Re-imagining participatory decision making

February 15, 2017 02:14 PM
Rajesh Shah, Executive Director, Peer Water Exchange

Rajesh is a social entrepreneur with international experience in nonprofits, MNCs, and startups. Focusing on scaling social development, water and sanitation, he founded Peer Water Exchange: an innovative network of people, process, and technology to manage the tens of thousands of diverse water projects needed to solve the world’s water crisis.

Earlier, at Redefining Process, he patented a credit card system to address climate change. At The Natural Step, Rajesh was inspiring leaders to make hi-tech more sustainable. As a principal at the management consulting arm of CSC, he led large e-commerce engagements. In his 10 years at Bell Labs, he pushed for more entrepreneurship, embracing new processes, resulting in more reliable and easy-to-maintain systems.

A consummate team player constantly questioning the status quo, Rajesh uses his strong communication and leadership skills to bridge departments and cultures to build teams, and deliver value. Interested in sustainability and helping the people at the bottom of the pyramid, Rajesh writes and teaches, constantly working towards changing the world.This is Mr.Rajesh's significant contribution through Technology for Non-Profits.

How has your organization’s use of mobile technologies evolved?
For a decade, our work was in rural areas. The communities we work with usually had low literacy levels and rarely have access to smartphones or the internet. These constraints caused us to design solutions based on SMS and IVR. However, we plan to publish an Android app for a forthcoming initiative we will be launching in urban areas. Since we can safely assume that most residents of apartments in cities will have access to both smartphones and the internet, an app is even more suited for this demographic.
 
Are there any downsides to NGOs/NPOs adopting technology solutions as part of their workflows?
Funding agencies have a tendency to stop tracking a project once it has been implemented. They are usually not interested in learning about ongoing maintenance issues nor are they willing to fund such activities. Given this ground reality, even though we have provided smartphone/mobile solutions for our beneficiaries, for instance to report malfunctioning hand pumps, lack of funding to repair the equipment prevents us from being responsive to user needs which in turn causes them to gradually stop filing failure reports. Faced with this situation, an NGO/NPO that is focused on long-term outcomes is likely to curtail its reliance on technology solutions since the outcomes desired cannot be assured.
 
New technologies that provide feedback more transparently are not adopted in a sector where failure rates are very high. How many villages are now self-sufficient in water and other resources where we have done so much work since independence?
 
Are there examples of funding agencies which are sensitive to the requirement of maintenance funds?
Funding agencies are aware of this, but to the extent of my knowledge, there are no such funding agencies who act on this requirement.
 
What are your recommendations to overcome the reluctance among funding agencies to address the need for maintenance funds?
Funding agencies need to look at the for-profit world where organizations learn from their mistakes. Profit oriented corporates allow for trial and error. For instance, companies document rejected designs, failed product launches, recalls, etc. Some of their best learnings come from failures. NGOs, for many reasons, never admit any failures, thereby losing the opportunity to learn. Expecting to learn only from case studies (usually short-term pilots) about success stories is bound to prove extremely difficult. Until failures are celebrated, the impact will be minimal. 
 
Are there examples of projects which continue to maintain equipment over its lifetime?
One of Peer Water Exchange’s projects is itself an example wherein we have supported training activities about maintenance of handpumps and fashioning washers out of locally available leather and providing local people repair kits for a set of pumps. I am not aware of any other examples. 
 
What measures could NGOs/NPOs take to cater for the need of equipment maintenance funds?
Neither do NGOs have expertise in equipment maintenance nor are they supposed to become storehouses of spare parts. A viable solution is for funders/investors to be open to failures and allow for a type of funding that can be used to elicit failure information, fix them, and share across a set of project (no need for this funding to be per project).
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