The Unlimited Resource

Increasing poor people's freedom of choice and action to shape their own lives is critical to achieving development outcomes because it taps into their natural energy and incentive. World Bank research on this topic has dramatically expanded theoretical and practical approaches to understanding and measuring empowerment. It requires the poor to build their individual assets (material, financial) as well as their capabilities (human, social, psychological, political). The poor also require greater collective assets and capabilities, as these provide security, preserve culture, provide meaning, protect the local environment, and expand voice and power. Particularly critical is the role of collective organizations and social movements. Informed by these concepts, efforts to stimulate community-driven development are showing promise in overcoming some key shortcomings of early efforts at community-based development.16 A leading example is the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a 30-year-old grassroots movement that has empowered some of the most marginalized of India's poor women. Where economic growth has outpaced employment growth, many Indian women take up casual labor or self-employment in the informal sector, including load

Mobilizing Human Energy pulling, street vending, and home-based work. In addition to poverty and insecurity, these women are regularly cheated by employers, charged exorbitant interest by moneylenders, and forced to pay bribes to police and public officials to ply their trades. Despite their varied and dispersed occupations, labor activist and SEWA founder Ela Bhatt believed these women could be organized and helped to become more self-reliant.17

SEWA today has over 700,000 rural and urban members in seven states. It has organized women to fight for their rights to fair treatment, ranging from better prices for their goods and services to influencing the formation of India's first National Policy on Street Vendors. To secure income and assets, SEWA has formed 76 cooperatives in a variety of fields—from tree growing and handicrafts to milk production and salt farming. It gives women skills training and marketing assistance, helping them to avoid exploitative go-betweens.18

The organization helps its members gain access to state-provided services (where they exist) and lobby for improvements of inadequate services. If these approaches do not work, SEWA helps members organize the services for themselves. SEWA today maintains a network of services to meet basic needs such as child care, health care, insurance, and housing. More than 300,000 women have used its primary health services and 110,000 are covered by its insurance program.19

The movement has grown and sustained a wide scope of activities and services involving hundreds of thousands because of its organization, values, leadership, and flexibility. SEWA's decentralized structure and strong value system have kept the movement responsive to the women's needs. Bhatt emphasizes the fundamental difference between running an organization and sustaining a movement like SEWA: "The movement flows at times faster and at other times slower, and may occasionally be deflected around an obstacle, but it always moves in the same direction."20 Daniel Taylor and others at the development NGO Future Generations consider community-driven solutions the basis for redirecting globalization, reducing inequality, and preserving and restoring the environment. They maintain that most development projects fail because they seek to control and manage communities rather than unleash energies and potential. Instead of building confidence and resourcefulness, such projects teach dependence on outside actors and funding. When funding runs out and the project ends, communities are left waiting for the next project.21

Taylor has developed a simple system of community-driven learning and adaptation called Seed-Scale—a process that helps communities to marshal and direct their energy in ways that fit their economy, ecology, and culture at a pace that is natural and organic. Seed-Scale is based on four simple principles embedded in a seven-step community dialogue and planning process. (See Box 12-3.) These are so intuitive that communities, no matter how daunting their situation, can quickly and easily absorb and use them to mobilize and channel their efforts.22

The idea of building purposeful human and social energy is at the center of Seed-Scale. To catalyze it, the poor must believe that a better future is possible and that they can bring about positive change. Arjun Appadurai of The New School has developed the idea of the "capacity to aspire" to understand this aspect of empowerment. It is a cultural capacity based on how the poor learn and understand their "place" in society based on wider cultural norms. It is an ability to navigate the wider world that is developed through experimentation and learning in a way that helps to expand the horizons of



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