July 14, 2009  

Contact: Cornelius Blanding 404 765 0991

Federation’s Field Director Visits Self-Help Groups in India

Cornelius Blanding Assesses International Economic Development Projects

Note: Earlier this year the Federation’s Field Director Cornelius Blanding visited India to assess self-help projects under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church’s “Self Development of People”. The projects he visited were largely led by women.

Many in rural areas in India, as is true in other parts of the world including the United States, are compelled to look to urban centers for employment. Women generally remain at home to take care of their families and children while their husbands look for employment elsewhere. Cornelius desribes in this interview some of the critical issues facing rural communities in India.

Interview of Cornelius Blanding by Heather Gray
(For photos of the India visit http://  )

Q-Why did you go to India?

Cornelius Blanding: I serve as chair of the International Committee of the Presbyterian Church’s “Committee on the Self Development of People” (SDOP) and we are needing to review our program work throughout the world.  In this work, just like all non-profits and organizations, we’re feeling the crunch of this economic crisis so we’re looking at how do we make our work more intentional and more effective and in the framework of cost cutting – so we’re evaluating all of our international projects and all of our intermediary partners in all the various countries.

The SDOP works all around the world. It’s focus is the Dominican Republic right now but we have projects in Africa, India, South America, Central America,  and in these other countries, where we’re not focusing, we work through partners. And those partners are expected to partner with self-help and community based groups based on the criteria of the self-development of people.

The criteria for projects with SDOP is primarily that the project has to be owned and controlled by the people and it has to benefit the people who are actually applying for those funds.

Q- Benefit in what sort of way?

Cornelius Blanding: Well, like our cooperatives in the Federation, if they are selling certain merchandise they have to be selling it for themselves – the money has to come to themselves. If they’re engaged in childcare they have to have childcare for themselves. The main benefit of the project, in other words, has to serve the members.

Q - This is primarily a cooperative based mentality?

Cornelius Blanding: Exactly…and that’s the connection for me with the work that I  do with the Federation and the work we do in the South with cooperatives. Our international projects with SDOP are nothing more than cooperatives that are less formalized. They might not be structured. They might not have incorporation papers. But for all intents and purposes they are a cooperative.

Q- How many groups did you visit in India and how were they organized?

Cornelius Blanding: I visited 7 groups. They were spread out. So from the southernmost project to the ones up north it was probably a distance of about 8 hours driving time.

Most of the projects were headed by women and they do exceptionally well. Most of them are very conscious of record keeping and they always have someone identified to keep track of incoming and outgoing funds. I was impressed with their work. Even and especially in the incredible heat, the women would continue to work. The primary concern of most of the women was the education of their children which was not surprising. Their husbands were often gone for long periods and often they didn't know when their husbands might be returning. So they have to be quite self-sufficient with their self-help projects. Usually what the women develop for their projects is what they are familiar with in their villages or what has been traditional skills.

Q - This was your first time to India. Here at the Federation you are involved with the development of cooperatives, assisting cooperatives and helping them build and sustain themselves and their communities. Was there anything that was particularly striking about the differences or similarities of what folks are doing in India compared to here?

Cornelius Blanding: Self-help groups and cooperatives are pretty much the same everywhere. They are always operating for the sake of the members. People come together for the sake of a purpose. The biggest difference I would say is that here in the States and in the South there’s not much support for limited resource communities, but while that’s the case here in the States there are, in fact, mechanisms for that support. Sometimes our communities in the South don’t have proper access to these programs because of racism and other “isms,” but in India those mechanisms are mostly not available at all. There are not the routes to go to in the government for those funds to seek assistance in community development in India. From what I saw in India, for example, there is no cooperative development program, there is no rural development program, there is no agency within the government for these programs with money to support communities.

By contrast we do have these government programs available in the United States....and as there are more resources in the United States, our job is to make sure we have fair access to those resources.

In India, you are needing to find and create those resources. People work with a lot less there.

Q - Do they do okay with the less?

Cornelius Blanding:
Poverty is relative. Some have said to me that by comparison “How dare we in the United States complain?” This is true, because this country is one of the richest in the world. But poverty is relative, as I said. Who's to say how well you deal with poverty, because if you’re surrounded by 80% of poverty as is the case in India, not to say it’s okay, but it makes it easier to look at it because that’s what you know. This is opposed to when you’re in a pocket with all these riches around you, as in the United States. So sometimes it can be even harder being poor here than being somewhere where poverty is rampant. But again it’s relative because I wouldn’t dare try to say that our poverty is more harsh than their poverty. Poverty is poverty and it shouldn’t exist anywhere.

The work of the Federation and of the Self Development of People and the work I do personally, is about how to help people recognize those systems of oppression and poverty and how they can start organizing and fighting against it themselves. That’s the start of sustainability. When people recognize first and foremost those systems and then they organize to fight against them. Regardless of how it turns out they will always be further along then when they started.

Below are the Self-Help Groups Cornelius Blanding Visited in India:

1. Roof/wall Thatch Production
Women Self-Help Group
T. Pappankulam Village (Sivaganga District)
2. Milk Cooperative
Kalangiyam Mahalir Kulu (Shg)
N. Lakshmiyapuram (Srivilliputtur Taluk, Virudhunagar)
3. Charcoal Making
Surya pengal Sangham (Shg)
T. Vallakulam (Ramnad District)
4. Milk Cooperative
Tanlip Mahalir Mandram (Shg)
Vadi Village (Sivaganga District)
5. Hollow Block Production
Urumanathar Mahalir Shg
Perungalore (Pudkottai District)
6.  Cashew Nut Breaking & Marketing
Velunatchiyar Women Shg
Adanakottai (Pudukottai)
7. Fish Marketing Village
Semeen Mahalir Suya Udhavi Kulu (Shg)
Meenavar Colony (Kameshwaram, Nagapattinam)

Note: The Federation/LAF, now in its 42nd year,  assists Black family farmers across the South with farm management, debt restructuring, alternative crop suggestions, marketing expertise and a whole range of services to ensure family farm survivability.