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Manavodaya - The Art of Facilitation

Author: Carl Poll

Carl Poll describes the powerful impact of Manavodaya and how it helps facilitators develop an attitude of humility in supporting people to achieve social change for themselves.

Manavodaya is itself quite a humble sort of place, not a huge building, not huge offices. In Hindi it means ‘human awakening’.

I went on a three-week community development course there, in 2004, and came back convinced that there was something really important about this that I wanted to tell people about. I’ve been trying to figure out ever since how it applies.

Manavodaya is a combination of a fieldwork establishment and a training place. They learn about what to do by carrying out fieldwork, with very poor villagers, typically living well below the international poverty line.

A very typical scenario in these villages is people being in debt to money lenders – high-caste people who live in the village and lend them money. For instance, I met a woman whose husband had been crushed by a buffalo. She was living below the poverty line, she had no savings, no NHS (National Health Service) and so she borrowed a large sum of money from one of the moneylenders in the village, and the agreement was that she would pay this back by working on the money lender’s fields. 

What she didn’t discuss – and this is quite common – was how long she would have to work there. After 6 months she decided she must have paid off the debt. The money lender disagreed, appeared with the police, seized her land and she became a bonded labourer, effectively a slave to the money lender, forced to work on her old fields – which were now the money lender’s – for ever. And her children would have work there alongside her as well. This is the appalling situation that some people still find themselves in.

So what does Manavodaya do about this?

Manavodaya trains facilitators. Partly this training is about technical skill; but at a deeper level this work is about developing an appropriate attitude in the facilitator who does this work. 

Facilitators start by having a long dialogue with people in the villages. They recognise that the people of the villages are the true experts; they have the knowledge. The facilitators’ job is a relatively humble one: helping people to figure out what they want to do. Usually what they want to do is to get out of bonded labour, repay their loans and increase their level of prosperity.

So often what they do is they save - as a group.

Often the group has got no money, so it’s not about savings, it’s about dipping well into their subsistence earnings. Sometimes they don’t have money, sometimes they are only paid in grain; so each person in the group must save a small number of rupees, or some grains of rice, in a pot, every month. 

The group is then pledged to make loans to its members - it must make loans.

The group will charge quite high levels of interest, and it is incredibly tough on its members if they don’t repay; and so the money comes back to the group, it doesn’t go to a bank. And the result of that is that the pot can grow quite quickly. Later the group may go a bank and take out bigger loans.

People typically take small loans to start small enterprises. But they also start bigger projects, for example in one village a number of self-help groups got together and started a school

Another dimension to this change is that it is almost always women who start the groups. They are the ones who see the benefit. They are in the worst position in village, and they immediately see that there might be something in it for them. And this can lead to a quite significant political power. Self-help groups have joined together in networks, federations of self-help groups, and they will march together on matters of social justice.

Manavodaya started from very small beginning. It began work in small villages and their base was simply a tent on the side of the road, where they made and sold clothes to raise funds. From those very humble beginnings an effective social movement has developed. 

So what’s the magic ingredient here?

Is it so different from what we do in the West? Well I believe there is a significant difference.

At Manavodaya, they have fundamental belief in the capacity of disenfranchised and marginalised people, the people at the bottom of the heap in society.

Here, in the West, decade after decade, we hear the same old stuff, lots of good rhetoric. But what has changed on the ground? I believe relatively little.

At Manavodaya it's quite are quite different. People are the expert; they take control of their own lives. And they have control over the management of the group, its funds and whatever it wants to do.

There are a few examples of this present in Britain, but its very scarce.

What I’ve seen instead is professionals arriving into people's lives with their own expertise. They treat people as deficient, in need of help, incapable of solving their own problems, and being reliant on their professional expertise:

"They need me, I know what to do, I’m the one with knowledge."

And I believe that this attitude keeps people fixed in place: dependent, passive, recipients, waiting - waiting for professionals to solve their problems. This is an appallingly disempowering situation.

The key is humility 

None of this will work, none of this going into villages, treating people as experts, unless there is a certain attitude on the part of the person intervening. And fundamental to that attitude is humility. This is not an intellectual understanding of, "It is good to be humble" It’s a lived thing. The facilitators genuinely are humble.

For instance, I met Radj Kumara Suringeed doing the accounts and assumed he was the finance person for Manavodaya. And then towards the end of my stay I discovered he was also a facilitator and he had helped start groups in villages. He was a very quite man, when I said to him:

"Hey, you are a facilitator, how many groups have you started?"

He said, "100" and then he just quietly went away.

I would say that the attitude, the presence that the facilitator brings to their work with groups of people will largely determine what happens. If the facilitator is not humble, if they do not have a genuine internalisation of what it means to have these values, then a dependency will be created on the part of the people they are supposed to be helping. People will become passive, looking up to the facilitator and waiting for them to solve their problems.

So how do you start?

You can’t just say: "well I’m going to be a better person", because that’s unlikely to change much.

Reflection by facilitators at Manavodya has led to a practical account of the self-disciplines required to live and foster the necessary values, these are known as the 8 Steps in Action:

1. Income sharing - The first step is income sharing. Give some of your money away to a social cause. The problem for us when we just give it to charities is that we don't know where that money ends up. So it’s a good idea to shorten the line and give in a way where you really know what happens to your money.

2. Time sharing - The second step is to share your time. Give up your time to something that will benefit others. This is a critical step. 

3. Self-reflection - Spend some time each day thinking about yourself, what you have done, reflecting on what you have done, not punishing yourself. How could I have done this better? What did it mean that I did this and not that?

4. Collective reflection -  You must also reflect in groups because it is very difficult to get this process going unless you have the support of a group of people who are engaged in the same process.

5. Fault control - We all know that we have things that we don’t like about ourselves. And it is good to moderate these faults.

6. Speech control - Many of the people at Manavodaya don’t say much. Many of just talk, talk, talk. It is good to sit back in silence, let things sink in and think about what you are going to say and to listen to others.

7. Sharing domestic duties - A key issue is to challenge the gendered distribution of responsibilities and men, in particular, should take on more domestic responsibilities. This is something that in the UK men might be complacent about, but I suspect most of us could improve.

8. Local purchase -  The last key action is very interesting, it is to purchase locally, to reinvest resources back in your community and to build relationships across that community. This may be hard to do if you have a Tesco store next door, but wherever there’s an opportunity to support some kind of local enterprise, we should make that choice.

Is this relevant to you?

You may think that this is all very good in villages in Uttar Pradesh. What does it mean for the UK? Well I would say that if we had tomorrow a total paradigm shift from the way we are working at the moment, to this approach on the part of people intervening in other’s lives, we would see remarkable results.

Certainly there are some things around in the UK that we know of. There are organisations where the staff have genuinely understood the limitation of their role, their lack of importance and the care they need to take when intervening in other people’s lives, so that power is left with people, and not seized by them. 

Perhaps, as with the humble beginnings of Manavodaya, those few of us who try to work in this way now, will create ripples and things will begin to change.

This talk was given at the RSA and you can also watch a film of the event in the Centre's library.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Manavodaya - The Art of Facilitation © Carl Poll 2012

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