Kate Raworth has written a very compelling article about the need to redesign economies to address inequality. The change requires relinquishing old economic thinking, which said something like, “Inequality has to get worse before it can get better in a growing economy,” and replacing it with new thinking that builds on “a network of flows” which are distributive by design.
From Emily:At Imago Dei Fund, we are honored to discover inspiring people with ideas that make cool things happen in the world. One such example is Courtenay Cabot Venton, the author of this post and an economist working in global development, who has spearheaded the development of an app being used around the world through a web of partnerships. This app helps people develop“self help groups” in impoverished places, making use of technology to empower and uplift their members. In many ways, Courtenay’s story of creating this app to empower women shows how the very nature of empowerment is changing.
I met Meseret for the first time in Nazareth, a town south of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Meseret is a member and leader of a Self Help Group (SHG) approach that I had been asked to evaluate. We were sitting in a small room, rain falling on the tin roof, as she told me about her journey with her SHG. It is a story that will stay with me forever – and inspired me to develop tools that could help to share this approach with as many people as possible.
Self Help Groups (SHGs) are groups of 15-20 people – mostly women – who come together to save, invest in small businesses, and support each other and their communities. By saving together they are able to lend to each other for small business activities. But more importantly, by working collectively, the women feel empowered to create change in their communities. What’s more, the approach tends to go viral once seeded, with existing groups helping to set up new groups.
Determined to do something more, I pulled together a team and we collectively developed an app that would help facilitators to strengthen and spread the Self Help Group model. The app is designed for the facilitators of the groups, and digitizes the weekly content that they use to run a meeting; we could see the potential for an app to help to deepen and strengthen the spread of the approach.
At the time, I had no idea where this would lead, or if we would be successful. With seed funding from private donors, we started small and developed a prototype. That led to catalytic funding from the UK government. Three years in, we have funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a vision for a digital platform to help scale the Self Help Group approach globally.
The Inspiration: Meseret’s Story
Meseret came from a poor family, but they managed to get by. Her parents supported her and her four siblings to go to school, and Meseret had plans to go to university. That all changed when her father unexpectedly died when she was 14. Meseret had to work in the evenings after school to help support her family. Her mother wanted to marry her off to an older, wealthy man, but she resisted and married Belay, her childhood sweetheart, when she was 18.
The next year they had their first child – a daughter named Kalkidan – and moved to Nazareth to find work. They slept on the floor of a rented room. They had no money or food, and Meseret was struggling to nurse their baby. Belay would bring home the lunch that he received at work, and they would share that one meal.
Some of the local women invited Meseret to join their Self Help Group. They were meeting each week and working together to save, start small businesses, and create change in their community. Meseret was skeptical – she was very poor and didn’t see how she could change her life. Nonetheless, she began to save a small amount of money – as small as a few coffee beans a day – and quickly realized that by working together with the women in her group, she was growing in confidence.
When she applied for a local government job – and got it – her husband began to beat her. She was disrupting the traditional role for women, and he didn’t like it. He finally gave her an ultimatum – him or her work. She chose her work. She knew that she deserved to be independent, to honor the education given to her by her parents, and to provide for her children.
Her Self Help Group was her lifeline. Meseret’s savings and income grew, she was able to buy a small house, and send her daughter to school. But more importantly, the women had become her family. When I ask Meseret how long she thinks her Self Help Group will stay together, her first response is a confused expression. Then the smile creeps across her face, and she begins to laugh. “We will be together forever. We are sisters.”
Disrupting traditional approaches to aid
As an economist, I have been asked to evaluate many different types of projects – from water to health to education. And while there has been a lot of success, there has also been a lot of failure.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have been in poor communities around the world, and witnessed perfectly constructed schools, standing out amidst a horizon of mud huts, but with no teachers or teaching materials…
Hospitals with no medical supplies…
Water pumps that are no longer delivering clean water…
The Self Help Group approach instantly caught my attention. It was the first time, ever, that I sat in a village, speaking with a group of people affected by poverty, and not a single person asked me for assistance. Quite the opposite, they were talking over each other, overflowing with examples of the ways that they were creating change in their communities, bursting with ideas for how to do more.
