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India Journal: Modi’s ‘Decisive Break’

November 19, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog last week and this week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 6 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

modis-decisive-break_header

After an exhilarating two days meeting Trickle Up participants in Odisha, we are now on a 7-hour train ride from the city of Jharsuguda (population 75,000) to Bhubeneswar (population 650,000), which is the capital of the state of Odisha and the site of the airport where we will then fly two hours to Delhi.  Amid our very busy schedule this week, this is a welcome opportunity to read the sheaf of Indian newspapers that I’ve been saving this week.

The big news this week, aside from Hudhud, were elections in two important Indian states and whether Prime Minister Narenda Modi deepens his support in the Indian legislative bodies and with the number of state Chief Ministers (equivalent to US governors) who are members of his BJP party.

modi-election-marchFor those who might not have been paying attention, the briefest of background: Mr. Modi was elected Prime Minister in May in a landslide victory.  India is the largest democracy in the world, with 554 million people voting (66% voter turnout) — compared to about 130 million people (57% turnout) voting in the 2012 US presidential election.  Mr. Modi’s rise to national leadership came from his 13 years as Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat. His leadership there was notable for strong economic growth, modernization of some antiquated laws, and pro-investment incentives.  He is a Hindu nationalist who has been criticized by many for not taking steps in 2002 to stop three days of anti-Muslim violence that resulted in between 800 and 2,000 Muslim deaths, depending on whose count you believe.

I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Modi at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York a few weeks ago during his first US tour.  He proved to be, as I’d read, quite charismatic and stirring. He is an outstanding, energetic speaker and presents a very bold agenda for change in India.  He is a marked contrast to his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who was somewhat bland and viewed by many as the last gasp of the political dominance of the Gandhi family and the Congress party.modi-council-on-foreign-relations

A person of humble origin, the son of a tea seller, Mr. Modi is passionate and eloquent when talking about poverty.  In August, in the annual Independence Day speech, he opened by promising to  “take a solemn pledge of working for the welfare of mother India, and also for the welfare of the poor, oppressed, dalits, the exploited and the backward people of our country.” (“Dalit” is equivalent to “untouchable” and “backward people” is a common Indian expression.) He then went on to talk specifically about several issues related to poverty alleviation: violence against women, the “poison” of the caste system and other forms of discrimination, feticide (India has a ratio of 940 girl birth for every 1,000 boys), exploitation of farmers and others by moneylenders, ending open defecation and other unsanitary practices, and the need for bank accounts for all of India’s 1.2 billion citizens.  Plus issues pertinent to every Indian: more efficient and trustworthy government, greater economic growth, national service, education and more.

The Prime Minister’s agenda is enormously ambitious. While I was in India, he chose an Indian economist from Washington as his chief economic advisor.  Arvind Subrammanian, who was born and raised in India, made an interesting observation about Mr. Modi in a speech last May at the Rotary Club of Madras, India, as quoted in the Business Standard newspaper:

“Modi represents a decisive break from dynasty rule like Deng Xiaoping broke with the madness of the Mao Zedong ideology.  Other things that make me think on this are Modi’s decisiveness, pragmatic approach and the obsession to get things done, like the Chinese reformist leader.  Also, what strikes me as a parallel between the two is the kind of long-term horizon for their countries.  Of the course, the other parallel is that both of them have baggage.”

modi-fabulous-hatI am an absolute novice at understanding Indian politics but, following the Indian news closely during the election and on this trip, I am impressed by the scope of his ambitions.  It seems that hardly a day goes by without the media-savvy Prime Minister announcing another bold initiative, tweeting directly to hundreds of thousands of people sweeping the street to launch a “clean India” campaign (which is definitely needed).  Predictably, pundits and opposing politicians are now    looking for substantive accomplishments and meaningful change — especially in taming India’s relatively high inflation (6.5% over the past year but as high as 9.13% in 2013 and 11.17% in 2012).

“Mr. Modi, where is the change?” was the headline of a column in the Business Standard.  “At some point, the prime minister is going to have to stop talking and start doing,” wrote columnist Mihir S. Sharma.  Modi “has demonstrated an appreciation of the things that have gone wrong with the Indian economy…But no action his government has taken, or seems to be planning to take, is anywhere as near as epic in scope as the problems he eloquently outlines.”

