Archive for December 2013

Real World: Rural Haryana

While I was hanging out with our team in Haryana, I realized that the day-to-day life of our survey resembles the MTV series The Real World an awful lot. Since a lot of people have been asking how this is all working, I thought I would give you a glimpse of what it all looks like. Join me on a tour of the Real World: Rural Haryana. As you’ll see, the house is just like in the show.

This is the true story of eight strangers picked to live together and work together, to see what happens when people do a sanitation survey across 16 districts in 8 states, finding places to stay and the things need to survive along the way.

Our house is the one on the left.

The day starts at 5:00am when Mangal, our wonderful cook, wakes up to start making breakfast and lunch in our professional-grade, restaurant-style kitchen.

Everyone else gets up at around that time too because there’s only one Jacuzzi bathtub to go around.

Normally this all runs very smoothly, but sometimes there are some heated discussions about the shower line. And sometimes when there’s no electricity (and thus no hot water), there are no showers at all.

After getting ready, packing our lunches to take with us, and filling our water bottles, we’re off for a full day of surveying.

When we get back home in the evenings, chai and pakoras are waiting for us, and we sit down to check the questionnaires that were completed during the day in our ergonomically equipped office. This is when things get real. Many a confessional have been inspired by the animated debates around checking forms. But in the end everyone makes up; no one has been voted off the show yet.

Then we eat the yummy dinner that Mangal has prepared for us at our 19th century oak wood dining table.

By 10pm, everyone is all cozied up in the silk sheets of their king-size beds.

And we start again the next day. Every two weeks, we move to a new district, and the house is set up afresh. It’s tough work, and sometimes tensions arise, but in the end we’re all a family. We have two more days left of surveying before everyone gets to go home for a one-week break. Everyone’s counting down the hours, but I believe we’re all actually going to miss each other when we leave, particularly the whole sleeping 6 inches away from our neighbor part.

Here’s to a great start to the survey, and to a successful six states to come! Happy holidays!

Happy Holidays from rice

Some of you may have already seen this by following the link on our holiday cards (thanks Allie for making our awesome holiday cards!), but I wanted  to post this letter on our blog too!  Thanks so much for all you do to make rice‘s work possible, and happy holidays!

Dear friends,

Thank you all for everything you have done to make rice’s 2013 a success.  As the family portrait above shows, we have grown into a big team.  What you cannot see in the picture is what a dedicated and talented group has come together, and how grateful we feel to be working with one another.

As we write, we have surveyors working in Bihar and Haryana, asking people important questions about what they think and feel and want, all on one of the trickiest topics to talk about with strangers.   It is a tall order, but our surveyors and team leaders are up to it.  By the end of April, we expect they will have spoken with thousands of rural households across eight states of north India.  Policy-makers will have more data than ever before about the challenges of ending open defecation in India.

This early start to 2014 caps a 2013 that has seen more advocacy success than we could have predicted a year ago.  Our work highlighting the importance of sanitation for child health and growth has appeared in newspapers in Ethiopia, Cambodia, China, and, of course, again and again here in India.  We’ve taken our message to central government ministers, local development officers, non-profit partners large and small, newspapers, magazines, and even TV!  An active community is growing around commitment to the idea that eliminating open defecation is a priority for human development in India.

India, where one-sixth of all humans live, faces three interlocking challenges.  First, the problem is huge: most of the people here do not use toilets, and most of the people in the world who don’t use toilets live here.  Second, because of high population density, sanitation especially matters in India: pound-for-pound, reducing open defecation by the same amount in India will have a larger effect on infant mortality and child growth than in most other places in the world.  Third, many people here resist switching to safe sanitation; too many people here simply don’t recognize how bad for their children’s health poor sanitation can be.  There is no logical reason these had to all happen in the same country, but in fact we all live in a world where they did.

That is why we are so grateful for your help.  We could not be growing our team, spreading our message, and reaching across India without the support that all of you provide.

We hope you will click on our “photos” tab to see pictures of rice in action in India, putting your support to good use.  Keep in touch in 2014 – watch our blog for more stories, more data, and more pictures!

Happy holidays, and our deepest thanks,

Aashish, Avinash, Dean, Diane, Nikhil, Sangita

Our response to The Hindu’s recent editorial on sanitation

Check out our response to The Hindu’s editorial on India’s sanitation problem.

