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Manavodaya - A Quiet Revolution

Authors: Carl Poll & Varun Vidyarthi

There is a quiet revolution going on in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. A revolution seeing a true paradigm shift of power to low caste poverty stricken villagers previously disenfranchised from wider society. All based on a completive approach led by villagers themselves.

This approach has been developed by the Manavodaya Institute of Participatory Development over the last 30 years training thousands of facilitators often from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as professionals including government officers, bank managers, and leaders of non-government organisations and managers of various international development projects in methods of participation, empowerment and self-help. In turn these facilitators have helped millions of families move away from abject poverty and enslaved as bonded labourers.

So why you might never heard of this approach?

The clue is in the name ‘participatory development’. It’s not based on well-meaning donations, or promoted by a foreign relief agency with a sophisticated marketing and media departments or managed by such an organisation. Instead those in whose lives have or might have been blighted by a vicious cycle of deprivation are with a little facilitation finding their own solutions. Hundreds of thousands of self-help groups now exist through Manavodaya and what they actually do is shaped by the participants but there are some common themes especially at the outset:

  • People come together (often in practice women) to reflect on the challenges in their lives – usually a cycle of poverty, a lack of hope and a sense of only the government or aid agencies have solutions.
  • They create a small savings scheme amongst members, at the outset this may be as little as saving a few grains of rice. As funds slowly build members of the group are able to take small loans to pay for such things as medical treatment for their children. Without such a scheme they would become indebted or ‘bonded’ to local loan sharks. As the savings scheme increases further loans are taken to establish a small business or a few livestock.
  • As the scheme becomes established, it’s then recognised by banks who in turn will make loans (previous credit in this way being inaccessible to poverty stricken individuals) this credit being used to further develop livelihoods.
  • Key principals are established from the outset about the local management of the scheme to establish trust, so one member holds the money box, another the key and a third the ledger – a transparent approach. Loans are repaid on time with interest and if they don’t the members themselves decide upon the action to be taken. All processes managed and self-directed by villagers themselves

Manavodaya provides the training for facilitators, who are identified by having qualities of deep humility – that villagers know their problems and have solutions within their possession and the facilitator much be willing to engage in a process of inner development working on their own attitudes. The facilitator is trained to work with groups to uncover solutions in a dialogue which may be over many meetings, sometimes facing initial rejection and a sense of failure, but holding a resilience to help the group recognise they hold power as a group if they work together in a similar completive manner. A key aspect of training for the facilitator being to keep a constant vigilance that the group does not become dependent on their presence as a facilitator. The level of control and self-management of the group distinguishes this approach from credit unions and other micro credit organisations.

In the western societies such an approach may be at odds with the target-driven approach that has become more and more dominant over recent years. But there is plenty of evidence that while professionals intervene in people’s lives with the attitude that they bring solutions, little changes for any length of time. People mostly remain dependent. Although the focus initially in India is often a money saving scheme it’s not unlike where self-directed approaches can develop where the professional becomes the facilitator and those requiring additional support are facilitated on the basis they know their problems have solutions within their possession.

Below is a short piece written by Varun Vidyarthi who leads Manavodaya about Sheela a facilitator who has been trained with financial support of Manavodaya International.

Sheela's story

Sheela, 45, is a self-made woman whose life has been full of struggles. She was chosen by Manavodaya for training and support as a local facilitator due to her courage and determination to work for disadvantaged women in her village despite the challenges in her own life.

As a girl, Sheela was discouraged from going out of her house even to attend school. With a strong determination she occasionally managed to get out and pursue studies, but could not clear the tenth standard board exam and had to agree to marriage. Her husband having only High School education did not approve of her decision to continue studies. But she was able to obtain the support of her father-in-law, a school teacher himself, to continue with her studies and clear High School exam.

Sheela has three children. Her husband does not earn enough to support the family making it necessary for Sheela to look for work. She first got the job of a health educator in the village. This brought her in contact with a large number of disadvantaged women. So when there was a need for a woman in a state-run project on women’s empowerment, Sheela was the natural choice.

Sheela came to Manavodaya as a member of the state-run project for a week long training in the formation and management of Self Help Groups in September, 2014. Unfortunately, after the training programme at Manavodaya, the project was wound up prematurely for various reasons leaving Sheela and her groups to fend for themselves.

Manavodaya chose Sheela as a facilitator from several local applicants because she showed a determination to work in accordance with Manavodaya’s plan for long-term sustainability of groups. This implied a total shift in approach from reliance on outside support to a sense of ownership by people themselves. It also meant promotion of self discipline, accounts transparency and strong credit management practices.

Sheela is facilitating 20 Self Help Groups in village Bedaru, block Shivgarh, a district in Rae Bareilly of Uttar Pradesh. Since Sheela lives in the same village she is able to constantly monitor the activities of group members - a total of 200 women belonging mostly to the scheduled and backward castes and with average family size of 6. Sheela is influencing the lives of around 1200 people.

It is by no means an easy task to motivate and check on such a large number of members, as there is always a tendency to default on agreed rules and procedures leading to bitterness and mistrust.

One of the main challenges of Sheela, as understood from meetings in the area are:

  1. Change in the mindset of women: To make them understand that their group belongs to no one but to themselves. Government support through projects will come and go but their group shall remain and benefit from them only if members develop a proper set of rules and bye laws and abide by them.
  2. To promote regularity and discipline among members, a process that needs understanding among members and collective nurturing including willingness to fine in case of default.
  3. To build transparency in accounting: Sheela has to learn the process herself and introduce it in all the groups with patience and skill of an accountant.
  4. Credit discipline: Making the members understand that credit discipline is for their own good and that it helps in getting more loans from the bank. There are multiple features of credit discipline related to collective appraisal by the group that needs to be understood by all.

Though the groups are in their early stages, members have started drawing benefits. According to last reports, the groups had borrowed Rs 1,19,000 (around £1,200) from the local bank for various activities and the repayments have been regular. Most members are looking forward to greater amounts of loan from banks to initiate small business. However, this will be possible when the accounting system is streamlined after introduction of new account books and suitable training at Manavodaya.

To find out more visit https://www.manavodaya.org


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Manavodaya - A Quiet Revolution © Carl Poll & Varun Vidyarthi 2013

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.