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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Acceptance, Adaptation, and Always Remembering your Heart


No matter how well put together a plan or model might seem, perfect implementation is highly unlikely. This can’t be more true for development work.   

This isn’t my first time writing about Chidiya’s internal struggles. I would be lying if I denied my disappointment, but as I thought through my frustration, I came to a rather unsatisfying yet telling conclusion: while doing development work, it is extremely important to open up your heart and mind in order to be able to withstand setbacks and be patient with the very people you are serving.  I admit that this wasn’t naturally easy for me.

First, let me preface this by explaining the inherent difficulties that come with working in a group, especially in a business setting where money is concerned. Think about the last time you had to work in a group for a project in one of your classes. Some people in the group will be more responsible and pull more weight than others. They will feel that it is unfair that they are stuck with more work, which could easily evolve into a serious conflict within the group. The group as a whole might not get as good of a grade because of the weaker members that did not put in all of their effort. The group might waste a lot of their time waiting for some members to show up to meetings, and they might not even show up at all. These common group scenarios that we experience, believe it or not, also occur in microfinance cooperatives in the developing world.

Chidiya, a cooperative composed of 11 women, has run into all of these problems since its inception and during my stay here. When only 3 women showed up to make samples for Yala, we encouraged the cooperative to hold an emergency meeting to discuss why the women were not coming. They explained that they had no real incentive to come since orders were so small and infrequent; they are able to make more money by making and selling their jewelry on their own. I was definitely able to understand their reasoning, but asked the women to trust in Nest’s help and to be patient. Nest has been working on building partnerships with for profit companies, like Yala, that are able to make larger and more frequent orders. It turns out that the women did not even have to wait long- only a week after Yala received the third round of samples from Chidiya, they made an order of 500 necklaces, soon after increasing the order to 900 necklaces. This is a drastic increase from the Nest orders that they are used to, of 100-200 necklaces. Since the women had said that the lack of orders was their disincentive from showing up, I had all the hope in the world that the women would be excited for their business and show up ready for work.

I was discouraged when some of the members still did not consistently show up to Chidiya meetings. Rachna and I started teaching Nest’s Business Curriculum last week that includes lessons from “Professionalism” to “Pricing.” I would say around 4 of the members would reliably attend and participate, while the others would walk in late or leave early and usually not contribute to discussion. 2 of the members are absent from the village, traveling to sell their jewelry and 1 member just had her baby, so these 3 have not showed up at all. Even when we have announced that we will be going through the designs for the 900 necklace Yala order, the same women who already know the designs since they were the ones there for the sample making showed up. This was not only frustrating for Rachna and me, but also for the committed members who always show up. There was a verbal altercation between a committed member and a member who did not always show up, and it got so serious that the committed member announced that she would leave Chidiya. And I thought the main problem was the lack of orders. Obviously, there is a larger organizational problem that Chidiya must deal with.

But how? This is when I started to get discouraged. Rachna and I have been diligently teaching the business curriculum, but if the women don’t implement what they have learned in their actions, then how are things going to change? This is the biggest order that Chidiya has ever received, and yet the problems persist. The other difficult part of this is the need for Rachna and me to be very careful of our role. We need to allow the Chidiya members to make decisions for their own cooperative, since it is not in our place at all to dictate anything. The women must take ownership of their own business. We are here to help, but we must all remember that Rachna and I are leaving in three weeks. I hope to make Chidiya stronger and help Chidiya receive more orders, but in a way that is sustainable.

Then I remembered that I was thinking in the Western way, judging Chidiya by Western business standards, not understanding that the women in this community do not have the same exposure to business like we do. Instead of thinking so negatively, I promised myself that I would broaden my way of thinking so that I can understand the women that I am serving. Once I began to accept that our work here will never turn out the same way it would in the U.S., I started to see the importance of adapting our plans to the particular group of women and their culture. Once I started to frustratingly wonder why the women could not, would not do this, or that, I realized how toxic this way of thinking is to the mission of development work.

On a lighter note, I had a wonderful 21st birthday in the village. I will update with pictures and more details in my next post J

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