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How Can We Know What People Need?

Author: Barbro Borge

Barbro Borge from Norway benefited from a Carl Poll Scholarship in 2018 and attended the course in People-Based Development at the Manavodaya Institute. Here she describes her experience.

Earlier this year I was attending an international course in India. I travelled from a small and safe town in Norway to the most populated place on the Earth. There was so much clatter, so much sound, so many people! The difference from where I came from to where I travelled was very large. And for the first week I did not dare to go outside the fence. The traffic was incredible, everybody was honking their horn, and I remember thinking that since everybody did that there was no purpose anymore. In Norway we barely use the horn. But after a while I get used to it, and the last week I was crossing the road like a native. 

The purpose of my visit was to take a course at Manavodaya in Lucknow. The course is an international course, and people from all over the world can participate. It is about a paradigm shift in social work. The course is called People-Based Development and it is about how we can enable and empower people in need.

We have to help them help themselves; we cannot be giving them the fish, we have to teach them how to fish the fish. And this is quite a new way of thinking for many people. In Norway for example we have a practice of giving money. But what do we actually do? Is it to relieve ourselves from guilt? Buy us freedom from bad feelings? Does it help?

In this course we learned how we can help in other ways and how we can help people in need to help themselves. This would be a huge paradigm shift in social help, in social aid. We are not talking about critical emergencies - when we should do everything we can to help at the moment of crisis. But what can we do to improve the lives of the people in need on a daily basis. Is it possible to learn people can even teach themselves?

Yes it is.

I learned from Varun Vidyarthi that we can do so much. It's all about how we communicate, and whose reality really counts. Can I, as a Norwegian tell what an Indian woman needs? Can I possibly think that I know what she is in the need of? 

No, I cannot. 

And that’s the key. I must recognize that. It is not what I think that’s matters; I must figure out what she feels she needs. She is the master of her own life, and she has the resources to do that. And we in the Western world must recognise this, this is the whole meaning behind the paradigm shift. 

We in the West must stop thinking that we know best. We must sharpen our ears and listen. Be a bit humble and acknowledge that all people are masters in their own life, despite how things seem to us.

From my point of view, I might think that you are poor because you live another way than I do; but that is culture. Maybe I think that you need a fork, for example, but it does not matter how many forks I give you, because you do not think that this is of importance. I can think of many other examples, but let’s be honest; I cannot decide what you need until I ask you.

And I must ask you. So is it possible for international aid organizations to do this? Is it possible to give self-help? Can we please start helping in another way? Can we please start talking together? 

When we “just” give money, we think we are helping, but we are not. When the money stops, the help stops. We have not accomplished anything. It is not sustainable. It is not empowering. We need to help them to help themselves. And we need to learn how to do this. A good way to learn this is to participate at this course, People based development. It is the only way!

Varun and his wife, Amla Vidhjarthi, began a process which has helped over 8 million people help themselves, through the many facilitators they have trained! They have figured it out; they have been talking to women in rural areas, in Indian villages, and they have discovered the key that has helped 8 million people help themselves!

That’s quite a big job, for 2 people. But they have been dedicated. They have been following their hearts. And they have made a difference. I wish for more people like them, dedicated, honest and hard working.
I hope many more will attend this course, if one Western man pays to take this life changing course, it will pay for on Indian student to go to school and be a facilitator. Because we need many more facilitators. The education of facilitators is the main business Amla and Varun Vidyarthi do. They train facilitators in their institute in Lucknow, the same institute I went to do my course. The same institute they have built from scratch! I am blown out by the work of those two people.

The course is well planned. It is a good course. And I really recommend it. 

I appreciated the part of the program where we we visited local villages and institutions. It is important to be able to talk to other people, that’s the only way we can understand each other. The discussions are very interesting and are part of a cultural development. There is a lot of true learning in these discussions and it is very interesting to learn about other cultures. Then we learn that what we think is poverty, is actually not. It is just another way of living.

The philosophy behind this course is from Robert Chambers development theory, his book should be on the curriculum in every department of social studies; it will help us develop the world in a much more sustainable way.

Please consider attending the international course at Manavodaya Institute.


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

How Can We Know What People Need? © Barbro Borge 2018.

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.