Alchemy is well known as the science of turning invaluable substances into gold. But it symbolizes transformation of the most radical kind. (From the Arabic word al-kimia, alchemy literally means "the art of transformation.")
So what does accountability have to do with radical transformation? According to the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) , a government agency in Andhra Pradesh, India; accountability is key to ensuring transformation of the poor.
SERP is implementing the Andhra Pradesh Rural Poverty Reduction Project , locally known as Indira Kranthi Patham (IKP) in all the 22 rural districts of Andhra Pradesh. IKP is the longest running livelihoods program financed by the World Bank in South Asia but what makes the project unique is not large-scale spending. It is the slow, intentional process of building institutions of and by the poor that no amount of money alone has been able to accomplish. The idea behind this project is that accountability and sound governance practices must be embedded in the norms and culture of institutions rather than treated as after-thoughts.
IKP is a federation of 850,671 self-help groups exclusively managed by rural poor women. The membership, a little over 10 million or 90% of the poor women in the state, come together in groups of 15-20 at the village level to collectively save their own money and then give loans to their members based on needs. There is a functioning self-help group in every village in Andhra Pradesh. The project is complex and has many different components but the most significant aspects are the ones that have fostered accountability amongst the women and ultimately led to collective and personal change.
Accountability is often thought of in its vertical relationship, as something citizens seek from power-holders. But this project focuses on developing a sense of accountability within women to themselves and as well as their community.
First, accountability is learned. In intensive initial trainings, community resource people (women who are seasoned, successful members of the self-help groups themselves) train new members about the importance of working together to achieve common goals. New members are taught that their own well-being is interconnected with that of other members in the group.
Then, accountability becomes a habit. The management of these self-help groups is well defined. Each group meeting follows the same agenda with clear roles for each member. Decisions about who is eligible for a loan are made by consensus after a process of deliberation. 5 cardinal principles (weekly meetings, weekly savings, internal lending, regular loan repayments, and healthy book keeping) serve as the foundation of the day-to-day management of the groups. Through consistent adherence to these practices, the women reinforce practices that meet the needs of the poorest members as well as strengthen their accountability to each other. In turn, iterative adherence to these principles instills a sense of financial discipline as well as empowerment of the members to make decisions over their own resources.
Last, accountability is valued and rewarded. After repeatedly and successfully giving and repaying loans from their own resources, the self-help groups are rated to be eligible for larger loans from the banks to support livelihood activities. A combined, total investment of $734 million from the Andhra Pradesh government and the World Bank has led to $4.8 billion in loans from banks and an overall 154% increase in household income between 2000 and 2006. The public sector is also eager to link with these groups to ensure that development schemes and services have the greatest reach.
The self-help groups are at the foundation of a federated structure of institutions, fully managed by the women, that function at the village all the way up to the District. Over time, the women take on leadership skills that were once unimaginable for most poor and illiterate women. (For instance, through their own savings, the women pay for trainings to learn how to become paralegals in their communities and resolve problems that the police could not address.) Almost all of the women who have joined a self-help group have a personal success story  to tell.
SERP prides itself on being “a government agency that functions like an NGO.” But I think it is more accurate to say that SERP has gone beyond even the role of an NGO and initiated a true social movement in rural Andhra Pradesh.
Transforming women who were once poor into viable earners in their households and respected leaders in their communities, this is alchemy indeed.
Picture 1: A self-help group member shows us her paralegal identification (Medak District, Andhra Pradesh).
Picture 2: A typical self-help group meeting (Atmakur village, Medak District, Andra Pradesh).