Time will tell, of course, and India is not an easy place to govern.  But I do hope he can make real progress on his anti-poverty agenda.

Next in the series: OPEN DEFECATION
“You read that right: open defecation.  It’s estimated that 600 million people in India – half its population! – relieve themselves every day in forest, streets and alleys, along railroad tracks.  It’s unsanitary, undignified and unsafe…”

India Journal: The Ultrapoor & the Very Poor

November 17, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In several installments  posted to the Trickle Up blog last week and this week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 5 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

ultrapoor-and-very-poor_header

Today is our second day of field visits in the state of Odisha, and we will meet with two Trickle Up groups, one our traditional ultrapoor group and one consisting of women whom we classify as “very poor,” which means they still live in poverty but not as severe as the others.  The difference? The very poor own at least a small plot of land, own a productive asset such as a bullock to plow their fields, and have at least one household possession such as a bicycle, mobile phone or an old TV.  These are subtle differences, nearly invisible to anyone who doesn’t spend time in villages learning how to read the economic and social landscape, but they are important in matching the level of poverty to how we design our program.

Of approximately 140 families living in this village, or roughly 700 people, 13 families are in the Trickle Up ultrapoor group and 10 in the very poor group.  The women in the ultrapoor group receive a Trickle Up seed capital grant of about $225 to fund their enterprises.  The women in the very poor group do not, instead having to finance their businesses through savings and borrowing.  Both groups receive training and support in how to manage a self-help group, which meets regularly to save money, lend to each other, and provide peer support.  The ultrapoor group started last February with a weekly savings obligation of 10 rupees (about 15 cents), the very poor 20.  This month, though, the ultrapoor group decided to raise its own savings amount to 20 rupees, as the increased earnings from their Trickle Up businesses give them more capacity to save.

ultrapoor-groupWe began working in India with people at both levels of poverty about a year ago for two reasons.  One is that levels of poverty can change over time; one household illness, one disappointing harvest, or one dowry payment can push a very poor family into ultrapoverty.  The second reason is that having a larger footprint in the village (together the two groups represent about 15% of the households) can result in greater respect and less isolation for the ultrapoor, as well as giving both groups more clout when lobbying authorities for free government latrines or ensuring that a widow receives the support payments that she is entitled to by law.  For our local partner staff at SEWAK, a Trickle Up partner for many years, there is only modest incremental cost to train and coach (“handholding” in Indian parlance) the very poor group.  The partner field staff is already travelling to the village for the day to work with our ultrapoor participants.very-poor-group

As is our practice, we encouraged each self-help group (SHG) to choose a name.  The ultrapoor group picked “Mother Teresa” and the very poor “Bharadi,” a Hindi word that roughly translates to “motherly outlook.”  The women in the Mother Theresa group all wore red saris, those from Bharadi wore green.

Most were engaged in agriculture – growing tomatoes, chilies, eggplant, okra, corn – with goats or pigs as well.  Each woman proudly cited the number of animals she had, also noting any recent sales.  One woman set up a small snack shop.

Most of our conversation was about their financial activities: weekly savings through their SHG, opening accounts at a local bank, and borrowing money for family or business needs.  The women of Bharadi explained that they had first tried to form a savings group, pre-Trickle Up, under a broad Indian government program to foster SHGs through modest financial incentives.  Their group initially failed because, without sufficient training and support, they took on more debt than they could handle.  With SEWAK’s guidance, they are learning how to manage both the savings and lending functions of the group.  “Now we have a ray of hope that we will do better,” explained the group leader.

Pradeep Ku. Brahma, SEWAK secretary (equivalent to chief executive), later told me that there are about 16,000 SHGs in the Sunderghard district but only a few hundred succeed on their own.  Part of SEWAK’s support is to help the groups set their own rules: the number of installments for repaying a loan, interest rates (5% for this group), loan amounts (for a medical loan, it ranges from 400-500 Rupees ($8-$10) to 1,000, depending on how sick they are), and penalties for late payment (2%).  More important than the financial penalty, according to the group leader, is the loss of prestige that would come with a default.  “It’s important to honor our commitments,” she said.

