By Shrey Goel
This essay is one of two winning entries to the 2014 Finding Big Ideas Essay Competition. The other winning essay is Jennifer Fei’s essay, “The International Rescue Committee’s New Roots Program: Uncovered Terrain in US Refugee Resettlement.” Last year’s winners were Courtney Mullen’s essay “Belenpampa Clinic,” and Narissa Iqbal Allibhai’s “Young Artistic Leaders Rising from the Slum.”
My foray through the Global Poverty and Practice Minor unfolded almost exactly as I imagined it would: theory, followed by praxis, followed by reflection. And yet, in following this trajectory so precisely, my experience through the Minor was also unexpected. I had so mentally prepared myself to come away jaded, to witness the messy side of development work, that when the big idea I encountered this summer hit me, it felt like a revelation.
This summer I worked with an organization called the Urban Health Resource Centre (UHRC) headquartered in Delhi, India with program sites in the cities of Indore and Agra. The organization addresses urban poverty by entering into slum communities and holding discussions with community members, proposing the idea of forming community women’s groups. These conversations aim to stimulate the women in slums to think about whether or not collective community action can help them confront the challenges they face. I was fortunate enough to have the Executive Director of the organization, Dr. Siddharth Agarwal, serve as my mentor throughout my time in India. In my conversations with Dr. Agarwal, he explained that an important aspect to this process is not pushing group formation on communities. If community members do not express interest, the UHRC steps back until interest grows. They firmly believe that, in the absence of an organic investment by the people, the initiative will simply be unsustainable.
Once a group has formed, the first step is basic training surrounding health outreach and advocacy. Trainings cover tracking and surveying vulnerable groups (such as pregnant women) in slums as well as reaching out to government, private, and volunteer health providers to run camps in communities. At the first women’s group meeting I attended in a slum called Nagla Devjit in Agra, one of the group leaders proudly told me about how before one of their youngest members, affectionately called Baby, joined the group, she was pregnant with her first child. When she went into labor, she didn’t have enough money for the delivery. The women pooled together whatever money they could from their personal funds. Asking neighbors to chip in, they escorted her to the hospital and offered whatever they had to the doctor. This is the kind of support the women are able to provide to their communities through their health outreach and tracking activities.
After groups are well established, they pursue higher-level activities with the support of UHRC field workers as new needs emerge. For example one need that became evident early on was financial resilience to health exigencies and other similar events – in essence, resilience to what Appadurai (2001) refers to as “’the tyranny of the emergency’…that characterizes the everyday lives of the urban poor” (p. 30). When this need emerged, the UHRC began helping women’s groups establish collective insurance funds by providing trainings on how to collect member contributions, keep records, and administer loans. These collective insurance funds are different from microfinance loans because the seed money comes entirely from group members and loans are granted for home improvement initiatives and health emergencies in addition to microenterprise. Rules[i] are established and enforced by women’s group members who decide on conditions together, rather than following the mandates of an external institution.
Another need that emerged early on in the UHRC’s operations was infrastructural improvement in communities and knowledge about applying for government programs and enacting government advocacy. To address this, the UHRC began facilitating trainings on petition writing to local municipal authorities, discussing with groups the best ways to write collective appeals and document all their communications. Groups began learning to write reminders to local officials when their requests for things like street paving and drain installation were ignored. As the capacity of groups has grown over time, they have also created workshops for learning how to conduct sit-ins at government offices when they need to submit applications for multiple community members and are facing resistance by government offices. From time to time, this collective action takes the form of advocacy rallies and protests on issues the women deem relevant, such as alcoholism and gambling. Most of these initiatives come from brainstorming sessions at women’s group meetings.
