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Posts Tagged ‘rajasthan’

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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gregoryj-11Following the introduction to my new family, I was to start my internship with the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF) the next day. Abi, my co-intern, and I arrived in good spirits, ready for organizational integration. We immediately set out with Sateesh, who is responsible for the Agoli Block Women’s Self-Help Groups (SHGs), to visit the Vishnu Nagar and Jashti villages. Our mode of transportation was an open-door jeep, which lacked seatbelts, but came fully equipped with a driver who had relinquished any sense of danger probably at birth. For anyone who has not traveled by open-air vehicle through a desert before, the best way to simulate the experience would be to turn on your hair drier and blast your face for two hours.

The Marwar region, located in the western portion of Rajasthan, occupies areas of the Northwestern Thorn Scrub Forest and the Thar Desert. It is known as an arid and inhospitable region, yet paradoxically is the most densely populated desert in the world. Climatologists typically define a desert as having an annual rainfall of 250 mm or less; the Marwar region receives somewhere between 100 to 500 mm. To make matters worse, its water table is falling at around 1 to 2 m each year, and up to 5 m in some areas.

Enter JBF, its genesis is based on the principle of developing “a persuasive alliance with the people of Marwar to make the region water secure.” Their modus operandi is to educate and mobilize rural communities around water issues, such that by providing them with financial support and engineering expertise, disadvantaged communities can empower themselves to achieve local water sustainability. JBF’s straightaway success encouraged generous grants from foreign development agencies, which has been used to employ over 100 people and facilitate the installation of over 250 projects in only five years.

gregoryj-2Ironically, our project has little to do with JBF’s core operations; rather, we have been instructed to develop a system for encouraging micro-enterprise businesses within their SHGs. These groups are bodies designed to build social and financial capital in disadvantaged communities; they have been integral to the microfinance movement within India since the 1980’s. Originally, they were established to allow the poor access to basic monetary systems, including savings and credit, by dispersing the risk amongst many women. Over time, they have grown into social empowerment tools for their members, and they are currently regarded as mechanisms which could facilitate diversification vis-à-vis alternative livelihoods and income generating activities (ALIGA). JBF has been establishing SHGs for about two years and presently operate a total of 54 groups. Predictably however, they are unsophisticated and wanting in comparison to their counterparts to the South, who have been operating in earnest for over 15. Both Vishnu Nagar and Jashti are among the A grade JBF SHGs, yet nonetheless appear woefully behind the progress in the rest of India.

gregoryj-3However, even possessing this knowledge cannot dampen the sense of advancement, ambition and optimism radiating from the women within these groups. Not all possess this glow, but presumably the ones that do will pass it on to those yet to fully comprehend their own potential. The Vishnu Nagar women have recently bought a mechanised flour mill for the bajra (a grain similar to, but coarser than wheat) grown in their fields. It allays the necessity of traveling four km by foot to purchase flour from Agoli; minuscule, but demonstrative progress.

The Jashti women have adapted the SHG model to their pre-existing wholesale embroidery business. Some women in the group have been practicing their craft for 25 years or more. The results are impressive and symbolically Indian. Upon asking one of the men if he has noticed any changes in his wife Meenakshi since the establishment of the group, he tersely replies “she has become more talkative,” which spawns an eruption of laughter from the group and one abashed lady. Although a couple questions later, her self-confidence replenished, she brazenly elucidates her desire “to be the owner of a shop at the Mehrangarh fort [in Jodhpur]” … and moreover, to have husband work for her! In the end, she gets the last laugh.

Our task at hand appears overwhelming at this stage of the internship. However, hopefully by the time we have crossed the last “t’s” and dotted the last “i’s”, some of these women will be on their way to achieving their dreams and escaping the poverty trap.

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India’s booming economy is thrusting the wealthy of India into the ranks of the world’s richest, but how about everyone else?

After my first two and a half weeks trying to find my place in the charming chaos of India I can confidently say that the sight of a traffic jam caused by a 52 sheep pile up, the shameless stares of complete strangers on the streets and the new function of my hands as dinner utensils is quickly become routine. The 6 Udaipur interns, including myself, are all stuffed with stories (and chipatis) and are enjoying a friendly competition for the most compelling chai rendezvous, most bizarre host family member and best Indian fashion sense. I could stand to learn a lot when it comes to the fashion sense.

On a more professional note, we are all gradually coming into our own development projects at our respective NGOS. I am working with the Sahayata Organization with a group of cheerful and motivated young professionals and a delightful supervisor nicknamed Babuji. The Sahayata Organization is as an emerging urban micro Finance and Livelihood initiative in Rajasthan. It was started by a team of professionals who were aware of the large gap that exists between traditional means of finance and the economically marginalized sector of society. Sahayata has successfully established itself as a revenue-based service provider in order to achieve the dual objectives of social and economic empowerment of the community as well as the sustainability of this intervention. Now Sahayata is in the process of expanding the organization to include a non-profit financial literacy program.

