Fight poverty through individual empowerment. Fight it with education. Fight it with rights-based collective action. Fight it while looking directly in its face.
If PREM had a mantra, this could be it.
The organization I now find myself working with began thirty years ago as a small group of determined social activists who identified an enormous gap in the social and political development--and the subsequent marginalization and poverty--of several rural communities here in Orissa:
The adivasi--the aboriginal people of India, the First Nations, in a sense--make up almost a quarter of Orissa's population and number over 80 million in all of India. There are 62 scheduled tribes here in Orissa numbering between 500 and one million in population. They are distinct from mainstream Hindu-dominant Indian society by language, by history, and very often by geography. They live in remote villages, often in the vast forestland and expansive hill country of central India. Rarely have they, by choice or by force, assimilated into the dominant culture, and therefore they remain marginalized and poor almost beyond description.
The dalits--erstwhile known as untouchables, or the lowest-caste sector of Indian socio-political hierarchy--make up nearly twenty per cent of Orissa's population. By rigid cultural design they live on the margins of society, unable to advance beyond the boundaries set by a vast system of social classification, even if modern democratic rights have prescribed otherwise. Many dalits have converted to Christianity (or in other areas of India, Buddhism or Sikhism) to transcend caste repression, and this in many cases has had the result of even further marginalization and repression.*
Until a generation ago, for dalits and adivasi in southern and western Orissa, terms like development and education and human rights were as foreign as the concept of a free, democratic India.
The tools these social activists began to apply to address this marginalization, this gap:
1) Education--starting with functional literacy and progressing to the kind of transformational, holistic, liberatory approach theorized by Paulo Freire and others;
2) Sustainable Development--agricultural and horticultural innovations, conservation, water management, food security, health awareness;
3) Community-Based Organizations (CBOs)--sustainable livelihood, village financial trusts, micro-financing initiatives, women's cooperatives, local schools and vocational training centres, an inclusive and consensus-based (rather than top-down and welfare-based) approach to all reaches of development;
4) Advocacy--social mobilization, government lobbying, demanding the implementation of democratic rights.
Today, PREM is a robust network of several dozen partner NGOs, thousands of village-level CBOs, and more than a million people working together, not as charity from have to have-not, but as a collective force against systemic poverty.
And here I am. My title is that of "Communications and Documentation Advisor" (not a lesser name for this rose!), but really I'm here as much to learn from this energetic and successful movement as I am to impart any skill or wisdom I may have accumulated.
* I have never read a Wikipedia entry more inaccurate or misleading than the entry for Dalit. For a better context, start with this article on the difference between a handful of successful dalits in Indian society and a few hundred million who remain impoverished by what is effectively an unending system of repression, despite recent political/legal acts to demarginalize them.