Organizing, from the ground-up, at scale

In India just over a week ago I was fortunate enough to pay a visit to Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, and spend a day with the "Mahila Housing Sewa Trust” (MHT).

One of the sister organizations of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), MHT organizes women in slums in India to compel government to provide water & sanitation services in slums.  I met some of the women who are leading and have led their communities in those campaigns.

It typically takes them 5-8 years to win such a battle. To keep up morale MHT will: (a) visit once every 10-15 days, (b) look for and take “small victories” along the way, (c) organize ‘exposure visits’, taking people from one slum to another nearby that has succeeded, and have them speak, to show that the fight is winnable.

Once they have succeeded, or at a major milestone along the way, MHT and the women in the slum will formalize the organization by creating a “Community Based Organization” (CBO). All households in the slum will pay into the CBO, which does maintenance and continues to press govt, with an executive of the “natural leaders” who have emerged during the process.

MHT itself then withdraws, but it has a city-wide “League of CBOs” (Vikashini). It meets with the women on that federation for 10 days a month, and that league keeps an eye on the CBOs, and intervenes to support those that are faltering.

Not all of this works all the time. MHT and the CBO leaders are realistic and pragmatic--they are seeking to adjust the odds, and improve as many outcomes as possible, not win every single battle.  This happens at scale, with dense organizing among almost 100,000 households, and a staff of just 50-70.

They are also starting to explore technology actively. They've had some bad experiences with before, where "we spent more time managing the technology than the time we supposedly saved”. But that's starting to change, as, for example, MHT is using Awaaz for some notifications of gatherings, and, with the city government, have just developed a survey on a low-cost tablet.

For myself, one of the most amazing moments was talking to six women, each of whom leads a CBO in a slum, about this app.  When I asked, “So the survey results go to the city, but can you also access the results and analysis? Is that useful?” all of them erupted in the affirmative.

There was also a moment of brief encouragement, when I described our proposed tools and platform, and was told that they sounded quite useful.

It was a day on which I learned an enormous amount--about organizing, about the odds facing success organizing, but also its possibility. After all, there are few people more marginalized in theory than women in slums in India, but that is only in theory, or from the outside--the women I met were so far from it as to make a mockery of such commonplaces. This is not an excuse for an easy optimism, as it had taken many losses and a great of hard work, much harder than many in civil society understand or undertake.

For our platform, there were (at least) two fundamental lessons:

  1. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. This goes to the heart of why the earlier attempts to use technology had not really worked, and later ones were. Tools must be very simple, and very efficient. This is, of course, much easier said than done. 
  2. Connecting people -- The city-wide forum is one of MHT's core strengths, that and "exposure visits" between and among the women. I heard over and over again how such connections had brought organizers through a valley, or taught them something new. That has been a function of our data platform from the beginning, but it now becomes even more important, and moves up in the sequence of development. 

-- Luke