Seeing Self-Help in Action in India

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Travels in India

Seeing Self-Help in Action in India

India is always a fascinating place to visit. I’ve now been there more than a dozen times. I went in July 2009 to look at the government’s efforts to improve health care in poor communities. I returned in May 2010 to see how things are going with projects that are trying to help eliminate polio and other infectious diseases, and help improve things for people in some of the poorest areas, specifically the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the north of the country.

I traveled to Uttar Pradesh with Rahul Gandhi, a member of Parliament. He has been a real innovator in organizing women’s self-help groups, and one of our first stops was a meeting of self-help group leaders. It was incredible to listen in on their discussions and hear them encouraging one another with songs and chants about vaccinations, sanitation and safe birthing practices. You could hear in their voices how they had gained optimism and confidence from their experiences working together.

These women go out to other villages and in the past three years they’ve helped form over 20,000 new self-help groups. The groups enable women to get microloans at lower rates than the moneylenders charge and work to improve services, like health and education, in their villages. I really can't express how uplifting it was to listen to these women talk about how they organized. If one woman couldn't get something to be done, then ten would show up. If that didn't work, 100 would show up. Rahul was making the point that self-help groups are a key enabler, not super expensive, with all sorts of additional benefits that contribute to our health and education goals.

I also went to Bihar, the poorest state in India, but one that’s making lots of progress. Polio is still a significant problem there, and the campaign against it is very intense. As in Utter Pradesh, self-help groups play an important role in Bihar, particularly groups organized by PRADAN, a nonprofit group of professionals who provide development assistance to India’s remotest villages whom we support through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Among other things, PRADAN helps farmers improve their agricultural practices so they can increase their crop yields and even find new sources of income, such as by developing arjuna tree plantations for rearing silkworms and weaving silk. It was amazing to see how self-help groups aided by PRADAN expertise had completely transformed the villages we visited, keeping kids in school, encouraging girls to marry later and to take control of their family size, all things that improve the well being of their families and the village as a whole.

While in Bihar, I also met with the Chief Minister of the state. Under his leadership, Bihar has made significant progress, improving health outcomes and increasing vaccination rates. It’s really encouraging to see progress being made in one of the poorest places in India. You realize if it can happen here, it can happen almost anywhere.

My last few days were spent in India’s capital, New Delhi. I met with innovators from some of the Indian companies that make inexpensive vaccines, which are helping make vaccination more affordable for kids around the world. I also met with government officials including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Health Minister Ghulam Azad, whose energy and commitment were also very impressive.

So it was an uplifting trip. India has a good chance of eliminating polio in the next few years, which would be a huge achievement. And the progress being made toward many development goals is truly inspiring.

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