What beats people-watching? People-watching-people-watching-people.
Having a layover at Dubai Airport en route to India for my first time means I get to see humanity in all its diversity in an exciting new place. However, as soon as I start expecting to be surprised, I realise you would see exactly the same on any Saturday in Amsterdam: women in full traditional dress, hand in hand with husbands; men in faded T-shirts; women in leggings and halter neck tops, and men with traditional head-dress and ankle-length robes. As I stand around and watch for a little while, I notice all of us watching one another. And, occasionally I catch the smiles, particularly at one another’s children…because everyone seems to smile where children are concerned.
Same, same but different
I’m a firm believer that people are broadly the same everywhere. Arriving in Hyderabad, however, I'm expecting to see some notable contrasts with my homeland. But it’s not immediately apparent to me. I notice, for example, that my taxi driver lays his hands on the wheel in precisely the same way as someone I know back home. I notice that there are people selling vegetables by the side of the road, just as they do in the Dutch countryside. I notice that there are construction workers in traditional clothing, just as constructions workers in the Netherlands sometimes wear clogs.
What is different, however, is the context. And this is where I have some difficulty in interpreting what I notice. For example, are the women who drive tuk tuks running their own businesses? Are the men in thread-bare t-shirts heading off to work?
Fortunately for me, my organisation (Oikocredit) has local offices in India, staffed by local people who are able to interpret and navigate this context as they search for sustainable ways to use our investors’ capital to support projects which help the most disadvantaged communities.
Take water, for example. In India, although access to drinking water has improved, the World Bank estimates that 21% of communicable diseases are related to unsafe water. Diarrhoea alone causes more than 1,600 deaths per day. And this is one of the reasons why Oikocredit often provides funding to microfinance partners who focus on water and sanitation projects to help people who have neither the access nor the means to obtain fresh water. Neither do they have the power to change their situation without support from others.
Thinking outside of the box
In the case of one of Oikocredit’s microfinance partners in Hyderabad, it is precisely this different context which, as a local enterprise, has enabled them to take the whole supply chain into account when considering a solution for providing disadvantaged communities with a regular supply of safe water.
For me, the obvious solution to the problem of water access would be to install taps for people. However, water supply is highly susceptible to local political conditions meaning that the availability of taps doesn’t go the whole way to solving the problem. Instead, our office not only found a way to provide financing for installing taps for this community, but it also provided the finance to establish a bottling plant. In sum, financing the taps provides people on low incomes with access to clean water. The bottling plant sells bottled water exclusively to a local self-help group (SHG) and ensures the supply. The plant charges very little for the bottled water to the SHG, which in turn sells safe water at an affordable price to members of this community.
Furthermore, if the local political landscape threatens to curtail the water supply, it is no longer these disempowered individuals who find themselves lobbying in vain, but the collective members of both the SHG and the bottling plant who, with no commercial interests outside of the community, present a formidable pressure group for local politicians.
Local knowledge is paramount
So, whilst I can easily see that the installation of taps is an obvious solution, my local colleagues, with their knowledge of the local context, opted for a sustainable supply chain which would overcome and control both the problem of access and the problem of supply of safe water.
I still believe that people are the ‘same, same but different’ everywhere. But when faced with the serious obstacles of disadvantaged communities, the way in which these problems are most ingeniously overcome seems to me to be about understanding what is different – namely, the local context which invariably defines those options most likely to fail, and those most likely to succeed and become sustainable over time.