While each group stores weekly contributions in a metal lockbox, they periodically deposit their savings at a bank that is about an hour away, by foot and bus.  In addition, most of their savings are recirculating as loans, which I always tell donors and others who ask me about the risk of theft.  (I am reminded of a meeting I had several years go with the head of one of the largest US family foundations.  She asked a lot of questions about the savings box before moving on to other topics.  As she left our meeting, she leaned over and whispered to me, “Don’t forget about security for those boxes.”)

Echoing the comments we heard the day before about dignity, the woman talked about how having a bank account was a huge boost for their own self-respect and respect by others.  “Previously we were afraid to talk to the bank manager,” one woman explained.  “Now we have no fear to talk to the bank manager.”  Sewak accompanied them on their initial visit but now, she added, “we go on our own.”  That notion of being included in the economic and social life of their community was a frequent motif; in the words of one member of Bharadi: “We are not isolated.”

id-card-photo“We feel dignified, we feel like we are like any other citizen,” another woman told us.  “This gives us a different kind of identity.  A passbook recognizes us as a citizen.”  It also serves as a bona fide photo ID, enabling women to vote in government elections.   Another woman boasted that she has a bank account while her husband didn’t.  “We are one step ahead,” she said with a grin.

With thanks to Sewak for their training how to improve their well-being and health, the women spoke movingly about the changes that were already taking place in their lives, about one year into the three-year Trickle Up program.  All members were now sending their children to school.  “Before we didn’t realize its importance,” one woman said.  With the collective voice of the SHG, a widow was able to secure a food supplement from the local government.  Now instead of seeking treatment from a local healer, known as a “quack,” they know they can go to the local health center or hospital.  They learned about hygiene — how wearing chappals (sandals) prevents disease, the importance of washing vegetables, and that clean clothes are important.  “Now we wash our children’s clothes twice a week,” one woman explained.

I asked them their goals two years from now, when they will graduate from Trickle Up.  In addition to wanting enough food to eat year-round and their children doing well in school, they talked about improving their houses.  Their goal: a two-room house in good condition, with a toilet and a separate kitchen.  As important as goals and aspirations are, the group also outlined their strategies for achieving them.  On improved sanitation, for example, they described how SEWAK’s guidance and the size of the two groups will give them the knowledge and political clout they need to lobby local government officials to provide community toilets that will serve about 5 families each.   It would take 6-12 months to achieve that objective, they estimated, with individual household toilets a subsequent goal.

After peppering them with questions for over an hour, I invited them to ask me some.  “Tell us about your life,” was the reply.   At such a moment one is acutely aware of all the privileges of life that accrue simply because of where you were born.  It’s likely that I was the first white person they’d ever met, that they’d never seen an airplane flying overhead (once at  similar group meeting, our local partner described it as a flying bus), and had no exposure to television or other outside influences.  I explained that I lived in a big city, in a building with three other families, had 9 rooms in my apartment.  I lied a bit when I said I had two toilets because, at the moment, it just seemed too much to tell the truth (4).  They seemed to find some common ground when I said my main meals consisted of rice or pasta, vegetables and fish or chicken.  I did not observe that what I eat for dinner might feed 3-5 members of their family.  They liked the fact that my daughter is a teacher, my son a college student, and my wife a writer.

Next in the series: MODI’S “DECISIVE BREAK”
Mr. Modi was elected Prime Minister in May in a landslide victory.  India is the largest democracy in the world, with 554 million people voting (66% voter turnout) — compared to about 130 million people (57% turnout) voting in the 2012 US presidential election. I am an absolute novice at understanding Indian politics but, following the Indian news closely during the election and on this trip, I am impressed by the scope of his ambitions. Yet, “Mr. Modi, where is the change?” was the headline of a column in the Business Standard.  “At some point, the prime minister is going to have to stop talking and start doing,” wrote columnist Mihir S. Sharma…

India Journal: The Chili Farmers of Ekma, ‘This is Dignity to Me’

November 14, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In five installments that will be posted to the Trickle Up blog through next week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 4 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

Chili-farmers-blog_header

To be successful in business, it pays to choose the right business.  In the village of Ekma, in one of the poorest regions in India, growing chilies is the right business.

