Archive for June, 2008

When I signed up to work with a development NGO in India, I had very romantic notions of what my experience would be like. In February 2008, I began working with an agricultural development organization called Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK), which is partially staffed by scientists and works to improve the livelihoods of farming families and empower rural women and youth. In my mind, I imagined an organization full of individuals who were passionate about organic farming, dedicated to caring for the land, and intent on building good rapport with farming communities.

My experience at KVK has turned out very differently from what I expected. The first few weeks I spent mostly trying to figure out everything that went on at the organization and how it all functions. I found myself sorting through project “documentation” – piles of ratted notebooks full of scribbled Hindi. Often my search for information at KVK would be interrupted by lengthy questions about the freckles on my arms, or Monica Lewinsky.

With time, I developed my own research project on gender roles and decision-making power in agriculture in an effort to better sensitize KVK’s project towards the specific needs of women farmers. Though my coworkers were confused as to what I expected to gain out of a project that did not involve graphs and charts, I pressed on.

Once my project methodology was completed, I headed to my selected village and began making friends. I lived with a family, slept on their roof under the stars, wow-ed the village with my chapatti-making skills over the kitchen fire, and washed clothes in the river. But I quickly learned that I was not going to find a magical way for KVK to empower farming women. In essence, though my research idea and methodology were good, I learned that one doing the research should have been someone else besides myself.

Indeed, I concluded that only field staff – people from or living in the village – would be able to have truthful, meaningful conversations with reserved Rajasthani villagers about major problems in their lives, relationships with spouses, and household decision-making power. I, a wealthy, educated, foreign woman, cannot do that very successfully. Likewise the wealthy, educated, upper-caste staff at KVK, who conduct interviews in full suits and eat their lunch separately from the villagers, cannot do so very well either.

My project supervisor was not sad to see me let go of my gender analysis project, as she couldn’t quite grasp how I was going to graph my findings anyway. Now for the last two months of my internship, I will spend my time interviewing farmers and writing case studies of KVK program successes and failures. KVK wants written case studies for use in their Powerpoint presentations at annual meetings. My hope is that the stories I write and leave behind will put a human face on the agricultural development programs, giving color and emotion to the black and white numbers that fill their annual reports. Perhaps it will encourage future, deeper conversations with the farmers who are the beneficiaries of these development programs.

In the end, my frustration with the privilege of development work in India was only exacerbated by the knowledge that I cannot do anything to change that in the course of my 6-month internship. But it is possible that I have started to help it. And maybe after repeated encounters with FSD interns, KVK will begin to alter the way they go about development work. For my part, if nothing else, my internship has shown me first hand the potential, the limitations, and overall the harsh reality of development in the third world. And for that it has all been worth it.


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Community members celebrating the completion of a safe water source in Igombe village.Over the past few months, FSD intern John Allen has been involved in water development efforts in Jinja, Uganda. John’s internship has been hosted by Busoga Trust, an organization that seeks to extend the coverage of safe drinking water and sanitation to rural communities in Uganda. With his background in Civil Engineering, John has been working actively with the technical team at Busoga Trust to serve communities by facilitating the construction of shallow well sources. This has improved the health of residents in communities like Igombe, where villagers have worked together to construct a clean water source.

With some exposure to water development before coming to Uganda, I thought I had a decent understanding of the use of appropriate technology. Then I arrived at Busoga Trust and discovered something that confused me. I was disappointed to find out that my host organization preferred to implement hand-dug wells to boreholes. I was perplexed by the “slight compromise in quality” present in hand-dug wells, as was explained by my supervisor. Of course, the organization’s reasoning behind constructing so many shallow well sources was simple; they are about one fourth the cost of a borehole. A woman collecting water from a traditional sourceNevertheless, I was not completely satisfied with my supervisor’s explanation, but I began my work in the field ready to oversee hand-dug well construction. It wasn’t until I first arrived at Igombe community for needs assessment that I fully understand my organization’s philosophy. A couple of Igombe residents took to me to the bottom of the hill to inspect the community’s “traditional water source.” This was no more than a rainwater runoff pond completely open to contamination from nearby livestock. At this point I realized that by constructing cheaper shallow wells, the impact of water development efforts would be maximized by serving more communities, and that a hand-dug well was infinitely better than the water sources rural communities accessed. Later, during the process of constructing the well, I understood another important reason for why shallow wells are constructed. Through the process of building their own well source, I was able to observe the residents of the village come together as a community. With each villager having his own tasks and responsibilities the community was able to work as a team with the knowledge that upon completion of their collective work, the village would benefit from better health that would result from the completion of a safe water source. This was further reflected in the interest garnered in health education sessions, as community members learned how they could take an active role to ensure their own health and that of their children. All of these activities of the community transformed my opinion of water development works, as I came to the realization that the technology which promotes community involvement and capacity building and has the widest impact range is the most sustainable.

