From One Indian to Another…

As a practice of cross-cultural engagement I will use a message told by Native American thought leader Daniel Longboat at the 2010 Traditional Knowledge Conference at the University of Auckland to frame my reflections. He told us that there are really only three things we as human beings need to do during our lifetime:

  1. Sustain Life 
  2. Enjoy Life with others 
  3. Give Thanks

From Turtle Island to India, and from one kind of “Indian” (Mr. Longboat) to another, my thoughts below are gathered around those three directives.

1. Sustain Life

Social Enterprise

In reflecting on the trip I definitely feel well versed in social enterprise and I think it has a lot of potential to make positive change to the way we sustain life. It can take on certain aspects of the current landscape of institutions we have – namely government, business, and civil society – to tackle problems and I think it has a lot of room to come up with new approaches and solutions as well.

To briefly sum up what I got exposed to during the program and what resonated with me: the workshops and assignments we conducted before, during and after the trip, including the blog, allowed us to hit the ground running and experience many social enterprises first hand. Coming from the trip with tried and ingrained primary research skills has been a bonus I am already implementing in my capstone project.

Consulting project: SKS Microfinance

SKS Microfinance is one of India’s largest and the only publicly listed microfinance company. SKS has a social mission to lift families out of poverty, but they also have this obligation to provide value to their shareholders, which I found interesting. They have obligations to their owners and to their clients, and its fine so long as those needs are aligned. But if they aren’t, I guess satisfaction will depend upon which way the fiduciary pendulum happens to be swinging on any particular day.

Working with SKS over 3-4 days I identified a few things that make their social mission shine through. First is the incredible training systems they have in place to provide both lending services and financial literacy training to their clients. Second was the group liability model taken from the Grameen Bank style where women from the same village borrow and repay loans as a collective. Thirdly, SKS charges interest rates that are designed to enable the client to repay and grow their business, then come back to SKS in future. Lastly, over 95% percent of their loans are awarded for income generating purposes only.

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Continuing my Social Enterprise Learning and Practice

Right now back in Portland I am doing class projects with two social enterprises – New Avenues for Youth who run two Ben & Jerry’s stores to provide job training opportunities for at-risk youth, and M25 Ventures which is a newly started NGO that works with former felons and addicts.

2. Enjoy Life with Others

What is India like? To employ a word that helps to express its vibrant, juxtaposed, in your face nature, it is ‘Amaze-balls’. The best part however was to share the experience of being there as a group, with people I knew a little then and quite a lot now, myriad in background yet united in purpose. Those moments and those laughs will stay with me a long time.

After the program Katie and I traveled to Goa, where we saw plenty of European and Indian tourists, lots of wild dogs and cows sleeping on the beach, visited a coffee and spice plantation, and got to ride on an elephant! Such beautiful and powerful creatures.

3. Giving thanks

Firstly I want to thank my parents for instilling in me the freedom to trust my instincts and to decide what is right for me. This trip was definitely one of those.

To our hosts in Bhimavaram, the Byrraju Foundation, an amazingly talented, generous and funny group of people who provide healthcare, water purification, education and a lot of other services to rural communities in India. See one of my classmates’ own blog posts on their amazing hospitality here.

Our hosts in Hyderabad at IMT Hyderabad, in particular Archana and Viswanathan, and especially to Shriya who really went the extra mile to look after us.

Finally, I give thanks to our guides and teachers, Alison, Kim and Carolyn, who enabled us to learn and grow.

-Simon

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Closing Reflections

The PSU Social Enterprise Magic Bus has been an amazing experience, one that will forever help to strengthen my resolve to do good before I do well. In sharing some reflections I wanted to also provide some tips to those who would also seek out the treasure that is India:

One. Do not drive a car in any major town or city. Period. Being a passenger is fretful enough. Failing that, think of yourself not as a self-determining driver expressing your rights to a lane and to not be cut off from within your protective metal shell. That will end badly for you. Instead, think of yourself as a leaf floating down a stream. This works best when crossing the street also. If you’re not sure, then just take a cue from the cows and water buffalo.