The approach disrupts the ways that we typically provide aid to poor communities. First, it believes in the power of the poor as change agents themselves. It breaks the cycles of dependency that are so rife in many developing countries. Change is truly grassroots, led from the bottom up, as opposed to activities being driven by external agents. And it’s scalable – once seeded, Self Help Groups can become viral, with rapid replication, often growing organically as SHG members from one group seed a new group.
Self Help Groups unleash transformative change. At the heart of the model is a focus on empowerment. Women have worked collectively to stop female genital mutilation, and have run campaigns to ensure that people with HIV/Aids are taking their anti-retrovirals. They have stopped child marriages from taking place, opened preschools, and advocated with local governments. They are driving change in their communities that we could never hope to do from the outside. They are transforming poverty from the inside out.
Building an SHG Digital Platform
When I returned from that first trip to Nazareth, I knew that I wanted to do something to help to bring this approach to more people. I started by talking to as many people as I could about the Self Help Groups, and a partnership started to emerge. Tearfund, the relief and development agency that was implementing the SHG model in Ethiopia, understood how the process worked. One Hen, a US non-profit that works with youth around starting their own businesses, offered to incubate a pilot. Code Innovation, a company that develops technology solutions in developing countries, saw the potential to build an app that would help to strengthen the SHG approach.
I was incredibly lucky that the concept resonated with a couple of private donors – friends of mine who don’t even work in the international development space but could see the potential and had a heart for seeing women empowered.
And so we embarked on building our first iteration. The app focuses on content – it provides a facilitator with the materials that they might need each week as they meet with the Self Help Groups. It gives them games and resources, at their fingertips. While mobile phone use is growing rapidly in developing countries, the cost and availability of data can be a blockage, so the app works entirely offline, making it accessible even in very poor and rural locations.
The first version of the app was enough to catch the attention of the UK Department for International Development (DFID), who gave us catalytic funding to scale our pilot by 1,000%, expanding to Tanzania and adding a new implementing partner. The process is heavily driven by user feedback, and we were able to start to respond to some of the facilitators’ requests by adding in significant amounts of content and functionality.
Last year, the project secured funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We just held a co-creation workshop in Nairobi with 18 implementing partners across Africa and as far afield as Haiti. We have over 200 groups in India who are using the app – despite the fact that we have never seeded nor sensitized any Indian partners.
The journey has been intense. I am so grateful to friends who provided the seed funding at the early stages when I was trying to develop the concept. But it was daunting to accept their funds, knowing that even the best projects can fail. I knew that the project would be far better served by bringing together a group of partner organizations who collectively delivered the expertise that would make this fly. But institutional donors were reluctant, wanting to fund a single dedicated organization – we were lucky to have partners like the Imago Dei Fund who valued our collaborative approach. And navigating the team’s different ideas and ways of working stretched our boundaries repeatedly. The team worked tirelessly, well outside the bounds of our funding, to get this project to each next step.
I am still pinching myself. It is amazing to see a concept grow into something that can help to bring the SHG approach to more and more women, and hopefully strengthen and deepen that process. Every step has felt like a leap of faith – and every step has been worth it.
From Emily: In so many ways, the creation of this app embodies the collective empowerment that so inspired Courtenay when she first heard Meseret’s story. Empowerment comes in many forms but at its core happens by creating vehicles to unleash the human spirit to change the world. You can’t empower someone else – it comes from within each of us but doesn’t happen in isolation. We find strength when we gather together to create a better world. Kudos to the whole team which came together to create this new app! If you want to find out more about Courtenay’s work or reach out to her, you can connect via her website at courtenaycabotventon.com.
University of San Diego’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice just announced a call for application to its Women PeaceMakers fellowship program. The 10-month fellowship will bring on four women peacebuilders to work in high conflict areas internationally, engaging with four international peace partners on the goal of reducing violence in the community. Each fellow will also be followed by a Peace Researcher who will “document her peacebuilding journey, and specifically, how she engages the security sector.”
