Village Voices

NGOs send female field workers to villages in northwest India to improve local water systems, but these efforts often meet resistance from the women they are there to help.

By KAREN RIEDEL

village voicesWhen donors give money to a nongovernmental organization (NGO), they expect their contributions to dramatically improve people’s lives.

Unfortunately, both donors and NGOs tend to underestimate how much local cultures will resist the good intentions of NGO field workers and are often disappointed to discover how slowly progress is won.

Kathleen O’Reilly, an assistant professor of geography in Texas A&M’s College of Geosciences, studies water resources in the villages of the semidesert province of Rajasthan in northwestern India. She examines how effectively local field workers train villagers to maintain and sustain area water systems.

She is particularly interested in how well field workers persuade women in the villages to help manage the water systems.

O’Reilly has found that female field workers often encounter the most resistance, much of it from the women in the village. To illustrate, O’Reilly uses a composite character—a female fieldworker she calls Vidya—drawn from her observations of several NGO field workers.

O’Reilly offers the following scene: Women draped in saris squat in a village center, drawing a map of their village. The women are considering where the government should install the public taps for their new water system, but Vidya hurries the process, impatient with their discussion of the best sites. The NGO has sent Vidya to empower the women in the village to manage their new water system. But she seems to be failing. Both the villagers and her colleagues misinterpret her brusqueness.

The irony is that international organizations and funding agencies recognize that the participation of village women is essential to implementing a water scheme.

The Second World Water Forum (2000) addresses this issue. The report declares that, as the prime users of domestic water, women bear the brunt of poor water management. When the women have more authority over the water system, the system becomes more effective. But theory and practice do not always coincide, and this is the juncture that O’Reilly investigates.

Vidya is one example of how the theory breaks down in the field.

“Instead of working with the women to create an elaborate three-dimensional map, as was the assignment, Vidya hurried the process or took it over completely,” O’Reilly says.

To the casual observer— and to her colleagues—Vidya appears arrogant or lazy or poorly trained. But Vidya may simply have taken the most practical route.

“She knows from experience that after the women have mapped out where the public taps should be, their plans are just as likely to be overruled by the local male leaders or by the project engineers who put the taps wherever it is most convenient,” O’Reilly says. “Instead of empowering the local women, they disenfranchise them, making them feel they have wasted their time. So Vidya is just trying to get the job done, which is to bring water to the village.”

“In the end,” O’Reilly says, “female field workers must negotiate a delicate position between working with village women, with whom they supposedly share much in common simply because they are women, and one of being professional, competent colleagues in front of their male field workers and supervisors.”

Another field worker whom O’Reilly observed used a different approach, but this worker was also at odds with both coworkers and villagers. Kavita, O’Reilly explains, chose to be honest with the village women about what they could accomplish. Kavita understood that, although the primary funding agent, here a European bank, required women’s participation as a key indicator of the project’s success, the field workers did not take the mandate seriously. But Kavita was determined that no one would sacrifice the village women’s integrity for the sake of a positive report.

“She did not sugarcoat it for them,” O’Reilly says. Instead, she told them that the new water supply system would mean additional, unpaid tasks, such as collecting payment for usage and cleaning the water taps. Although her honesty eventually led to a relationship of trust in the village, it put her at odds with her colleagues and supervisors.

A project that sets out to empower village women through the instrument of female field workers, O’Reilly has found, can often disenfranchise both groups. Good intentions may come from donors on high, O’Reilly notes, but the clash comes in the field. And women field workers find themselves not only disempowered in their own profession but also thwarted in trying to empower the women they are trying to help.

“It is important to examine these issues,” O’Reilly says, “because women in the field must not just implement plans; they must also examine their own unique position moving between their NGOs and their village constituents.”

By doing so, O’Reilly believes, NGOs can learn from their own field workers which activities are the most useful and why. This endeavor may lead to greater sustainability.

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