Two. Learn to say no politely. The Indian cultural etiquette towards guests feels like they have mistaken you for Vishnu or Shiva. While it is certainly nice to be pampered, you will not be able to just get up and leave, or to repay your hosts. This can put a pretty big dent in a Westerner’s notions of wealth and happiness, as well as their schedule.

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Three. Just go with it. The funny thing about India is that you cant put your finger on it – its so dynamic. Cultures, worlds, languages, religions and empires have combined time and again over the past millennium, and its ability to adapt throughout history will only prove more valuable as time goes on. The only constant here is change, and during my brief time here, I have been changed permanently and irreversibly for the better.

-Simon

Answering the Call

5:30am, maybe five hours sleep, and its time to get in the car to embark on a two-day field visit with our consulting project client, SKS Microfinance. Four hours later we are over the Andra Pradesh state line into Karnataka, and the historic town of Bidar. 

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We hop out the car and are escorted up these concrete steps to a third-story room to find a group of 20 women sitting on the floor in a circle, with bundles of white booklets with the SKS logo on them.

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This was a Center Meeting, a crucial element of the SKS Microfinance model that provides over 5 million women across India with capital required to start or expand their own business enterprise. Based on collective responsibility, transparency, and building financial discipline, each center is made up of between four and ten groups of five members. Center Meetings happen once a week, every week, same time and place, and is where the power of microfinance model can be seen, and felt.

First, a pledge was read out by the members, challenging some to read but reminding all of the reasons why they are agreeing to take out loans, and why they are doing it together. Next, the leaders of each group of five women brings their group’s loan repayment collection for the week to the Center Leader, who counts it. The one SKS staff member, the Center Leader, is there to collect the weekly repayments, disburse new loans, take new loan applications, and facilitate the group dynamic. Everything is done in the open, where all who form the circle can see. The Center Leader, who is first and foremost a member herself, has the responsibility of collecting and counting the money, collecting the members’ passbooks for updating, recommending other women to join groups and centers, and keeping the center’s minute books.

What struck me first when I walked in that room was the age range of the women there – some looked barely 25, while others appeared to be in their early 50s. That Center had been operating for the past seven years, and the Center Leader had recently begun her second business operation. The third thing I learned was the kinds of businesses microfinance lends itself to – fruit sellers, grocery stores, milking operations – enterprises that had a fast cash flow cycle, so they can make weekly loan repayments. Why weekly? Because many rural poor cannot access the banking system, so their business takings are often stashed at home. Imagine a month’s worth of business revenue storing up, and the discipline it requires to budget its expenditure. Agricultural operations would also struggle due to their much longer, seasonal cycles.

 I also noticed just how huge this is from the point of view of women’s empowerment. These women are not completely literate yet they understand business mechanics. The enterprises they run are generating enough revenue to pay back the loans, and it is the highest hope that with each loan they expand their business to the point it increases their net income. And when a women earns a higher income, statistically speaking she will spend a higher percentage of it on clothes, books, and other items that benefit the whole family, than will men. I found myself in a room full of business experts, and I was once again the student. 

Now back in Hyderabad gearing up for presentations on our findings from the field, I am compelled to do right by the women I was able to meet, and to treat others with the respect and openness with which they treated me. 

A Little Re-education

For the past two days I have worked on a team with Adam and Mike learning and researching the Aswhini Program, which provides urban quality education in rural areas through information and communication technology. Four key types of services – primary and high school tutoring; life skills for women (e.g. embroidery, painting, incense-making, etc); computer literacy and job training; and internet use – are delivered via Aswhini centers located in 20 villages. These centers are usually the only venue other than a high school or college where computers and internet access are available.

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In reflecting on my interaction with Aswhini leaders, employees, clients and potential customers, I am blown away by the impact this program can have on peoples’ lives, and how great a challenge it is for a social enterprise to balance the dual objective of financial sustainability while achieving its social mission. What activities are generating revenue, and which ones are most important to the social mission? Which ones provide the most revenue for the lowest cost? Which activities have the greatest impact of promoting the core set of products and services? These are some of the key questions I have found myself asking, and the experience of teasing them out and delving into primary research to explore the answers has been an exciting challenge. One key learning I’ve made is that subsidized or promotional gifting of life skills training severely reduces the willingness to pay for those services later.

