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State-NGO collaboration in rural resource management: India's improved cookstove programme

M. Maniates

Michael Maniates is an assistant professor in the Geography Department of Radford University, Virginia, USA. This article is based on a Ph.D. dissertation, drawing on virtually a decade of extensive fieldwork and contacts with NGOs as well as government officials in India.

Organizational designs for achieving sustainability: opportunities, limitations and dangers of state-NGO collaboration in the management of renewable natural resources.

There is increasing recognition that meaningful local participation is essential for the success of development programmes focusing on rural forest, water and soil resources. One possible path toward this participation - a path embraced either explicitly or implicitly by much of the recent literature on sustainable development -comes in the form of increased collaboration between government agencies and rural-based NGOs. A partnership between big and small, national and local, urban and rural could - as many suggest - bring more meaningful participation to government rural development efforts.

The argument for collaboration is no doubt clear to readers of Unasylva. Large government agencies, while often bureaucratic and inflexible, command significant resources and expertise. Small, local NGOs understand local conditions and can tailor government programmes to local needs. Moreover, they can serve as an organizing nucleus and conduit for meaningful local participation. Combine "big" and "small", and you get the best of both worlds: expertise and resources from the government and local participation and flexible implementation from NGOs.

Or so the argument goes. But is it true? Will NGO collaboration bring a greater degree of flexibility, vitality and local participation to government natural resource management projects? Or is collaboration with local NGOs just another incarnation of a romantic, acritical "small is beautiful" approach to rural development which is likely, if not certain, to produce disappointing results?

A one-pot improved chulha (cookstove) designed and disseminated by NGO No. 1 in Fig., peg 24, Although this model has no chimney, the improved combustion efficiency significantly reduces smoke

Bad news, good news

Paradoxically, the answer to both of these questions appears to be "yes". At least, this is the conclusion borne out by analysis of one natural resource development programme that institutionalizes state-NGO collaboration: India's national effort to disseminate improved cookstoves in rural areas. The Indian experience in this case indicates that the attempted state-NGO partnership set in motion forces that undercut rather than advanced achievement of the overall goals of the cookstove programme; it blocked rather than facilitated the modification of national strategies to respond to local needs and deterred rather than encouraged local involvement in national planning.

On the other hand, in a limited number of cases, the collaborative effort boosted the effectiveness' efficiency and responsiveness of the government programme. Therefore, the good news is that such counterproductive dynamics arc not inevitable; they can be managed and even eliminated. Doing so, however, hinges on understanding the interorganizational forces set loose by collaboration. Unfortunately, much of the policy literature on government-NGO collaboration unconsciously militates against this understanding by acritically praising the virtues of smallness and the benefits that will "naturally" accrue from assigning NGOs a role in government natural resource management programmes Blanket acceptance of a "small is beautiful" perspective is dangerous. It can lull government administrators into the belief that they need only create venues for NGO involvement in order to gain the benefits of collaboration with these organizations; and it can foster complacency about the necessity to ensure rigorous monitoring and management of collaboration systems.

The Indian cookstove programme

Although NGO collaboration is a much discussed organizational strategy for implementing natural resource development programmes only a handful of examples are fully under way in the Third World. The most extensive case on record is probably the Government of India's effort, initiated in 1983, to disseminate improved cookstoves in rural areas. This programme is now known as the National Programme for improved Chulhas (NPIC).

Like many other efforts throughout the developing world, India's improved chulha (cookstove) programme was an attempt by a centralized government body to apply "appropriate" science and technology to problems of rural environmental degradation. Organizationally, however, NPIC was significantly different from its predecessors. Stung by the repeated disappointments of past natural resource technology programmes the Indian architects of NPIC rejected the top-down model of programme design and implementation. Instead, they sought an alternative approach that would foster greater flexibility and expanded local control in project implementation. For improved cook-stoves, these were especially important elements. Experience in India and elsewhere suggested that the acceptance of improved cookstoves was on the degree of local participation - especially women's participation - in determining the design of the stove and its location in the household.