Not only will the financial literacy program be advantageous to the women of Rajasthan, but it will be one small step towards a more financial savvy India. India’s booming economy is thrusting the wealthy of India into the ranks of the world’s richest, but how about everyone else? In the last fiscal year the GDP growth rate was 9.1% and India’s economy established itself as the twelfth largest economy in the world and the second fastest growing economy, after China. However, despite the new boomtowns of Bangalore and Mumbai, most of the Indian population is still hovering below the poverty line, untouched by the rising national wealth. According to the new financial inclusion index, India is doing very poorly when it comes to the rate at which people use banking products and make investments. The financial inclusion index “is a measure of the availability and usage of banking services in key nations of the world, and is based on indicators like the number of bank accounts per 1,000 adults, numbers of ATMS, and amount of bank credit and deposits” (The Economic Times, 24/7/2008). In order for the majority of Indians to benefit from their profitable economy, financial inclusion must be the key priority for the NGOs, the government and banking institutions in the upcoming decade. Through our financial literacy program, Sahayata hopes to be a catalyst in the push towards a larger middle class and a healthy India.

Currently I am doing a needs assessment survey with our loan clients to evaluate their level of financial literacy and find out if they would be interested in a money management tutorial. The response from the clients has been overwhelmingly positive.

We have already recruited a great teacher from the nearby college who is well-versed in economic policy and financial management and we hope to begin the pilot project in two weeks. The pilot project will consist of three groups of women. One group will be familiar with basic financial terminology such as Budget, Risk, and interest. This group will consist of women that have bank accounts. The second group of women will have some idea of the basic financial terms but no substantial knowledge and approximately fifty percent of these women will have bank accounts and the other fifty percent will keep their savings in their homes. The third group of women will have little to no knowledge of financial management and will consist of women that do not use banking institutions. Our teacher will meet with each group twice a week for a period of eight weeks. After which each group will have a final examination so we can evaluate and monitor the success of the pilot program for each group.

I would have to say that the largest obstacle in the way of my success in this internship will most likely be the language barrier. However, with the help of our language teacher Retchna, we are speedily becoming acquainted with Hindi and in the interim, big smiles seem to be the best way of building a good rapport with new friends.

Namashkar,

Nina Robbins

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I arrived in Rajasthan in September ready to learn about microfinance. I was dissatisfied with my previous life in the corporate world, and was yearning to do something meaningful and deeply fulfilling with my life over the next 8 months. Seven months later, my mind has begun to discover the intricately multifaceted nature of development work and my heart has found a life-long passion for alleviating poverty.

Rajasthan, IndiaI have been working with ACCESS Development Services, an Indian non profit company, which has a presence in several Indian states. ACCESS partners with local Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to upgrade the livelihoods of India’s poorest and develop local financial services that can support their income generating activities. I’ve been working with a microfinance consultant, a livelihoods consultant, an administrative assistant and our fearless team leader. I have been involved with various projects, but I will focus on my involvement with the Microfinance Insititution (MFI) incubation project.

I have learned about the steps involved in incubating MFIs by helping the team incubate the first 8 MFIs in the region. So, what have I actually been doing? I have participated in Institutional Capacity Assessment Tests; written Business Development Plans, funding proposals and operations manuals; organized workshops; participated in exposure visits, developed management information systems (MIS); and trained MFI staff on various financial, human resource and microfinance concepts. At the Towards Sustainable MFIs workshop that I was asked to organize, we spent 2 days walking the participants through critical concepts that they must master to become self sustaining organizations.

In order to reinforce some of the concepts shared through workshops, we organized an exposure visit to a well established MFI, the Maha Shakti Fountation (MSF), on the other side of the country. It was a long train ride! Below, on the left, the partners are learning to use MSF’s sophisticated MIS. On the right we are visiting a family that runs a very successful vegetable farm with a working capital loan from MSF. This exposure visit made a world of difference as vague theoretical concepts became concrete action plans in participants’ minds. Listening to MSF’s history gave participants the confidence to move forward. If they could do it, so can we!

Learning to use MSF’s sophisticated MISA family that runs a very successful vegetable farm with a working capital loan from MSF.

While group learning is very helpful, an important part of my role has been visiting partner organizations to give their microfinance staff one-on-one support as they gain confidence with some of the concepts shared in workshops. We have spent a lot of time with microfinance program directors such as Jayesh from PROGRESS (pictured below in red). One year ago Jayesh didn’t even know the meaning of the acronym MFI. At this point he is an empowered manager with ambitious expansion plans. On the left, I was enjoying some chai, while reviewing PROGRESS’ Operations Manual with Jayesh and Nomesh. On the right, Jayesh is appraising one of the lending groups that is benefiting from PROGRESS’ microfinance program. These 11 women are an example of the poor people that microfinance aims to help by providing contextualized savings, credit and insurance products that can support their livelihoods.

Reviewing PROGRESS’ Operations Manual with Jayesh and Nomesh.Jayesh appraising one of the lending groups that is benefiting from PROGRESS’ microfinance program.

As a team, our efforts over the past 7 months have enabled our partner NGOs to disburse an additional USD 125,000, giving over 1000 men and women in Southern Rajasthan access to a microloan. I am thrilled to have been a part of transforming the lives of those people! By interacting with consultants, managers, bankers, funding agencies, government officials and clients I have learned that microfinance is a small part of a larger package of solutions that must be delivered together in order to make a lasting impact. I am grateful to ACCESS because the experience that I have gained in India has prepared me for my next role as a research assistant in microfinance and livelihoods in Peru. Thank you FSD for putting me in touch with such a great organization!

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