We were glad to see an editorial highlighting the real and enormous consequences of exceptionally widespread open defecation in India.  We could not agree more that India urgently needs its citizens, activists, scholars, journalists, and policy-makers everywhere to turn their attention and their efforts to this problem. However, we believe that their analysis underestimates the problem.

We recently spoke with a retired public servant who built a latrine about a year ago that is used by only three of the thirteen people in his family.  He told us that “if a man wants to stay healthy, then he should [defecate] outside,” and that in his village “you’ll find a latrine in everyone’s house, but I don’t want to go in one…I think going in latrines is disgusting.”

This man’s beliefs were far from unique. Many of the people that we spoke with in rural Haryana felt similarly. Read our response for more of our initial findings from the field.

No shame in a simple pit latrine

Yesterday was my last day with the team in Rewari, Haryana.  Sangita, Nikhil, Nidhi and I had finished up collecting qualitative data to try to understand latrine adoption in the last 10 years.  Thanks to our friendly respondents, many of whom were willing to have their interviews recorded, we have lots of interesting findings about latrine adoption and use, and some really fun quotations.  But the findings of the “switching study” in Haryana will have to wait for another day.

Today I just want to take a couple of minutes to share a short story about a modest pit latrine.  Amit from Arelia (there are two Amits on our team, so we call them Arelia wala Amit and Nalanda wala Amit – Amit from Arelia and Amit from Nalanda) and I were doing an interview for the quantitative survey with an older man in Rewari block.  He answered our questions kindly and patiently, but when we got to the section in which Amit was supposed to observe the man’s latrine, the man said it not at the house (it is common in Rewari for people to built latrines on the plot of land where they keep their animals).  I told Amit to finish the interview and that we’d fill in that section later.  When we finished the interview, we again asked to see the latrine, asking whether there was a child from the house who could take us to the plot.  The man looked uncomfortable and said that that would not work.  We suggested we could find our way ourselves, and he said no, so we gave up.

Later, when I was reviewing the survey forms in the car, Amit told me that on his way back past the house, the man’s grandson, who was about 20, stopped him.  They talked for a bit about the survey, and the grandson asked Amit if he wanted to see the latrine.  It turned out that the old man was ashamed of his latrine, which was why he had not wanted to take Amit to see it.

Why would the older man be ashamed of his latrine in a place where so many people practice open defecation?  Well, in Haryana, people tend to build extremely fancy latrines, or none at all.  The fancy latrines have water seals that prevent bad smells and in many cases flush tanks – we even saw latrines equipped with both a western toilet seat and an Indian one.  Here is a photo of one of the fancy latrines from the switching study.

The man who we interviewed had built a perfectly serviceable but, for Haryana, relatively simple pit latrine.  It consisted of a hole lined with cement rings, with a cement slab and an Indian seat placed over the hole.  He’d built a brick structure, only about 4 feet high, around the seat, and used a plastic tarp as the roof.  Though I did not see the latrine myself, from what Amit described it would have looked something like the simple pit latrines we saw all over Bangladesh.  I couldn’t find any pictures from Bangladesh with brick superstructures–they tend to use tin–but this will give you an idea of the difference in fanciness between the latrines that the old man may have seen, and the one that he built for his family.

What the old man didn’t know is that I would have been THRILLED to see this simple pit latrine.  You see, most people in rural India are not going to be able to afford to build the fancy toilets that you see in the top picture, and that many people in Haryana have been able to build thanks to the state’s incredible recent economic progress.  If people in other parts of rural India are going to end the practice of open defecation, they will need more makeshift and lower cost solutions, like the one that this man had built for his family.

On Giving Tuesday

Apparently in the U.S. today is “Giving Tuesday” – last Thursday was Thanksgiving, Friday was Black Friday for shopping at stores, Monday has recently been claimed as Cyber Monday for shopping online, and bringing up the rear is Giving Tuesday, where perhaps you are supposed to give away whatever money is left to some worthy cause?

This is news to me, but it gives me an opportunity to remind you all that rice has been recognized as a 501(c)(3) public charity in the U.S. and donations to us may be tax deductible (depending on, for example, if you itemize your income taxes).

It also gives an opportunity to share some thoughts about the ethics, economics, and psychology of richer people giving money to help poorer people (or not doing so).  I recently recommended Joshua Greene’s new book on this blog.  Among other topics, he considers the question of why richer people in the U.S. (by which we mean middle class folks with college degrees and such) don’t give more to help poorer people in places like Darbhanga, Bihar.  One factor that his experiments seem to suggest is geographic distance: we feel (and he literally means feel) less of an obligation to people living very far away.