Each year, an urgent peacebuilding issue is identified and participants are selected based on their work in that area. During the 2017-18 academic year, the program will focus on Women PeaceMakers working with the local security sector (police, military and other state security forces) to advance peacebuilding, human security, and women’s rights in pre-, during or post-conflict settings. The guiding question that the fellows will work on is:How can Women PeaceMakers and international partners build more effective local/global collaborations in their peacebuilding efforts to engage the security sector?Examples of civilian-led engagement with the security sector to ensure legal mechanisms are upheld and human rights are protected include the following:● Efforts to enhance accountability (e.g. civilian-led reporting mechanisms and efforts to combat impunity);● Facilitation of security sector reform (e.g. civilian-supported disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration campaigns of certain military, police or militias);● Building community-security partnerships● The work of former female combatants to reintegrate and rehabilitate fellow fighters
There are several components to this fellowship for women peacemakers, which is free for participants. More information on the fellowship and the history of the Women PeaceMakers program is available at the University of San Diego’s website:
Rajasvini “Vini” Bhansali spoke to me by phone from Mumbai, India, where she was working and visiting family, the trip to her homeland compelled by a family illness.
“We attract donors and ambassadors that are thinking about local and global connections,” says Bhansali, Executive Director of IDEX (soon to be renamed Thousand Currents). Bhansali notes that 60 percent of IDEX’s budget comes from family foundations, 20 percent from individual donors, and 20 percent from earned income. Last year, IDEX recorded a 45 percent increase in new individual donors, and as it morphs into Thousand Currents, the organization has added staff positions, including a grants coordinator, a community engagement manager, and directors of “donor organizing” and “diaspora partnerships.”
Bhansali stresses the importance of IDEX’s mission to fund the underfunded — to grow those innovative grassroots groups that need more support.
Based in Berkeley, California, IDEX’s mission is to support women, youth and indigenous people in the Global South. The main focus of this support is directed at developing sustainable agriculture, building income, and addressing climate change. Essential to these goals is fostering women’s capacities to serve as leaders and agents of change.
IDEX (International Development Exchange) was started in the mid-1980s by returning Peace Corps members. The IDEX name came out of a desire to stress “exchange” as central to the organization’s mission – the idea that development should be collaborative and cooperative, rather than top-down and dictated from afar.
At the time of IDEX’s founding, the notion of an exchange between the rich and poor countries was “revolutionary,” says Bhansali; now, it’s gaining momentum and becoming increasingly mainstream. Regardless, a constant reciprocity of ideas and values with local partners still animates IDEX.
Bhansali describes the decision to change the name from IDEX to Thousand Currents as pragmatic: to avoid confusion with other IDEXs, which include an engineering and manufacturing company, an international diamond exchange, and a weapons conference. In fact, if you google IDEX, the International Development Exchange comes up fourth, so it makes good sense to choose a name that more closely matches the mission. Thousand Currents feels like a better fit for an organization that has funded more than 500 community-led initiatives in Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Born in India, Bhansali lived in various parts of the country before coming to the United States as a scholarship student at the University of California, Berkeley. “I didn’t have a game plan,” admits Bhansali about leaving India at age eighteen for the U.S. While she considered pursuing a scientific career, she had always been interested in the intersection of civil society and development, and upon completing her degree, returned to India and worked in Rajasthan, a state in northwest India bordering Pakistan. Bhansali knows this area well, and it is a particularly difficult one for females, with few educational and economic opportunities, and high rates of female infanticide and domestic violence.
Bhansali returned to the U.S., this time to Texas where she worked for the City of Austin and the State of Texas, and earned a Master’s degree in Public Affairs, focusing on technology and telecommunications.
