Loren Smith:: India
It has been twenty-five days since Jeff and I left Seattle for India. My first week in country was more or less a blur as every moment offered something new to analyze and absorb. That’s not to suggest that the days that followed were any less full of a steady hustle and bustle. The combination of becoming familiar with my new surroundings, learning Bengali cultural norms, gleaning key words and phrases in the local language and beginning my assigned projects has provided more than enough to keep me occupied.
After spending the first six days as starry eyed guests in a nearby hotel, Jeff and I were able to make the move to the newly acquired Center for Knowledge and Skills (CKS) head quarters located in the beautiful city of Bolpur. In addition to helping out with the initial settling process, my scope of work includes putting together research resources for the center’s new library, as well as creating several training manuals that may be used for the various certification courses that CKS will be offering to community members. After a few minor hiccups , like running out of ink for the printer, my work has been off to a good start. Although it has proven to be a bit challenging I’m enjoying this opportunity to push myself and experience what it is to participate in real development work.
Making the transition from the classroom to the field has, in and of itself, been quite an eye-opener. It seems there are some things that simply must be experienced if one hopes to gain an accurate understanding of them. For instance, discovering how to successfully gather information through conversation is not something that is readily attainable from picking up a book. Success in such an endeavor requires that a host of variables must be taken into account, but as with many things in life patience and practice can go a long way.
And so here I am, not quite yet at the mid-way point of my internship. To date my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive! During our first meeting with one of our ‘local guardians’ Jeff and I were told that India is a very spicy country, and to my knowledge that seems like a pretty accurate assessment. Its peoples and their cultures are rich and vibrant. I continue to count my blessings as each day provides chances to learn and grow in ways I might not have found anywhere else.
Q: Do you think it is possible to eradicate extreme poverty? - If so how?
I’m hesitant to say that it is impossible, but it certainly doesn’t seem like much of a probability. However, this is not to suggest that it is a bad goal. While ‘eradicate’ is a strong word it seems necessary to adopt strong language when striking out to accomplish great works; but, in order for extreme poverty to be eradicated many hurdles would have to overcome. To name just a handful of such impediments, let one consider the occurrence of unpredictable natural disasters, short-sighted bureaucracies, war, civil unrest and scarcity of resources. Bearing these in mind it seems unlikely that one can rightly conclude that instances of people coping with extremely impoverished situations will not continue to persist. In terms of alleviating extreme poverty my outlook is much more hopeful.
For example, Jeff and I recently spent three days with an Indian NGO operating near the Sunderbans in southern West Bengal. Although the primary mission of this organization is community development (namely, addressing the needs of persons living with physical and/or mental disabilities)in the wake of Cyclone Aila they recognized a clear need to act outside the sphere of their regular involvement with the communities with which the work. Temporarily shifting their focus to disaster response this organization worked in partnership with Oxfam India to assess the immediate needs of local inhabitants and distribute basic essential items such as potable water, food, tools and materials for basic shelter. In these instances many people were lifted from the immediate dangers of exposure and starvation, but their existence remains extremely compromised. It has been just under one year since the Aila, and situations are improving in most cases. But with only a few more months of involvement scheduled from the NGO it is unclear what the future will hold for people living in the hardest hit areas. Saline water from the initial flooding has rendered much of the most arable land fallow for the next two years leaving many folks without a steady means of livelihood.
On the other hand this same NGO has generated incredible results from a community of local physically impaired women employing their own brand of micro finance. Numbering sixty strong, these capable ladies have divided themselves into groups no smaller than ten members per group. The first step involves each member paying into a community pot for the duration of one year. Using their combined resources they are then able to secure a large loan from the bank. Once the funds have been secured each group decides democratically how and when a given portion of the money will be used by individual group members. Using this method these women have managed to lift themselves and their families out of situations of extreme poverty. In many cases group members are single mothers who have either been widowed or abandoned. In other cases the project has provided married women with a necessary means of supplementing their husband’s income. To date the women’s group has been a tremendous success. They have experienced a one hundred percent rate of repaying their loans, and their achievements are serving as a template and inspiration for women and men alike in their areas.
In both of these examples it is shown that the effects of poverty (at least poverty in an economic sense) can be lessened. Generally speaking, it is demonstrably clear that regardless of a given situation people have options. Striving to end the suffering associated with extreme poverty is not only a noble enterprise, but in the context of the short-term it is a manageable one. The question becomes a matter of sustainability and comprehensiveness. I remain doubtful however that we will live to see the total eradication of extreme poverty. Planet earth is a savage place. Shifting to a more positive light, I contend that value may be found through the shared experience of people acting on the recognition that we are duty bound to help one another. Immediate impacts on lives are no less significant than long term results.