Having come from a two-year stint in a media house, I found that my first experience of attending a development sector event—and the Samagam 2020, no less – was strikingly different, yet uncannily familiar in so many ways.
Perhaps it was the fact that the two-day conference of civil society leaders, government officials, and some of the key organisation heads and corporate social responsibility leaders in the country, had the same youthful energy and enthusiasm for change-making as a process, that I hold in such high esteem, and hope to learn from.
Or perhaps it was the spirit of solution-orientedness that spoke through every talk and discussion under the theme of the importance of civil society organisation (CSO) collaborations.
Most likely, however, is the strain of issues being discussed during this massive virtual gathering, and a most crucial lesson I took away from it. Read on.
Unsurprisingly, a large part of the context for the event lay with the pandemic and its devastating impacts on the work done in the Indian development sector—years of work done to dismantle the various inequalities that exist within our society by CSOs, NGOs, non-profits, CSRs.
As my training and my very staunch values dictate, I could spot one other glaring commonality in all the issues discussed: gender. More specifically, the impact on women, across-the-board. Everywhere.
For example, the challenges to nutrition because Anganwadi centers were too far from villages, subsequently depriving small children and new mothers their share of the food being prepared for their benefit.
Or the impacts of a hard-hit job market and economy, that has led to wide-scale job loss and in many households, disproportionate (often far lower) allocation of resources for women.
Or the fact that the impact on children. too, has been disproportionate. In education, for instance, boys fared marginally better, as compared to girls, and no national-level data is available on children from the transgender community. The impact on education is such that 10 million girls around the world are expected to be forced to drop out of school because of the pandemic, according to the Malala Fund.
“Sex workers and entrepreneurs,” mentioned Anshu Gupta, founder of Goonj, about areas we overlook in our efforts to return to pre-COVID conditions.
Shri Nagendra Nath Sinha, Secretary, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India, too spoke about the issue of livelihood and women in the villages, and how it’s doubly hard for them to access livelihood generation programs.
Alak Jana, integrator from PRADAN, touched upon the growing threat of climate change, and how it’s evolved into a development challenge, citing agricultural droughts as an example. Even here, all I could think of was the impact on the woman farmer; the impact on the fisherwoman whose stock depletes every year; the woman who becomes a water-wife for the sheer lack of resources.
Such was the case for every other critical conversation at this convention; be it the experiences of Adivasi women participants in the Usharmukti programme, a women-driven programme focusing on water and soil conservation strategies; or the migration challenges brought on by the global pandemic, at scale; or the compounded issues to safety and security faced by women within their very homes.
“Collaboration with one another is not an action, it is an absolute condition for success.”
R. Dasarath Ramudu, Director, Disability Inclusive Development Sector at Rural Development Trust said this.
What was also discussed, and perhaps should have been given more focus to, was what kind of collaboration.
The issues that we’re faced with at large, today, are faced by minorities – women, Dalits, Adivasis, trans-people. The fabric of participatory research mandates that they be the center of any conversation, not just in tokenism, but in a meaningful way, contributing, shaping and changing, while the rest of us stand back, offer a platform and support.
That the future for success and redirection of our futures to pre-COVID conditions is rooted in collaborations is undeniable. But that CSO collaboration must be feminist, not in the sense the word is used in popular culture, but on a deeper level, achieving social, economic and political equity and equality for all.
The proof of success? Why, the very Usharmukti programme and its various successes, in improving the environment, and, by extension, livelihoods.
At Samagam 2020, Shri Narendranath Damodaran, Executive Director of PRADAN said “Collaboration should be seen as a win-win situation for all.”
My hopes rest with events such as Samagam (2021 edition), and with CSO collaborations worldwide, the course of action adopted is feminist. Then, there’s no eventuality but a win-win.