After much debate, which featured a significant input from local and regional Indian NGOs government planners settled on an implementation strategy that institutionalized the extensive participation of locally based NGOs. Within the programme, national and state governments, on the one hand, and local NGOs on the other, coexist in a kind of partnership, each contributing their special skills and talents. The national and state governments provide resources, training, coordination and expertise. The responsibility of the local NGOs is to facilitate local participation in cookstove production and dissemination; modify the programme to make it more relevant to local people and consistent with local practices and preferences; and communicate programmatic shortcomings to state and national planners. The local organizations were explicitly charged with involving women in all facets of the programme, including training and practice in stove construction as well as follow-up and quality control activities. The programme, at least on paper, was a most vivid example of what many development scholars have been calling for: a debureaucratization of rural development efforts, buttressed by an expanded degree of local participation and involvement of local organizations.

An Improved two-pot chulha. Note the chimney pipe behind the stove

Several basic assumptions about government-NGO collaboration pervade this Indian effort. Indian planners, quite obviously' assumed that the administrative costs of ensuring that collaboration worked would be outweighed by the enhanced programme effectiveness that such collaboration would bring. They expected that NGO entry into a collaborative relationship would be automatic and self-selecting, i.e. those NGOs committed and dedicated to reducing pressures on renewable natural resources and fostering people's participation would be drawn to the programme while those that were not would shy away. Most importantly, Indian programme administrators expected that local NGOs that successfully pursued natural resource management projects when working autonomously would enjoy a similar, even greater success when integrated into a system of interorganizational collaboration and coordination.

These assumptions, it is important to note, are not exclusively Indian. They are expressed in much of the literature on sustainable resource development in the Third World. Indeed, in many ways the Indian architects of NPIC simply took what was being said about the virtues of state-NGO collaboration and built a programme around it. As a consequence, the Indian cookstove programme can be considered an empirical test of the assumptions which often flow so freely regarding collaboration. Understanding India's programme is thus a step toward a better recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of ideas that often guide policy.

The dynamics of collaboration: insights from Gujarat

In order to assess the challenges inherent in government-NGO collaboration, the author conducted a study of NPIC, as implemented in Gujarat in 1987-1988, with follow-up inquiries in 1989. Gujarat played host to this case-study for several reasons. The state is known to have perhaps the most capable, active and diverse collection of local NGOs in all of India. It is also widely thought to have one of the best trained and most professional state energy agencies. Moreover, the Gujarat State Government's sensitivity to natural resource management and to the need for local participation in such management is among the highest in the country. The state's social and political setting is thus highly biased in favour of successful collaboration. If collaboration could produce effective outcomes, it would probably do so in Gujarat and, if problems emerged in this state, they would be likely to emerge with similar or stronger force in other settings.

An improved cookstove with the mould used to make it in the foreground

FIGURE Summary of study on eight NGOs collaborating with Gujarat State in the National Programme

No. 1

No. 2

No. 3

No. 4

No. 5

No. 6

No. 7

No. 8


Small Gandhian-based organization with a strong focus on rural farming and energy technologies. Annual budget about Rs 90 000

Broadly focused, integrated rural development group that began in the late 1970s. Cumulative 198588 budget was Rs 900 000

A Cooperative Union operating at the district level. Assists local cooperatives and implements state cooperative programmes. Most programmes advance education of local youth or impart job skills to rural women. Budget for 1987 was Rs 870 000

An integrated health care centre focusing on the health and nutritional needs of rural women and children. Annual budget of Rs 6 970 000

Field station directed by the Indian Council of Medical Research. Promotes an integrated non-pesticide approach to mosquito and malaria control among 350 000 villagers. Budget for 1986 was Rs 3 million

Rural development project of a large petro-chemical company. Focus rests on cluster of villages near company headquarters. Programme budget for 1987-88 Rs 30 000

Village development office of a large agricultural chemical company. Budget for 1987 about Rs 80 000

A service and social club for urban adolescents struggling with education and career choices

Rationale for joining NPIC

Opportunity to disseminate and test improved cookstove of its own design and to find cookstove construction courses for village women in need of job skills and employment

A variety of interlocking reasons including: availability of programme funds; opportunity to become involved in new villages and possibility of follow-up government funding

NPIC was initially seen as another programme for youth education and skill development. Later the programme became the major source of funds for the cooperative

The improved chulha programme filled a void in the centre's programmes: "Appropriate technology" had long been seen as an integral part of health programmes but had never been actively pursued

Needed to maintain organizational presence in villages during periods of reduced incidence of malaria and low mosquito populations

