Over two decades ago, Anshu Gupta visited the earthquake-devastated village of Jamak in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Gupta, who had come as a volunteer to support survivors, knew he would encounter almost unimaginable suffering. What he didn’t anticipate was the sight of relief workers from an aid agency, carelessly dumping bales of donated clothing off the back of a truck. In his view, the workers’ apparent indifference signaled a lack of respect for people who still had their dignity, even though they had lost everything. A few years later, when he launched a nonprofit called Goonj—which delivers more than 3,000 tons of secondhand clothes and used household materials annually to India’s poorest citizens—he vowed to treat every constituent with a shared sense of humanity.
When confronted with the daily challenge of serving many thousands of constituents, social sector organizations can lose sight of the individual beneficiary, essentially reducing the human experience to numbers on a spreadsheet. Indian nonprofits that embrace a dignity mind-set counteract this impulse by thinking and acting “small.” Even as they extend their reach, they organize around a unit of one: the individual participant.
For example, Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement (SVYM), working in the state of Karnataka, serves 2.5 million people—including indigenous tribals and the rural and urban poor—in the fields of health, education, and community development. But the organization’s founder, Dr. R. Balasubramaniam (Balu), says he never loses sight of the organization’s original inspiration: one elderly woman. She lost her sole source of emotional and economic support when her son died in the hospital where Balu was a third-year medical student. Her loss was doubly painful, as she couldn’t afford the prescribed medicines that might have saved him. Balu asserts that his failed attempt at consoling the grieving woman drove him to launch an organization that would work within the system to advance the rights of tribal people “to live a dignified life.”
“My journey over the past three decades is from a highly inspired young man wanting to change the world through health care, then moving into a lot of service delivery approaches and getting messed up in the world of development and not understanding what it is,” Balu continues. He adds that he came back “full circle,” concluding that development must be about “citizen-led, human- and social-capital expansion that can have economic consequences.”
Balu and the leaders of other like-minded organizations exhibit a “people over program” philosophy by prioritizing each individual’s self-respect. Aravind Eye Care System, for example, which performs more than 450,000 cataract and other eye surgeries in India annually, maintains its non-paying patients’ dignity by viewing each patient as a customer with a choice: wealthier patients pay market rates, which allows those who cannot afford to pay to “choose” a price point of zero.
Focusing on the Individual
Organizations that elevate a dignity mind-set maintain a real-world connection with constituents by customizing their services to people’s unique circumstances. When they do, they are less likely to lose the thread connecting them to people’s sense of self-worth.
BAIF Development Research Foundation (BAIF) provides a case study in how this works. Begun as a cattle-development program for 10 districts in Maharashtra, BAIF works to improve the economic lives of the rural poor and has scaled its services to meet the varied needs of over 5 million families across 16 states. Established in 1967 by Manibhai Desai, BAIF grew by working with farmers in different villages to understand their unique situations and discover their resource limits.
From its inception, BAIF’s focus was on conservation, dairy husbandry, and agriculture. But the organization eventually widened its lens to include the plight of women, who put in much of the hard labor in the fields, but often suffered from malnutrition and other poverty-related ills. To help rural women generate income and improve their livelihoods, BAIF project teams introduced the concept of self-help groups (SHGs). An SHG is typically comprised of one or two dozen women, who each pay small, monthly membership fees into a joint account. This fund is a source of micro-credit for individual and group enterprises, such as producing and selling pickles and papad (a crisp snack food), vermicomposting, and rope making. In the state of Karnataka, two women groups operate community biogas plants for generating electricity.
BAIF has thus far helped bring to life 3,500 SHGs comprised of more than 40,000 rural women. By reclaiming a sense of dignity and empowerment, each of these women are putting their communities on a path to socio-economic progress.
Organizations that possess a dignity mind-set act on the shared belief that people in need don’t want charity, they want respect, which they can accrue by providing for themselves. Such organizations help their constituents build pathways to greater self-reliance, even as they seek to solve a looming crisis.
Supporting an individual’s ability to create a better destiny is also at the heart of a sanitation program begun by Gram Vikas, a community development nonprofit working in 25 districts in the state of Odisha in eastern India. The program, called Movement and Action Network for Transformation of Rural Areas (MANTRA), focuses on an area where 85 percent of the people lack access to sanitation. Unsanitary conditions make Odisha communities prone to waterborne diseases (the source of 80 percent of all diseases in rural India) and prolongs the cycle of poverty.
MANTRA staffers help organize village committees that oversee the construction of community water towers, toilets, bathing facilities, and piped water. Government subsidies cover about 40 percent of the cost, paying for cement, steel, and commodes, while constituents provide the labor. “We feel that the poor have been humiliated for centuries,” Joe Madiath, Gram Vikas’ founder, said during a 2014 TED Talk. “Sanitation is more about dignity than the disposal of human waste.”
A typical MANTRA program cycle lasts three to five years. The community builds an endowment through an average contribution of $20 per household and ongoing operations become their responsibility. The generated interest helps extend sanitation and water facilities to new households.
Among the results: today, more than 400,000 people in 1,200 villages who didn’t have access before now have access to sanitation systems. Moreover, there’s been a substantial increase in school attendance among girls who once helped their mothers carry water; in one village, attendance climbed from 19 percent to 90 percent.
“This is grassroots democracy,” Madiath said, representing an instance of bottom-of-the-pyramid people “taking their own futures into their hands.”
Solving for the Individual, Scaling for the Masses
Like sanitation, the globe-spanning dearth of potable water can easily reduce the human experience to mere data points. In India, where 63 million people in rural areas lack access to clean water—more than in any other country—the problem’s scale can overwhelm any sense of its impact on the individual. And yet, water is deeply personal in India, especially for rural women, who sometimes need to walk 10 miles a day, over multiple trips, to gather the precious liquid from a community well.
NM Sadguru Water and Development Foundation seeks to improve the lives of 3 million rural and tribal people through land and water resource programs in 16 districts in the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh. As its name implies, one of its main efforts centers around clean drinking water. It does this work through community-governed institutions and by training individual participants. Confronting the water crisis without losing touch of individual participants’ humanity is one of its chief challenges.
In one recent project, NM Sadguru installed 99 drinking water systems in Gujarat’s Dahod district, which are managed by Pani Samitis—committees comprised entirely of democratically elected, local women. The program’s logic: Because women are the prime consumers of domestic water (for food production and household uses) and especially vulnerable to water-related disasters, they should play a role in planning and managing water systems. This is in keeping with the conclusion of several international meetings, including the 2001 International Conference on Freshwater in Bonn, that water projects involving women are more likely to succeed.
By focusing on the needs of the individual participant at the village level, and providing her with a platform to act on the community’s behalf, NM Sadguru activates a dignity mind-set and thereby stands a better chance of extending its reach to yet another million people in need. “All [of our] interventions should be needs-based,” said Harnath Jagawat, NM Sadguru’s executive director. “The solution should be designed to solve the problem of the participant. Otherwise, it won't be successful at scale.”