Today I spent the afternoon with 15 women who graduated from Trickle Up a year ago.  They greeted us with flowers, handshakes and bows, a brass pot to rinse our hands, and a song of welcome.  As we walked toward the cluster of shady trees where we could sit and talk, a local villager kept the beat with a big drum.  It’s a typical greeting in an Indian village (as it has been in my visits to West Africa) and it’s always wonderful.

When these women first started with Trickle Up about four years ago, one of their first steps was to choose a business they could start with Trickle Up’s seed capital grant and training.  That process begins with a detailed assessment by Maitreyee Ghosh of Trickle Up’s Kolkata team, working with staff from our local partner, of the geography, topography, water supply, growing conditions and economy of Ekma and other nearby villages.  What could grow here that would thrive and have a good supply of customers at the local market?  What crop wouldn’t require a lot of technical expertise and experience? How much land would be required and, for those too poor to own any land, is there suitable land they can lease?  Most importantly, could chilies return 2-3 times the investment required for seeds, land, pesticide, and other inputs?

chili-peppers-photoThen our team talks with the new Trickle Up participants themselves, to get their opinions and greater insight into how the new tasks of farming could fit with their other obligations of raising children, cooking for the family, keeping the house.

Their answer: chilies.  Widely used in Indian cooking, they are always in demand.  They are lightweight to transport to market and, if they don’t sell out right away, can be dried and sold later.  Chilies don’t require enormous amounts of water and only need a few hours per week of tending while they’re growing.  With a four-month growing cycle, an acre of chilies can produce a crop that can sell for as much 100,000 rupees ($1,650).

The women I met, most of whom grew chilies as one of their Trickle Up livelihood activities, showed me six carefully groomed plots where seeds are first planted close together and cultivated to a height of about 9 inches, when they are then transplanted to a larger field in rows about 18 inches apart.  The first woman to speak explained that her husband had become ill and could no longer work, making her the family’s sole source of income.  She also earned money from gourds and beans she would grow later in the year, and from rearing pigs (she recently sold three for the equivalent of $150).

Another woman named Jasmine explained that her business was going well enough for her to expand by leasing more land.  She also would use some of her profits to rent a tractor to level the land, which had been “undulating.” sambari-ekka--photo

Later, a member of the group escorted us proudly to her chili plot, where she had hired a nephew at $2 a day for 15 days of hoeing to prepare the soil.  Her husband also helps her with her work, they have $600 savings in the bank, and they have invested $200 in bricks for a new home.  Before Trickle Up, she said, they often couldn’t afford two meals a day and rarely had money for cooking oil or spices.

I was fascinated by the women’s step-by-step explanation of chili farming:   Protecting young seedlings from birds and drying out by covering them with branches and straws.  The five days required for germination and four days to dry them after harvest.  How the women invested some of their initial profits in a water pump to irrigate their field from a nearby stream.   The other ways they made money: cultivating paddy (unmilled rice) during the rainy season, growing vegetables (beans, gourds, pumpkins, tomatoes, okra) after the chili harvest, and raising goats and pigs.

Initially, the women sold their chilies within their village but then a local trader heard about them and purchased nearly all of their output to sell at a larger town.  “We created a market,” one of the women explained.  Even though the trader pays them about 20-25% less than his selling price at the final market, he bears the cost of transporting the chilies there and assumes the inventory risk.

The Trickle Up chili farmers enthusiastically enumerated their costs, gross revenues and net profit. They spoke of having enough food year-round, being able to afford shoes and own more than one sari, saving to build a new house, buying a bicycle for their kids to go to school.  As they spoke about the changes in their lives and their families’ lives after successfully completing Trickle Up’s three-year program, the chili farmers spoke about tangible benefits but also frequently used the word “dignity” to describe their progress.

