Tuesday, June 30, 2009

disappearing questions

As i listened to different people speak in the DS/STS seminar, some of the patterns and arguments were so familiar that i began to feel the question disappear. It is the tension between different positions that makes questions appear. But familiar and standard answers make them disappear.
I dont anymore feel like asking some questions.
But before i put them away...one last attempt..

Why does development theory not talk more to its practice? Maybe because people engaged in both build theory, and build practice, in very different places, within very clear hierarchies. So we have development theory builders, critical development thinkers and academics, on the field we have development practitioners who 'implement' such theory and development practitioners who dissent through their practice....and the knowledge each has is important to the other three...and there is a constant circulation of this knowledge...

Why does policy prescribe short term solutions?By definition isnt state policy supposed to be aboutlong term investment? Maybe because policy makers are as susceptible to the environmental pressures as any one else. so we have politicians who worry about their four year terms, and policies that can be implemented within those time frames; policies that change, but processes that stay mired in undemocratic ground.

How can we get out of representational politics? is that really democray? is participation more or less than representation?
More questions that are disappearing.....

Monday, June 15, 2009

method and madness

Why do academics need to be objective? Or is it a matter of converting thought to text that does it? i begin to worry seriously that i will lose perspective? and maybe that is the beginning of this journey....

defining, understanding,knowing

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Scaling Microfinance: Profit

Microfinance is one of the most debated approaches to poverty alleviation in recent times. At one end, it is touted as a successful scaled intervention that has brought social change, and on the other being reviled as an exploiter of poor women’s social capital. Nothing new, possibly can be said about microfinance.

Organizational efficiencies, and womens’ social relationships form the core of this idea. There are social and financial norms which make this possible, and allow for the social relationships to transform into social ‘capital’.

The mechanism of the womens’ Self help Group, has reached epic scale. In Andhra Pradesh there is no village where women are not mobilized into self help groups. These groups are vocal; they have political and social agendas, and hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable. Mainstream banks now offer microfinance; Europe believes it to be a way forward out of poverty, the previous government in Andhra Pradesh was toppled by the women in these groups, when they felt the chief minister had not delivered on his promises to them. Women have joined hands in public private partnerships, in bottom of the pyramid enterprises, to generate incomes for themselves.

Women have become visible, and are seen as having a say on issues important to them. Their identity has changed, to a more pro-active one where they contribute to the finances of the family, through capitalizing their social relationships. The risk is borne in the social space, but the returns are financial. The scale is measured by the number of women recruited, the number and size of the loans given out, and efforts to turn it into livelihood impact are on, but limited by the fact that returns on capital are always more than return on labour.

Scaling Fair trade: People

Fair trade has come of age today, with every supermarket now having a section of produce that is fair trade. The customer pays no premium for being fair, it is now expected that traders and intermediaries will be fair to their producers. The brand successfully adds value to the customer and to the intermediary. Almost all coffee and tea in Europe is fair trade. This is being extended to other sectors using the mechanism of a value chain; locating a producer in a chain, and ensuring he or she gets fair wage.

There are norms, by which fair trade continuously defines itself. Today, having reached scale, the label cannot be monetized, the economics of scale ensure that returns to the producer are fair, but this fair wage is decided by the norm of the organization. Today in India, a domestic label on the same principles as fair trade is being envisioned and invested in, by funding agencies; in order to change the norms in the domestic market. Here, the label is called ‘shop for change’; and attempts to move from fair wage, to better conditions of work, and equal negotiation on terms. Organizations on the field, committed to fair wage to producers use this label to put out their products in the market place, and improve their reach to customers, over competitors who are not committed to the same process.

Producers and customers feel more in touch with each other, with customers feeling that the nature of transaction is more humane, and less consumptive; the customers make a choice on what kind of production they support, and producers get fair wage. Scale in this model, is about reaching more producers who earn fair wage, so the model is about profit and people.We are also trying to reach scale in the mind of the customer, but the model is limited by the number of people who stay in production systems that build value for producer skills.

Scaling Organic produce: Planet

There are thousands of farmers, in villages across Andhra Pradesh, using their traditional farming knowledge and practices, using it to fight the large agriculture machinery, which treats the land as an unending resource. Scale is an issue of geography, farming lands that are continuous in organic practice become more effective; over time. A sustained interest in keeping this process in the customer eye, along with the concern for the resources on our planet, has led to a huge change in the construct of cost of produce. Local, organic, less processed food is at a premium; quite different from a time when resources where seen as unending, and a lifestyle that aspired towards plenty for some; at the cost of less for others.