Variety of motivations, including prior work with Gujarat Energy Development Agency (GEDA), need for continued funding from GEDA, emerging organizational interest in rural energy

The founding family of the company has a long-standing interest in controlling deforestation and promoting revegetation. EPIC provided an opportunity to formalize and extend previous experiments with improved cookstoves

Largely to provide adolescents in the group with opportunity for village service work. Also brings in much-needed revenue and opens the door to other remunerative collaborations with GEDA

Technical abilities

Very well-developed conducts technical training workshops for the government

Moderate. Some past experience with rural technologies and with job and skilled training programmes for rural women

Very limited. The chief builder of the cookstoves admitted to minimal training and limited knowledge of the variety of appropriate cookstove designs

Evolving. Early attempts to diffuse cookstoves encountered many problems. After evaluation and recruitment of technical personnel, technical skills have improved

Low. NPIC was the first venture in the field of rural energy technology. The technical complexity of the improved chulhas and the degree of oversight and maintenance required came as a surprise

Credible. Coordinators were not experienced in chulha construction but prior work in facilitating the construction of pottery kilns generated a healthy appreciation of complexities involved

Significant. Developed own chulha and manufactured and distributed dozens of construction moulds to facilitate widespread dissemination

None whatsoever. Obtained some training in cookstove construction from a neighbounng NGO also working on NPIC under GEDA

Integrated programmes with strong focus on women and resources?

Yes. Strong, persistent emphasis on skilled training for rural women alternative agriculture and development of rural self-help technologies. Long-standing commitment to agriculture, energy and rural poor

Only for a few communities. In most villages destined for new chulhas complementary programmes and an in-depth investigation and understanding of the local community were absent. In many cases, NPIC was the first step in initiating integrated comprehensive rural resource and employment programmes in the community

The cooperative commanded an extensive network of village contacts and had pursued several resource and women-oriented programmes in the past. NPIC was the first attempt to disseminate rural energy technologies for and by women

Yes almost by definition. Health programmes are integrated; nutrition programmes are tied to immunization efforts, family planning campaigns and income-generation activities. Focus remains on rural women, especially the poorest

Yes, strongly so. This organization pursues malaria control via behavioural change on the part of villagers, leading to ongoing destruction of larvae habitat. Such education and oversight is supplemented by house-to-house monitoring for evidence of disease. Pursues a variety of village works in order to maintain presence during times of limited disease outbreak. Strong history of working closely with women in elimination of mosquito habitat

No previously established focus on womens' resource issues. Some prior concern with issues of rural energy use emerged as part of ongoing attempts to establish village-scale pottery kilns to revitalize local economies

For several years the organization has pursued intensive and comprehensive rural resource programmes with great success in a few target villages. Present approach emphasizes extensive propagation of cookstoves throughout hundreds of communities relatively unknown to the organization

No past experience with rural resource programmes of any kind. No ongoing programmes in womens' issues or resource management that might complement NPIC. Prior to involvement with chulha programme, organized urban service projects, e.g. blood drives support of a school for the deaf, etc.

Knowledge of local conditions

Well-developed. Confines its activities to a limited area and has been operating in the region for decades

Very low. Develops a few contacts in the community usually through the local school system. Works through these contacts typically teachers - to organize a mass dissemination effort

Surprisingly poor. Cooperative leaders were too distant from the villages to become aware of the problems and nuances of chulha construction and the chief mason was seemingly under pressure to build large numbers of cookstoves

Well-developed. Network of village health workers institutionalizes communication between the centre and outlying villages

High, for these same reasons

High. The organization limited its activities to just a few villages and strongly resisted overtures by GEDA to expand NPIC to outlying villages with which it was unfamiliar

Alarmingly poor, for reasons tied to recent up-scaling of the programme

Apparently very poor. The organization would select villages where chulhas were to be constructed largely on the basis of an invitation by someone in the village or, more commonly, if someone in the organization had a contact in the village

Analysis of the programme in 19871988, drawn from interviews with national and state administrators, archives and close observation of eight NGOs collaborating with the state (see Fig., p. 24), strongly suggest one central conclusion: a system of collaboration that is built on prevailing assumptions about NGO capabilities and behaviour yields a pattern of interorganizational behaviour that is incompatible with the means and ends of sustainable natural resource development Five dynamics drove this surprising pattern:

· Across the sample of NGOs it became evident that there was a strong potential for tension, even conflict, between the NGO and the state coordinating agency. Such tension arising from differing perceptions of the local-level technical requirements for making cookstoves work in the field - made it difficult to sustain the collaborative working relationship between the state and the technically competent NGO. The result was a decline in such NGOs' interest in collaboration with the state, which was not the outcome hoped for by the architects of India's cookstove programme.

