Stories of Service Day 3

Each year a cohort of fellows embark on a 10-month journey to serve communities on the ground as part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program. This year, given the restrictions arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, the cohort was composed of only Indian Fellows, with a total of 11 fellows going to 9 different states to work with organizations to help underserved communities. This week we hear from these Fellows as they talk to us about their journey on the ground and the insights they learned along the way. The Stories of Service series ran for four days from July 26 to July 29, with each day featuring a set of Fellows who came together to share their experiences. We are excited that a total of 254 guests from across the world joined us live for these sessions.

On Wednesday, July 28, Fellows Mehar Jauhar and Shashi Kumar came together to talk about their experiences. The session was moderated by Dr. Katja Kurz, Program Manager of the AIF Clinton Fellowship Program. Mehar had served with Sustainable Communities, India in Pune, Maharashtra and spoke about her project that aimed to create innovative strategies to fight climate change by working with small businesses. Shashi Kumar spoke about his experience at Srijan Foundation, where he helped teach female farmers about organic agricultural practices to help bring about more sustainable agriculture. At the end of each presentation, there was a short interactive question and answer session, where members from the audience asked insightful questions to the Fellows and got to know more about their experiences.

Mehar started her presentation by talking about the importance of the threat we face from climate change and the key dilemma we face in combating climate change: one between economics and sustainability. She outlined how to make more climate-oriented decisions, businesses had to raise costs and go against financial incentives, making them unlikely to try to become more sustainable. Along with this, she pointed out how the need for collective action and the nature of climate change as being a long-term issue prove to be hurdles in finding solutions to combat this threat. However, to start fighting climate change, Mehar recognized that we need to know here this impact is being made. She highlighted that climate change currently poses the greatest danger in South and Southeast Asia, which not only houses a large proportion of the world’s population but also is critical for the world’s industrial supply chain (as it houses key manufacturing centers). To fight climate change in this region, Mehar outlined the need for a comprehensive strategy, part of which was her project called the E2 (Energy Efficiency) Alliance where she worked with the Institute for Sustainable Communities where she worked to find innovative sustainable methods of production that companies could adopt. This would allow companies to not have to suffer costs for becoming more sustainable, resolving the problems outlined earlier. Along with this, the project focused on aggregating small and medium-sized enterprises, thereby magnifying the impact it made. Through policy, financial and technical tools along with market-based mechanisms, these solutions can be delivered to firms over a large geographical area and mark a key step in fighting climate change. She concluded by talking about future challenges and how the project she had worked on can be used to effectively address these problems and ensure a better future.

The work done by Mehar, and her host organization are critical steps we need to take in combating climate change. Earlier this week, a new UN scientific report has come out which has highlighted how grave the threat from climate change is, and the dire need to take steps to change the current situation. While a response does need a lot of active government intervention, they need to be supplemented by smaller changes which together can go a long way. Innovation is definitely one of the key pieces to a solution to climate change, as it can help develop more climate-friendly technology and strategies that can ensure that businesses and more importantly people can continue to thrive along with the environment. Another key part of Mehar’s presentation that I found very interesting was the analysis of the regions that are going to be affected by climate change the most. South and East Asian countries are particularly vulnerable and are unfortunately do not have the resources that are available to more developed countries in the West. As such, her presentation underscored the importance of redirecting resources into these areas to protect lives and livelihoods.

Shashi Kumar also talked about sustainable agriculture, focusing on his work with his host organization in the state of Jharkhand. He talked about the importance of organic farming as part of sustainable agriculture, and how strategies such as crop rotation, using organic manure, vermicompost amongst others can help preserve the soil and allow for more long-term agricultural practices. Srijan Foundation, Shashi’s host organization, works with female farmers to teach them these organic practices to help them become more successful farmers. The Srijan Foundation works directly with the women, conductive live demonstrations of farming techniques to them. Shashi worked on this project with them, creating a visual presentation to talk about the work done by the Srijan Foundation. This along with other designs were presented to government officials to help them understand the work of the foundation and highlight its value. Shashi conducted a lot of on-the-ground work as well, visiting nine villages to conduct a needs assessment survey and then using his understanding to write a grant proposal to help the foundation get funding. To help the team, he facilitated a skill-building session to help members become more effective in training and communicating farming strategies. This was particularly important given the constraints induced by the pandemic, which restricted the number and size of live demonstrations the organization could conduct. Towards the end, Shashi summarized the key learnings he had taken away from his experience and how he would implement them in the future.

The presentation provided a lot of insight into sustainable agriculture and how it can be implemented on a local level. Agriculture continues to remain a core part of India’s economy, and employs a large number of people, and using organic and sustainable techniques is incredibly important to ensuring food security for the future. Moreover, understanding the plight of female farmers and the challenges they face was eye-opening. The part of the presentation I found very interesting was the intersection of gender equality with climate change and agriculture, and how the Srijan Foundation, through its practices is dealing with all three together. Shashi’s experience proved the importance of on-the-ground work and how grassroots change is very much possible and valuable. Simultaneously, it also showed the lack of support provided to farmers, and female farmers in particular, by the government, and how while work done on a grassroots level does alleviate their problems, there also needs to be large-scale efforts from the top. Finally, it was interesting to hear about how the agriculture sector adapted to the pandemic, and how markets and production changed and adapted to ensure a continuous food supply even during the toughest of times.

Hearing about all three fellows’ work was very interesting. You can watch the full session by clicking here.

Devang Laddha is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he studies Political Science and Economics. His main area of interest is international development. He's originally from Kolkata and very excited by the work AIF is doing, particularly through the Fellowship program and more recently with COVID-19 relief work. Being from India, he's passionate about learning from and helping people back home. During the summer of 2021, Devang worked as an intern for the AIF Fellowship Program through the University of Chicago's Jeff Metcalf Internship Program to support AIF's 20-year anniversary campaign.

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