The story of IISD’s path to success through Self-Help Groups and Micro-Credit
In least developed and developing countries, the problems of poverty, hunger and social exclusion are major concerns that are encountered in the endeavor to attain the Millennium Development Goals. They retard the growth and development of the economy and infect the social fabric of a nation like a disease.
The horrific spectra of poverty and deprivation all around inspired the founders of the Institute to contribute to the eradication of poverty and hunger and improve the quality of life. That led to the formation of Institute of International Social Development – an international NGO, based and headquartered in Kolkata, India, registered under the Indian Companies Act to enable it to function as a public limited non-profit organization with accountability, transparency and professionalism. The Institute’s inspiration was the founding principles of the United Nations and its slogan ‘One Earth One Family’.
The founding members of the Institute firmly believed that true sustainable development, progress and the eradication of all social ills like poverty and hunger can be brought about through the inculcation of intrinsic values at all levels and through the implementation of value-based grassroot level self-empowerment programs. To initiate the process, the Institute organized the First International Conference on ‘Values for a Better World’ in January 1997 within four months of its inception that was graced by Dr. Robert Muller, former Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations among numerous other luminaries.
The Institute also initiated projects focusing on functional literacy (Project Sushiksha), healthcare for women and children (Project Suswasthya), employment generation (Project Shramdaan) and also prevention and treatment of sex-workers for HIV/AIDS and rehabilitating them into the mainstream through education and skill development (Project HOPE).
On receiving the honor of Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC in 2000 and thereafter, with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) serving as the guideline for all development work, the Institute started gearing all programs specifically in tune with the MDGs. The Institute’s representatives at Kolkata, New York, Geneva and Vienna participated at various High-Level Segment and other meetings of the United Nations and shared their grass-root experiences with the representatives of the world body. The members also took away experiences and knowledge from the international meetings and interactions to implement them at the grassroot level for uplifting the poverty-stricken people to a better quality of life.
The Institute participated in the Tribal Handicrafts Exhibition at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from May to July 2005 and again in a separate exhibition from March-April 2006 where it showcased the crafts and art of tribal and indigenous people of India. Through various other related programs and exhibitions the Institute showcased and made presentations on the Handicrafts of India to the international community in New York to raise awareness and stress their importance in world culture. The Institute’s endeavor to eradicate poverty and hunger took the form of a project in the remote area of Nanoor Block comprising of 24 villages in Bolpur Subdivision in Birbhum district of West Bengal, India. Nanoor is about 177 kms away from Kolkata and is situated 20 kms away from the Bolpur Railway station. The next phase of the project will involve other blocks of the Bolpur subdivision including Sriniketan, Illambazar, and Labpur.
Nanoor is a backward area of tribal artisan families living below the poverty line, the majority of who are from the minority section of the population. Lack of opportunities and ignorance had kept the talented population away from a decent source of sustainable livelihood. They were migrating to the cities for unskilled labor forsaking their generations-old invaluable craft skills.
The Institute adopted the Nanoor cluster of handicraft artisans excelling in Kantha embroidery (which is the art of making exquisite designs and stories through embroidery on cloth by the village women of West Bengal in India and Bangladesh) after in-depth studies of the cluster stretching over months that involved data collection and trust building with the target beneficiaries in the year 2005. There were more than 220 artisans in Nanoor who became the beneficiaries of the project. Overall, in the Bolpur subdivision, there were over 500 artisans who came under the project’s beneficiary umbrella.
Based on the initial study, it was determined that the creation of Self Help Groups (SHGs) was the best option for the artisan families to come out of poverty. The Institute had a series of Focus Group meetings on how to set up Self Help Groups with the artisan families and representatives from the local self-government. It was understood that the existing skills needed upgradation and training programs needed to be conducted to create market–centric products that would be acceptable to the modern consumers.
The Secretary General of the Institute, Rajyashree Chaudhuri, apprised the beneficiaries of the benefits of such team work in the form of Self Help Groups which included easy banking facilities and micro-finance facilities from various financial institutions at much lower interest rates than the local money lenders.
The Institute held group meetings with 220 artisans in January 2006. The Institute announced the formation of Self Help Groups and additionally, affordable group insurance schemes at very nominal premium rates and relatively sizeable benefits offered by Life Insurance Corporation of India. The insurance scheme also offered educational scholarships for their wards. All this was earlier researched and negotiated with the corporations for the benefit of the artisan families under the newly formed Self Help Groups by the Institute.
The Institute trained the artisans in the concept of Self Help Group, accounts maintenance and making of marketable goods to withstand the reverse pressure of globalization and the competition involved between machines and artisans’ hands.
With the formation of SHGs and their bank accounts every artisan started having access to bank interest and thrift and credit offered by the banks to the SHGs guaranteed by their collective fiduciary responsibility.
The Institute provided the SHGs with capacity building training on skill upgradation through designs and technical development workshops conducted by Master Craft-persons and Designers with substantial knowledge and access to modern global markets. The Institute also helped the artisans gain access to markets at the local, regional, national and international levels in partnership with other organizations in different parts of the world.
The artisans, due to their collective bargaining power, now dictate the price of their wares collectively instead of the previous practice of being at the mercy of the middle-level traders. They are able to avail all capacity building programs of the government under the Institute’s supervision for upgrading their production capacity and quality. They are now able to gather enough items to attend exhibitions in different cities and thus meet the buyers directly. Market exposure is educating the artisans to understand the tastes of the consumers and guiding them to make such items which cater to the market. The artisans, through their SHG Bank Accounts, now receive loans on affordable businesses from financial institutions. Working capital and contingencies are met with ease compared to earlier situations of falling into debt traps due to excess interest rates charged by private local money lenders.
Due to their collective nature, insurance companies have floated life and health insurance schemes with affordable premiums, which was a dream for them until recently. In fact, along with life insurance, educational grants are also available for the children of artisans.
The artisans have learnt to accept and exchange views with people from all over the world who are visiting the cluster to experience the lives of the artisans through the Institute, see the process of handicraft-making and plan international markets for them. Their income has increased three-fold in about one year from less than Rs. 300-500 (US $6.8 - $11.4) a month to Rs. 1000-1500 (US$22.75 - $34.00) a month. The increase was also helped by recent design development workshops conducted by internationally renowned designers who made them use their kantha craft as value additions to small items of utility in today’s world. The workshops were organized by the Institute.
Literacy and education is being welcomed by these artisans for furthering their development. The SHGs, comprising mostly of women, discuss social and family problems with their groups and solve problems collectively. Socially they are coming out of seclusion and improving their lives.
The ultimate goal of this project is to create a cluster with adequate enlightenment to handle and mingle comfortably with the global community without losing their identities and without forsaking craft practice as their source of sustainable livelihood.
Presented by: Institute of International Social Development (NGO in Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC of the United Nations) P65 Lake View Road, Kolkata 700029, West Bengal India
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