India Journal: Thought Leaders & Handholders

I recently returned from a 10-day trip to visit Trickle Up in India.  Inspired by the people I met every day, I kept a detailed travel diary.  In five installments that will be posted to the Trickle Up blog through next week, I hope to convey a first-hand view of the great work that Trickle Up is doing in India and our potential for even greater impact.  I invite your comments and questions, either posted to the Trickle Up blog or emailed to me directly  at This is part 3 in a series.

Bill Abrams
President, Trickle Up


About three years ago, when Trickle Up staff and board were updating our strategic plan, we set “thought leadership” as one of our goals.  Could we become recognized as a global leader in serving the ultrapoor?  Would we be able to, in the elegant phrase of my colleague Jaya Sarkar, “influence the agenda” of larger global agencies, funders and government policy makers that operate at a level of scale far larger than our own?

It was the most controversial part of our strategic plan process.  Did we have the resources to become effective advocates?  Was thought leadership something you could intentionally win, or was it the simply the result of good work on the ground? Was it realistic, in a world where the prevailing definition of extreme poverty is set the $1.25/day standard (covering about 1 billion people), to think that we could highlight the subset of 300-400 million people who live in conditions of ultrapoverty?

Poverty rates in India

Today in Delhi, we have the opportunity to be thought leaders in India.  We are hosting two workshops, one in the morning co-sponsored with the Ford Foundation and one in the afternoon co-sponsored with the Asian Institute of Poverty Alleviation.  Our goal with each is to bring together people and institutions that share our interest in alleviating poverty for the very poorest.  “Reaching the Last Mile” is the title of the morning meeting and “Building Better Life for the Vulnerable” in the afternoon.  The audience in the morning is mostly policy makers and government; the afternoon more oriented to corporate social responsibility.

Our other goal, of course, is to raise our profile in India and, in so doing, find new sources of funding in the country.  Historically, US-based individual, corporate and foundation donors have funded Trickle Up’s India program.   Unique among the countries where we work (the others are Burkina Faso, Mali, Guatemala, Nicaragua), India is classified by the World Bank as a “lower middle-income” country – 123 on its ranking of 185 countries based on per-capita GDP.  The sheer size of the Indian economy, its robust growth, and the likelihood of greater prosperity ahead all drive Trickle Up’s strategy to expand our work there through local funding – especially the Indian government and corporate sectors.

The morning session begins with a lamp-lighting ceremony, a very civilized way to start the day.  Unfortunately, the keynote speaker – Mr Jual Oram, the Minister of Tribal Affairs for the Indian government – had to send his last-minute regrets, as Cyclone Huddud required him to be at his office.  Other speakers and panelists were from the Orissa Rural Livelihoods Mission, the Jharkhand Rural Livelihoods Program, the World Bank, the UN Development Program, the Indian National Rural Livelihoods Mission, the Ford Foundation, the MetLife Foundation, and other important institutions.  A total of about 50 people attended.

As distinguished as the panelists were, the speakers who stole the show were five women who had never finished school, lived a lifetime of poverty, and were in Delhi for the first time in their lives.  No doubt also the first time they’d ever been in a hotel or slept in the kind of bed that you and I sleep on.  These "didis" ("sisters") were all graduates of Trickle Up, and they were there to give their perspective on ultrapoverty.  As engaged as the audience was in all of the other speakers of the day, they were absolutely spellbound by the Trickle Up women.

bill-and-pinkyThe smallest of the five was named Pinky Besra and I don’t think she weighed more than 90 pounds or stood more than five feet in height.  Before Trickle Up, she said her family survived on her husband's income of about $1/day.  Their tiny plot of land produced only enough rice for three months.  During the annual hungry season, they had to migrate for work in another city just to survive.  They were deeply in debt to moneylenders.

Now, with Trickle Up's help, Pinky farms on her own land and recently opened a small shop to sell garlic, onions and spices.  She noted that her husband, who initially was suspicious of her Trickle Up self-help group and wouldn't even let her leave her village to visit her parents, had allowed her to make this trip to Delhi from her home in West Bengal.

Jaya told me later that she was "mesmerized" by Pinky's story, especially the importance of coaching -- "handholding" in local parlance.  Pinky used the term "dada" -- literally "older brother" -- to describe the SEWAK field officer who worked with her group. As Pinky explained:

"Dada told us we needed to save a bit for the group.  We said, 'How can we save?  We are poor.'

Dada said, 'But if you don't save, how will there be money in the savings group?'

He had a point, so we thought about it and went back to see how we could save a little bit."

"What impressed me," Jaya said, "is how the dada took the time to generate discussion and explore areas they had previously not considered and thought impossible.  I was impressed by the way she described the interactions with the Dada and the trust between the two that enabled that kind of discussion and for the didis to really ask questions.  These kinds of discussions build a relationship that develops trust and confidence in the participants."

A motif for the day's panels was scale: How to expand a program like Trickle Up to a level that would have impact in a country where an estimated 350 million people live in extreme poverty, with about one third at the level of ultrapoverty.   If the one-on-one coaching that made such a difference to Pinky is an essential part of Trickle Up's success, is that affordable at large scale and can you find and train enough field staff to deliver it?

"Handholding is a real game-changer in a woman's life.  It gives her the feeling that 'I am needed and I am included.'" observed Philip Mathew of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, during a panel discussion following Pinky and the didis.  The question is, he said, "How do you scale empathy"?

As moving as the stories were from Pinky and her peers, I don't want to short-shrift the other speakers during the day.  A few excerpts from my notes:

Seasonal migration: One panelist spoke of visiting dozens of villages in the Sundarbans region and seeing that nearly all the men between 17 and 40 were "missing" -- gone away to find work so that their families could survive.  A representative from our West Bengal partner Prasari, estimated that 80% of the women in its area have to migrate for several months.  The high salinity of the soil resulted in low agricultural productivity, and chemical residues in lakes and ponds were affecting fishing.

Big data: A day of speakers and presentations is a day filled with data.  Two statistics that got my attention.  One, India has 17% of the world's total population but 33% of the world's poor.  Two, an estimated 55% of Indian's population is engaged in small-scale farming, but agriculture accounts for just 15% of India's gross domestic product.

The last mile?: Commenting on the "Reaching the Last Mile" title of the morning conference, Dilip Mahapatra of Odisha Rural Livelihoods Mission challenged the audience to  think of the ultrapoor not as the "last mile" of poverty but the "first mile" of poverty -- the first priority for government, funders and all poverty agencies.  Later in the day, Professor K.G. Karmakar complimented Trickle Up on its faithfulness to the economic principles of Gandhi, including serving "the poorest of the poor first."

No easy answers: Even as speaker after speaker posed the question of how to scale poverty interventions, they also emphasized the needs for fitting programs to local context, engaging people in finding their own solutions, and the need to resist the temptation of innovation for innovation's sake. As Dr. H. Sudarshan of Karuna Trust, a health agency, observed: "I had no pills for poverty."


"...The irony is that before Trickle Up, when the women were eking out a marginal existence through occasional day labor, they often couldn't afford to buy chilies for their own cooking.  Today they grow all they need for their own kitchens, earn $100-$300 per crop, and gain social capital by having enough to give relatives as gifts..."  

1 Comment

  1. India Journal: Cyclone Hudhud | The Trickle Up Blog on November 14, 2014 at 10:07 pm

    […] Next in the series: THOUGHT LEADERS & HANDHOLDERS […]