Patching Development and Strengthening Ecosystems

In “Patching Development”, author Rajesh Veeraraghavan, explores the the “last mile” of implementing social and development programs, noting that implementation generally receives less attention that the “first mile” of political will and program design.  By choosing a case in which the “first mile” issues were not the main constraint,  “Pathing Development” focuses on what it takes to implement a development program in the context challenging of local political realities. 

Veeraraghavan explores the implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh (AP) (I shared a few thoughts on this case when it was still a PhD dissertation).  In many ways, this was a best-case scenario.  The newly elected leader of AP was strongly motivated to successfully carry out NREGA, and thus political will for implementation was strong.  This led to the appointment of capable and committed top bureaucrats in the NREGA program, with significant autonomy and room to experiment to ensure success.  Crucially, these bureaucrats understood the kinds of “last mile” implementation challenges that plagued development programs in India, and knew they had to address these if NREGA was to deliver results.  Nevertheless, Veeraraghavan’s main point is that this strong enabling environment was necessary but not sufficient to ensure successful implementation.  Adaptively navigating the politics of “last mile” challenges was far from certain.   Yet adaptation is precisely what the bureaucratic leaders of NREGA did, through a process Veeraraghavan calls “patching”, drawing on a metaphor related to software that entails top down, iterative fixes to address very specific problems that have arisen and/or been identified over time (including those caused by an earlier patch, or that an earlier patch failed to fully address).

The NREGA patches came in two general domains: the direct implementation of the NREGA program itself and an embedded state-led social audit process carried out on an ongoing basis.  With regards to the former, the NREGA leadership leveraged digitization and ITC to generate significant data about the implementation of NREGA across the state and to “patch” various elements of implementation, from what kinds of projects were allowed in which localities at certain times of year (to disallow the most corruption prone projects – like ditch digging before the rainy season) to how often NREGA workers could change work groups.  Many of these “patches” leveraged the use of technology, both the digitization of information in NREGA and the use of mobile phones by front line bureaucrats to input information.  Patches could be sent out across the state with the press of a button, rather than the cumbersome process of ‘circulars’ which are the standard way of communicating changes to lower levels of the bureaucracy in India.

Equally important was the implementation of the NREGA social audit.  This is a massive process undertaken by a quasi-state agency (SSAAT) that is granted significant autonomy to carry out social audits of NREGA to ensure that funds are reaching workers.  Social auditors periodically fan out across the state, reviewing records and speaking to NREGA workers directly to surface discrepancies between the formal program records and what is happening on the ground to ensure that rural workers are receiving their wages. 

Veeraraghavan’s account of the “patching” of NREGA in AP is deeply contextual and nuanced.  He has spent significant time with both the bureaucratic leadership and in the villages were NREGA is being undertaken, including being embedded in social audit processes.  He is thus able to speak about the nature of the implementation problems, the thinking and approach of the NREGA bureaucrats to these, and how this plays out on the ground.  The back-and-forth dance between high-level and frontline bureaucrats throughout the “patching” process is fascinating, and powerfully demonstrates why attention to implementation is so critical.

The “patching” of NREGA in AP is an important case.  However, as Veeraraghavan notes, AP is somewhat of an outlier.  It’s essentially the only Indian state to meaningfully implement the social audit component required by NREGA law, and the level of commitment and expertise of the political and bureaucratic leadership seems exceptional.  What can we take from this case, given the extraordinary enabling environment in which the patching of NREGA took place?  How does this compare to a case in which this enabling environment was not present?    

“Patching” vs “Weaving”

For the remainder of this review, I’ll make a comparison to the implementation of NREGA in the state of Madhya Pradesh (MP).  I’ve had the opportunity to explore this case through engagement an civic organization called Samarthan that has worked for many years to ensure the responsive and accountable implementation of NREGA in MP. 

The MP government also set up a semi-autonomous Social Audit Society (SAS) as part of NREGA, perhaps based on the AP model.  However, MP’s SAS enjoys much less political support than its counterpart in AP, limiting its ability to meaningfully promote accountability in NREGA.  For example, the SAS leadership role has been left vacant for extended periods.  Much of Samarthan’s work has been to complement the weaknesses of the SAS and the social audits it undertakes of the NREGA program.

Samarthan has worked to build the capacity and autonomy of the SAS to bring it closer to the level of the SSAAT in AP, and thus strengthen the rigor of the SAS-run social audits.  Samarthan has played a role in developing the social audit methodology, ensuring that local social auditors are trained and sufficiently independent, etc.  However, Samarthan was aware of the limited political support for the SAS and understood the limitations of periodic social audits to ensure meaningful accountability in NREGA (the same limitations Veeraraghavan notes in the AP context); both constraints suggested a need to go beyond strengthening the SAS.

