Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How I let my first friend slip away...

"NS" was my first friend. I don't mean the "was" to mean that he isn't my friend now, but because I have lost track of him. My parents say he became your friend from when I was just months old. They said he used to come to our home as a kid to watch TV (the only one of the two in that locality then) but kept watching me play as an infant. It amazes me but doesn't surprise me at all as ever since I gained control of my senses, there was NS, his home right in our street.

Almost everything about him was curious. He is a Jain and remains the only Jain I know in first person till date. I have gone to temples with him and remember seeing him wear the "vibuthi". He had a red coloured bible at home that he got from his Christian school due to which I knew of the existence of bible. For a long time, I have seen a picture of a Jain Tirtankara on top of a tall pedestal with with all sorts of animals sitting on a spiral ramp that leads up to the pedestal. And for years, I had thought that it was Buddha. :)

He was creative! He once showed me a picture of Mickey Mouse dressed in a red wizard's robe. That was the first time I believed that every day people that I meet can draw something beyond match-stick figures with just pencil, crayons and papers. A couple of years or so later, I myself had a small collection of Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and then veered off to mythological characters like Hanuman, Rama, Shiva and Krishna. The best I did was a picture of Sita garlanding Rama during Swayamvaram, that I reproduced from "RamaKrishna Vijayam" a spiritual magazine that my parents had subscribed to then!

His creativity didn't stop with just drawing. He was a bit of a science geek too! In his early teens (or may be a bit earlier) he had amused me by making a car chassis using a couple of batteries , motor, a few wheels pulled out from god-knows-whose-toys!

But he was not all geeky all the time. We had a lot of fun flying kites, catching fish from streams flowing on the road after monsoon, playing games involving good guys, bad guys and fights involving all the Tamil movies that we saw.

After close to 20 years, I only increasingly miss those days. I was jogging this morning when for no reason all these memories came up and I felt a sudden rush of stupidity at how I have let such a friend who has influenced so much of my first memorable experiences slip away. Facebook has come to the rescue in making up for the mistake. I have found him in seconds on search and have sent a friend request. Keeping my fingers crossed!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Highlighting Accountability Initiative

I have been watching the social sector for quite sometime now and that includes the policy space. A while ago, I chanced upon Accountability Initiative (AI) and I find myself thoroughly impressed by the work they are doing. So impressive is their work that it actually go me to restart blogging after eons! :). But of course I did post about it briefly it in ThinkChange India

I am usually shy of talking about women in entrepreneurship in itself as an achievement as it makes me feel that the very statement lends support to the notion that men are better entrepreneurs at women. But I must confess that the first thing that made me stop and notice AI is that it is all women at the helm. Somehow. I have a psychologically driven belief that organizations founded and led by women are honest and purposeful than otherwise!

The second thing that interested me was the fact that 3 out of 5 of these women have a common background of education in London School of Economics, which probably means that they have trashed some plum job offers, came to India and focused on development.

AI is primarily interested in finding ways to institutionalize transparency and accountability in all government programs. Their flagship initiative is called PAISA (Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability) which works towards developing tools to track fund flows right from the top all the way till the grassroots level to understand where and how implementation deviates from the intention. This is accompanied by a parallel capacity building initiative to empower stakeholders in education (like teachers, principals, parents, students). They have visited a village (called Sehore) and conducted awareness-drive of sorts on their entitlements and responsibilities under SSA by means of comics-like posters etc, and documented the lessons they have learnt.

To kick-off PAISA they have done an extensive expenditure track by means of sample surveys on SSA across the country. Their finding paints a very breathtakingly grim picture of planning, implementation, administration.

The PAISA exercise tells me that even if we assume no corruption, the current trend of planning, implementation of fund allocation is toothless and ineffective. The exercise highlights that decision making protocols that estimate the funds needed are short-circuited, definitions of roles and responsibilities at different hierarchies of administrations are confusing, funds often reach the school too late to be of any use and frequently teachers and grass-root level stakeholders often don't even understand the purpose of the fund that arrives at school. Sometimes stakeholders don't even know that they are stakeholders. Worse of them all, there is no formal grievance redressing system and the Parent Teachers Associations that are supposed to raise concerns back to the government don't meet.

What I understand from this is, the very fact that AI is going through with this exercise offers some hope but the is a long, long, long, long way to go before we see the light at the end of the tunnel,and the only way is to help organizations like AI build informed citizenry that raises as much hell as the trade unions do when they don't get Diwali bonus.

Going forward they plan to expand and replicate their efforts out of SSA into other government programs (like NREGA etc). Accountability Initiative's work appears to me to be extensive, purposeful, addresses an urgent need and reaches out to all stakeholders (government, schools, parents). Simultaneously, their presentation is simple, clear and transparent (which it better be :) )

Now the question is, do people like you and I have it in us to take time, stop and take a look at what they are doing and help them?