Monday, February 20, 2012

Between gutters and oxen: that sleeping human

I’ve published about poverty before. I’ve slept on the outskirts of slums, worked with some amazing NGOs in Kibera, watched family members negotiate the welfare system, food stamps and the prison-industrial complex. I’ve slept next to homeless people in London. When people said, prepare yourself for the poverty of India, I raised my eyebrows. I thought I knew something about poverty.

Three weeks in, and we’re in a new location – on the outskirts of a massive cricket stadium, the local muslim neighborhood and some large overgrown areas that are fenced off - and we are fending for ourselves more than before. Last night after one of the best meals I’ve had recently (though I say that almost every day) we took a stroll around 10pm. The city was alive and hopping, shopping, eating, biking and talking. People - everywhere. In between shish kebabs and tea-stands where men practiced the art of pouring tea (and now that I finally realized what a significant influence Islamic culture had on India pre-colonialism, I’m seeing traces of Morocco in many of the customs here) and Muslim women in the full hajib – here, they tend towards styles with elaborate sparkles, gold and glittery designs chit-chatting with their girlfriends. There’s laughter and dust and piles of concrete and, of course, cows. (3 weeks in and I’m still amazed at the ubiquitous cows). And somewhere between the broken sidewalks are people sleeping, some without so much as a blanket. Hands, sometimes without all the fingers, are curled around heads of thick, unbrushed hair. I soon lost count – how many sleeping figures on the side of the road, under archways, next to doorways, in the open, on the seat of a rickshaw, the back of a vegetable cart, in the gutter? Sometimes families – children standing awkwardly behind mothers. I looked at one particularly strong-willed and beautiful woman who was probably my age with three small children around her. Chennai is known for its grittiness and congestion –and the friendliness of its people. I meet that friendliness everywhere in this city. I smiled at this woman. She did not smile back.

I found myself trying to search my vast amounts of reading for explanations. I remembered colleagues talking about slums and participatory action research and urban poverty. Something about corrupt politicians, entrenched interests, unequal resource distribution, the fallacy of trickle down economics, profit before people, people leaving the rural areas for the urban areas and then finding nothing. Something about the lack of social welfare policy. I recalled the graphs we created about the transmission mechanisms of poverty. Looking at the dark hands, fingernails bitten and fingertips worn and dusty, I did not recall how we came up with those numbers. I’m sure we did a good job. But face to face with this human being, all I can think is, ‘there but for the grace of god go I.’

Day after day, I go from hotels to rickshaws to office buildings to beaches to my computer to dinners to meetings…. And in every movement, I am surrounded by what we loosely call ‘poverty’. Not the poverty of a healthy village but of homeless men, women and children whose sleep looks like the sleep of the exhausted, the drugged, those in denial, the depressed. The cows look far, far healthier.

I know that I actually, have very little sense of what their lives are ‘really’ like.

This morning we ate outside of the hotel – masala dosa, fresh fruit and lassi. A delicious, healthy breakfast for 2 people for under $2.

This morning, the homeless were still there.

I’m here to try a new form of evaluation to measure a new type of program that is designed to enable the government to better serve the poor. By and large, I’ve been motivated by the chance to engage with a new and potentially significant way of measuring results (value: innovation) and the incredible people I’m working with (value: belonging, team/collaboration). This morning, I’m reminded of another motivation: anything that I can do to address anything that resembles the root causes of poverty. Value: Service.

cultural sighs

Walking to my room after eating in the local small-small town, pulling out my key, and then the power generator goes off and I can’t see the lock.

Going to the bathroom at 4am, mild stomach upset, and remembering that they don’t have toilet paper.

People saying I should prepare a presentation. Powerpoint. With another group. Then, no, it won’t be with another group, it will be alone. Then, no, it won’t be a presentation. Then, no, it won’t be powerpoint. Then, no, it will be a preseantion and you should make posters. Then, you will present with these people whom you have not yet met. Then, well, everyone else was preparing the posters a week ago, why aren’t yours ready?