Thus, Samarthan sought to strengthen the social audits on the ground and complement them through other approaches to strengthening accountability.  For example, Samarthan brokered a relationship with the state Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) office, which led to social audit data being considered in state financial audits as well as CAG auditors following on 50 random social audits to verify the findings and press for remedial action.  Samarthan also engaged with local media across the state to share social audit findings, thus putting pressure on local government officials to act on these.  Furthermore, Samarthan played a key convening role for many small CSOs across the state, connecting them to the social audit process to bolster the SAS role. 

Finally, Samarthan took on direct roles of facilitating social audits to ensure these were carried out effectively:

“Samarthan generally took on the most difficult aspects of the social audit process. Samarthan ensured the quality of the audit and verification process, often leading those processes directly. The organization also often facilitated the gram sabha meetings in which NREGA anomalies were discussed and decisions made with regard to corrective action. Most important, but least visible, Samarthan leveraged its contacts and credibility with a wide cross-section of actors to ensure the social audit process could take place and result in meaningful accountability. In particular, Samarthan worked closely to ensure the cooperation (or at least minimize the obstruction) of village and local elected officials and bureaucrats, many of whom may have felt threatened by the audit process.”

Thus, Samarthan sought to ensure that social audits were undertaken in a similar manner to those of the SSAAT, but was able to go beyond some of the limitations of the AP social audits.  With a similarly deep understanding of the local power dynamics that Veeraraghavan observes in his book, Samarthan clearly grasped the limitation of periodic social audits in the context of deep power disparities.  Samarthan sought to strengthen an ecosystem of accountability actors and efforts around the social audits to ensure their effectiveness and complement their limitations.  Local CSOs, media and Social Watch Groups made up of retired government workers and other local notables helped balance power relationships at the local level.  Perhaps most importantly, Samarthan organized unions of NREGA workers in 50 village clusters to enable collective representation and action by NREGA workers. 

In other words, it seems to me that Samarthan generally ensured that the social audits were of a similar quality as those undertaken in AP, and made an effort to address the limitations of the social audits Veeraraghavan observes.  However, significant challenges remained.  Although many instances of corruption in NREGA were identified and corrected through the social audits and Samarthan’s efforts to complement these, the underlying accountability weaknesses were not being fully addressed, meaning that corruption and manipulation in NREGA continued.  This is especially true because Samarthan had to rely on actors at state and local level who are benefitting from the status quo, thus the CSO had to walk a delicate tightrope of pushing for meaningful oversight of NREGA while not pushing so hard that those benefitting from corruption pushed back. 

Samarthan has not “patched” accountability for NREGA in MP in the same way as the key stakeholders have done in AP, principally since it couln’t impose top down “fixes”.  Nor has it been a disruptive hacker, seeking to input code as a rogue agent.  Rather, it has tried to create the context for an “open source” accountability for NREGA in MP, in which it could complement the existing code and catalyze a broader set of actors to “crowdsource” accountability, weaving these together into some kind of accountability ecosystem around NREGA. 

Strengths and Limitations

Even with Samarthan’s delicate balancing act, the political will for even a minimum of NREGA oversight is not guaranteed, and political leadership in the state has at times acted to further limit social audits and other measures.  These challenges have forced Samarthan to knit together several accountability strands, with social audits as a central pillar but complemented by other pro-accountability actors from local to state levels.  Samarthan has sought to  keep the pieces aligned, a challenge given the diverse incentives of the actors involved. 

Over time, and with an important caveat, this approach seems to have similar potential for oversight of NREGA as the AP model, and may even plant the seeds of a wider coalition to realize the transformative potential of the program.  NREGA unions could enable more collective action by workers, both to ensure effective social audits but potentially go beyond that to shift local power dynamics more broadly.  The caveat, however, is that shrinking civic space in India constrains the work of organizations like Samarthan.    

The bottom line is not surprising, the accountability “patching” in AP and Samarthan’s ecosystem efforts in MP have both led to improved implementation of NREGA, particularly in funds reaching workers rather than being siphoned off.  But both have faced limitations.  Veeraraghavan’s account of AP raises questions about the government’s approach of “going it alone” as it seeks to “patch” NREGA.  Lack of political will for accountability in MP forced Samarthan into an “ecosystem” approach in which it brought together a diversity of actors.  The latter approach is more complex and fragile, but is the only option in contexts in which the enabling environment is not as strong as in AP.  And in the long run, if the ecosystem can be iteratively strengthened (or at least maintained), it may hold greater promise of more meaningful shifts in power and accountability within and beyond NREGA. 


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