Grassroots Development: A Definition

Children, youth and adults clambered into the Shaishav bus, faces aglow with excitement. Standing on the outside, I could hear laughter and Gujarati gabbing trickle out the windows. A microphone was activated, two youth volunteers began chanting “End child labour! Sharm karo, sharm karo! (shame, shame!).” Two buses, a mobile health van from the blood bank, and three motorcycles later, the procession began with the wave of a green flag.

This is how Child Rights Week began. Shaishav, the NGO I work for, is a completely participatory organization working for child rights in the slums of Bhavnagar. The entire team spent a week marching into communities shouting slogans against child labour, performing street dramas about the Right to Education Act, handing out flyers about government schemes and Shaishav programs, and facilitating educational activities for children living in the slums. I can give you numbers: 30 slum areas, 41 street plays, 2,500 observers, 29,000 flyers distributed, 1,763 children participated in educational activities in 36 points. Funders want these numbers. INGOs want these numbers. These numbers are accurate (or as accurate as any number could be). I watched a man from the communities team meticulously walk around making tally marks with a clip board.

But do these numbers translate to an impact?

Over half of Shaishav’s staff members reside in Bhavnagar’s slums. They are directly from the community in which they work. These staff members aren’t all adults. They also include members from our children’s collective, Balsena, and our youth collective, Tarunsena. Nobody is forcing them to be here. They volunteer each day because they choose to come. They believe in what we do as an organization.

I was able to step away from my desk for a day to join the team. Drashti, Balsena’s previous president, led the march into each and every slum community. A bright, happy girl in her last year of high school, Drashti’s small and powerful voice projected loudly over the microphone. As we marched into each community, faces peeked out of homes. We motioned for people to join, many trickled behind us.

Once we stopped within a community, team members took turns acting out well-rehearsed parts of a play about the Right to Education Act. Children were engaged in a separate area, making paper hats and watching simple science demonstrations from a volunteer community member. The plays drew large crowds. After each play, the communities team distributed pamphlets. Many people asked follow up questions. Several times, I watched residents of the slums take out their mobile phones and input “1098,” the number for Child Line, a national first responder hotline for vulnerable children.

Child Rights Week culminated with a press conference. The District Collector was invited as our “chief guest,” and several “Bal Dosts” (friends of children) spoke about their experiences advocating for child rights. As a result of this press conference, Shaishav’s message was spread over two state level news channels, all of the local news channels in Bhavnagar as well as three local newspapers.

Buzzwords such as “grassroots development” are thrown around lNGOs and corporate CSR offices without a grasp of how grassroots development works. Shaishav is a perfect example of a grassroots organization. Their staff come straight from the communities in which they work, and they work on an individual level. I fully acknowledge that many grassroots-level NGOs would not exist without funding from these INGOs and corporate CSR offices. However, big offices only see their numbers. But on the ground, the person-to-person education is the real change. The community is taking ownership. They are standing up for what they believe, and fighting for it. These are the change-makers. This is grassroots development.

Shaishav's team, marching through the streets of Kumbharwada, Bhavnagar's largest slum.
Shaishav’s team, marching through the streets of Kumbharwada, Bhavnagar’s largest slum.
Last year's Balsena President leading the march!
Last year’s Balsena President leading the march!
Street plays in Kumbarwada, Bhavnagar's largest slum, about the Right to Education Act.
Street plays in Kumbarwada about the Right to Education Act.
Paper hat making with the children of Kumbarwada.
Paper hat making with the children of Kumbarwada.
Looking ridiculous (that's me on the left).
Looking ridiculous (that’s me on the left).

Angela's passion for South Asia began as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, studying International Development with a focus on inclusion of marginalized populations, specifically people with disabilities, in education and development projects. As an undergraduate, she traveled to rural Maharashtra to do Monitoring and Evaluation for an organization working with children living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. She then worked at a school for children with multiple disabilities. Upon completing her undergraduate, she returned to India as a Critical Language Scholar from the U.S. Department of State, spending the summer soaking up Hindi in Jaipur.

In addition to her time spent in India, Angela has worked with nonprofits and NGOs in the United States. This includes the development department at HIV Alliance, the International Development and Disability team at Mobility International U.S.A., as well as the Humanitarian Response team at Mercy Corps' Global Headquarters. She also has worked in elementary school classrooms with children with disabilities and in independent living centers. Angela has traveled across South and Southeast Asia, parts of Europe, and aspires to one day work for an Internationally-based Disabled People's Organization focusing on inclusion of people with disabilities in development projects.Supported by American Express

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2 thoughts on “Grassroots Development: A Definition

  1. Another great post, Angela! I have so much respect for NGOs that started from the bottom up, fulling integrated and understanding the communities they serve. Your communicating Shaishav’s successes outside the mere “numbers” is definitely necessary for these kinds of organizations to get the funding and support they need. Great job!

  2. “…big offices only see their numbers”

    This is both what is wrong with development and precisely why it is so important. Only recently has the measurement of success beyond numbers been seen as important by a significant section of professional society. Numbers, dollars, cents, rupees, clients – it’s the only metric society has known for ages. I like that you pointed out the commitment and enthusiasm from the community as a way to support Shaishav’s success.

    But dang, those are some pretty great numbers. 1,763 – precisely down to that 3rd kid past 1,760. Too obscure a number to have been fabricated.

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