· A similar dynamic emerged with local organizations pursuing a variety of programmes in village communities on their own. These NGOs were sought out by the architects of the cookstove programme who expected local organizations that were operating programmes popular with rural people to be especially effective in integrating new cookstoves into village life. What became apparent, instead, was that NGOs with independent programmes in place often found the opportunity costs of collaboration to be too high. Collaboration with the state required a commitment of additional resources by the NGO; forms had to be completed, meetings attended, expenditures of resources documented and compromises made. Frequently, the organizational cost of meeting these demands was perceived to be too high and, thus, NGOs with active programmes in other areas often declined to participate in the cookstove programme.

· Conversely, the NGOs with little technical expertise, few or no sustained programmes in village communities and often little or no experience with rural development programmes were attracted to the opportunity for collaboration. For these "second-string" organizations, the cookstove programme offered a chance to develop skills, tap new sources of resources and gain entry into village communities. The opportunity costs of collaboration were low for these organizations and, because of their inexperience, lack of resources and search for meaningful projects, they gained much from the process. These NGOs were poorly equipped to foster village community activities that were conducive to the dissemination of cookstoves, but they were able and willing to devote time and resources to the task of maintaining good relations with the state.

Mud being mixed with dung and crop waste to form the basic material used in construction of the improved cookstoves

To build and disseminate large numbers of improved cookstoves, NGOs had to procure, transport and store large numbers of chimney pipes. This was a serious problem for smaller NGOs

· A pattern of state behaviour vis-à-vis local NGOs, one that influenced dissemination of cookstoves at the village level, thus emerged. Poorly qualified NGOs were welcomed into the programme if they appeared enthusiastic, willing to learn and eager to comply with the state agency's requirements for documentation, reporting, attendance at meetings, etc. The state's willingness to embrace these organizations was organizationally rational and far from irresponsible. Faced with uncertainty and vulnerability, the state agency - like most organizations in its situation - opted to favour NGOs that seemed willing and able to meet the administrative demands of partnership.

· Finally, when local NGOs demonstrated competence in the dissemination of cookstoves, the state actively encouraged them to expand their programmes. This, too, was organizationally rational (the agency sought to expand the role of NGOs it knew to be successful and, in doing so, reduce its own vulnerability to NGO incompetence). But this action often induced many NGOs to spread beyond their familiar villages and overextend themselves, with an end result of poor programme performance.

The specific outcome for Gujarat State in 1987-1988 was a generally low level of women's participation in the cookstove programme, little if any local control over cookstove designs or the pace of dissemination and inconsistent attention to the technical soundness of cookstoves. The general effectiveness of state efforts to disseminate improved cookstoves appeared no better them that which could have been attained by conventional top down approaches; in some cases, it was seemingly much worse.

Broader implications

What are the lessons to be drawn from this experience? One area to turn to for interpretation and insights is organization theory. In part, organization theory rests on two tenets: organizations will work to reduce uncertainty in their environment; and organizations will always strive to limit their vulnerability to the actions of other organizations. When organizations become involved in collaborative relationships, the complexity of their environment is increased. The opportunities for that organization to capture resources and to prosper rises dramatically as a result. But so too do the uncertainties and vulnerability confronting that organization. Thus, as organizations within systems of collaboration seek to balance the benefits of collaboration against the risks and costs that such collaboration brings, they will act to maximize benefits, mize risk and meet the direct needs of the organization. This balancing of benefits, risk and needs will naturally lead, theorists would argue, to the dynamics observed in Gujarat.

Thus, while it would be unjustifiable to generalize from India's experience to all attempts to combine government and NGOs everywhere in the world, it does closely conform to what organization theory would predict. This is troubling, for the convergence of theory and reality in this case suggests that, if other planners and policy-makers adopt collaborative strategies and assumptions similar to those in India's cookstove programme (as they seem to be doing), and if organizations continue to seek security, growth and certainty (as they tend to do), then similar outcomes could emerge. Other state-NGO collaborations could yield similar, ineffective results.