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Over the past 6 months I have worked with Centro de Entrenamiento para la Producción (CEP). They are an NGO established to assist small and medium sized businesses (PYMES) through technological development and business training. The Argentine government recently created subsidies and tax credits aimed at increasing the competitiveness of Argentine PYMES. CEP acts as a window for these programs by assisting in paperwork and requirement fulfillment. They also manage the government sponsored training programs, by designing course content and allocating in-house instructors. Another side project at CEP involves supporting two new inventions to market, including a novel suspension system for cars or machinery, recently patented in the Europe and U.S., as well as, a new energy efficient windmill, still in the design and prototype construction stage.

My greatest accomplishment with this organization was built around a personal idea utilizing their resources to create a consulting and training project within the marginalized areas of the local community. It allowed me to directly work with and help at least 20 individuals while truly left a legacy in Argentina! For about 2 months I networked, sympathized and analyzed a mountain of information with a large number of people all over the city from social movements and cooperatives to entrepreneurial assistance groups. Through this research, I was able to write and win a grant proposal for a consulting project working with a few local comedors in Buenos Aires province leading workshops in social entrepreneurship for cooperatives. The project was a pilot program aimed specifically at social cooperatives in local comedors1.

These cooperatives formed out of a need for resources in the comedors as well as a desire by local women for respectable work close to home. One of the participating cooperatives was still in the organization stage buying start-up materials for their bakery through a grant received by another FSD intern and were in need of a how-to business plan. The other participating cooperative is a sewing group which began a little over one year ago. They were dependent on NGO support and lacked organization, management and sales volume. Through the information gathered in the needs assessment as well as assistance from CEP and other NGO specialist organizations, five strategic workshops were designed in team building, accounting, marketing, costs and operations.

Most of these “entrepreneurs” had low levels of formal education and a few were illiterate, making the design and substance challenging. To my great surprise, after utilizing a few comic strips, pictures, diagrams and role play examples, the women participated comfortably and discussed a lot of interesting ideas and opportunities.

The final workshop was a small discussion group, bringing together the two cooperatives with another well known cooperative group in the local area. During this workshop they not only shared experiences of best practices, challenges faced and advice, but they networked together and will now sell to one another. As a special guest, two men from La Obra de Padre Cajade shared their experiences. The Obra is a well known and very large social entrepreneurial group in the province. All of the cooperative groups chatted back and forth sharing stories and asking interesting questions about the others work. It was the perfect networking session as I really think they learned from each other. At the end of the workshop, they even coordinated to work with and buy from each other! The sewing cooperative and bakery found a new client in Padre Cajade. As a supplement to the classes, I created a 50 page manual in Spanish and using many pictures and examples. The manual goes into a bit more in depth on all of the subjects covered in the workshops and includes a section on common mistakes and general advice. I assembled an appendix providing extra entrepreneurial and community resources as well as a section of fair trade national and international organizations. The manuals were distributed to each of the participating women and to the representatives of the Obra. Copies were also given to various NGOs with hopes of further distributing to those in need of the information.

During the final discussion, my co-workers from the other departments of CEP began discussing the project. My direct boss proudly told them of all my hard work and showed them a copy of the comprehensive manual. Through this connection, all areas of CEP jointly expressed interest that future FSD interns will continue the workshops to reach more cooperatives as part of a community outreach program for the NGO!!!

In the end and all of my hard work, multiple marathon miles of walking and hours of planning and writing paid off. The manual is my pride and joy and will help many people even after I am gone. By giving personal attention to each cooperative and working directly to help shape their individual business models, I was able to teach them practical skills increasing their organizational desires, personal work ethic and a more dynamic understanding of their companies and themselves. They in turn, taught me a great deal about bravery, flexibility and tenacity.

Amid both success and challenge, I became incredibly humbled and found a sense of irony in the ultimate simplicity of it all. Some of the women could not read or write and most never finished primary school, but all shared their experiences and learned from one another. This manner of collaboration and education has laid the groundwork for a network of social commerce services. These lasting memories are a true sense of pride and fulfillment that can only come by teaching and learning from others.

Information about the groups this project was able to directly reach:

Estrategia & MTD

This link is a video explaining the MTD movement. For those that cannot understand the Spanish, the pictures explain a lot.

Estrategia is one of the Comedor cooperatives involved in the training workshops. They are a part of the MTD movement as explained in the link above. This movement basically fights for the rights of unemployed workers. I was able to sit in on a members meeting, where as activists they discussed not only “lobbying” options, but also an array of community support activities. Estrategia is part of the community service arm of MTD, officially a separate community comedor. As mentioned previously, another FSD inter, Arvil Antonio Gonzales was able to help assemble a local bakery business to not only support the comedor but the local community and many excited local women bakers. They received a mixed material oven from another NGO, which can use anything as fuel, including old newspapers or wood scraps mixed with grass and weeds. This business is ideal because of its location within the villa or township area of the city and the needs of the community for local commerce. Their bread is made from a Bolivian recipe, which is reflective of the heredity of the neighborhoods residents. Not only this buy the bread can be cheaply made and has a unique exceptional flavor. Yum!

