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Changing Mindsets, Empowering People

LTD Editors's picture

The following post is a part of a series that discusses 'mind and culture,' the theme of the World Bank’s upcoming World Development Report 2015.

When it comes to development, one size doesn’t fit all. It is about mindsets that can be transformed to see and do things differently. Taking a cue from this, The Hunger Project believes in empowering people to end their own hunger versus providing them with service delivery.  The Let’s Talk team caught up with John Coonrod, Executive Vice President, The Hunger Project, to know more about building self-reliant communities.

Tell us about your approach or approaches to mobilize people?

We start out by organizing something called as the “Vision Commitment and Action Workshops (VCA)” for the community members. In these VCA workshops, the community members not only create a vision for their respective villages, but in doing so they discover that they have a right to have a vision. You know, most of them have been told and taught, conditioned, and really brain washed into thinking of themselves as powerless, and that poverty is their destiny. Well, it’s not true. So, through this process, people not only own the vision but also really get inspired to take the stand and commit themselves to fulfilling that vision.

Now, it is crucially important that the first action projects that they commit to are successful. For example, if the priority of a community is to build a twelve story hospital you are not likely to succeed on that in the next 30 days. But if it’s to rebuild a classroom that has collapsed then they can do this using their own resources.

So, concrete action that produces visible improvements quickly is very important for building the spirit of self-reliance.

How do you ensure sustainability?

Well, there are a lot of keys to sustainability, and one of them is partnership with the local government. For example, in India there are constitutionally mandated structures, such as the Gram Panchayat, Gram Sabhas, and standing committees, where people can take part in decision making – of course, often these are not implemented in all places. So, building on those structures as opposed to creating parallel participatory structures is really important. One of the big errors that a lot of NGOs make is that they try to avoid the official structures and create parallel ones; those are never sustainable. But, if you build on and strengthen the constitutionally mandated structures for participation, they are way more likely to be sustainable and replicable. It’s like social transfer of what works and what doesn’t - if three Gram Panchayats around you work, then your Panchayat more likely will work too.

Any success story or stories that you can share with us?

In India, for example, we have trained more than a hundred thousand elected women representatives of the Gram Panchayats to develop their own leadership, to build federations, and to really stand up to the bureaucracy, frankly, to get the resources that their villages are entitled to.

Every one of these hundred thousand women, at least the ones that I have met, has success stories. I know of women who have come together, even with threats against their lives, to get a school built. When people discover their voices are working together, the changes that then come about in the rural communities are something beyond imagination!

How does a report like the World Development Report (WDR) on mind and culture help in all this?

Well, by having the WDR’s focus on mindsets, making it legitimate, you can perhaps start seeing World Bank money flowing into projects that do that (changing mindsets). For example, we, and I think most organization and the World Bank, see transforming gender attitudes as tremendously important for economic and social development. But, is there very much money flowing into agencies at the district or provincial level that can foster those kinds of changes? I haven’t seen much of that happening. Maybe this report will start to legitimize those kinds of investments, where campaigns provide transformative changes and experiences.


Submitted by Karl on

I love the concepts of the VCA. Thanks for sharing the information.

It would be great if we could use this in the USA! With 21 million Americans living in deep poverty the VCA program could be useful here too. However, reading through your thoughts, makes me realize there are some challenges in the US that would make this difficult or impossible to implement/manage...make sustainable.

How do you overcome these challenges in other nations?

In the USA there are two separate systems of justice for wealthy, white men (and their women) v. the rest of us (poor people and/or non-whites). This implies a lack of constitutionally mandated structures. Arguably, that was how the Constitution was ORIGINALLY intended to be - so perhaps this isn't a problem for your ideas to work? You must have experience in other nations, with dysfunctional governments?

Is sustainability possible with a lack of constitutional protection implied in a "constitutionally mandated" that the necessary first step to turn one's attention? Perhaps in the USA, we need to work on creating some institutions that are truly "constitutionally mandated..." I love that idea!!!! Wouldn't that be cool? Instead of having institutions working for slavery and oppression! IF the US government and its institutions represent We the People - instead of We the Oligarchs. Wow. that would be great.

You must run into this in other nations, without constitutional protections for the majority of the people. How do you handle those environments? How is possible to design programs that are sustainable when the society is designed to work against such efforts????

And in terms of the World Bank. I understand the sales pitches, but it seems like it will require a much greater level of institutional re-structuring than a simple "change in mindset"to accomplish these lofty goals. Institutionally and historically, the World Bank functionally invests in programs that benefit a few, connected people and not the whole of society. It operates on this failed notion of "trickle down" by investing in huge projects that the masses pay for and never see any benefit for....thinking the benefits with trickle down to the masses, once the connected are we've done in the US for decades now.

In other words, the World Bank would functionally have to start working against the interests that created it and the ones that continue to fund it. I know you wouldn't do that in the US, so what do we do here?

This article raises some interesting ideas. It would really be great to apply this to the US - we have more than enough resources to end our poverty, obviously. We just need some tools that will work in the face of a dysfunctional government, in charge of institutions that lack a constitutional mandate.

That seems like a great first step, in order to address the 21 million Americans, living in poverty in the "richest nation on earth." Create/invent/design constitutionally mandated institutions. Seems nearly impossible, but worth working towards.

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