This idea now is moving towards other products, notably clothes. Starting with baby clothes, moving to young and trendy consumers, who wear their ideology on their purses. Recycling, using less plastic, an understanding of the global, on the local, seems to be part of caring for your planet. The scale is geographic; it includes profit, people and planet; but it is limited by the fact that land and oceans are not inexhaustible, and we are running on borrowed time.


In each of these cases, what was scaled? What got capitalized? What did not? Where are the financial returns made and by whom?

What did not scale? What was unpaid work that the system put in? What norms changed? Did that lead to social change and social returns, and to whom?

What happens when ideas scale? What happens in practice? What happens to the people who participate in scaling? What policies work for scaling?

Is this plurality? How can we ensure self limiting ideas, rather than cancerous growths that lost potency?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

NGO speak

Sustaining handloom weaving for the future

Handloom weaving is the second largest employer of rural youth in India, with 200000 weaving families in Andhra Pradesh alone. Yet 90% of weavers are below the poverty line, and migrate out of weaving and into the cities as unskilled labour. Weavers see themselves as outdated, and weaving as a skill of no market value. This has consequences for the city as well as the village, rapid urbanization is not environmentally sustainable, and when we lose weavers we lose the knowledge of a centuries old technology, that produces cloth in a manner that is harmonious to nature.

We at Dastkar Andhra therefore work with the institutions that the weaver owns up to, his co-operative, starting with 25 of Andhra’s 600 weaver co-operatives. We aim to build the confidence of the weaver to make a livelihood that he can be proud of, while helping himself out of poverty.

Dastkar Andhra innovates products for contemporary customers, so that they sell at a premium cost, increasing the income of the weaver, and achieves scale through aggregating individual product across weavers to match larger market demands. We provide training and support in dyeing, designing and value addition, to the co-operatives. We ensure stable income to the three hundred weavers we work with, through pre-selling their production, increasing a monthly income which fluctuates between Rs 1500 to Rs. 2500; to a stable Rs. 4000 a month. Over three years, the co-operatives move out of debt, and become sustainable, starting with onlyproviding work also for the other 60% of weaver members who do not weave for Dastkar Andhra.

The shop where we sell handloom straddles the young customer and the weaver in a different way. When a young girl asks the question ‘what will I wear today?’ it is not frivolous. It speaks of knowledge of the self, and the context in which her identity is rooted; a learning which is added to with time. Clothes are part of ritual, colour is symbolic, texture is emotion, and these are lessons passed down through generations much like the knowledge of weaving is passed down from one generation of weavers to the next.

The impoverishment when we lose handloom is therefore not just economic, though that is a big part of it. The weaver has the capability to be a technologist, a designer or even an entrepreneur. Our solution is to re-engage the weaver back to his loom, in a way that is productive for the society he lives in, and in a way that gives him his self esteem and sense of purpose back. In doing so, we hope to re-engage the young customer, to her sense of self, and awaken her ability to contribute to the planet she lives on.

starting with the weaver

What constitutes identity in todays’ world for a weaver? His caste, and his income; what ‘rakham’ he weaves, which village he comes from, does he weave silk or cotton? Does he weave for the co-operative or for the master weaver? Can he design or market his own product? Does he go to the masterweaver, or does the master weaver come to his house, to collect the sarees he weaves? Does he know his customers, has he seen his saree being worn? Padmasali? Netagani? In the village, or in the town? Handloom? Power loom? Or IT?

Each of these categories offer a different possibility, and locate the weaver in a different hierarchy with respect to his peers. From each of these identities he draws a different community, but at the same time they are continuous. These identities have to combine to sustain him, to build his self esteem, so that he can carry on from one day to the next, in a fast changing world.

If in the last hundred years, modes and technologies of production have changed beyond recognition; in the last fifty years, modes of transacting these products have moved beyond the horizon of understanding of the producer. He is now dependant on mechanisms that leave out the possibility of negotiation on a personal basis; the interaction is impersonal, as it would be with a machine that produced fabric. Where is the space where a weaver is respected for his skill, where is the acknowledgement of his capability which can sustain him. All that he is offered by society, is a financial transaction. It is not surprising that the weaver is bewildered, weaving an uncertain income, that tells him only that his financial needs will not be met. He translates it to mean that his skill and technology have no larger intrinsic value. What does this do to his identity? And is this perception true? Who will invest in the weavers’ self esteem? And what kind of investment can bring back his sense of self worth?

In defining sustainability as experienced by the weaver, we define unsustainable livelihoods; which are not just economically unsustainable, but are livelihoods that do not provide life sustanance to their practitioners.