This movement is relational. Three markers:

  • It starts from what people and their networks do to solve challenges in their lives.
  • It looks at life as it is and not life as we would like to be, and
  • It assumes that in the right context people will support each other, and in the wrong context people will hurt each other.

Aloysius Fernandez wasn’t going to solve the problem of economic disadvantage in India one case at a time. He focused on groups, and their potential for good. His mission was to create ‘institutions for the poor’, an institution meaning an informal or formal structure that had standing in wider society. (Self-help Affinity Groups are informal structures).

After a lot of experimentation, and failure, Fernandez found the Self-help Affinity Groups were the best at creating the most trust. Trust between the women in the groups. Trust between the groups and the catalyst (MYRADA). And trust between the groups and mainstream social institutions, the banks for example.

Trust is difficult to manufacture. It cannot be produced by being nice. Somebody who is consistently nice will be exploited. We play games with school children to teach them about trust. The nice one’s suffer at first. Then we give them a formula.

  • Start off by being nice, assume the people you are playing with have good intentions
  • Be consistent. Don’t flip-flop, otherwise the other players will not read your intentions
  • If another player does you down, punish. (In the games we play punishment looks like charging rent when a participant in Monopoly falls on Mayfair)
  • And finally forgive. Don’t go on punishing because that will only generate retaliation and ill will. Forgive, and the other players will come to trust you.

Women know this game. The Self-help Affinity Group context encourages them to play well.

As in the games we play with children, trust is a positive sum game. This means that when all players follow the nice, consistent, punish, forgive coda, the individuals and the groups as a whole win. (Without the coda, one or two of the individuals in the group win out, but the group as a whole ends up with less than it started).

Fernandez’s triumph has been to turn this game into real life economics. The trust allows women to use their savings to make loans to one another, and charge interest to the benefit of all.

The loans are used for income generating activity. This isn’t only about investment in business, although the Indian groups do appear to be more enterprising than U.K. groups. Women use their loans to buy a gas supply to reduce utility costs, to cover training costs for their children to enable them to make a career jump.

Doing this once is rewarding. Doing it many times is life changing. The banks reward a track record of loans repaid within the Self-help Affinity Group structure with the facility to borrow from the bank. Now lending between members is magnified. An investment in gas supply is replaced by investment in land to generate steady income.

A group that works together over a long period of time becomes sure of itself. And just as a baby secure in its relationships with its mother feels confident to explore the world, the members of Self-help Affinity Groups step out of their comfort zones and ask how they can develop their communities. Most of the examples we witnessed on this trip were to do with protecting the environment, but the altruism is more broad ranging, re-building local schools, developing common land, standing against alcohol abuse and domestic violence.