Staying the course

In Dasmantpur block of Koraput district of southern Odisha, tribal farmers were fortunate to harvest coriander crops just in time before the lockdown last year. Cultivation of millet and vegetable production by nearly 3000 tribal farmers in the district was also a major achievement before the lockdown.

In predominantly tribal communities of Odisha, settled agriculture with new technology and multi-cropping is a more recent phenomenon. Subsistence agriculture and reliance on forest produce had been the main source of livelihood. When a local civil society organization CYSD began to work with farmers of Koraput district thirty years ago, it was an uphill challenge to improve food security, nutrition and sustainable livelihoods for tribal households of the region.

Commitment of CYSD leadership and sustained support from donors over this period made it possible to bring about security of livelihood, improved income and safe drinking water for thousands of tribal families after nearly three decades of work.

Conditions of deprivation and marginalization for tribal communities are structural in nature. Pushed to hilly terrains, displaced continuously from their land and forests, lack of public investment in education and infrastructure in these remote regions perpetuates systemic exclusion and deprivation. Proud of their culture and life-style, tribals in Odisha, as elsewhere in India, have been at the receiving end of development projects that rarely benefitted them. Lack of awareness of government schemes was further compounded with absence of any government functionaries visiting such remote and inaccessible villages.

It is in such communities and circumstances that civil society organisations find a niche; they bring sensitivity, competencies and willingness to make long-term engagement with families and communities. Making sustainable impacts to alter such structural constraints and those conditions entails remaining invested over 10-15 years.

Improving the socio-economic conditions of the poor, therefore, require investments over the long-term. Such investments have to be flexible, multi-pronged and responsive to local culture and ecologies. Large scale public programmes and development schemes crafted in Delhi or Bhubaneshwar can at best provide an envelope of resources aimed at generic schemes. To be made accessible to such tribal communities as in Koraput entails facilitation, localization and hand-holding with respect for the local. These tasks are best performed by civil society organisations which are locally rooted, responsive and flexible. And such efforts by civil society organisations continue to require external resources from donors willing to stay invested over the 10-15 years.

Yet, recent trends in funding of development initiatives through philanthropies, domestic and international alike, tend to look for short-term impact indicators. If tribal communities of Koraput are any example, such philanthropic investments would have long dried up before sustainable changes in livelihoods and nutrition levels would have been possible. Tendency towards precise measurements of single-focus indicators of development impact produced through a short-term ( 12-18 months max) funding of local civil society mostly results in publicity brochures but not sustainable changes.
Changes in attitudes, understanding, capacities and world-views entail unlearning and re-learning over generations. Communities and families, like tribals in Koraput, have faced generational exploitation and marginalization and enabling them to develop their sense of dignity, agency and confidence takes time. And as they take the risks to undertake such changes, they need support…emotional, educational, and material…from respectful others.

It is in this sense that civil society organisations like CYSD need to ‘stay the course’ over a long period of time to realise sustainable changes in communities and families of the tribals and other vulnerable households. And, they then require partnership with philanthropists and donors who understand the value of ‘staying invested’ over the long term.

Financial advisors always tell investors to stay invested in share markets over the long haul if substantial wealth is to be generated. Short-term investment may show quick gains, but not wealth-creation.

Can similar advice be provided to philanthropists for social investment? Stay invested over the long term so that civil society actions can stay the course towards sustainable changes in communities and households.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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