Until a few years ago, my notion of helping people, especially those who are less privileged, was to provide them with things they don’t have. For example, money or school fee or clothes. To me, this looked like the best way to help people in need and also the best way in which they would accept or appreciate anything. In my limited understanding earlier, that’s also how NGOs functioned and the only way to contribute was to give what they are asking for.
After joining the India Fellow program, I got the opportunity to work with Center for Social Action, an organisation based out of Mumbai, which aims to help the vulnerable communities in Mumbai, Thane and Raigad Districts. It was here that I got introduced to the concept of People Led Empowerment (PLE). Earlier, these were just three words put together. I read about it and even went through certain documents but didn’t realize its importance and/or potential. In simple words, it means empowering people, by the people themselves. This concept re-defines the process of participation and ownership, so as to make it a sustainable model.
Since the day I have been working on the PLE project, I have had moments when I understood this simple, yet powerful approach. I will take you through some of my key learning:
People’s Participation Re-defined: Participation, to me, used to mean people’s presence. But, do you think that merely their presence makes any difference? Maybe not! What would make a difference is a gathering called by them, for their own issues, where an organisation just plays the part of a facilitator. This has the potential to bring out actual issues which could probably lead to a better, faster and a practical solution.
Let’s learn from the people: Have we ever wondered how funny we, as outsiders, sound, when we tell people about their own region, culture, traditions or practices. According to the approach of People Led Empowerment, the social worker or the organisations should be at the receiving end of the local’s knowledge and expertise. For example, sharing a new farming technique with a farmer would be a better decision than telling them how to cultivate just after reading a few papers. PLE develops the idea of knowledge sharing and makes this as a base for any further development.
Sustainability: The power of sustainability cannot be underestimated. It stands true even with our daily lives, one example of which could be going on a fad diet which lasts for a month but doesn’t give anything except guilt. In the context of development by empowering people, I remember starting a livelihood training on making Agarbattis for tribal people in Raigad. For the first round, the organisation provided everyone with raw material bought from Mumbai. People agreed to do it and even earned profits by selling their product. What happened next? Unfortunately, no one was ready to buy the raw material themselves. Can one call this a success? Absolutely not.
Their choice + Their work = Twice the effort: When we are interested in something, the zeal with which we work, is nothing compared to a task which is forced upon us. Sometimes, in the process of doing good, we tend to forget the needs and desires of people who are the actual beneficiaries. Before deciding what we want for them, it’s best to let them decide what they want and then work on different possibilities which could incorporate their need. This joint effort will ensure and establish people’s ownership that is essential for any project.
I have just begun to explore the possibilities of this approach and I’m not sure how well it is going to work for the people but I have my faith that the foundation on which it works, does have the potential for a sustained development led by its own people.