Q&A

Fellows Friday with Yamini Aiyar

Posted by: Alana Herro
Yamini Aiyar founded the Accountability Initiative to track and inform the public of what really happens to government money in India. The Initiative also researches the effectiveness of accountability efforts in the country. The group’s work has drawn praise from Indian government officials, and even from President Obama. Taking a cue from her mother, a journalist who combined work and family time, Yamini enjoys cooking with her husband when she gets a little time away from her important work.

Interactive Fellows Friday Feature!
Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Yamini asks:

Do you have any innovative ideas on how to use new technologies, like the Internet and mobile phones, to disseminate information to disparate rural populations?

Click here to respond!

Tell us about the Accountability Initiative.

With economic liberalization and high growth rates, India’s social sector expenditures have increased significantly over the last decade or so. Yet, India continues to perform poorly on every conceivable human development indicator.

With this in mind, we set up the Accountability Initiative in 2008. Our starting point was to try and understand what happens with government money once it leaves the government coffers. Additionally, we do research to study the effectiveness of accountability efforts, like the Right to Information Act, to strengthen the public debate on improving accountability.

About twenty years ago, former Prime Minster Rajiv Gandhi summarized the accountability problem in India by saying that, of every one rupee that is meant to reach a village, only 1/15 of it reaches that village. Since then, every politician has attested to that fact, but nobody has attempted to systematically track this to see what actually happens on the ground.

So we decided to find out: of that one rupee, how much actually reaches the school or the health center? What actually happens to it, and why does spending this money not quite yield results?

Ultimately, we hit upon a process that we call Planning, Allocations and Expenditures, Institutions: Studies in Accountability (PAISA). We are implementing this program in partnership with two other groups: the ASER center and the National Institute of Public Finance. Through PAISA – our flagship project – we track monies from the point where they leave government coffers, all the way down to point where they ought to be spent.

For the moment, we are working primarily in the elementary education sector, tracking monies that reach elementary public schools. We then share this information with people who actually use government services. This information empowers them to participate in government processes and ask questions. We also share our information with policy makers. Indian government processes are so opaque and complex, that even policy makers themselves lack information on basic things like whether money reaches its destination.

Yamini explaining school level budgets to a Parent Teacher Association meeting in Madhya Pradesh.

We now have a team of 10 PAISA Associates that are based in the areas where we work. We are in the process of building their capacities to monitor government monies and programs. We hope that these associates will be able to go on and train others. Thereby we can create an army of citizens of India that understand how money comes through the system, when it reaches where it’s supposed to, how it reaches where it’s supposed to, and what actually happens to it.

How do you make the information available to the people?

At the macro national level, we do it through reports, meetings, conferences, sharing information with relevant policy makers. We use the media a fair bit to try to get them to report stories on the data we collect. India is so deeply stratified, that most English-speaking, English newspaper-reading communities tend to be policy makers. But they would never send their children to government schools, they would never go to government hospitals. But at the same time, they determine policy, so it’s important to target them.

But we also are experimenting with different ways to feed this information back to poorer communities. They are far more dependent on government services. I wouldn’t say we’ve found the answer on how to do it best. But we’re trying a couple of things. We use posters and we are trying to work with governments to include all the data that we have as part of the material that they share with communities. Government outreach is far, far greater than anything that any organization or non-profit could achieve.

We also are using the PAISA Associates who are currently being trained up as sort of ambassadors of the information that we have. We are beginning to select villages in segments. So we’ll start with five, and then move on to another five, and another. We work intensively with the village committees to share this information with them. And we are in the very beginning stages of a conversation on how we can use mobile phone technology to transfer this information to people. India has one of the highest mobile phone penetration rates, so that’s an opportunity waiting to be used.

Is this an anti-corruption organization?

In our work we take a very broad view of corruption. For us, corruption is not just experienced when someone asks you for a bribe. It’s also experienced when money doesn’t reach on the appointed day, when teachers take their salaries and don’t show up in schools, when people are asked to make a plan to spend government money but no information is provided to them. So to that extent we do work on corruption. We also study different anti-corruption efforts to try and understand what works and what doesn’t. For example, we are currently involved in a study on the effects of social audits (audits undertaken by citizens to identify malfeasance in public works programs).

Understanding that you’re a nascent organization, what does your preliminary data show?

Some of the findings of our first PAISA report were fairly troubling. The good news is that money actually does reach where it’s supposed to. But the bad news is it doesn’t reach when it’s supposed to. Which means that expenditures don’t occur in tune with what people actually need.

