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An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.
― Plutarch

It has been said that women who are closest to the world’s most pressing issues are best placed to solve them. Women are economic factors: They produce and process food for the family; they are the primary caretakers of children, the elderly and the sick; and their income and labor are directed toward children’s education, health and well-being.”Women hold up half the sky,” in the words of a Chinese saying, yet that’s mostly an aspiration: in a large slice of the world, girls are uneducated and women marginalized. Most aid programmes   are just trying to make poverty tolerable rather than working to   eliminate it.  What is now needed is   empowerment of women in ways to enable them to work out their own path out of poverty.

In India there is  home grown and popular model for empowering village women through financial access and provision of other services .it is known as  the self help group mechanism. It is in practice for more than two decades and has   transformed the lives of millions of women, several of whom now occupy important positions in village administration. A typical Indian SHG consists of 10-20 poor women from similar socio-economic backgrounds who meet once a month to pool savings and discuss issues of mutual importance. The women cross guarantee each other’s debts. Their collective strength is used as social collateral to avail loans from financial institutions.

I recently decided that it would be a good moment to go back to the villages in Maharashtra to find out what local people had to say about our twenty years’ of work among them.  , I wondered what the villagers would have to say. Would there be the same story of initial enthusiasm and hope worn down by a string of disappointments, as had been the fate of the social actions programme before me? Did villages still suffer much poverty?    Swati    showed off the new brick lanes, electrical poles and street lights installed under her supervision and checked on the progress of a new community hall, being built for Rs 90,000. I found that the villagers had now put a premium on educating girls. This was in contrast to the trail of unkempt, unwashed children who would circle me during my stay in the village. I overheard a group of children in school singing a series of what sounded like nursery rhymes. On closer listening they turned out to be catchphrases from popular television commercials. The women’s bright clothes were flashy symbols of their newfound prosperity and some had jazzed up their houses. Irrigation previously had consisted of asking the gods for the rainbow. It was sprinklers and ponds all around.

Rupali was so excited that she could barely stop talking about her experiences. “I used to be so ignorant—I barely stepped out of my house—but now I know where the BDO sits and where the Collector’s Office is located. If the village sarpanch (headman) does not listen to our problems, I do not hesitate to go straight to the higher officials to lodge my protest.” Her confidence stems from her involvement with the literacy programme operating in her village for over five years. The women explain how they discovered their inner strength since their involvement with the Self Help Groups. It is no longer possible for anybody to short-change them by paying them less wages. “Now we are armed with information. We know what the minimum wage is and demand it without hesitation,” says Malabai. Earlier, the sarpanch would bring in cheap labour from neighbouring villages to work on government projects. “This is absolutely illegal. We fought against it and battled it out to ensure that the work was allotted to our villagers and that they were paid their rightful wage.”

You will find that life is far different from what it was a few years ago. Not substantially richer, no—there is still drought, no industry, only rain-dependent agriculture—but better. Warora’s villages have clean water, and many have pipes carrying that water to a pump in every backyard. Most houses have soak pits, a simple and cheap drainage system dug outside every house that eliminates standing wastewater; they are moving on to toilets.

What we need today are innovative solutions that can take into account the peculiarities of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. . When poor communities think at the human level, all their goals are interconnected. But under the   top-down model, with the absence of a global grass-roots movement with the communities as equal partners, the goals have been broken up compartmentally into project mode, to suit donors and governments. Now more than ever, it is important to reaffirm that significant advances are attainable for the rural poor, who are a potential source of great wealth and creativity, but who must first and foremost seek their own survival under present institutional, cultural and policy conditions. Their poverty deprives not only themselves but also the rest of us of the greater value they could produce under more conducive circumstances. I feel that the people who have pioneered the various programmes that have now become transformative and revolutionary models, recognised this potential and sought to evoke it.

There’s a tendency these days to give up on poverty, to dismiss it as a sad but inevitable feature of humanity, particularly at a time when we have deep economic problems of our own .  Aid is sometimes given badly or not as well as it should be. Aid is not responsible when it is used to patch up the effects of basic differences that are built into the structure and values of society. From this point of view, aid can sometimes be seen as actually accepting the injustices of society while trying to mitigate the results of the injustices. Moreover in the case of aid and philanthropy, only a small percentage   was actually going to the needs of the poor; instead it was mostly directed to other causes — cultural institutions, for example, or their alma maters — which often came with the not-inconsequential payoff of enhancing the donor’s status among his or her peers.

The right way to empower women is to equip them with levers of change.A vast range of social financial and political experiments are being undertaken the world over. Social innovation is taking place at multiple levels, driven by passion to make a difference. But as with most trumpeted development initiatives   the present programmes are also struggling to   turn rhetoric into tangible success. A lot of good programs got their start when one individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. But several of these programmes were difficult to scale up. We increasingly have the tools to combat it. We know what to do if we just can summon the political will.

Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decade .He can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    If every village identifies its work and women come forward to set goals and try to achieve them by collective efforts, the country can become rich with almost no poor people left. The politicians who meddle in village affairs should not be allowed into the village. The whole planning and economics must be left to village panchayats and womens organisations giving them maximum autonomy in formulating policies