I asked them what dignity meant for them.

sewanti-aind-photo

SWANTI AIND
“Before I only survived through daily wage labor.  I often didn’t have enough food.  I only had one sari. My house was falling down.  My husband never paid attention to my words, my requests.  He threatened to throw me out of the house.  But now that I am doing my own agricultural activity, my husband listens to me.  Now he cooperates and encourages me to go to my savings group meetings. Everyone in the village knows that I am earning money and regards me better.  I feel well dignified now, in my family and out of the family.”

suchitaprava-ekka-photo

SUCHITAPRAVA EKKA

She is a widow but, before Trickle Up, couldn’t get a government widow allowance.  Now, with the backing of the other 14 members of her savings group, she was able to successfully apply.  “They heard our words.”

basmati-lakra-photo

BASMATI LAKRA
“My daughter will be educated.  She will lead a dignified life.  Before my husband brought home money and said ‘Look what I have earned.’ Now I also am earning. This is dignity to me.”  She also spoke of her family using soap to wash before every meal, as Trickle Up’s local partner agency had taught, as well as the importance of keeping drinking water in a closed container and wearing shoes in order to prevent disease.  “Before, we only saw others wearing shoes.”
surekha-toppo-photoSUREKHA TOPPO
“I am not an educated lady.  But my children will go to school and they will ride a bike. This is dignity to me.”

sabitri-majhi-photoSABITRI MAJHI
“We dream that our daughter will go to school and will go from place to place on a scootie (the nickname of popular motorcycles around the village).  We will have a beautiful house.  We will be part of the main society and not be isolated.”

 

Please join us again on Monday, 11/17 for the next post in our series: “THE ULTRAPOOR AND THE VERY POOR”

“…Echoing the comments we heard the day before about dignity, the woman talked about how having a bank account was a huge boost for their own self-respect and respect by others.  “Previously we were afraid to talk to the bank manager,” one woman explained.  “Now we have no fear to talk to the bank manager…” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

India Journal: Thought Leaders & Handholders

November 13, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In five installments that will be posted to the Trickle Up blog through next week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 3 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

Thoughtleaders-&-Handholders_header

About three years ago, when Trickle Up staff and board were updating our strategic plan, we set “thought leadership” as one of our goals.  Could we become recognized as a global leader in serving the ultrapoor?  Would we be able to, in the elegant phrase of my colleague Jaya Sarkar, “influence the agenda” of larger global agencies, funders and government policy makers that operate at a level of scale far larger than our own?

It was the most controversial part of our strategic plan process.  Did we have the resources to become effective advocates?  Was thought leadership something you could intentionally win, or was it the simply the result of good work on the ground? Was it realistic, in a world where the prevailing definition of extreme poverty is set the $1.25/day standard (covering about 1 billion people), to think that we could highlight the subset of 300-400 million people who live in conditions of ultrapoverty?

Poverty rates in India

Today in Delhi, we have the opportunity to be thought leaders in India.  We are hosting two workshops, one in the morning co-sponsored with the Ford Foundation and one in the afternoon co-sponsored with the Asian Institute of Poverty Alleviation.  Our goal with each is to bring together people and institutions that share our interest in alleviating poverty for the very poorest.  “Reaching the Last Mile” is the title of the morning meeting and “Building Better Life for the Vulnerable” in the afternoon.  The audience in the morning is mostly policy makers and government; the afternoon more oriented to corporate social responsibility.

Our other goal, of course, is to raise our profile in India and, in so doing, find new sources of funding in the country.  Historically, US-based individual, corporate and foundation donors have funded Trickle Up’s India program.   Unique among the countries where we work (the others are Burkina Faso, Mali, Guatemala, Nicaragua), India is classified by the World Bank as a “lower middle-income” country – 123 on its ranking of 185 countries based on per-capita GDP.  The sheer size of the Indian economy, its robust growth, and the likelihood of greater prosperity ahead all drive Trickle Up’s strategy to expand our work there through local funding – especially the Indian government and corporate sectors.

The morning session begins with a lamp-lighting ceremony, a very civilized way to start the day.  Unfortunately, the keynote speaker – Mr Jual Oram, the Minister of Tribal Affairs for the Indian government – had to send his last-minute regrets, as Cyclone Huddud required him to be at his office.  Other speakers and panelists were from the Orissa Rural Livelihoods Mission, the Jharkhand Rural Livelihoods Program, the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the Indian National Rural Livelihoods Mission, the Ford Foundation, the MetLife Foundation, and other important institutions.  A total of about 50 people attended.

