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DEVELOPMENT: And How the Miracle Multiplied

Sanjay Suri

NEW DELHI, Mar 27 2010 (IPS) - Most of these women had never known what it is to have the dollar a day everyone speaks of. And last year, they were seen as good enough between them to be lent a billion and a half dollars.

Women at a self-help group meeting in Andhra Pradesh. Credit: SERP/IPS

Women at a self-help group meeting in Andhra Pradesh. Credit: SERP/IPS

True, that much money was lent to a total of more than 10 million women; but that is its success. It means no more than an average of 150 dollars, still a big average for millions of women who have never known a solid roof, or more than a diet of rice and chillies.

And to a few million among them, it was a dramatic leap out of poverty; with them their families, so multiply one of these women’s success five times. And that was just last year.

This year those women in the villages of the southern Indian state Andhra Pradesh plan to raise close to 2 billion dollars in commercial loans, in this mass exodus out of poverty. On scale and success, this movement overtook the celebrated Grameen Bank in Bangladesh about two years back.

This one is working because it worked the conviction that “the poor can come out of poverty by coming together,” says Vijay Kumar, CEO of the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty, the official name for this movement – it’s too big to be called a project.

It came out of sitting around and talking, says Kumar.

Typically, a group of ten to 15 very poor women in a village would come together as a thrift and credit organisation, and agree to lend to one another, depending on needs and ability. That brought a radical departure from moneylenders who would often charge 10 percent a month interest.

This would help women in need, and provide seed capital often just for seeds to grow something. Increased income and repayments bring trust enough for women, and their groups, to approach commercial banks, for yet more loans and then further investments in a spiral up out of destitution. Through the success the groups would stay, and in time women share skills, not just credit arrangements.

And, why not, also friendships and bonding. Relationships form. A gathering of the poor evolves into a middle class group.

Masipovu Pakiramma, 45, raised all of 500 rupees (12 dollars) from the group in Kurnool district when she joined in 1995, in one of the first stirrings of what was then experiment.

“I used that money to start selling vegetables; it was my first loan,” she tells IPS on phone from Andhra Pradesh capital Hyderabad. “It worked, and I have by now taken loans worth 700,000 rupees (15,000 dollars). I educated my eldest son, he now has an MBA. We were ten members in the group that started, we all came out of poverty.”

Shameem, 35, says her husband earned 150 rupees (3.50 dollars a month), and her father-in-law 40 rupees a day (less than a dollar). “As Muslims we had restrictions going out, but I did join my village group.” It’s a group call Chand (moon) – all groups name themselves, and members meet usually once a week.

She raised money and support to pull her family out of poverty. “Now I am president of a group of village committees. Now nobody says to me that we are backward Muslim women confined to home.”

Women like Pakiramma and Shameem who succeed with their group then become community resource persons; they help go to other districts and now also other states in India to help set up similar groups.

“These are knowledgeable, empowered women; they succeed more than some outside expert because they work as insider-outsiders,” Kumar tells IPS. The movement has by now thrown up more than 20,000 women as these community resource persons, in effect multipliers.

The Andhra team is supporting similar projects now launched in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan, and the model is being adopted also by projects financed by the World Bank in Africa. The World Bank has supported the Andhra movement, as has the state government and the central government in India. Many of the groups have needed help with some seed money to get going.

“This has worked because the poor are involved at the start, where they can make their own plans, shape their own dreams,” says Kumar. “But this does not happen automatically. You need a sensitive support mechanism that can act as catalyst.” Up to a point, till the energy of the group takes it forward.

A little help from the government to each group has helped also do more than support borrowing. “It’s a slippery path up,” says Kumar. “A small setback can push you back a generation.” And so the government has helped set up an insurance programme through the government-owned Life Insurance Corporation, and managed by the women’s federations. The government pays the premium for the still poorest, and for the others, half.

The women have now formed co-operatives, to collect and sell milk, and introduce innovations in agriculture, substituting chemical and pesticides in many areas with natural ways, and helping women plan crops. One way and another, millions who were seriously poor are now in business. It all still needs another ten years at least to see that all women in the state have at least a decent income of 5,000 rupees a month (120 dollars).

Progress is becoming faster, says Kumar. The root idea is simple enough: the difference in Andhra Pradesh is that it’s an idea that has been made to work, and on scale. Seventy percent of the poor in the state are covered already. The ambition now is not success to show, but saturation, so there are no poor women in the state any longer. And when women are not poor, then no one is poor.

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