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Posts Tagged ‘NGO’

ShobaHampered by the complexities of working in a foreign country, an unknown language and an often alien culture, I found weaving together my picture of the work of the Veerni Project was similar to the process of creating the intricate quilted wall hangings made by the women of Rajasthan – a process in which the final design appears only slowly. My first priority was to develop a thorough understanding of the NGO I am working with, its strengths, weaknesses, needs and capacity.

Veerni works with six rural villages in the Jodhpur region of Rajasthan, India. The team helps to provide health and nutritional care, economic empowerment and education to the women and adolescent girls, and raising awareness of key issues such as malnutrition or domestic violence in the whole community. They run sewing courses to provide women with a means to generate their own income, provide literacy centres for girls who will other wise not attend school, and also fund a hostel in Jodhpur, where 85 village girls are able to benefit from improved health, nutrition and most importantly, a full time education.

Fifteen weeks seemed like ample time from my home in London, time that has now become compressed as I have realised the complexities of development work, even within my own small role. What has gradually emerged from the patches of quilt is a possible synergy between Veerni’s groundbreaking work on nutritional supplements, designed and patented by the nutritional team, and their less developed programme on skills training for income generation. An in-depth survey of the villages, their current nutritional habits and awareness and receptiveness to the idea of new income strategies, could assess the potential to initiate a women’s cooperative to produce the Veerni nutritional supplements. Ideally, this would provide employment and income to the women involved as well as easily available low-cost supplements to local families. This synergy of increasing women’s ability to nourish themselves and their families while developing their self-respect and status through income generation appeals to me. However, it is only by asking the women themselves that I can discover if such a project is viable in the hard grind for survival that characterises their day-to-day lives.

Rajwa_womenThese women are the human capital that is so often wasted in an area that has some of India’s lowest female literacy rates, female to male sex ratios and health indicators. And yet behind the gloomy statistics there lies a wealth of potential. Conducting interviews of some of the girls attending the Veerni hostel I met Shoba Choudhary, a seventeen-year-old from Rajwa village, who has been at the hostel for one year. Rajwa suffers from all the blights on women that plague one of India’s most underdeveloped states: the female literacy rate is 3.69% and the village population is 580 women to 611 men, clearly showing the number of ‘missing women’. Yet despite being married at eight, and now under pressure from her fellow villagers to give up her education and return to her family, Shoba displayed a quiet but impressive confidence and self-knowledge. ‘Education is a girl’s true friend’ she said, and talked of her ambition to attend college, pass the tough civil service exams and work for the government of Rajasthan. Only time will tell if Shoba can overcome the pressure from her village and achieve her ambitions, but her intelligence and maturity are a sign of the immense human capital Veerni is working to cultivate.

Back in Rajwa, as I observed the field staff and the women and children they worked with, the most powerful images were sensory: the vivid pink of the women’s head veils, the Indian sun baking the almost barren earth and dullness of malnutrition in some of the children’s coal-lined eyes. I understood nothing of the Mawari spoken, but what I could appreciate was the respect felt for the Veerni field staff. The men listened when they spoke and the women slowly pulled back their veils in their presence. This respect, and its fruits in terms of the true community engagement and trust it indicated, was a better introduction to the work of Veerni than any annual report or flashy website. It was also a crash course in the patience required for community development; a patience that does not come naturally to most Westerners, perhaps especially those who want to ‘make a difference.’ I may have emerged from the first phase of the internship process, but the real challenge, to develop a little of that patience, dedication and humility, is only just beginning.

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schuhrkej-1My FSD internship here in Jodhpur is with an NGO called UNNATI (the word unnati means “progress”) and is centered on their disaster risk reduction program. The major disaster here in the desert of Western Rajasthan is drought. My previous experience has dealt with hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires, which tend to be very visible events with a clear beginning and end. It is easy to see their impact because you can clearly see the difference from before and after the disaster; it’s dramatic and typically gets a lot of attention when it happens. Drought is different because it has no clear beginning and end, and so its impact is more difficult to see. It becomes a regular part of people’s daily lives, and therefore doesn’t seem as dramatic and gets less attention. It’s insidious and gets to the true nature of disasters as more than just one-time events.

The ongoing drought here in Rajasthan weakens food and water security, and it severely hurts rural livelihoods. People lose valuable time and money just trying to get water, so they can’t maintain their crops and livestock, and are often forced to migrate to cities for work. UNNATI is trying to counter this in a few ways. One project they’ve undertaken is providing some funds for families to build water-harvesting structures like underground tanks able to catch and store as much rainwater (which is extremely minimal) as possible. These tanks can also store water pumped in from tractor-hauled tankers that bring it from various sources like ponds and canals, though the owners/drivers of these tankers often charge unfair prices. For this, UNNATI is buying some water tankers and tractors and will give them to village committees, which will manage and oversee their use, and will charge fairer prices.

The organization has also undertaken a horticulture development project with about 30 households. The women of the households oversee their own plots of berry and plum-producing plants that require little water. The plants can provide extra food and fodder during times of scarcity, and are also reliable sources of income when the families sell the fruits.

schuhrkej-2UNNATI did not originally do this kind of work. Instead, the organization has traditionally worked to empower the Dalits, also known as the “untouchables”. In India’s ancient caste system, the Dalits were given what were considered the dirty jobs like dealing with waste and corpses, and were thus seen as permanently polluted and literally untouchable, and were treated as sub-human.

