Harold Redekopp – Toronto
This past November I was fortunate to be part of a Coady International Institute study tour of India and Nepal. I was naturally interested in the powerful new images that have recently emerged of India, fed by its success in information technology, offshore call centres and Bollywood films. And I wanted to know more about the dramatic economic and social changes occurring in places such as Mumbai and Bangalore. There are apparently some 300 million middle class Indians who are competing head-on with Canadians and Americans for global business opportunities and ready to eat our lunch.
At the same time, I had read that approximately 750 million of India's 1.1 billion people continue to live in its 680,000 villages, almost half of which lack access to all weather roads, and many are not in reach of effective primary healthcare centres or competent elementary schools. Almost half of India's women do not know how to read or write, and a large proportion of those who are technically literate can do little more than sign their name. Clearly, India is a country of vast contrasts. And I was keen to see what difference the work Coady graduates was making to lives of the poor in both India and Nepal.
My connection to the Coady International Institute began about 5 years ago when I joined its Advisory Committee. Established 50 years ago by St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia , the Coady International Institute was given a mandate to train leaders from around the world in the principles and practice of a people-based approach to development. This approach to development originated in the 1920's as a response to the poverty afflicting farmers, fishers, miners and other disadvantaged groups in Atlantic Canada. Today, Coady has more than 5000 graduates and partners working on the ground in 130 countries -- two of which are India and Nepal.
Our study tour included the President of StFX University, the Director of Coady plus 11 Coady supporters from across the country. We began our tour in Ahmedabad, India, home of Mohandis (Mahatma) Ghandi and his Ashram. Ahmedabad is also the headquarters of the SEWA (Self Employed Women?s Association) Bank which has had a 10 year relationship with Coady and its graduates. Founded in 1956 by Elaben Bhatt as a trade union of poor, self-employed women textile workers, SEWA is currently the largest union in the country with around 1.1 million members. It has forced politicians to pay attention to its issues.
The SEWA Bank, established in 1972, has permitted women to escape the clutches of private money lenders (loan sharks) and it has dramatically improved the members' ability to feed themselves and their families. Essentially, the SEWA Bank offers poor, economically active women three services: savings, credit and insurance. To hear these women tell us confidently about their plans to improve their lives -- this was undoubtedly one on the most inspiring aspects of the trip.
Jayshree Vyas, SEWA Bank's Managing Director, is currently planning a national financial literacy drive to reach 1.5 million poor people in 10 Indian states. Jayshree is organizing a team of trainers equipping them with impressive, culturally specific study guides. I suggested to Jayshree that had she launched a similar program for North Americans, we might have avoided the recent financial meltdown.
(above) Financial instruction in the classroom at SEWA Bank.
From Ahmedabad, we flew to Mumbai and witnessed the work of Catholic priests and nuns among Pardhi tribal people living literally at the side of Grant Road in the slums. Later, we met with womens' self-help groups involved with income generating programs. An unbelievably tough existence - and yet even here, desperate lives exhibited a belief in the possibility of achieving a full and abundant life.
From Mumbai we flew to Jaipur and visited Coady graduates working with the Jewelry Artisans Development Project. Then on to Delhi where we visited one of the very poorest slum communities of rag pickers. Life doesn't get much tougher than being a rag picker. Again, Father Susai Sebastian and his Sister colleagues provided workers with training and hope to improve their lives incrementally. While in Delhi, the Canadian High Commissioner, Joseph Caron, hosted a 50th Coady anniversary evening at his lovely, spacious official residence.
Our trip ended with an opportunity to observe the truly impressive results of Coady graduates' work in Gaindakot -- a short flight from Kathmandu via Buddha Airways into rural Nepal.
Here, they had clearly put into action the Coady principles they had absorbed as part of their course work in Antigonish. The welcoming sign announced "Sahmati: A Coady Village in Action". This "village" represented the collective efforts of a number of NGOs and foundations, including Coady. We heard reports of self-help initiatives that included building a school, supporting small irrigation projects, constructing public toilets (the chief cause of death is diarrhea, a consequence of poor sanitation) and ensuring safe drinking water.
Next we heard about a rural youth development program that focuses on improving the quality of education, particularly as it relates to employment opportunities in agriculture (90% of adults are farmers). We saw the fruits of micro-finance activity, including a small enterprise that processes lemon grass oil and produces herbal teas which are advertised as a healthy alternative to the growing consumption of alcohol. One of the "village's" proudest achievements was its SAHAJ Health Cooperative -- phase one of a new community hospital. It was clearly evident that the entire rural community of Gaindakot was being transformed through the leadership of Nepalis who had put into practice the Coady principles of people-based approach to development.