But that cannot be the whole story: in the big cities of India, there are many well-off people who live lives as comfortable as many middle class people in richer countries.  They live close to (and regularly see) very poor people, but they still do not give in the way that Greene recommends.  Lest I be misunderstood, this is not just an Indian phenomenon: picture Cape Town, South Africa, for example, or anywhere where the global top 5 percent live near the global bottom 20 percent.

It’s also not clear exactly how much people should be giving.  To some utilitarian philosophers, the answer is quite a lot: if you really can save babies’ lives in rural India by donating just a few hundred dollars, or even a few thousand dollars, how can you justify spending the money on even – say – Mexican restaurant dinners and Diet Coke?  Once you start thinking like that, it is easy to conclude that folks like me in the U.S. are required to give, well, quite a lot.

But that is not what strikes us as intuitively ethically true.  Many of us feel that our ethical obligations are strongest in our local communities, not where the need is greatest.  If somebody gives a lot to help the very poor, we feel, that’s great – but not required.  If so, Greene would respectfully suggest – perhaps with a disarming joke – that the problem is with our intuitive feelings.

Of course, there are many types of “foreign aid” – some of them do no good, and some do a lot of harm.  Here, I’m not talking about government aid, but the sort of giving we each might do on a Tuesday.  Angus Deaton has done much to persuade me that the argument falls apart if you can’t save a life for a few hundred or few thousand dollars, and maybe you just can’t.  Or maybe, sometimes, you can – perhaps only in special cases that we have an obligation to look for?  The more uncertainty is involved, the further down our utilitarian obligations slide.

As you may know if you’re reading this blog, I help run a small non-profit, and interact with a lot of large non-profits and famous international organizations.  It seems pretty incredible to me that your additional $1,000 would have any effect whatsoever on what these big organizations do.  Budgeting decisions are lumpy, by which I mean nobody is waiting around in a jeep at the petrol pump for the phone call to tell them that your donation has arrived, so now they can buy the fuel to drive out to the village to bring the anemic pregnant woman to the blood transfusion center and thereby save her life.  I imagine that some of these organizations have large rooms full of fundraisers, perhaps with a target to raise $10,000 a month, and your $100 lets one take a coffee break a few minutes sooner.  But, maybe I’m wrong.

Sanitation seems like a promising example.  It is preventative, has important externalities, has been thoroughly well documented to matter since the 19th century, and is quantitatively a really big deal in some places.  I think it is very unlikely that building some latrines is going to backfire and badly hurt people (and unfortunately we can’t say that about everything non-profits do).  In places with very high population density like UP and Bihar, statistics suggest that it may be the case that if you can get 5 largeish villages to reduce open defecation rates from 75% to 25%, then you can expect to prevent an infant death each year, on average. But those statistics may be wrong, and – more importantly – I don’t know that anybody really knows a good way to reliably achieve that reduction around here.  If we find something, you’ll be the first to know.

So, helping people is hard, perhaps especially by giving money from far away.  Concentrating even on cases of health aid and where we think outright harm is unlikely, I have argued that institutional constraints suggest that the probabilities of helping could be much lower than we think.  Ethics asks that we consider expected benefits – not best case scenarios – so it matters if the probabilities of actually accomplishing anything are small.

But I haven’t argued that the probabilities are zero.  Experimental economists and psychologists have shown that people are very bad at thinking about small probabilities: we round both a one-in-a-thousand chance and a one-in-a-billion chance down to zero, even though these are actually very different.  As Derek Parfit argues in Reasons and Persons, this sort of misleading intuition could lead to bad decisions, when you have to factor in really big numbers.

For example, let’s say on Giving Tuesday you decide to sign up to give rice $100 a month.  (Thanks!)  Now, for this example, let’s imagine that hiring new people is hard and we’re already pretty busy.  So, let’s say that there’s a 1% chance that your extra money causes us to take on an extra project, report, presentation, or evidence-based advocacy agenda.

What happens if you get lucky, and we do expand our activities?  We write some more op-eds and show some more power-point slides.  Policy-making is complicated; politicians and bureaucrats have a lot to worry about, and not all of them care about the infant mortality rate (although I’m pleased to report that many of the ones who work on sanitation in India do).  Let’s say that our hypothetical policy research that you helped cause has a 1 in 10,000 chance of achieving some sort of minor change in central government sanitation policy in Delhi.