Choose what food you want. Eggplant. Eggplant is a side dish. OK, chicken. Chicken is a side dish. Choose a main. What’s a main? Rice, rotti, chippatti, igli. I actually just want eggplant and chicken. Why don’t you do a mini meal? Because it is too large; I’ll take a North Indian meal. (silence.) Maybe this was not a good restaurant, you don’t understand how to order. Actually, I don’t care. I’m starving. Maybe you should just order for me. How about a mini-meal? Fine. I stare at the rice. If I eat that much rice, I won’t be able to move. Someone else passes by with what looks like a steaming dish of eggplant curry.

On the beach with a new (male) friend, it is dark, we are leaving. A strange man approaches us. He wants my friend to introduce him to me. They speak in a language I don’t understand. The stranger’s eyes are big, eager, he is looking at my pale skin in the moonlight and I do not want to know where his mind is going. I act on pure, unbridled instinct, positioning my body behind my friend. He reacts, also instinctual, shielding me from the stranger. The stranger leaves. I suspect the stranger was harmless. I am slightly shaken – not by the stranger so much as my response – I am tall, strong and big-boned, but in that moment, I was a woman, and my primary experience was vulnerability. I felt my gender shaping every glance and every interaction. We keep walking, talk turning to other things. I am grateful for that process by which strangers become friends, and friends can, at times, become protectors. I need to take some more Judo.

The scarves are so beautiful. The women here wear them draped around their chest and then thrown over their shouldres. To my eyes it looks like a graceful necklace turning into flowing coat-tails. I try. It falls off. Again. And again. Maybe they have better posture than I do. Eventually, standing in a line, I look closely at the woman in front of me. Safety pins. Ah! Now I know! I watch the school girls – the scarves are perfectly pressed and stay in place, very factual. I ask my companion – do the scarves have meaning? Yes, they are to cover the chest. I pause. A woman tells me a story of how work-etiquette requires that women pin the scarves carefully as to cover the entire breasts. (Over an already conservative dress-like outfit). Suddenly the beautiful ‘necklaces’ become symbols of a conservative society. I have seen no women wear jeans or pants. Looking around the women suddenly seem trapped. The scarves loose their beauty. I ask my companion about his thoughts about men wearing jeans and women not. He points out that the traditional saris women used to wear are rarely worn any more (apparently a different style than what I’m surrounded by); that the modern outfits for women are much more free and comfortable. Maybe the scarves are not so bad. I will try wearing one over my chest on Monday to the office. With pins. And a pair of jeans.

Meaning, meaning, meaning. It’s all about meaning.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Transforming the Indian Bureacracy? Inverting the Pyramid

Transformation needs to happen at all levels. For transformation to happen, there needs to be an environment at the grassroots level of the bureaucracy. The whole system needs to change. But who is part of that system? People are. Who builds the good institutions? People do.

Sanjay Pahuja from the World Bank suggested that 'development' is about bridging the gap between those who have and those who have not. We do a lot of work to design a wagon - but who is going to do the work of pulling the wagon? The real work that needs to be done will increase the hard work of those who are engaged. There are vested interests in each system. People who seek to change the system are facing tremendous odds. They may risk their careers, their livelihoods and sometimes their family members. Dr Pahuja suggests that 'the people who will do so are insane people.'

These people are internally motivated. Using the Hall-Tonna values development map, Dr Puhuja showed how there always are those internally- and service-motivated people who do not need to get approval from the external world of authority.

We need 'insane people' who are internally motivated to create change. And we need to support them. This is not about one charismatic leader. It is about many people working together. We are motivated by different things. We need to support the resources for change agents so that they know they are not alone. Because creating 'transformational change' isn't exactly easy. He suggests that if we can support those 'insane people' who are willing to go above and beyond the call of duty we can create a tipping point in which other people will follow suit. How can we find and support such insanity?