As distinguished as the panelists were, the speakers who stole the show were five women who had never finished school, lived a lifetime of poverty, and were in Delhi for the first time in their lives.  No doubt also the first time they’d ever been in a hotel or slept in the kind of bed that you and I sleep on.  These “didis” (“sisters”) were all graduates of Trickle Up, and they were there to give their perspective on ultrapoverty.  As engaged as the audience was in all of the other speakers of the day, they were absolutely spellbound by the Trickle Up women.

bill-and-pinkyThe smallest of the five was named Pinky Besra and I don’t think she weighed more than 90 pounds or stood more than five feet in height.  Before Trickle Up, she said her family survived on her husband’s income of about $1/day.  Their tiny plot of land produced only enough rice for three months.  During the annual hungry season, they had to migrate for work in another city just to survive.  They were deeply in debt to moneylenders.

Now, with Trickle Up’s help, Pinky farms on her own land and recently opened a small shop to sell garlic, onions and spices.  She noted that her husband, who initially was suspicious of her Trickle Up self-help group and wouldn’t even let her leave her village to visit her parents, had allowed her to make this trip to Delhi from her home in West Bengal.

Jaya told me later that she was “mesmerized” by Pinky’s story, especially the importance of coaching — “handholding” in local parlance.  Pinky used the term “dada” — literally “older brother” — to describe the SEWAK field officer who worked with her group. As Pinky explained:

​”Dada told us we needed to save a bit for the group.  We said, ‘How can we save?  We are poor.’

Dada said, ‘But if you don’t save, how will there be money in the savings group?’

He had a point, so we thought about it and went back to see how we could save a little bit.”

“What impressed me,” Jaya said, “is how the dada took the time to generate discussion and explore areas they had previously not considered and thought impossible.  I was impressed by the way she described the interactions with the Dada and the trust between the two that enabled that kind of discussion and for the didis to really ask questions.  These kinds of discussions build a relationship that develops trust and confidence in the participants.”

A motif for the day’s panels was scale: How to expand a program like Trickle Up to a level that would have impact in a country where an estimated 350 million people live in extreme poverty, with about one third at the level of ultrapoverty.   If the one-on-one coaching that made such a difference to Pinky is an essential part of Trickle Up’s success, is that affordable at large scale and can you find and train enough field staff to deliver it?

“Handholding is a real game-changer in a woman’s life.  It gives her the feeling that ‘I am needed and I am included.'” observed Philip Mathew of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, during a panel discussion following Pinky and the didis.  The question is, he said, “How do you scale empathy”?

As moving as the stories were from Pinky and her peers, I don’t want to short-shrift the other speakers during the day.  A few excerpts from my notes:

Seasonal migration: One panelist spoke of visiting dozens of villages in the Sundarbans region and seeing that nearly all the men between 17 and 40 were “missing” — gone away to find work so that their families could survive.  A representative from our West Bengal partner Prasari, estimated that 80% of the women in its area have to migrate for several months.  The high salinity of the soil resulted in low agricultural productivity, and chemical residues in lakes and ponds were affecting fishing.

Big data: A day of speakers and presentations is a day filled with data.  Two statistics that got my attention.  One, India has 17% of the world’s total population but 33% of the world’s poor.  Two, an estimated 55% of Indian’s population is engaged in small-scale farming, but agriculture accounts for just 15% of India’s gross domestic product.

The last mile?: Commenting on the “Reaching the Last Mile” title of the morning conference, Dilip Mahapatra of Odisha Rural Livelihoods Mission challenged the audience to  think of the ultrapoor not as the “last mile” of poverty but the “first mile” of poverty — the first priority for government, funders and all poverty agencies.  Later in the day, Professor K.G. Karmakar complimented Trickle Up on its faithfulness to the economic principles of Gandhi, including serving “the poorest of the poor first.”

No easy answers: Even as speaker after speaker posed the question of how to scale poverty interventions, they also emphasized the needs for fitting programs to local context, engaging people in finding their own solutions, and the need to resist the temptation of innovation for innovation’s sake. As Dr. H. Sudarshan of Karuna Trust, a health agency, observed: “I had no pills for poverty.”