With Week One of the Social Enterprise India program drawing to a close, so too is our time in the town of Bhimavaram. It has been an epic experience of streets and markets bustling with citizens both human and non-human, and having the honor to be hosted by the Byrraju Foundation.

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Today I learned that it is part of India culture to treat your guests as gods, and all I can say is the gods are lucky if they are treated with the warmth, respect and generosity that our hosts have shown to us. As we gear up to move out on the evening train back to Hyderabad, I take a piece of their reverence and their hopes for the communities they serve with me, and hope I can give back a fraction of what they have given me.

Contrast is King

From the moment I arrived in Hyderabad, India, the friendliness and hospitality of the Indian people was visible, tangible and welcome. So too the intensity of contrasts, in every respect.

Some students from Hyderabad’s Institute of Management Technology (IMT) gave me the low-down over lunch. They told me about different parts of the same city having different customs, different dress codes, different languages. There are no rules of thumb here, its all about the context you’re in. Everything is here from bejeweled decadence to squalor, and everything in between. Within 20km from the IMT’s flash new campus are villages that go without power for much of the day, and to the bright young people at IMT this is a call of duty to make development more sustainable and equitable for all.

Now that I have come by train some 400km east-southeast of Hyderabad,  I find myself less than 40km from India’s eastern shore in the town of Bhimavaram, and in the company of my fellow PSU students once again – success! While having missed the first full day of field work was a setback, I felt welcomed and intent on throwing new energy and fresh perspective into the mix.

For my first primary research assignment I teamed up with Kate to explore the family and community factors of India’s overpopulation issue. The village we visited was nestled between a stream – complete with small herd of water buffalo – and rice fields. All of the residents we interviewed, with the assistance of some local MBA students who helped bridge the language gap, had some common characteristics: they were working at their home where they lived with their spouse, parent and 1- 3 children; had not completed high school, made between US$90-120 per month; put 20-30% (US$20-40) of that away for a rainy day; and were engaged in producing sickles used to harvest the fields.

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All except for Narsama: 60 years old, no children, making US$50 per month washing clothes. She has three brothers, one of whom she lives with, and who have three sons and three daughters between them. She spends only half of her pay on living expenses. While we asked her questions about her life I was struck by the realization that the purpose with which this village went about its business was not to supply sickles to local farmers or high school graduates to engineering colleges, but to simply be, to exist, to continue.

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Any population restriction interventions that fly in the face of that belief would therefore be seen as a threat to a community’s very existence, and would ultimately fail. One policy we discovered was an incentive scheme rewarding families who had only two children, seeking to strike a balance between continuation of community while addressing some overpopulation factors.

Today, as I awake from my first decent sleep in a while, I’ve made a conscious decision to not look at the schedule. There’s no risk of confusion as to where I need to be and when – I’m already here. In letting go of the need to know, I also let go of any expectations about the day’s activities, and am compelled to be prepared, accepting and grateful for whatever happens. Bring it on.

– Simon

Go For Launch – at last…

… I am underway!

Sitting in Portland International Airport on a clear Saturday morning, the sun just peeking through the clouds, I am elated. I made it; I’m going to India!

A good friend of mine has a great way of acknowledging and overcoming complex situations with one deft line: “there are a lot of moving parts here”. For a non-US citizen applying for an entry visa to India while residing in the US, the parts were many, and they moved in ways I didn’t know existed.

I didn’t know if I’d get there at all, let alone get there on time. Fortunately it all worked out and while I will arrive a couple days late, I will arrive. It helped a lot to focus on my Circle of Influence, knowing what I can control and what I can’t. I can plot my course and keep my sails trimmed right, keep a keen eye out and adjust when I need to, but at the end of the day there are so many other factors at play beyond my Circle of Influence that help to get me to my intended destination.

I think the whole ‘pre-adventure’ has set me up well for this voyage to India. It makes life more uncertain, but all the more wondrous as well. I’m cool with that.

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Setting sail for India, across the mighty Pacific Ocean to immerse myself in a civilization 100 times older than New Zealand, my home. We travel light, but no orc-hunting today!