By Preethi Sundaram
“Let’s give the villagers soup – we’ll start a soup kitchen.”
“I’m going to bring sprouts to the school today – they kids can eat it and be healthy.”
Great ideas- except one thing. Nobody understands what you’re talking about.
International development, grassroots field work, poverty alleviation are all very trendy words nowadays, especially outside developing countries where citizens, for the most part, have never been subjected to the conditions of the people they purport to speak for. Much development on a local level requires changes in behavior – from using contraception to limit unwanted pregnancies or using a mask when spraying crops with pesticides. To successfully convince a population to accept these small changes, however, is no easy task.
Behavior has deep roots in a community and we don’t.
We have no idea why certain behavioral patterns prevail over others and while our education allows us to dismiss certain types of behaviour as ‘backward’ they often make a lot of sense to they people who practice them. Improving family planning in a community is not as easy as throwing money into condom supplies at the local level. Improving female participation in sports cannot be solved with the availability of expensive sporting equipment. Dietary patterns, while they may not be to our liking, cannot be changed with a plantation of bean sprouts.
Money cannot solve these problems.
Established NGO’s and social workers in India often talk about “community engagement”- long periods of time in the field meeting, learning and loving the people you will work for. Eating with them, sleeping under their roofs and discussing various topics over copious amounts of chai before you actually try and implement anything. Community engagement allows you to not just to ‘study’ your community but become your community.
Grassroots development work requires treating people with the respect and dignity that we give ourselves. Trying to understand why certain behaviours prevail and not dismissing them but recognizing that they have come about due to certain economic, social and political conditions present in the community can only be achieved through sustained, long-term engagement. Our jobs are then is to change these conditions.
In the case of sports for women and girls- when I first started playing Frisbee in the remote Punjabi village I am in now- no girls would play. We had a well-manicured field and expensive, new Frisbees. Still no girls.
Many families have dragged their girls forcibly off the pitch and prevented them from leaving their homes during Frisbee hours in the village. Yet many families have relented. I would argue that the change in behavior has had very little to do with the initial financial investment required to get the sport going. More important has been the quality time spent with families- sympathizing with their concerns. They were worried about boys and the interactions between genders, they were worried about their daughters coming home late and they weren’t sure why girls should be playing sport to begin with.
After four months of countless consultations with families explaining the benefits of physical activity, school programs on the benefits of sports, promises to keep timings of the games within daylight hours and the creation of a new girls only team and new Frisbee pitch we have twelve girls who play regularly. A lot of work is still required to bring them up to the same level as boys their own age.
Many families in the village still have no idea why girls should participate in sports. As far as they are concerned their girls will get married at between sixteen and eighteen years of age and they should be preparing for this by perfecting their domestic skills. Understandable actually. Cooking skills are more likely to ensure a better husband- one who will make more money and look after their daughter. While sports may lead to rumors about their daughters mixing with boys.
Changing behavioral patterns requires long-term engagements with communities. Throwing money at a problem won’t lead to the solutions we all want.