Arco Iris, Working World and Otro Mercado

Arco Iris already had a relatively structured business system in place and new infrastructure. This sewing cooperative specializes in dog clothing but has been able to accommodate special orders, such as messenger bags and babies clothing. Through a micro finance loan, they purchased beautiful new high-tech sewing machines, on which they have all been trained, significantly increasing the quality of their products! This cooperative lacks a bit of direction and organizational structure as well as consistent sales. They also seem to have a high reliance on outside NGO assistance and I believe the workshops have brought them closer to independence.

Working world also known as “La Base,” is a micro finance organization which provided the loan for the new sewing machines and works closely with them offering advices and acting as a middleman, selling their products online. The link above shows their line of dog clothing, which is of fairly high quality. I was impressed by their attention to detail and concern for quality control. Their outfits come in both polar fleece and cotton and vary in styles. They are extremely cute and well-made so if you have a small dog click on the link above and buy some!!

The cooperative is currently in the process of connecting with the international fair trade movement through an Italian company called, Otro Mercado, who happens to have a retail store in downtown La Plata. This provided the opportunity to cover the fair trade objectives in the operations workshop as well as the final discussion. Many resources to this movement were provided in the appendix of the manual as a very strong and secure option for many social cooperatives.

Obra de Padre Cajade

This organization was started by a priest who left an amazing legacy and a strong system of community support to continue his work. The Obra is very well-known and a very large social entrepreneurial presence in the province of Buenos Aires. It includes three orphanages hosting various ages of children and five social businesses. The amazing concept of these businesses is that they are used as a form of apprenticeship teaching above the education they receive in the orphanage. The profits from these businesses are all reinvested into the orphanages to create more opportunities for the children. Definitely check out their website, although it’s only in Spanish but if you can read it, you cannot help but be impressed! Representatives attended the final discussion and shared insight based on their past experiences.

1 Comedors are NGO community assistance programs located in the most impoverished areas of the country, which provide food, education and other support activities for the community.

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Casey Lord is interning with Sambhali Trust in Jodhpur, India, an NGO whose mission is to empower Harijan (“untouchable”) women by providing them with an environment free from discrimination and home duties where they can learn new skills in sewing, embroidery and basic English. Casey is particularly involved with the sewing initiative of the trust and is hoping to use her time In Jodhpur to strengthen the trust’s sustainability by improving the market prospects for Sambhali’s handicrafts.

Some participants of the Sambhali TrustFighting the mounting summer temperatures of the Thar desert, I carefully wrapped, pleated and pinned my new cotton sari into position this morning in preparation for another meeting with Jodhpur bureaucracy. Saraswati has checked my tucks and folds and given me a red bindi – I look the part and I’m ready to go. Today I am going to the police station on behalf of a local Harijan woman whose life has been turned upside-down by her betraying, polygamist husband and in-laws. Pinkie’s husband has married and had a child with a fourteen-year old girl, bringing his ‘new family’ into the home where Pinkie and her children already live. The in-laws, also sharing the house, are favoring the ‘new family’ and are abusing Pinkie in an attempt to expel her. Pinkie has nowhere to go and has no control over the situation. I will stand with six other (also Harijan) women and protest for her basic right to a life without threat or violence.

Sewing classThis is not exactly an average day of my internship, but it’s certainly not unusual. There are forty-five participants who meet daily at Sambhali Trust but the outreach of the project is somewhat larger. Govind, the trust’s founder, is an incredibly dedicated and passionate man who is entirely committed to the welfare of these girls. His efforts overflow the trust’s permeable boundaries and touch the lives of the girls’ families and other needy members living in the community. The girls at the trust are encouraged to stand up for themselves, act on their own initiative and ultimately build a sense of worth and solidarity so deeply rooted that it will stay with them when they leave the project and bear fruit to a life more successful than that of their parents. Thus, when Pinkie approached Govind in dire straights she met not only a man who would refuse to turn her away but an army of forty-five young girls all ready to fight for her cause.

The girls practicing yogaI am almost halfway through my nine-week internship and have had the opportunity to learn a great deal about working with a grassroots organization and have become fully immersed in the local culture. I’m reaching a transitional stage of applying what I have learnt about the needs of the trust and its participants into a personal project, a project that coheres with the trust’s mission and serves to increase its sustainability. Quality control and rigorous management are recurrent problems that NGOs with a sewing program face everyday, and I hope that my Western background can bring an alternative light into the organization. By researching successfully established organizations in the region Sambhali can develop a model on which to base its growth, and as the organization evolves into a self-sustainable project it can endeavor to support its participants even once they have left.

Govind has great dreams about the future of Sambhali and its sister organizations and I feel very excited to be a part of the realization of these dreams. I am grateful to FSD for providing me with the opportunity to work with such a special organization, to form a mutual relationship of new knowledge and experience, and for allowing me to join forces with a very unique army of empowered women.

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