August is a great month to visit the Eastern coast of India. The monsoons have mellowed out and the landscape is a mosaic of freshly planted paddy plots and lush green mountains. And yet, this very place hosts a large section of India’s tribal poor who continue to eke out a living in the forests of Eastern Ghats, their remote location making service delivery a challenge.

Photo above: A working water point at Degalapalam village. The pressure at which water is supplied to the points is very high – this means the taps, unable to take such a load, start to malfunction. (Amitangshu Acharya)

Visakha Jilla Nava Nirmana Samithi (or VJNNS for short) is a small and dedicated NGO working in the Eastern Ghat region of Andhra Pradesh. They largely work from Narsipatnam, a town in the district of Vizag in India and attempt to reach out to the remote hill habitations of primitive tribal groups (PTG’s) namely the Kondh, Korji and Gadabas with safe drinking water.

Karthik, Programme Director VJNNS, connected with Akvo in 2008, when Thomas Bjelkeman was working from Arghyam’s offices in Bangalore. Thomas and his wife Anke undertook a trip with Karthik to some of his project areas. The sight of women flocking around a watering hole scooping out muddy water to take back home for drinking and cooking was overwhelming, to say the least. On their return, it was agreed that Arghyam would pay for VJNNS to use Akvo RSR to report on the progress on five projects. These were projects that Arghyam had funded for VJNNS to construct drinking water systems for a few villages. Karthik put all of the VJNNS projects online on Akvo RSR and Thomas and Anke did a fundraising event together with Concerts 4 Change in Stockholm for one of the projects. Between 2010 and 2011, VJNNS was doing a great job of updating projects activities on RSR. In fact, they became a lighthouse for others.

Suddenly, updates started to dry up.  From a steady flow to a trickle, and then they stopped altogether. Needless to say, at Akvo, we were curious. What exactly happened? I went to visit Karthik to find out.

Before discussing what went wrong, it’s important to understand what went right. What made VJNNS such an active RSR user?

The answer lies largely with Karthik. Karthik is a computer engineer by profession. He is well versed on the web and the English language. Something as simple as RSR would have been child’s play for Karthik.

Karthik digs in. Sitaphal, or custard apple, is widely grown in this region of Eastern Ghats, and this is where we discovered that both Karthik and I love this fruit. (Amitangshu Acharya)

However, as Karthik and I sat with a steaming cup of tea in the evening, such assumptions started to fall apart. It was heavy work. There was no Internet (broadband or DSL) in the VJNNS office in Narasipatnam between 2010-2011. Hence, Karthik often had to upload photos either from the city of Vizag, located four hours away or from Bangalore. Sometimes photos were burned on a CD and sent to Bangalore for uploads on RSR. If Karthik was away from the site of action, he had to call up his field staff and get updates, and link photos to the narrative.  All this meant additional time being spent, something Karthik has in short supply as he juggles with work and family, along with his parallel interest in rural development and music.

Making the work more visible
Given the odds, Karthik spent a lot of effort making those updates happen. What spurred him was the thought that this effort, to a certain extent, would make VJNNS visible to donors. That in turn would help get funds for extending services to villages still unreached to by his project. Secondly, Karthik could see the utility of a readymade platform such as RSR. As a technically competent individual, he realized that such platforms made development reporting easier.

However, as time went by RSR updates started taking a toll on VJNNS. Very few donor organizations in India, in fact none, to be honest, use or are even familiar with, self-reporting online platforms like RSR. Hence in spite of Karthik sending his RSR project page link to potential donors, they still preferred to monitor VJNNS projects through written quarterly/ monthly progress reports. In fact VJNNS didn’t see any interest in its donors for online reporting. Carrying on with RSR in such a context was not easy.

Secondly, even with regular updates, VJNNS wasn’t getting attention from any donors, whether in India or abroad. Project funding continued to be dependent on writing proposals and reports in different donor formats. For a small organization like VJNNS the opportunity cost of pursuing two different forms of reporting was too high. This would have reduced had (a) donors encouraged reporting through RSR and (b) had VJNNS received funding through RSR (c) it was easier for VJNNS to use RSR.

Is it actually difficult to use RSR? Definitely not, but a lot of other larger issues come in the way between online platforms and people. The Internet is the first to play spoilsport. Moreover, ground staff who can read and write in English and have basic IT skills are not easy to find in rural areas. For small organisations, finding such staff is harder. In fact had VJNNS found a person like that, then RSR updates would have been quite regular.

Why don't we visit you instead?
VJNNS had approached donor agencies asking them to bear the cost of one such individual who would take care of VJNN’s reporting and documentation. But donors came back to VJNNS with a different proposal. Why don’t we send a consultant who will write up your documents for you for “our” projects? Resultantly, swanky documents were written and produced, but the onus of documentation shifted outside VJNNS to external “experts”. Though such consultancies often cost almost as much as hiring a full time staff, donor agencies continue to patronize “experts” at the cost of nurturing documentation within NGOs. Such myopia, I believe, costs NGOs, on the long run.

As an upshot of all this, VJNNS is unable to engage with RSR as frequently as they wish to. Broadband Internet has reached Narasipatnam, and the VJNNS office now has a wi fi router. Though the speed is not that great, basic photo updates on RSR are no longer a problem. But with a human resource crunch, VJNNS still finds it difficult to update project milestones. Karthik in the video below states that updates will no longer be that difficult with the availability of internet, but as his work keeps him away from VJNNS field sites, he desperately needs someone to take forward reporting at the field office.

VJNNS's experience with RSR is a paradox for me. I am happy that a small organization in a remote part of India can take to an online reporting platform so enthusiastically. I am saddened that such enthusiasm does not find encouragement from the donor community in India.

As an Akvo staffer, I know that RSR was not primarily meant as a fund-raising tool. It was more for easy and transparent reporting and communication. The problem is that staff in donor agencies continue to be afraid that such tools will disconnect them from ground level project monitoring. Such fears are unfounded. What Akvo RSR attempts to do is to make life easier for both donors and grantees.

With rising fuel costs, monitoring costs, too, will increase significantly in the coming years in India. Communication costs, however, are already hitting rock bottom. This inverse correlation is an opportunity for engaging with online reporting and transparency tools. Hopefully, someone will pick up the cue, soon.

There are more photos from Amitangshu's site visit on his Flickr set. Or view his GPS-tracked journey on Everytrail here.

Amitangshu Acharya is a consultant, Asian programmes, for Akvo.

Edited (21 Nov 2012): Added information about Arghyam funding the VJNNS projects and the small fundraiser which we did. - Thomas Bjelkeman