What I’ve outlined thus far is how the UHRC works in the field. But why has the UHRC elected to approach urban poverty in this fashion? India’s trajectory of urbanization has led many families from poor rural and peri-urban areas into city-centers, but they arrive faster than the planning process can incorporate them. They are relegated to informal and often illegal occupations of whatever free space they can find, where they erect impermanent housing units or occupy existing run down units. Katherine Boo (2012), in her novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers centering on a slum community in Mumbai, explores how the allure and pursuit of better economic prospects pits poor urban families in slums in competition, thus leading to fragmentation where families are unable to work in solidarity towards mutual empowerment. The city promises families a better economic future for their children through upward mobility in exchange for hard work. The reality, however, is that regardless of hard they work, many families remain relegated to resource-deficient, unsanitary living environments. All these oppressive factors result in decreased household and community-level social cohesion in slums. Therefore helping communities build stronger bonds through collective action is the goal that underlies the UHRC’s initiatives.
The modern Indian slum is riddled with health risks due to environmental conditions. Many urban households, particularly slum households, either have no access to drainage networks, or are connected to open drains clogged with stagnant and pollution ridden water (Kala & Kumar, 2013; Agarwal, 2011). The slum often acts as the processing plant for the waste of the city. Much of the informal sector is involved in recycling the solid waste produced by the city, which is frequently dumped near slum areas (Talyan, et al., 2008; Boo, 2012; Agarwal, 2011). The health risk exposure of slum residents has consistently proved to be higher than that of the average urban population. Infant mortality is much higher for the urban poor than the urban non-poor (Agarwal & Srivastava, 2009). Issues with sanitation infrastructure contribute to these disparities. Data collected in 2005-2006 revealed that under half of the urban poor could access adequate sanitation compared to about 95% of the urban non-poor (Chaplin, 2011).
One of the largest barriers to improving slum conditions is that many slums go undocumented. Because most slums are informal settlements with no tenure rights, their illegal status excludes them from official listings (Agarwal, et al., 2007). The oversight of informal or illegal urban regions leads to the exclusion of these residents from urban governments’ mandate to provide basic services like drainage, sanitation, health care, and water (Agarwal, 2011). By focusing on coalition building at the community level, the UHRC seeks to galvanize slum communities to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the government.
According to Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy, an individual’s belief in their ability to accomplish a task influences their actual capacity to accomplish it (1994). Applying this concept to groups, Gibson has theorized that just as individuals have self-efficacy, so do groups have group efficacy (2003). In a conversation with Dr. Agarwal, he explained to me that both forms of efficacy depend upon small instances of success early on in order to build confidence for more ambitious endeavors later because each victory enhances people’s belief in their ability. This is why the UHRC begins with basic health outreach activity, which lends itself to higher success rates than petitions for infrastructural improvement that require greater persistence and higher degrees of organizing. However as groups slowly progress, they develop the confidence to interface with municipal authorities and local officials, and this confidence has led to huge improvements in many UHRC program slums, such as paved roads, covered drains, and regular street and garbage cleaning.
Going into my Minor’s “practice experience,” I knew I needed to be critical. I might have been joining an organization with paternalistic practices, like a for-profit MFI in which group loan leaders enforce institutional rules for women’s group members to follow, and participation is elicited coercively. The decision to focus on women is not unique – the rationale adopted by the UHRC is similar to many orgs, which support this choice on the basis that women and children bear the burden of poverty disproportionately. A consequence of this reasoning, however, is that these institutions end up adding to the “time burden” of already over-burdened poor women (Molyneux, 2008, p. 48). Yet, what I believe differentiates the UHRC is it’s underlying ethos. The UHRC has elected to pursue what Dr. Agarwal calls a “deprojectized” model of development. The organization has no intention of leaving the communities it operates in, and in many cases, other NGOs have come to Agra and Indore to run short-term programs, offering employment to UHRC women’s group members who are able to serve as a high-capacity work force. The women’s groups have become a platform for future development, but the UHRC doesn’t just strap women with responsibility and then leave – it stays and provides continual support through field workers and field offices.
