[image from http://www.sparcindia.org/nsdf.aspx]
About 15 years ago I was exposed to such incredible evidence of the power of collective action that has inspired and informed my professional life ever since. At the time I was supporting homeless and socially excluded people to set up and run community projects and to have greater influence over decisions that affect their lives. Our organisation was based on the view that homeless people should not be seen as ‘a problem’ but rather as an integral part of any solution – a far more radical idea than perhaps it is today.
Early in the organisation’s formation we were lucky enough to meet members of the National Slum Dwellers Federation of India (NSDF) who employed a similar philosophy in their work. Although there are obvious (and substantial) differences between the life of an Indian slum dweller and a homeless person in the UK, there are also similarities. Life is physically and emotionally hard and they can often feel (and are) powerless to influence decisions that affect them.
What really blew me away was the response that the slum dwellers in India had taken to this sense of disempowerment.
In cities across India the slum dwellers had organised themselves on a massive scale – from small neighbourhood groups, into city wide, regional and a national federation. These poor and disenfranchised individuals had recognised that they could strengthen their voice by working together. And boy had they worked together! In 35 cities across India they had built a membership of (at the time) 350,000 and is today around 500,000 households.
Self organising enabled them to develop a range of initiatives that addressed the problems they faced – poor sanitation, poor housing and slum clearances and a lack of access to finance. So they started with a savings and credit scheme in every community they operated in – a sort of cross between a credit union and a doorstep lender. Every community member saves a tiny amount, maybe just a penny a day, and then the money can be loaned to help people set up new business enterprises.
As the Federation grew, so too did the savings and credit scheme, until the slum dwellers had collectively saved in excess of £1m. With assets on this scale, they saw the potential to use their collective wealth to leverage further capital and to address other problems they faced – particularly housing. Soon they were using their funds as collateral and match funding to access loans and grants from the likes of the World Bank, the Ford Foundation and the IMF to build new homes.
The Federation understood implicitly the huge differences in power that existed between the slum dwellers and decision makers. In one of my favourite (and much quoted) ways of overcoming power inequality, when the slum dwellers were meeting these powerful decision makers, they would estimate how much more powerful these men (they were always men) were than a slum dweller. If they thought the District Commissioner (say) was 10 times more powerful than they were, then when they went to meet they would make sure that 10 of them went to meet him ‘to balance things up’. You can just imagine how turning up mob-handed would make things feel far less intimidating. Of course, over time, as they organised themselves their power increased exponentially, until they reached a point where they were at least as powerful as the decision makers…and of course soon they found themselves meeting with large numbers of police or railway officials or whoever else.
There were plenty of other initiatives and approaches they used to share learning and work together in order to achieve remarkable things. By contrast our efforts in the UK were, well to describe them as limited would be overstating their significance. The scale of the slum dwellers’ collective action blew our ambition out the water and into the stratosphere.
I have never stopped being inspired by their stories and how people living in the most basic conditions and who face such hardship just to survive have managed to transform their lives by working together.
The Power of We was never more evident than among the incredible achievements of the slum dwellers of India.
This blog post was written as part of Blog Action Day 2012 which this year focuses on the theme of ‘the power of we’.