By Alex Arockiasamy
From the diaries of SBI YFI Fellow Alex Arockiasamy: working in association with Seva Mandir in Kotra Block, Udaipur District, Rajasthan.
The first time I met someone from the community, I was offered chai (tea) without milk in a saucer. For someone who’s used to having tea in a cup, this was unusually hard.
I braved the chai with a smile while focusing on not spilling any of it. My host was anxiously looking at me while I had the first sip, waiting for a reaction. It was a scene straight out of MasterChef, how the show’s participants await critical judgment when the judges taste their creation.
Honestly, I would’ve preferred tea with milk, in a cup. However, since I didn’t want to be in the least bit offensive, I enjoyed the chai (with a smile). The villager seemed happy and proud. What followed was an interesting relationship that’s slowly getting me closer to the community.
While I can’t claim that I’ve cracked the code for bonding with the community, I sure can share a few observations that might help you better understand the dynamics of a village.
I’ve slowly come to realize that trust is an indispensable attribute of development.
Why should they trust an individual whose world and way of life is mostly alien to them?
Inculcating trust requires sheer hard work and a deeply ingrained sense of dedication and commitment. For starters, you can initiate the process by sticking to your schedules, being there when they need you and not over-stepping.
Open up and be vulnerable to them from time to time. I once spoke to my mom over the phone in Tamil during one of the many casual meetups. After the call, I told them how I missed “Maa ka Khaana“. The villager’s wife prided herself with a smile and said: “Ma se bada koi nahi hai“. Little things matter.
Never promise what you can’t deliver.
If you’re noting something down, try using pictorial representations. This will enable them to understand what is it that you seek from them (in terms of information). This will also help in clearing any fears or doubts they might have but are hesitant to ask.
Once you start living in the village, you’ll realize you’re not the first one to have entered their lives with hopes of betterment. People & organizations have come and gone. Promises were made and broken. Rural India has been exploited for long enough for them to enter a state of dissent and skepticism.
This is not just because of the government and politicians, though. There are private players as well – chit fund scams, private money lenders, MLM schemes etc – they have destroyed communities altogether.
You might be a recipient of this skepticism as well, in various forms and manner – lack of interest in your initiatives, constant probing and monitoring of your movement and no support whatsoever. This is demoralizing, but it also presents an interesting challenge in front of us.
It’s important for you to constantly innovate and creatively market your solution. In the past two months, I’ve had to change my plans twice based on the needs of a community.
Got a plan? Do a pilot; something minimal, and take it forward from there. This will enable you to stand out from the ‘competition’. It’s also important to know the other players in the area. There are 3 other NGOs and an agro-based company working in my region and I know what they’re up to.
While discussing minimalism over a phone call with a co-fellow, I realized that it’s really important for us to follow a frugal approach.
What should we do?
We kick-start a project with whatever limited resources we possess. Work on a solution that offers little risk to the beneficiary. By piloting a randomized controlled trial (just like how they do it with medicines), you will be able to figure out what works best*.
How do you market your solution when you hardly know the environment and its people, you ask?
Observe. See what interests them and what doesn’t. During one of the meetings, we showcased videos on agriculture to the community and we noticed that they instantly became more attentive to what was being presented. Use visual appeal, wherever possible. Henceforth, I’ve decided to start all my meetings with a video or a presentation because dissemination of information is still a huge problem that’s not being adequately dealt with. If you can incorporate/ blend this factor into your project, I feel you have a better chance of connecting strongly with the community you’re working.
Each of us has a different story depending on the area we are working in. There is no standard way you can communicate and connect with the community. But, what does work more often than not is using your instincts and empathizing with them.
Don’t just say it, show them that you care.
Reference: Poor Economics: Abhijit V Banerjee & Esther Duflo.