In Ananya Roy’s 2010 book, Poverty Capital, Roy quotes Fazle Abed, founder of the Bangladesh-based BRAC: “At the heart of BRAC’s approach to development is organizing the poor” (p. 119). Roy takes this point and argues that while the Bangladesh model of development spearheaded by MFIs like BRAC and Grameen has adopted a “public transcript” of “microfinance evangelism”, what sets the Bangladesh model apart from mainstream microfinance is a “hidden transcript” of “putting pressure on the state” by “organizing the poor” (p. 119-120). I would argue that what the UHRC is doing is rendering public the “hidden”, private transcript of the Bangladesh model. The UHRC is publicly arguing on behalf of social protection and government accountability through grassroots organizing rather than making its public cause the inclusion of the poor into financial markets.
The UHRC’s approach aims to tackle poverty at a fundamental level. This comes with a unique set of challenges. While it is highly resource efficient, and effective, relative to costly multi-national aid initiatives, it requires true dedication on the part of NGOs, field workers, and communities. The need for genuine community member investment coupled with low levels of funding from donors mean that community groups must consist of volunteers, not employees. The work is not glamorous and requires time and patience – nothing can be rushed because if a fast pace is adopted, people will be left behind and the communities doing the work will lose investment. Furthermore, in bringing community knowledge and expertise to the forefront, this approach challenges the current centers of poverty knowledge generation (such as research institutions and global development banks). It asks poverty experts to recognize community knowledge as legitimate.
This is why the UHRC’s methods have so much potential. I remember one day speaking with some women’s group members in one of the poorest UHRC Agra slums called Indra Nagar. For most of its history, Indra Nagar has been a tent colony, home to nomadic merchants and craftsmen. One of the women explained that before the UHRC, nobody would even come into their slum. Nobody would loan them money and women could barely even leave their homes due to highly conservative gender dynamics. Recently, however, she was able to take out a 10,000 Rupee loan from her Federation.[ii] She was able to open up a storefront and is currently paying back her loan at a rate of 1,000 Rupees per month. It is because of this high degree of community member investment that, this summer, I heard many women talk about going to unorganized slums to establish women’s groups in Agra.
I believe UHRC’s work is rooted in something basic – what Dr. Agarwal frequently calls trust. What he means by this is that by putting trust and faith in slum community members, an iterative process of mutual learning is able to take place. It’s a process that allows slum residents to cultivate their faith in their ability to navigate urban institutions and to build a stronger social fabric. It’s also a process that demonstrates the poor can be active participants in their own empowerment. And that to me is a very big idea.
Agarwal, S. (2011). The state of urban health in India; comparing the poorest quartile to the rest of the urban population in selected states and cities. Environment and Urbanization, 23(1), 13-28.
Agarwal, S., & Srivastava, A. (2009). Social Determinants of Children’s Health in Urban Areas in India. Journal of health care for the poor and underserved, 20(4A), 68-89.
Appadurai, A. (2001). Deep democracy: urban governmentality and the horizon of politics. Environment and Urbanization, 13(2), 23-43.
Bandura, A. (1994). Self‐efficacy. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..
Boo, K. (2012). Behind the beautiful forevers. Random House LLC.
Chaplin, S. E. (2011). Indian cities, sanitation and the state: the politics of the failure to provide. Environment and Urbanization, 23(1), 57-70.
Gibson, C. B. (2003). The Efficacy Advantage: Factors Related to the Formation of Group Efficacy. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(10), 2153-2186.
Molyneux, M. (2009). Conditional cash transfers: a pathway to women’s empowerment? Pathyways of Women’s Empowerment, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex.
Roy, A. (2010). Poverty capital: Microfinance and the making of development.
Sridhar, K. S., & Kumar, S. (2012). India’s urban environment: Air and water pollution andpollution abatement.
Talyan, V., Dahiya, R. P., & Sreekrishnan, T. R. (2008). State of municipal solid wastemanagement in Delhi, the capital of India. Waste Management, 28(7), 1276-1287.
[i] Such as monthly per-member contributions, late fees, and repayment interest rates, which rarely exceed 3%