THERE’S a recent image that will remain etched in our collective memory for a long time: 40,000 farmers from Nashik marching towards Mumbai in scorching heat to demand their rights. The reason it makes for a compelling image is because the farmers joined hands across caste, religion and class lines to demonstrate a simple truth to the establishment and society at large: that ordinary people have the power and potential to bring about change.

All these farmers needed was a common purpose and issue—and a few people to show them a direction. That was enough to start a movement.

For those of us who work in the development sector, the farmer rally was a timely, much-needed reminder to reassess some of our notions and challenge some of the beliefs with which we approach the community.

Let communities define the problem

If all of us—the rich, the literate, and the powerful—have not been able to solve the world’s problems for all these years, I believe that the time has come for ordinary people to get involved; it’s also time to take a different approach to solve our issues.

However, most of us in the social sector refuse to acknowledge that people in the communities know their problems better than people like us. We are unable to value people as they are, for their skills and their wisdom. We continue to use terms like gareeb, bechara, lachar to describe people, without asking ourselves what gives us the right to assign these labels.

It is time we let go of the notion that we have all the answers to people’s problems. We must stop looking at things from our own lenses and learn to see things through theirs. Else, the solutions we ‘design’ will fail to address their context or the real problem.

For instance, had we at Goonj used our urban lens to approach the problem of making menstrual hygiene products available to rural women, the menstrual cup might have looked like the ideal solution. However, when we looked at it from the point of view of the women in the community—who were using cow dung or mud—cloth, washed and dried properly, emerged as a viable solution.

To arrive at appropriate solutions, though, the problem must be defined accurately and comprehensively. And for that, we should look to the communities who are most affected by these problems. Because they know the problem better than we ever can.

If we go in ‘knowing’ what the problem is, we are basically saying that only we can develop the solution as well. The people and communities, then, are reduced to being mere bystanders in the process; it’s no surprise then that the solutions fail to address their needs or improve their lives.

Become the catalyst for change

If we look around, we can see that so-called gurus and godmen have millions of followers in our country. That is a clear indication that people are looking for a tiny ray of hope, of action, of direction. People have the potential and they know they have it, but they still continue to wait for someone else to lead and show them the path. And when they see a path, they follow it.

As non-profits, we have an opportunity to play the role of the lead that shows the path to people so that their potential is channelised. To make that happen, we must create evidence of a different approach and an enabling environment that will encourage people to act on that approach. The farmer rally this year, and the people’s movement in the wake of the Delhi gangrape in 2012, are two examples of this. They had no leaders only enablers and once the masses found their path, results happened.

The need of the hour, then, is to help people discover their potential and guide them to find ways to use that potential. People need inspiration and motivation from peers – realistic role models – so that things look possible and achievable.

Our role as nonprofits is to facilitate this and show them examples of community-led models. When people in Andhra see how villagers in Madhya Pradesh use their wisdom and skills to dig a well, they believe that they can do it, too.

In addition to hope, people — especially rural communities — need to value what they are and what they have, and the limitless possibilities they can create for themselves. We have undervalued their intellect, wisdom and resources for so long that they now need to be reminded and made to feel valued.

Open our minds

As we set out to achieve social change, there is a need for us to control our arrogance and open our minds. There are a few distortions that we need to urgently set right.

The top-down approach: A lot of voluntary organisations start to behave like the government. Just as many a time the government imposes plans and schemes on people without asking them what they need, many corporates and nonprofits are also beginning to behave in a top-down fashion, believing they know the problems of the people and they have the solutions too. As a result, these ‘solutions’ are usually designed to fit their own mandates and not the needs of the community.

A problematic language: Several of us in nonprofits, foundations, and CSR use patronising terms such as ‘donor’ and ‘beneficiary’, which reflect a thought process that refuses to see all constituents as stakeholders. In a scenario where you see yourself as the donor and the other as a beneficiary, there is little scope for dignified giving.

The charity-based model tends to strip a person of their dignity. And development is unlikely to happen when we take away person’s sense of self. We have to get rid of such demeaning words from our language — and that requires a change in how we think.

The power of money: Many people in our sector still believe that money is the most important factor in bringing about cultural and social change. But if that were true, wouldn’t all the wealthy people in the world have solved our problems by now?

We must question our over-emphasis of money and its power to create change. We must all realise that we can’t work without each other and that all constituent s– activists, funders, communities – have equal value and role, and therefore deserve equal respect.

The funders’ money is useful, but a bamboo bridge in the village can only be built through the labour of the person in the community. Without it, the money has limited value.

We have to be willing to approach social change by accepting that our money is of limited use and our urban learning and skill has only limited value – indeed, an engineering degree can only go that far in delivering the know-how required to build a bamboo bridge for the community. That’s why our urban lenses need to change.

We need to be more humble, accept that we have a lot to learn from the people we serve.

We have to learn to stop using patronising prefixes—unskilled, illiterate, and so on—for people who don’t necessarily fit our notions of skill and literacy.

There is indeed no question about the intention of people like us — we are trying to do our best and give our best — but the distorted lens that we use to look at the problem is very restrictive. It allows us to neither fulfil our potential nor do justice to our passion for social change.

This article was originally published in India Development Review. You can find the original article here.

Anshu Gupta is an Indian social entrepreneur, awarded the Magsaysay Award for his work on transforming the culture of giving in India and for highlighting material as a sustainable development resource for the poor. Popularly known as the Clothing Man, Anshu founded Goonj offering a sustainable economic model for eliminating poverty and related issues. Under his leadership Goonj created a barter between urban surplus and village communities labour, triggering large-scale rural development work. Anshu has won many national and international honours like Ashoka and Schwab Fellowship, while Forbes Magazine has listed him as one of India’s most powerful rural entrepreneurs.

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