My decision for apply to Duke Engage Ahmedabad (India) Program was largely inspired by a trip I took last October to a rural village in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa with my Duke Immerse Governance, Policy & Society: Urban Affairs and Urban Politics in the American South and South Africa program. In the village we had the opportunity to meet with around 15 women who were participating in a microfinance self-help program. Having studied microfinance as a tool for women’s empowerment in several of my courses at Duke, I was fascinated to hear about the many ways in which the program positively impacted the livelihood of the whole village. Listening to the women provided me with an understanding of how the loans were used, and subsequently developed my curiosity for the workings of the institution facilitating the program.
Less than a month later I heard about the Duke Engage Ahmedabad Program, and the opportunity it provides to intern for SAATH, an NGO that aims to educate and equip women and children with financial independence. SAATH’s microfinance projects (with a 99% repayment rate) help individuals with very low income to acquire micro-financing and manage their loan. While the program appealed to me, I was unsure of the impact I would be able to make with the organization as an intern. During my freshman year at Duke, I had participated in the Humanitarian Challenges FOCUS program in which one of my courses (titled the “Limits of Good Intentions”) examined the varying impact of NGOs in promoting lasting social development. The coursework evaluated the challenges of global aid and foreign volunteer work. I feared (just as I am sure many other Duke Engage participants do) that my trip, while beneficial to my own Duke experience, would not impact the organization I worked with.
We are now two weeks into our program and I can confidently say that SAATH has greatly exceeded my expectations. Not that I had low expectations for the Duke Engage program or for the NGO, but I simply could have never anticipated the impact that SAATH has made on the local communities in Ahmedabad. Since working here I have learned about the nearly 40,000 individuals that SAATH has impacted through community development initiatives which target: improving livelihoods, skill development, health and education, rights, urban governance, financial inclusion, rehabilitation and resettlement.
Prior to the trip my understanding of SAATH had been based on the organization’s website and what our program director, Dr. Purnima Shah, had described to us. I knew about the past projects Duke students had done and had begun to brainstorm potential ideas for microfinance work I could do. It was not only until my first day of work that I realized no website can truly capture the passion and drive of SAATH. Our group went out on several site visits and met with a variety of individuals working with or being helped by SAATH’s programs. Without exception, every employee we have met is driven by clear passion, dedication to the mission statement, and genuine care for the communities they serve. Through this incredibly positive employee culture, Saath has achieved truly outstanding accomplishments.
Most importantly, I have learned that SAATH is more concerned with the real-life impact of their work than promoting their brand. Reading through SAATH’s annual report, I noticed only 2% of their funds are allocated to fundraising. I believe this fact reflects the dedication of the organization to the community it serves. In reflection, I realized that my perception of philanthropy and service work is more often focused on fundraising and less on how the money is being spent.
SAATH’s mission of empowerment has changed my approach to community development and guided the project I have been working on this summer. Specifically, I have been working to develop a curriculum that provides microentrepeneurs with marketing, finances, and communication skills. My mentors for the project have taught my team the importance of listening to the community we are assisting and tailoring our curriculum to the practical needs of the micro-entrepreneurs. While I am still figuring out how I will pursue a career in the field of social development, my time so far in SAATH has sparked my interest in initiatives that work to empower individuals.
Over the next six weeks of my internship, I hope to continue learning about the factors and practices which have facilitated SAATH’s success and lasting impact.