In India this convergence of organizational rationalities, leading to programme disappointment, occurred in spite of conscientious and diligent efforts on the part of planners and NGOs alike. Moreover, programme architects and administrators, firm in their assumption that NGO participation would yield heightened effectiveness, were ill-equipped conceptually or logistically - to cope with these outcomes and were slow to take remedial measures. Their response was often to blame individual NGOs for disappointing outcomes, even when scrutiny of larger forces endemic to the structure of collaboration would have yielded better results. They also took steps to implement a monitoring and enforcement programme which, although welcome, could have been less Draconian if greater care were taken to make the collaborative process more accommodating initially to competent and diligent local NGOs.

A bright spot

A brighter note to this story - and a point deserving of more research - is the observation that disappointing outcomes from government-NGO collaboration are not inevitable. In the sample of eight NGOs covered in this study, two organizations (Nos 2 and 4 in Fig.) succeeded in satisfying both the needs of the state and local people in an effective fashion. Acceptance rates of improved cookstoves were much higher among villages associated with these organizations than in the overall programme. Local participation was much more pronounced, as was the involvement of women in the programme. The potentially rich rewards from state-NGO collaboration were clearly evident.

The success of these organizations appears rooted in the fact that they did not fit the archetypal mould of the small, diligent, locally based NGO that is so romanticized in much of the literature. Instead, both were organizationally complex: both had evolved elaborate structures for dividing tasks oriented to the needs of rural communities from the tasks necessary to satisfy external organizations (i.e. the state) with which the NGO interacted.

If more organizations of this type were fostered in developing world settings, state-NGO collaboration could yield effective outcomes. In this respect, a focused inquiry into the structures and dynamics of individual local organizations would seem to be a prerequisite.

Two concluding scenarios

The idea that collaboration among diverse organizations may hold the key to "better development" is not a new one. A decade ago, in Institutions of rural development for the poor: decentralization and organizational linkages, David Leonard noted that:

"Rural development requires a new type of decentralization. What is needed is not power for either central government or local organizations but complementary strength in both. Central government agencies, intermediate organizations and local groups all possess resources and capabilities that are needed by others. The challenge is to link these institutions together in such a way that their weaknesses are counterbalanced and their comparative advantages are used. By doing so, a contribution can be made to development which neither local nor national organizations could achieve. The process of rural development depends on combining the resources and skills...scattered among organizations of different types and sizes" (Leonard, 1982)

State-NGO collaboration is a much-needed attempt to embrace the "new kind of decentralization" Leonard calls for. As we wrestle with the complexities of making collaboration work, two scenarios would seem to present themselves.

The first envisions a continued policy thrust toward systems of collaboration similar to that attempted in Gujarat. The outcome would be disappointing; after so much emphasis on policy, efforts to bring the best organizations together would be cast aside as another failed experiment. Valuable time would be lost, important resource systems degraded even further and efforts to democratize the development process stifled. In the whimsical world of development planning, where one decade's wonder approach is another decade's failed conventional wisdom, the idea of NGO participation in government natural resource management efforts could be relegated to obscurity. The baby could be thrown out with the bath water.

A second scenario imagines heightened and immediate inquiry into the organizational dynamics of collaboration by those who concern themselves with government natural resource management programmes, and wish to foster meaningful local participation in and control over these programmes. It sees the rise of a more sophisticated analysis of local organizational forms and envisions efforts to foster local NGOs that could prove small enough to interact with village communities while still being large enough to cope with the demands of state collaboration. It supposes that academics and policy-makers could work together to anticipate the awkward surprises of collaboration before they emerge and envisions efforts to build collaborative structures more accommodating to capable and dedicated NGOs, particularly those based in the rural areas of developing countries.

In this juxtaposition of possible futures, the opportunities, limitations and dangers of collaboration for natural resource management become clear. Top-down planning that is insensitive to local settings is not an effective organizational vehicle for fostering the sustainability of rural commons. NGO involvement in state programmes, may be necessary; it certainly is desirable and the opportunities are real. The limitations of such involvement are equally apparent, however. Collaboration attempts based on generalized assumptions about the innate ability of local NGOs will fail to measure up to expectations. Planners, policy-makers and academics all have a significant role to play in minimizing this danger and ushering in new organizational forms for sustainable development.


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