I wonder, sometimes, how many of us are really insane people. The more I get to know people, the more I see how many ways all of us have courage - and capacities we are generally unaware of. In my evaluation of this project thus far, I have met many ordinary bureaucrats who have become heros for themselves and their communities. This was possible because they have learned to trust themselves and one another. They can authentically move up the values map.

Later, we heard from IBM - 'Making Change Work'. We need to change mindsets and attitudes. Technology is not the issue. Of course, this is much of the work that lies behind Values Technology. Hearing it from the mouth of IBM was still powerful: the problem is about management, people and attitudes. They have change as a track under their strategy and management process. They have a 'change manager', recognising that because change happens, there needs to be someone who can continually work with change. While I question this notion of 'managing change', it is certainly critical to acknowledge that change is going to keep on happening. Change is here to stay.

In this session, I sense increasing levels of honesty from the floor. One man asked Dr Puhuja, who works at the World Bank - we've done what you've told us for the past 20 years, and it isn't working. Dr Puhuja, who has worked in some hard conditions in the villages, spoke about the importance of focusing on the front-line people. He admitted the Bank faces some of the same challenges as any other.

As the questions become more honest, people are becoming more grounded and less abstract. As this occurs, some of my earlier skepticism is lifting. There is, indeed, real potential in this room: to really consider what needs to be done. I am curious, now, right before lunch, how this discussion of changing mindsets to enable passionate professionalism can occur.

Transformation in the Indian Bureacracy? Lessons from the Private Sector

"The need for transformation in the public service is urgent... and it is entirely possible."

So said Prof Leonard Joy in the opening panel at the "International unConference on Leading Organisational Transformation for Effective Service Delivery" hosted by UNICEF and that Centre of Excellence for Change Management in Chennai, India.

The unconference started with a prayer. Then the noted dignitaries in the civil service lighted the Kuthuvilakhu, a tall, sacred lamp that in the Hindu tradition covered with yellow flowers. For Hindus, this oil lamp symbolises coming out of darkness. It burns to provide peace and understanding. This conference - by public officials for public officials - is seeking a transformation in the public sector. It needs the light of the Kuthuvilakhu and of those gathered here to pull it forward. Villagers are moving out of the village because the water is not doing well. Urban and rural water quality is getting worse. Government is throwing more money on the problem - but this is not solving the challenge.

How does transformation occur? Interestingly, the panel only touched upon this. There was an awareness of some of the critical challenges facing people on the ground including increasing degradation of fresh water sources, the importance of rewarding the power responsive to the public and being the way you do the work and how you deliver. Civil servants can be heros.

The second panel discussed 'meta transformations'. They brought in examples from across various attempts to transform. This included the State Bank of India and HCL tech. Both private sector organisations had undergone an internal transformational process after they had undergone the recognition that there was a pressing need for transformation. HCL has been winning awards around the world in their philosophy. This is a process of putting the 'Employees first, customers second.' Through empowering people in the field to create change in a structured way, one can create cultural change. In HCL, any employee can write to the CEO and get a response in 24 hours. Employees do the appraisal for the managers; this is shown to everyone. This creates a high culture of accountability and managers approach their team as a team. The CEO shares his plan with his employees and the employees are able to give feedback to that. All departments are scored based on service level. They are suggesting to go beyond engagement and instead to focus and measure 'passion'. They have thus created 'passion scores', around delivery, sales, enabling and other areas. This is about democratising the workplace. Their message was loud and clear: transformation can only occur through people.

Questions from the floor spoke to the resignation that the audience had about their own sector. There was a question about if the people in government were somehow different than the people in the private sector. Of course this is not true. People are people. The induction process is different, the incentives are different, but people are the same.

Perhaps, then, the lessons the public sector can learn from the private sector is not so much around the privatisation of critical resources so much as the process through which they successfully enable the humanisation of their organisations.