|Ela Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA).|
Recently, policy makers, aid practitioners, and academics came together at Brookings for a frank, off-the-record discussion about how successes achieved in women’s empowerment, micro-credit, and development can be replicated elsewhere. On hand was micro-finance legend and founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ela Bhatt, as well as SEWA’s Director of Rural Development, Reema Nanavaty. Together, Bhatt and Nanavaty challenged some of the conventional wisdom about development.
Lael Brainard, Vice President and Director of the Global Economy and Development Center, moderated the discussion, and focused it on how their iconoclastic development strategies can be translated into practical, actionable lessons for the development community. Bhatt responded by emphasizing the importance of ownership by the poor of aid projects. “If the poor were not organized, they would not be able to benefit from globalization.”
Nanavaty added that while rural farmers, the poorest members of society, are often seen as the bottom of the economy’s production pyramid, “members of SEWA are not at the bottom of the pyramid – they are the wheels of the pyramid. The pyramid moves how they want to move it.”
Bhatt and Nanavaty attribute much of SEWA’s success to its affirmative self-reliance, and advocate a similar approach to development by other initiatives. “One need not always call it aid,” Bhatt said. “It is an investment.”
|SEWA’s Director of Rural Development, Reema Nanavaty.|
Nanavaty shared Bhatt’s sentiment and took it further, rejecting the need for “corporate social responsibility,” asserting that handouts are often unwanted and unnecessary. Instead, she emphasized investment in small, grassroots businesses, and outlined several innovative strategies for establishing a “code of conduct” to ensure that risks are equally shared in partnerships between big and small businesses.
Another lesson Bhatt and Nanavaty gleaned from SEWA’s experience is the importance of inclusion for all members of society. SEWA ignores caste, religion, and political affiliation, and is willing to work with corporations, politicians, and any party that can help the poor. The only category that matters is one’s economic role. “Everyone is a worker, everyone is a producer,” Bhatt said. In a country as ethnically diverse as India, this stance has helped SEWA earn the trust of its constituency and credibility in the donor community.
Bhatt and Nanavaty made a lasting impact on meeting participants by encouraging the development community to think outside-the-box about economic growth opportunities for the poor – and especially for poor women. SEWA’s experience provides constructive lessons for establishing sustainable, independent, and principled development organizations, and how existing ones might be supported. Perhaps Bhatt’s most important message were in her parting words, advising policymakers and academics not to underestimate the power of the impoverished, and not to make the mistake of viewing them as dependents. “We are poor, but so many.”