrims due to it being Aadi month—the month of festivals in the Dravidian calendar. SST organizes volunteers from TVS and SCL, as well as SHGs from the community, to help with crowd control, provide meals for worshippers, and take preventative measures against potential sanitation and hygiene issues. On the one hand, it is great that SST is working with the community to deal with the influx of temple visitors. On the other hand, it makes me wonder: why is the government not taking responsibility for these precautions? It reminds me of the trend in the U.S. in which government bodies step back from social welfare responsibilities and rely instead on NGOs to fill the service gap.

The Indian government has a wide variety of earmarked funds to help rural communities develop. The formations of SHGs and their linkage to credit sources is an obvious example. But other programs are not so transparent or accessible to the community. Furthermore, the relationship between communities and local government officials is often filled with tension. For instance, when I asked members of one SHG why they thought they did not get a perfect score on their government rating, they blamed it on government corruption. 

I like how SST tries to be more of a facilitative entity whenever possible. The organization strives to strengthen political and social structures already in place, thus addressing the breakdown between the development of government programs and their actual implementation. SST staff may educate SHGs about government schemes and help them apply for the funds to build better houses, construct roads, and improve their community in myriad other ways. Or they may partner with government public schools to help identify and engage “slow learners” in the classroom. But at times what the government is willing to provide may not be enough, or it may not be suited to the community’s needs. As a result, community action is the only recourse for the moment, such as in the case of crowd control for Renugamban temple festivals. In this particular case it is wonderful to see community organizing at work. I am also conscious that many years of relationship building between SST and the community had to occur in order for this action to take place.  But at the same time I wish the government were more hands-on in terms of quality service delivery. NGOs may mediate the relationship between the people and their government, but at some point the latter needs to step-up and address its shortcomings. Towards this end I see more room for macro-level political advocacy work on the part of all community stakeholders: SHG members, swamis, and SST alike.

Sweets and religious items for sale at Renugamban Temple

Temple vendor stall