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2010 Fall Newsletter
Mapping a Village: A Pathway Out of Extreme Poverty
BY MAITREYEE GHOSH, TRICKLE UP PROGRAM OFFICER, INDIA
Maitreyee pictured above right in glasses
In a few days the world observes the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (October 17th), a United Nations-designated day to honor the victims of extreme poverty, violence and hunger. The day also presents an opportunity to acknowledge the effort and struggle of people living in poverty, a chance for them to make their concerns heard, and a moment to recognize that poor people are the first ones to fight against poverty. I write this piece for them, for the poor women we work with. Their strength, determination and hard work are the reasons why I get up every morning and do the work I do. Because I know that through their courage and spirit, this work is possible.
The villagers sit in a circle on a large yellow canvas that is spread out on the ground. The women are wearing their finest, most colorful saris and the men their best clothes in anticipation of the guests that have come to the village. As I scan the crowd I count about 34 people, with more joining the scene. There are many women, some with their husbands; others with young children; and some older women have come to the circle on their own. The faces in this large circle look upon us with great curiosity, as well as reservation. This is not the first time that people from the outside have visited their village to gather information. Usually, nothing positive ever comes of it.
I am Maitreyee Ghosh, Trickle Up’s Program Officer based in Kolkata and I am in Ranapada, a tiny hamlet in one of the poorest, most remote areas in Orissa, India. I am here with staff from LOKA, a local Trickle Up partner organization working in the area. We are here today to work with the community to find the poorest women in their village. At Trickle Up, we focus solely on serving the ultra poor; women living on less than $1.25 a day. Finding these women lies in our ability to collaborate with the village community members in a process called Participatory Rural Appraisal or PRA. In PRA, community members map their village on the ground in an effort to identify the poorest among them. Our goal once we’ve found these women is to offer them the opportunity to join the Trickle Up program, where they receive the training, skill-building and resources they need to build sustainable livelihoods. Small enterprises like goat rearing or cultivating fish in a pond,together with their savings can create a pathway out of extreme poverty for the women who join our program.
Today, I am here working with the LOKA team as they work with the people of Ranapada to create a map of their village for the very first time. A few days back, the staff had met with village leaders and other community members to seek their approval and assistance in gathering community members, ensuring that at least half in attendance were women. “We are surveying the village,” Jamuna had told them. “We seek your help in understanding the condition of your village. We are doing these surveys in towns all around the area.” At Trickle Up, we work closely with partner staff whose job it is to implement and monitor our programs.
It is my responsibility to identify and train partners, just like LOKA. These local agencies are critical to the success of our work as they allow us to go deep into communities like Ranapada and identify women and families living at extreme levels of poverty, who are so often invisible to outsiders. Our partners’ offices are located very near the areas they serve and because of this have built strong relationships and trust within these communities. Working through partners is critical to the success of our participants because of the trust they’ve built as well as their knowledge of local law, culture and norms. This goodwill helped encourage participation from the villagers in Ranapada as Langeswar, from the LOKA team, introduced us and explained why we had come.
We began the first part, an exercise we call social mapping. Through social mapping, community members draw a map on the ground that shows where village resources, institutions, structural facilities and homes are located. Langeswar asked a few questions: “Where is the main road?” “Where are the access points?” As members shouted out answers, a young man volunteered to draw the community in the dirt using colored powder to distinguish roads and households and other landmarks.
“Where are the households in this area?”
“Where do you get your water?”
Before our eyes, their village, in all its colors and contours, came to life. I could see their excitement building. Among my deepest satisfactions is working in the field, alongside community members, watching them work together to identify and solve their problems.
There is much discussion and even disagreements. As is often the case, women are reluctant to speak, and we train our facilitators to draw women into the conversation. I prompted Langeswar to ask the women questions directly, and as more and more of them spoke up, others became emboldened.
“Why have you forgotten my household?” a woman in an orange sari asked. She had been silent and timid up to that point, but was compelled to speak as the map on the ground was now being transposed onto a large sheet of paper. Langeswar assured her that her household would be included on this map of Ranapada, and she was satisfied to see her household drawn in its proper place among the others. The LOKA team was doing an excellent job helping the community members create this first-ever inventory of their village and its resources. This record will help them forge a stronger community, even as it helps Trickle Up locate the ultra poor.
When there was consensus on where all the households were located, Langeswar explained that we now wanted to know about the status of the households living in the village. In this part of the PRA process, called poverty wealth ranking, the villagers place every household in a category based on the assets and resources that each family has. One by one, they assessed the household, according to a common set of questions, including: Do they own land? Are they working? How much food do they have saved?
Some of the villagers were uncomfortable with these questions. “What will you do with this information?” one young mother asked suspiciously, her infant swaddled and sleeping on her lap. Others expressed appreciation. Another young woman who appeared to be 21 or 22 years old, said, “We are happy you are asking information from us and not the big people.” An older woman, her wooden cane lying beside her on the ground, spoke up, “I was not sure why you have come and now we know that you care to know about the village and the people in it. Please do something for our village.”
One by one, I watch community members describing households, comparing one to another, and taking their time to be accurate and sensitive to each family’s circumstances. I sense a strong camaraderie between the villagers, both men and women voicing their opinions and thoughts, agreeing and contradicting when necessary. They understand how important it is that they get this right. The community members finally divided the 55 households into six groups. Each group representing a different status, from households whose only daily meal consists of a small shared bowl of rice, to households with land and livestock. With this information in hand, we were able to identify the poorest women of Ranapada who were in most need of our assistance: the women and their families who fall well below the threshold for traditional microfinance services.
In the weeks following our gathering, LOKA staff went door to door to all of the households in the bottom two categories, 25 households in all, to confirm the information provided by the community members. A big part of my job at Trickle up is ensuring that we reach the poorest of the poor and I visited households after LOKA staff for a final verification. Too often the ultra poor are the forgotten poor. Deemed too difficult to reach, they are often excluded from development programs and not networked enough to know of the few existing government services.
One thing I have learned in my years working in development is that if you are not specifically targeting the poorest, then you certainly aren’t reaching them. Identifying these women is just the beginning of the Trickle Up program but it is at the core of our vision of creating opportunities and the possibility of a better life for some of the poorest women in the world.
As we take a moment to observe this International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, and recognize that poor people are the first ones to fight against poverty, I can think of no better representation of that then what I witnessed today in the poor, tiny hamlet of Ranapada.