Rural Development and Girls

I recently attended a panel on campus that my Little (the brilliant Leslie Strain) put together in conjunction with the Chinmaya Organization for Rural Development about rural development in India.  Often I go to these kinds of panels and discussions because they look mildly interesting or because someone I know is involved and I want to support them, and always they end up way more fascinating than I expected.  This panel was no exception.

The panelists came from several organizations, and several different kinds of experience.  They brought different types of expertise and different perspectives.  They had not all even been to India, but had all been involved in rural development somewhere.

The panelists discussed a lot of aspects of rural development, everything from microfinance to teaching new methods of farming to the cultural challenges.  The greatest challenges have to do with getting girls into the classroom and women into the workplace in developing countries.  In a lot of parts of the world both parents have to work, but in many of these places there are young children and instead of having a daycare or a nanny for those young children, especially those too young for school, the older sisters stay home and take care of them.  Families are more likely to send sons to school because there are more employment opportunities for men, and the men would then be able to support the families, and the parents when they get older.  Of course, girls can also support their parents as they get older.  If you think about how many families are tri-generational now, with grandparents moving in after they retire, it’s a very common phenomenon.  Women are breadwinners too in the United States, so it’s sometimes hard to realize that the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily see women that way.

I hadn’t really thought much about rural development, except improving opportunities for students in the rural US.  Coming from a great school in New York I had great opportunities, but when I got to college my bubble was burst and I met people with a much broader range of experiences, or lack thereof.  Educational reform in the US?  Definitely something I’ve thought a lot about.  Giving students the maximum amount of opportunity before college?  Definitely something I’ve thought about.  But educational difficulties in rural India?  Definitely not something I’d thought about before.  Listening to this panel made me completely fascinated with rural development, especially educational development.

Rural Development

One of the panelists, in discussing the benefits of rural development, said that rural development benefits women more than it benefits men.  I’m a big believer in epiphanies, and I definitely had one when I heard that.  In retrospect, it’s obvious.  In cultures where women have a lot less latitude, of course rural development helps them more.  Men have the freedom to move into a city to find work, which isn’t always available.  Women often do not have that freedom.  Bringing education to them is often to only way for women to better themselves and provide for their families.

When rural areas get developed, when they get educational institutions, when investment helps local businesses to be built, more people stay with their families and work together to provide for them.  When women are educated they can contribute in meaningful ways not only to the financial stability of the family, but to further development in the region.  One of the panelists, Sarah Bushman, used a quote from her time in the peace corps that I thought was amazing: “When you educate a boy, you get a man.  When you educated a girl, you get a nation.”  That’s not to discourage boys from being educated, but it points to a fundamental tendency in most societies that women care for people, women help other women, and they help men.

Development is fundamentally a human issue…the bottom line is the people.

-Somnath Mkherjee

My university has one of the largest and most well-respected schools of international service in the world, so I’ve heard plenty about people who want to go to a third world country and improve things.  I’ve always found that phrasing a very pompous assumption.  Implicit in it is the assumption not only that people need your help as a Western-educated person, but that you would make their world a better place yourself.  One of the panelists talked about the concept of participatory development.  It’s basically teach a man to fish and he will eat forever thinking put into a development stage.  An area cannot be developed without the participation of the local inhabitants.  You cannot march into rural India for example, set up a system for job creation alone, and then expect people to use it.  People are proud beings the world over.  No one likes to be pitied.  The attitude that you are going to march in and fix everything is belittling and pitying, and I think it’s likely to be met with, at least, dislike.  In order to improve an area, the inhabitants have to be involved.

I was amazed by this panel.  Not only that it was such a great experience, but that it was put together and moderated by college students.  We as a generation are getting a lot of flack (something I’d like to tackle in the future) about not working hard.  But we do.  This is evidence enough for me.  This entire panel was put together by people under 23.  I think that’s marvelous.

(Update: here’s the official press release for the event, written by my incredibly talented Little Leslie.)

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