Bhansali’s next significant move was transformational: a two-year posting to Kenya serving as a management capacity builder with youth polytechnics. This work on behalf of the international anti-poverty organization Voluntary Service Overseas proved pivotal in solidifying her commitment to social change, self-sufficiency, and economic development among the world’s poorest communities, with a particular focus on women’s role in that struggle.
After her Kenyan appointment ended, Bhansali returned to the Bay Area, and in 2010 assumed the helm of IDEX (after having been the program director for a year). In addition to changing its name, over the last several years, IDEX has engaged in a process of reinvention. Part of this grew out of a post-recession downturn—which, Bhansali notes, affected many U.S. social justice and solidarity organizations—but much of it was about better defining IDEX’s relationship to its global partners.
Typically, a non-profit will itself try to measure whether it is meeting its program objectives and goals, or have a third party conduct such an audit. But IDEX took a different approach. “We had our grantee partners evaluate our effectiveness as an organization,” says Bhansali.
One message that emerged was that partner organizations wanted IDEX to become a more visible and vocal advocate for local influence and control over development initiatives. Alliance-building on the regional and national level is key in this regard. In short, the message from the field was that sharing and communication are important; not just around specific projects, but also to encourage an egalitarian development culture.
IDEX supports locally-rooted groups, movements, and collectives which lack funds. According to Bhansali, too often Western non-profits “are looking for the brand-new thing, instead of seeing what is there already.” New is sexy and commands headlines, but IDEX’s mission is to further develop the capabilities of women and other vulnerable populations by supporting under-recognized organizations employing grassroots-level solutions.
For this reason, IDEX doesn’t fund one-time projects, but establishes ongoing relationships lasting three or more years. One of their senior partners is Chiapas-based DESMI (Social and Economic Development for Indigenous Mexicans, an organization that IDEX has worked with since the early 90s. Another is GRAVIS, which has collaborated with IDEX since 1999 in helping Thar Desert peoples in Rajasthan, India generate their own social, economic and political opportunities.
The empowerment of Rajasthani girls and women is essential to fulfilling this mission, and it includes education and vocational training, as well as developing female leadership. Hands-on projects include drought preparedness for 20 villages, namely the construction of underground water tanks to improve water availability. Women and girls benefit greatly from this effort, as it is typically their job to carry water, often from long distances, to fulfill basic household functions. Other IDEX-sponsored initiatives in Rajasthan include seed banks, and projects to improve food security.
IDEX attempts to put the marginalized and excluded at the heart of development and social change efforts. Its initiatives include cultivating women and girls as leaders and change agents, and strengthening climate resilience, sustainable agriculture, and locally generated economic growth.
Naturally, small groups in poor, underserved and often remote areas don’t have websites, billboards and marketing campaigns alerting potential donors of their existence. “We have regional program directors who keep their ears close to the ground,” says Bhansali. Moreover, IDEX also gets “leads” from already existing partners to help in connecting with needy groups who are typically unknown outside of their immediate communities. “We are often their first international grant maker,” says Bhansali of such budding local organizations.
IDEX is part of a movement seeking to change Western attitudes and approaches toward giving and development in poor countries. The IDEX Academy, a week-long spring gathering at a Sonoma, California ranch, is part of this attitude-adjustment initiative. IDEX’s “Theory of Change” which rests on “Community Self-Determination,” “Organizational Resilience,” “Global Solidarity” and “Social Justice Giving” forms the curriculum of the academy. In addition to the retreat staples of learning, discussion and team-building, the varied attendees and faculty engage in art, performance, physical movement and nature activities. It’s all aimed at furthering a culture of collaboration in aid of global grassroots development and sustainability efforts.
Bhansali, who is also a board member at Greenpeace USA and the Agroecology Fund, and a member of the Advisory Circle on behalf of New York’s Women’s Building, says she feels a continual push and pull regarding her native India. This tension is perhaps not such a bad thing; after all, it is a continual dialogue, a back-and-forth with a spirit of collaboration that fuels IDEX’s (soon to be Thousand Currents!) ongoing identity development as an organization, as well as its ripple effects for communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America.Read More