Nicknamed the “Queen of the Hills,” Darjeeling is a region in India that reaches an altitude of 3,000 meters. Located in West Bengal on the border with Nepal, its landscape easily blends with the Nepalese highlands. Less than 1,000 km away, Kapilvastu in Nepal offers a less-known horizon in this flat and dry region, closer to the outskirts of India.
The language and culture of these regions closely resemble those of communities on the other side of the border, leading to their marginalization and deep discrimination. The populations of these regions live in a cultural and geographical paradox that increases their economic and social vulnerability. Associated with the neighboring countries, they are the “forgotten” of their respective nations.
In response to this situation, Karuna-Shechen has aimed to expand its activities in these two new regions from the end of 2022 on. As always, our holistic development programs address the diverse needs of communities.
1000 Days of Preparation
Karuna’s approach aims for a sustainable evolution of the social and economic situation of the assisted populations.
Before any program deployment, our local teams organize an exploration mission with informal exchange sessions with the populations and local authorities. The goal is to create connections and build mutual trust to define the main issues in the region. This preparatory work leads to the development of collectively chosen tools and methods to identify needs. This process consists of three tools :
- Discussions, organized in the form of semi-structured working groups. Participants are chosen to discuss a specific topic that concerns them.
- Interviews with key informants, invited to share their experiences on a topic during a semi-directive interview.
- Questionnaires to highlight the socio-economic challenges faced by communities.
Altruism in action, community initiative
At Karuna-Shechen, we have always based our programs on a holistic approach, as development is only possible when there is an overall improvement in the quality of life. Instead of focusing on a specific sector such as health or education, we address the multiple needs of the causes of poverty through interdependent programs in various intervention areas.
The two unprecedented years of the pandemic plunged millions into extreme poverty, threatening years of efforts against precarity. One of the main levers to tackle this condition is to create opportunities to develop professional skills and entrepreneurial potential. This approach allows communities to become self-sufficient and autonomous.
Therefore, since 2022, Karuna has been developing a unique approach, the Altruism in Action model, as a comprehensive response to intense poverty. It relies on community-driven development (CDD).
This model has gained recognition in the nonprofit sector worldwide in recent years as a powerful mechanism for reducing inequalities. However, while CDD is based on the concept of grants, we have designed and adopted a contextualized version of community development, more suitable for the context of our intervention areas, avoiding corruption and nepotism.
Beneficiaries are accompanied by coordinators from the Karuna team, specialized in different intervention sectors, as well as Compassion Motivators, voluntary individuals from the community trained in our programs and methodologies. They are part of the Better Future Councils (BFC), which bring together up to ten villages, complemented by one man and one woman representing each village.
The Altruism in Action model strengthens the power of communities by involving them in the planning and implementation of their own development.
Voices that Shine
Pilot programs using the new Altruism in Action intervention model have strengthened ties with rural populations, thanks to the network of Compassion Motivators These members play a crucial role as facilitators, inspiring and mobilizing the community for closer collaboration and continuous support. They themselves come from these regions and are trained to support the community.
“I am participating today for the first time in a training program on menstrual health and hygiene, after participating in awareness programs on the same subject. The educational material used and the simple language used for this training session have given me confidence to provide similar training to the teenage girls in my village.” – Sandhya Yogi, 24 years old, trained as a compassion motivator.
In Darjeeling, more than a hundred people have been trained as compassion motivators.
The establishment of BFC has also been a crucial step. These councils, reflecting the diversity of the community, are at the heart of the decision-making process, identifying development priorities, co-designing tailored solutions, implementing projects, and ensuring continuous monitoring.
The councils set up in India and Nepal have been meeting every month since the beginning of the year to discuss the progress of projects within communities as well as the expansion and implementation of new programs. The members, one man and one woman elected per village, thus act as conduits for the needs of the populations and echo the projects open to them. This council acts as a compass, giving impetus to Karuna’s programs: support for micro-enterprises, seed distribution, and professional training.
By promoting altruistic behaviors and group reflection for collective development, the Altruism in Action model charts a positive trajectory in the fight against poverty. Karuna seeks to strengthen the organization’s commitment to individuals and ensure a future marked by resilience, autonomy, and compassion.
Participate in the development of the altruistic potential of communities
The Darjeeling BFC have highlighted a strong economic development challenge. In Kapilvastu, communities have expressed a need for education. In both rural regions, health and hygiene also emerge as priorities to address.
Gayatri Khatri is President of the Council for a Better Future in her municipality in Nepal. She shares with us the efforts she is making to improve living conditions in her communities.
Education, Foundation of the Future
In Kapilvastu, the assessment of needs in the rural municipality of Yashodhara revealed alarming statistics, emphasizing the urgent need to intervene in the education sector. The literacy rate does not exceed 52%, and an 81% dropout rate testifies to the alarming situation in this sector. The absence of schools in villages further exacerbates disparities in access to education.
Among the activities aimed at addressing these issues, the population and coordinators have engaged in the establishment of early childhood teacher training. The goal is to provide the keys to a respectful education for the youngest, improve the quality of teaching, and also set up community-based parent classes for awareness and sustainable development training.
Promoting education is an essential foundation for the development of communities to expand the scope of their possibilities. Accessing adequate training from a young age will allow the younger generations to create a future they can control.
Participate in the development of education in Kapilvastu
However, aware of the interdependence of the causes of extreme poverty, the communities of Kapilvastu and Darjeeling, supported by Karuna teams, have highlighted the lack of financial independence. Economic security is a crucial issue for the most disadvantaged populations. It determines the ability of parents to provide a good education for their children as well as access to health.
In these two new intervention regions, Karuna’s teams propose projects to develop this financial independence, working on the long-term economic security of communities.
Lassang Tamang, 49, not only cultivated a vegetable garden with seeds provided by Karuna-Shechen but also used it to start a small business. It allowed her to expand her skills and revive a new interest in agriculture. By actively interacting with the community, Mrs. Tamang emerged as a source of motivation, inspiring other women in the village to embrace vegetable cultivation. Her impactful participation facilitated the distribution of 50 seed packets to over 50 households.
During the pilot phase, 12 small business beneficiaries were monitored in Darjeeling. Participants submit a project in which they are both actors and beneficiaries. Karuna then commits to supporting and financing the creation of this business through loans. Only 50% of this advance needs to be repaid by the beneficiaries.
A striking example of the transformative power of financial independence is the story of Manoj Mukhiya, a 48-year-old head of the family. Faced with the challenges of being the sole financial support for his family and inspired by family agricultural traditions, Manoj decided to turn to agriculture. The owner of a dormant tea garden for nine years, he recognized the potential to revitalize the land for cultivation again.
Manoj’s introduction to Karuna-Shechen took place during a meeting of the BFC in Sukrabarey, where he represented his village.
It was during these meetings that Manoj became familiar with the small business assistance program. After formulating a comprehensive plan and submitting a business proposal, he received 10,000 rupees from the organization, just over 100 euros. Investing the funds in building a hut, Manoj focused on selling vegetables during the off-season, storing seeds for future use.
Beyond financial gains, Manoj’s approach extends to promoting community ties. By distributing his products as a goodwill gesture, he cultivated friendly relationships with his peers and neighbors. Driven by the desire to improve his skills, he is considering additional efforts, seeking agricultural training to deepen his understanding of the sector. In the region, nearly 300 people have benefited from professional training.
In the quest for financial independence, Manoj embodies resilience, adaptability, and community collaboration.