Let’s take the example of a school management committee, in a village in Madhya Pradesh, in central India. They had made a plan that they would use a maintenance grant to fix a leaking roof, so that during the monsoons the kids wouldn’t get drenched when they came to school. As it turns out, the funds didn’t arrive until January, and the monsoons occur usually in August. So the monsoon came and went, and the school roof leaked and leaked. When the money came, finally it got spent on something that was quite irrelevant to the school, because by that point the real needs of the school weren’t able to be fulfilled.

The third main finding that we had, was that infrastructure needs remain unfulfilled. For instance, although 90% of the money that reaches schools gets spent, over 40% of the schools in India still don’t have a usable toilet.

The report was fairly well received by government officials. And it at least successfully opened their eyes as to how money sorts through the system, and how services are delivered.

Have you seen any progress?

When we started sharing our evidence and data with various government officials, there were some who actually took the information quite seriously. Some have in fact decided they will now send SMS messages to school teachers informing them the day that the money gets released from their coffers. So if there are delays at the other levels of government, if the teachers already know that the money is supposed to come, then they are in a better position to start demanding it.

Yamini discusses the importance of accountability and transparency in elementary education at a lecture series in Delhi.

That’s a significant step forward. It paves the way for more information to go down to the local level.

Really, one of the big things is that we’ve been able to pinpoint some of the very nitty-gritty details of where the system goes wrong. Being able to give that an empirical backing enables a better, and more effective conversation.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation blog.

Don’t be afraid of taking a risk would be my first piece of advice. Even though it’s a bit lonely and daunting in the beginning, perseverance and hard work really pay off. Once you get past the first few hurdles, it becomes easier, so don’t give up.

Your mother was a journalist who reported on the lives of rural Indians. Has her career influenced yours?

My mother traveled a lot for work and whenever we had holidays, she’d drag my sisters and me along with her. I particularly remember a long trip that she did in Rajasthan, looking at the Indira Gandhi Canal. It was one of the first big dams that would bring water into the arid desert of Rajasthan. Her reporting involved going around to the various areas that were due to get water, and try and document what kind of changes this would bring to people’s lives. It was the beginning of taking me out of my comfort zone and seeing the disparities in people’s lives. When I came back I told my mother I wanted to be a social worker, so this sort of work has been in my mind for a long time.

How did the TED Fellowship influence you?

It was fascinating experience. I think I benefited most from just being surrounded by people who were doing such different, amazing things. It was an inspiration and has spurred me on. I went to TED at a time when I was exhausted by work. I’d been at it for a year and a half, and things were beginning to take off, and we were getting ready for the next challenge of making sure that once things took off, they’d make an impact. So I entered TEDIndia quite tired. But being surrounded by those people was really inspirational, and helped reinvigorate me.

You have a lot of hobbies outside of work, including cooking, being a “news junkie,” and classical dance. Which one are you most interested in?

Work and travel have really prevented me from keeping up with the classical dance. But I follow dance and music whenever I can.

These days I’m most passionate about cooking. It relaxes me post-work. Both my husband and I have been cooking up a storm lately, and it’s a good way of spending time together. We discovered an organic farm close to Delhi that delivers really nice corn-fed chicken, duck and lamb. So we are experimenting with different recipes for those. We’re indulging our carnivore side. And I have to confess, he’s a better cook than I am.

A little birdie told me you got to meet Obama on his recent trip to India. What was that experience like?

It was quite exciting. As part of Obama’s visit, they wanted to organize a “Democracy and Open Governance” expo and round table. It’s the starting point of what might be a longer-term U.S.-Indo collaborative idea exchange on the subject of open governance, one of Obama’s pet themes.

We participated in the round table, and also had a booth where we showcased some of the work that we were doing. We knew he was coming — we were the fifth or sixth stall — so I knew that he would get to us. But as he was approaching it was one of the few times in my life that I’ve actually been quite nervous to speak to someone. I was thinking, “Oh my God, how am I going to give him an elevator pitch — that’s Obama!” But it was a great experience — he’s so energetic and charismatic that he got the whole room going.

We shook hands, and he asked us a couple of questions about how we disseminate our information. So we showed him some of our posters. He said we were doing great work. I was practically fainting! [Laughs.]

Explaining school level budgets to a Parent Teacher Association meeting in madhya Pradesh