Next in the series:  THE CHILI FARMERS OF EKMA: “THIS IS DIGNITY TO ME”

“…The irony is that before Trickle Up, when the women were eking out a marginal existence through occasional day labor, they often couldn’t afford to buy chilies for their own cooking.  Today they grow all they need for their own kitchens, earn $100-$300 per crop, and gain social capital by having enough to give relatives as gifts…”  

India Journal: Cyclone Hudhud

November 12, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In five installments that will be posted to the Trickle Up blog through next week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 2 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

Cyclone-Hudhud_header

The big news on TV and in the papers this morning is Cyclone Hudhud.  Around midday on Sunday it hit the Indian states of Andra Pradesh and Odisha, with the greatest impact in AP (the typical shorthand for Andhra Pradesh. Speaking of state names and abbreviations, the British changed the name of Odisha to Orissa in 1936 and the name Odisha was officially restored in 2011).

Cyclone prone areas

Cyclone prone areas in India

I am especially concerned about Hudhud because we are planning to travel to Odisha on Friday to visit several villages where Trickle Up works.

Similar to a hurricane, a cyclone is a giant swirling wind that lifts an enormous volume of water over a land mass.  Cyclones are relatively common, with major ones occurring every 7-10 years along the Bay of Bengal.  Cyclone Aila in 2009 affected several hundred Trickle Up participants in West Bengal.  Cyclones destroy property on a massive scale, can kill many thousands, ruin crops and livestock.  The salt water of a cyclone contaminates farm land and drinking water for animals.

Hudhud’s speed was reported to be up to 112 miles per hour.  There were 15 inches of rain in about 24 hours and, combined with water whipped up from the Bay of Bengal, Hudhud was a grave threat to millions of people in the two Indian states.

While there was heavy damage — especially in the port city of Visakhapatnam in AP — to buildings, power plants and airports, only 46 deaths in AP and an estimated 6 in Odisha were reported. India has developed impressive resources to cope with various types of natural disasters.  As Hudhud approached, the government relocated an estimated 400,000 people to less vulnerable locations.

The Indian government has extensive weather forecasting systems and disaster-preparedness plans, which helped reduce the impact of Hudhud on people, if not on the buildings and farm land.  Special credit is being given to an Indian weather forecasting satellite that was launched in July 2013 and went into operation this January.  While the Indian space agency ISRO received a great deal of attention just a few weeks earlier when it successfully sent an orbiter around Mars, its INSAT-3D weather satellite may have been its most heroic achievement.

Next in the series: THOUGHT LEADERS & HANDHOLDERS

“…As distinguished as the panelists were, the speakers who stole the show were five women who had never finished school, lived a lifetime of poverty, and were in Delhi for the first time in their lives.  No doubt also the first time they’d ever been in a hotel or slept in the kind of bed that you and I sleep on.  These “didis” (“sisters”) were all graduates of Trickle Up, and they were there to give their perspective on ultrapoverty….”

India Journal: “Doing the Needful”

November 12, 2014

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In five installments that will be posted to the Trickle Up blog through next week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at abramsw@trickleup.org. This is part 1 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up

 

Among the many qualities I adore about India are some of its distinctive phrasings and expressions.  After my flight landed in Delhi, I stopped to convert dollars to rupees at a Bank of India money exchange just past the baggage carousel.  The sign over the counter read “Bank of India, A Government of India Undertaking.”  The Bank of India has $388 billion in assets, making it one of the 75 largest banks in the world, which seems out of proportion with modesty of “undertaking,” a word I later learned is used to describe state-controlled enterprises in India.

Another uniquely Indian phrase I find charming is “please do the needful,” a very polite way of saying “just do it.”  It’s been used in India for about four centuries but in some quarters is now considered passé.

Language also matters a great deal to us at Trickle Up.  A few years ago we adopted the term “ultrapoor,” which is more common in South Asia than the US, to describe the population that Trickle Up serves.  We use “ultrapoor” to describe people who live well below the $1.25/day definition (adjusted from the $1/day standard that a World Bank economist conceived in the late 1980s as a threshold for “extreme poverty.”) There’s a great deal of confusion about what the $1.25/day definition really means; it’s more of a statistical index than a literal number, but that’s a topic for another day.  What matters is that it became a useful metaphor or bumpersticker-length phrase to draw attention to the estimated 1.2 billion people on the planet who live in conditions of consistent poverty, marginalization, prejudice and neglect. Back in 1979, when Trickle Up was founded, we spoke of our purpose as to help the “poorest of the poor.”

