#ifadscale – Ratnamma’s story: The human face of ‘scaling up’

Women at a self-help group meeting in India. ©IFAD/Sangeeth Rajeesh
ROME, Italy – When Ratnamma, a soft-spoken woman from a poor rural community in India, noted that all five of her children have been educated – two of them at university level – the audience, understandably, erupted into applause. Yet hers is just one among many, perhaps millions, of similar stories lived by women and their families in several Indian states.

Such stories are possible because the Government of India and its international partners decided to think big. Equally important, they decided that empowering rural women to drive their own development was a key to reducing poverty.

More about those decisions shortly. First, here’s a glimpse into Ratnamma’s story of success against the odds, which she told yesterday at IFAD headquarters in Rome.

A family’s life transformed
Born into a Dalit family and thus marginalized as a member of one of India’s scheduled castes, Ratnamma grew up in a remote village in the state of Andhra Pradesh. She was married at the age of 13 and raised four daughters and a son mostly on her own, gathering and selling firewood to eke out a living. Her husband, a bonded labourer, could contribute little to the household, and one of her young daughters had to work in the cotton fields to supplement their income.

Ratnamma (second from right) joins panel discussion on
'scaling up' at IFAD headquarters. ©IFAD
Unable to consistently feed her children or send them to school, Ratnamma felt humiliated by discrimination and poverty. That began to change, however, when the South Asia Poverty Alleviation Programme reached her village in 1995. An initiative of the United Nations Development Programme, it encouraged rural women to join self-help groups in which they could seek collective solutions to mutual problems and pool resources to help each other improve their livelihoods.

Ratnamma was reluctant at first. Eventually she joined a group in her village. “For ten years before I joined the self-help group, I really don’t know how I lived,” she recalled. But soon after, a transformation began. The women in the group raised funds for her husband to pay the debt that had kept him bonded. Once he was free, the family’s income grew and the children were able to go to school. Ratnamma and her husband bought a small plot of land, began farming vegetables to sell at the local market and built a house – even as they repaid the loan from the self-help group.

Meanwhile, Ratnamma’s stature in the community was also growing. In time, she became the leader of her village self-help group and then head of a federation of groups representing about 9,000 women in the area. More recently, she has served as a community resource person for other women who want to form self-help groups. In fact, there are now an estimated 1 million of these groups in India. What started as a local initiative has mushroomed into a massive and, by all accounts, effective vehicle for advancing both rural development and gender equality.

Institutions of the poor
And this, in turn, accounted for Ratnamma’s presence at IFAD headquarters yesterday. She was in Rome for a panel discussion about scaling up projects and programmes to significantly reduce rural poverty – that is, building upon experience in the field and taking successful innovations to the next level for greater impact. Ratnamma and the other panellists represented projects in India, Argentina and São Tomé and Príncipe. They analysed scaling up from the perspective of IFAD’s partners, including governments, the private sector and poor rural people themselves.

A flyer at the 'scaling up' panel recounts
Ratnamma's story. ©IFAD
The self-help groups in India provided a case in point. The groups began in the 1990s with a relatively small investment by UNDP, as well as financing from IFAD. They grew because the Government of India and state authorities recognized how effective they could be, and made the decision to take them to scale.

“The numbers are mind-boggling,” said Adolfo Brizzi, Director of IFAD’s Policy and Technical Advisory Division, referring to the explosive growth of the self-help groups over the past decade. But Brizzi stressed that the government had not only devoted resources to the groups; it also followed through on its vision that the groups would be driven by poor rural people. “There was a decision to build institutions of the poor, not institutions for the poor,” he added. “We have to believe in the commitment of the poor. They have more of an incentive for overcoming poverty than any government.”

As Brizzi spoke, Ratnamma sat a few metres away, radiating quiet pride in the hard won accomplishments that have brought her so far.

The IFAD-hosted panel discussion on scaling up generated a buzz on Twitter. See highlights below.