Multiply those together, and that’s a pretty tiny probability of success: one in a million, to be precise.  But there are over a billion people in India.  As long as the hypothetical policy change makes people at least just one dollar’s worth better off, on average, then in expectation your donation created more value than it cost you.  With different numbers, it could start to look like people like you and I have a pretty compelling obligation to give.

The final answer, then, isn’t something we can reason out from an armchair.  It requires knowing something about how good we humans and our organizations are at helping.  My guess is that, on average, we’re less good at helping than some philosophers believe, but better at helping than many people with money to give realize (especially if we donate carefully).  If so, there may still be some good giving left to do.

Happy Giving Tuesday!

Asking dirty questions in Bihar

For the second morning running, I am pleased to report, Aashish’s and my team here in Darbhanga, Bihar has beat Sangita, Nikhil, and Diane’s team in Rewari, Haryana in getting out the door and surveying in the morning.  To be fair, I must confess that yesterday we won only by a nose: Diane made the mistake of calling to taunt us that they were all in the jeep and ready to go, but hadn’t yet started.  As her luck would have it, we, too, were all in the jeep.  I shouted to turn on the car, the final condition for victory by the rules of our contest.  I wish all the best to the other team for tomorrow morning – really, you would think they would have a good chance, as we have the handicap of an extra surveyor.  And, you know, Bihar.

In other important business, we have a great set of surveyors who are getting a good job done.  We’re in the first districts of a project that will take us to 8 states in Hindi-speaking north India over the next few months.  It is a hard survey: we’re not merely trying to learn what people have or what they do.  We’re trying to learn what they think, want, and believe.

What people really think is hard to learn about for all of the ordinary reasons that it is hard to learn about in everyday life.  It is sometimes, for example, impossible to get anyone in my family to say where they want to go for dinner, for fear of imposing their preferences on the rest of us.  Sometimes, we have the opposite problem.  Or, consider a friend with a new haircut – are you really going to declare that you don’t like it?  What if it is not a friend, but a visitor, a special guest, who has come a long way to learn about you and what you think?  Chances are you’re going to try to be nice, or useful, or friendly, or maybe just say whatever you think is going to make you look good.

So, our basic strategy is to hide the fact that we’re interested in sanitation and latrines for the first half of the survey.  We don’t lie.  We simply ask about all sorts of bits of village life in addition to sanitation.  We end up getting the respondents talking about their opinions on quite a lot of village life – indeed, we call it a “village life survey.”  Do you think that children would be healthier in a village where people eat wheat or where they eat rice, or does it not matter?  [so far, I have not seen anyone think that this does not matter.]  What about cooking fuel – do you think children would be healthier if people burned gas, or dried cow poop to cook over?  What about if most people use latrines, or most people go in the open, or does that not matter?

One measure of our success is that people are willing to tell us – fancy strangers here from the district capital city to interview you – that open defecation is good for you, that latrines don’t really matter, and that finding human poop laying around isn’t really that disgusting, anyway.  For example, on the very first day of practice surveying last week in Uttar Pradesh:

  • Only 45 percent of respondents said that children are healthier in villages that use latrines; a full 41 percent said that they are healthier where people defecate in the open.
  • Fully 82 percent said that they would find a dirty dog in their house more disgusting than encountering human poop on the ground.  (Would you? Lizzie, Allie, Laura, Doug, Juan, I’m looking in your direction…)
  • Almost nobody says they particularly want a latrine who doesn’t have one, when given a hypothetical choice among other exciting options like a cooking pot, electric fan, or black and white TV.  Contrast this with the answer you would get by walking up and asking somebody if they want a latrine: “You bet! When will you deliver it?”

There is about 73 pages’ more to the survey than this.  In particular, we’ll be able to look at differences across social and demographic groups, and across places, in who thinks and does what.  And we’ll be able to look at the relationship between what people think and what they do.  We will know a lot of detail about how exactly people get their latrines and what they make them out of once they decide to switch.  And we will have a pretty good idea of what the government, non-profits, and businesses have to do with it – or don’t.   In some cases we have a pretty good guess about what we are going to find, but I am sure there will be surprises and puzzles.  We will keep you posted!

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