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A WomenStrong Board Member’s Reflections on the Genius of the Dhan Foundation

WomenStrong India

A WomenStrong Board Member’s Reflections on the Genius of the Dhan Foundation

As a Trustee of WomenStrong International, I have had the opportunity to get to know the DHAN Foundation and have been struck by its level of ambition, thought, and willingness to innovate. It helps that the Foundation, which developed its own, unique version of Self-Help Groups, has a longer than usual track record for a civil society organization. Its operations display its maturity – all of 28 years!

Their success is built on a platform of key elements: quality and style of leadership. DHAN builds on existing assets in poor communities, it builds on women as the pillar of sustainable development and it builds on smart partnerships. DHAN takes a patient, step-by-step approach to the evolution of the Self-Help Groups, or Kalanjian.

Quality and Style of Leadership

M.P. Vasimalai, Founder and Executive Director of DHAN Foundation, has demonstrated a knack for drawing on both feminine and masculine traits to dare to dream. But dreams alone are not enough. Vasi, as he is known to nearly everyone, is not just a dreamer, but a careful mobilizer of talent and networks, both those dating all the way back to his college years and those he meets daily on his journey. He has assembled engineers, agronomists, social and natural scientists, economists and financial experts to work with the poorest women from marginalized communities in southern India.

To tackle development challenges in a society as stratified as India and to cross boundaries of religion, politics, gender, caste, class, age, and geography requires courage. David Whyte, a marine biologist turned poet could have been speaking of Vasi when he wrote: “Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work, a future.” To be courageous, is to make conscious those things we feel deeply and then to live through the vulnerabilities that are the consequences.

Courage is contagious, and Vasi has built formidable teams that reflect his courage and generate enormous, invaluable social capital. His teams built a unique, DHAN-style version of Self-Help Groups, that are empowered and the driver of broad development. His approach not only has built an audacious, innovative leadership team, but also trained and supported thousands of “People staff” that run their own programs. Over the last two days, I have seen the predominance of women in leadership positions driving innovative programs with passion and sensitivity. I have seen retired bankers, engineers, agri-scientists, academics and business people simply bowled over by the opportunities to make a difference and to become part of making history.

Building on the Rock called Woman

Women as “the keepers of the seed” are reliable, forward-thinking investors in their families, especially their children. It is women’s superior social skills, lubricated by sensitivity, patience, caring and empathy, that are the cement binding together the Self-Help Groups. Success is assured by a deep-seated understanding that “my success is bound with the success of the group.” The journey from poverty to prosperity is a long one, but with the company and encouragement of group members, individuals become more determined. Women facing the inevitable set backs are boosted by encouragement from others. The knowledge that one is not alone builds resilience.

Patient Step-by-Step Journey to Integrated Development

Donors, often too eager to show results, tend to hound development practitioners. But the most important results frequently are invisible to the naked eye. The building of social capital entails a mindset change that happens in incremental steps among people who have known nothing other than disrespect, humiliation, mistrust, and betrayal. It is a remarkable achievement that in less than three decades, DHAN has established 8 million groups connecting 95 million poor households in 14 states.

The exciting development beyond a sustainable savings culture DHAN has nurtured is the integrated approach to supporting the move by poor women from poverty to prosperity, from anonymity to inclusive, women-led development. Above all, DHAN is building a strong foundation for informed, critical thinking and active confident citizenship.

DHAN’s bold action in Fostering Ethical Democracy and Advancing Micro-justice in India is the most innovative linkage I have ever witnessed in development. DHAN’s inspired focus on local government is the most appropriate way of building inclusive participatory democracy, and promoting engagement with politics where it matters most is simply the best way forward toward a better future for all.

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