Julia Arnold is a program associate for Grameen Foundation’s microsavings initiative, and will graduate from American University in May with a master’s degree in international development.
As a graduate student at American University and a Grameen Foundation employee, I have studied international development in the classroom and have seen it in practice through my work with Grameen Foundation’s microsavings initiative in India, Ethiopia and the Philippines, and our livelihoods work in India. This unique vantage point has given me many opportunities to reflect on the relationship between what is taught in school and what is done in the “real world” of international development. On a recent trip to one of the project sites of our microsavings project, I began to truly appreciate the difference between classroom theories and realities of the lives of the poorest.
During our visit to the holy Indian city of Varanasi, my colleagues and I visited the homes of some of the urban and rural clients of Cashpor, a microfinance institution (MFI) we’re working with to deliver microsavings services to their ultra-poor clients. It was a privilege to be welcomed into the homes of the families for whom Cashpor provides access to vital financial services. The women I met were beautiful in their bright saris – and serious about their membership in the self-help groups (SHGs).
Though I was inspired by their resilience and determination, the women also bore the marks of very difficult lives. They were extremely small – a result of malnourishment – and extremely poor. Those in urban areas lived in one- or two-room homes in concrete apartment structures with little more than a bed and a curtain for a door, while those in rural areas shared their small homes with their precious livestock. One urban family lived in a very small room in an apartment that didn’t hold much more than a bed – shared among seven family members. The youngest of the five children was badly scarred from surgery for a broken leg and would never walk properly again. Though most of the children wore school uniforms and were enrolled, I struggled to imagine where they studied or how long it would be before they would be pulled from school to help earn income for the family.
Several truths jumped out at me as a result of meeting these clients. These truths had been spoken during my classes, but I was not able to fully appreciate them until traveling to India to meet these women.
Poverty is complex. There is no simple solution to the array of problems facing the world’s poor, mainly because the causes of poverty are heterogeneous – there are many of them and they are all related. Cashpor’s female clients and their families are not only income-poor; they are also time- and resource-poor. As women, they are responsible for the domestic chores, like cooking and child care, in addition to being microfinance clients and entrepreneurs – putting a serious burden on their time. Many rural families don’t have access to grid electricity and must instead rely on kerosene or wood-burning stoves for cooking, heating and light. Such poverty often means their daughters are pulled from school at a young age to help raise younger siblings or help the household earn money, stunting their ability to earn a good, reliable living. Grameen Foundation and Cashpor are providing these poor households with access to savings and credit, which are vital steps in addressing this complex issue.
Empowerment will be difficult and won’t look like how I imagine it. At graduate school, I’ve focused particularly on women’s empowerment – an issue that I feel very strongly about. After meeting women like the ones I imagined in my head when I wrote my thesis, I immediately felt defeated. How am I supposed to help empower these women when the reality of their lives is so complex? Poor women face many obstacles in their pursuit of education, medical care, rights and self-confidence. What this visit taught me is not to abandon my ideals of eliminating global gender inequality, but to have a more nuanced eye when I’m measuring progress. That these women were members of Cashpor and had access to microsavings is, and should be, considered steps toward empowerment.
Not every solution will work everywhere. Power outages were a regular feature of our trip to India, occurring nearly once an hour at our hotel outside Delhi and often during our stay in Varanasi. Access to reliable, basic amenities is not something many people outside the West have the luxury of enjoying. Without access to reliable power supply or mobile phone towers, many of the technological solutions that make our lives easier cannot work for people in places like Varanasi. This problem of access – to any number of resources, large or small – underscores that many solutions work in one context but not another. Though adaptability is a fact of life for many people around the world, as development professionals seeking to make their lives a little (and hopefully, a lot) easier, we must take context and culture into account when designing products aimed at transforming the lives of the poor. We need to ask ourselves questions like, do they have electricity or internet connectivity? Is it culturally acceptable for a woman to own a mobile phone? How will culture shape the management of a partner institution? These questions will save us a lot of angst and save our clients – both the institutions and the people – a lot of one of their most scarce resources: time.
Sitting in a classroom discussing the various solutions to complex problems is important, and I have enjoyed my graduate studies immensely. But my travel to India reminded me that the world is also a classroom. Visiting places where the reality is in stark contrast to my own helped further inform my knowledge of how best to empower poor women, while teaching me lessons in humility, bravery and sheer determination.