The simplest way to think of the ultrapoor is the estimated 300-400 million people who manage to survive every day on the equivalent of $0.50-$1.00. They have modest and inconsistent earnings, little or no savings to fall back in hard times or to invest in their own futures, no meaningful productive assets.  They don’t have enough to eat, especially in the 2-4 months of the “lean season” or “hungry season” preceding harvest time.  They are disproportionately female and rural.  They have little or no education, typically live in mud or mud-and-brick huts with only a thatched roof or less, and have little access to health care.

It’s hard enough for us to imagine living on the equivalent of $1/day, and nearly impossible to really understand getting by on even less.  We took on the label of “ultrapoor” as our term of choice, but it is unfamiliar to American ears as a word or a concept.  Sometimes we explain it as the “last mile of poverty.”   Others sometimes talk about the “invisible poor” or people living in “chronic poverty.”

Having been fussy about language all my life (including about four decades as a journalist or writer in one form or another), I do think words matter, especially as Trickle Up does its part to help people understand this population of 300-400 million humans and what each of us can do to help them achieve a better life.  Words matter but, in the end, what really, truly matters is that we all do the needful.

Bill Abrams

Next in the series: CYCLONE HUDHUD

The big news on TV and in the papers this morning is Cyclone Hudhud.  Around midday on Sunday it hit the Indian states of Andra Pradesh and Odisha at a speed reported to be up to 112 miles per hour. As Hudhud approached, the government relocated 400,000 people to less vulnerable locations…

Trickle Up & Accion to Discuss Inclusion of People with Disabilities in Economic Strengthening Programs

August 6, 2014

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To end extreme poverty by 2030, it is critical that people with disabilities are included in all economic strengthening work. On Wednesday, August 13 from 10:30-11:30am, join Trickle Up’s Director for Central America Michael Felix and Josh Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship and Disability at the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion International who will present learning from the disability-inclusive programming of both Trickle Up and the Accion Center for Financial Inclusion. Presenters will share lessons and resources from livelihood development and microfinance perspectives that will help webinar participants and their organizations answer the question: “How can our push and pull strategies be more disability-inclusive?”

This is the 3rd installment in the “Towards Resilient Livelihoods for Very Poor Households” webinar series, which focuses on recent examples from field practice that focus on “push” strategies targeting very vulnerable populations and helping them build a minimum level of assets for eventual engagement in markets. At the same time, in each webinar we examine whether existing markets or “pull” strategies provide viable opportunities for these populations.

Brought to you by SEEP’s Strengthening the Economic Potential of the Ultra Poor (STEP UP) Working Group.  Learn more about the series and view past webinars >>

Click here to REGISTER NOW!

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Speakers:

Michael Felix – Program Director for Central America, Trickle Up

Applying entrepreneurial skills honed during five years in the software industry, Michael has worked to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of community and economic development programs and organizations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Michael is currently the Program Director for Central America at Trickle Up, where he leads program strategy and efforts for the region with a strong focus on inclusive development. He is co-author of Disability, Poverty and Livelihoods, a guide written to share learning from a recent USAID-supported livelihood development project for people with disabilities in rural Guatemala. He has a BA in Economics and Philosophy from Boston College and an MA in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham University.

Josh Goldstein - Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion International

Mr. Goldstein was part of the team that founded the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion in 2009. He is Program Manager for the Center’s “Financial Inclusion for Persons with Disabilities” initiative. He has spearheaded the development of the Framework for Disability Inclusion and is managing the implementation of the Framework at Fundación Paraguaya, an award winning microfinance institution (MFI) in Paraguay. He is also overseeing a new partnership with three MFIs in India to implement the Framework there. In January, 2014, the Center published a series of disability inclusion tools and trainings, based on the work in Paraguay, which are open source and immediately available to MFIs and other interested financial service providers. As the Center’s global advocate for disability inclusion he gives talks on disability at conferences around the world and works closely with the UN. Mr. Goldstein writes a blog post for the Center as “Mr. Provocative.” He is also a playwright, with several plays produced in London. He taught for many years at Boston University.

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