Since the time of India’s independence, the government has sought to eradicate “untouchability” and engender equal rights. While the overt mistreatment and oppression of Dalits has mostly ended, there are still subtle ways they are discriminated against. They are often systematically denied decent jobs and livelihoods, as well as access to quality education and other basic opportunities. It’s easy to draw comparisons to racism in America, which has also become subtler in recent decades.

This discrimination is very similar to the drought. Both are forms are of deprivation—one is a sort of environmental deprivation while the other is a sort of social deprivation; and also both are insidious and subtle, rather than dramatic, overt situations that get a lot of attention. Not surprisingly, the Dalits tend to have the least access to water, often living farthest from water sources, and also not having the money to afford storage tanks or tanker-delivered water. So, while UNNATI originally worked with Dalit activists to help them assert their rights, it now also works with them to reduce their vulnerabilities to drought.

schuhrkej-3Many of my Indian colleagues are ashamed of the continued discrimination against Dalits. Speaking with Indians about Obama’s election back in my home country, a lot of them seem to think such problems in America are all over and only India is dealing with negative discrimination now. I try to tell them it’s not that simple. As proud as I was to see Obama win on November 4th, I was disappointed and ashamed at the passage of Proposition 8 in California and similar measures in other states.

But the election of Obama is definitely a mark of progress for the U.S. Looking at all the struggles for social equality that have taken place throughout my country’s history and how far we’ve come, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” So I don’t despair the passage of Proposition 8 or the continued discrimination against Dalits, but instead have the “audacity to hope” that it’s only a matter of patience, faith, and dedicated effort before the long drought of injustice finally ends.

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As a nine week intern in India, time is short and work is hectic. Although, I have limited time here, I was still able (with the support of the FSD site team and my co-workers) to implement and obtain funding for a project. The Institute for Local Self-Governance and Responsible Citizenship, my host organization, conducts bi-weekly, trainings for members of panchayati raj (India’s village government and representative system). The Institute does not have any substantial data that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of its trainings. This lack of evidence has started to become problematic for the NGO because donors and future investors want proof of the trainings’ positive impact.

In an attempt to help the Institute evaluate its trainings, get funding, and improve the quality of the training itself, my co-workers and I designed an interactive evaluation game entitled the “Rainbow Game”. This game is color coordinated by training categories. The rules and questions are simple. The game will be played by participants at the end of all six-day trainings. By recording the amount of incorrectly and correctly answered questions for each category, the institute will be able to document the amount of training information retained by representatives. In addition, the game will be fun, colorful, and easy to follow, especially since the majority of trainees are illiterate.

In the picture: From Left to Right: Ms. Varsha Jhanwar and Mr. Pratapmal Devpura edit the questions and answers section of “Rainbow Game”.

As a foreigner, who does not speak a word of Hindi, it was very difficult to design and develop a project. The work and living environment has been nothing less than challenging. However, it has been a positive and humbling experience. Since this is my first time out of my home country, it was hard to admit my vulnerability and deal with the fact that I am a burden to my host family and especially my host organization. Before the internship, I knew that I would be a drain on my organization’s resources, but I could have never prepared myself for the task of embracing my limitations while discovering which skills (that I possess) could be used to the Institute’s benefit.

My creativity, my determination, my adaptability, my pride, my previous conceptions about Indian culture, and especially my patience have all been challenged during my stay in Udaipur. Yes, the Indian work culture is at times frustratingly slow, but in order to make any difference I learned to adapt, embrace, enjoy, and respect this different way of life. Random power outages, six chai (tea) breaks a day, office gossiping, and the hierarchical work system can be wearisome at times. However, the atmosphere at the Institute has been by far the most enjoyable office environment. At work there is always an endless supply of jokes, laughter, invitations to homes and celebrations, curiosity, respect, challenges to video game competitions, and offers for rides home. It has truly been my honor and privilege to work at the Institute for Local Self-Governance and experience the good, the bad, and the quirky facets of India’s work culture.

In the picture: Taken from the rooftop restaurant Mehwar Haveli, this is one of many breathtaking views of Udaipur. It reminds me of something my co-worker and friend, Ms. Varsha Jhanawar, said to me when I was frustrated, “Ashley, you need to stop stressing, go take rest, and watch the sunset”.

Although I have felt uncomfortable, lost, and frustrated, the experience of working in Udaipur has been empowering in its own way. My project is nearing completion and will be implemented next week at a monthly training session on women’s empowerment for elected representatives of several wards (local districts). Despite the obstacles (such as language barriers, cultural differences, limited time, and disagreements over the development of the “Rainbow Game”), it will be used and played. To have left something not only beneficial, but sustainable has been acutely rewarding and significantly outweighs all of the negative experiences.

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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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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
http://www.theworkingworld.org/?action=market&subsection=Pet%20clothes

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
obradelpadrecajade.org.ar

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.
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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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