We need local movements, not more expensive NGOs — just look at India’s Gulabi Gang

A Gulabi Gang protest. (Kudos Family/Torstein Grude)

A Gulabi Gang protest. (Kudos Family/Torstein Grude)

Sampat Pal is an unlikely hero. She is a single mother of five, born to a poor and conservative family of Indian farmers and was able to undergo only basic formal education during her youth. Yet she is the founder of one of India’s most successful social movements. It is known as the Gulabi Gang, or Pink Gang, after the traditional pink saris worn by its members. Their work has found widespread acceptance in the mostly rural northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh — and they have done so in ways that challenge the conventional wisdom about development and social change.

Pal’s childhood was hardly unusual when compared to that of many other women in rural India; she was married at age 12, had her first child at 15, and eventually endured significant abuse and humiliation at the hands of her in-laws. But these experiences, combined with her refusal to submit to an oppressive and abusive system, led her to develop a unique voice as an activist.

It did not take long for Pal to start to rebel against some of the most entrenched problems in her community, such as gender violence, local government corruption, and the oppressive and discriminatory Indian caste system. Her first act of disobedience came with deciding to move out of the home of her in-laws after being sentenced to death by them for her continuous refusal to submit to their abusive treatment. Soon, she took advantage of the network of women that was forming around her to picket outside the local police office after hearing about the illegal detention of a local man.

The success of this demonstration was followed by similar actions, like the seizing of publicly subsidized grain that was being illegally sold by corrupt government officials and the destruction of a wall illegally erected by a wealthy landowner, which had cut across a path commonly used by the community.

As news of her defiance spread, it swelled into a movement. The so-called Gulabi Gang began to take shape by 2006. Although the group’s demands might resonate throughout much of India, its struggles are entirely grounded in local contexts. Its goals and initiatives are determined by the community members themselves, rather than by enlightened outside experts. Marital disputes, women’s illiteracy, local government corruption and the abuse of India’s lowest caste are some of the daily issues they have decided to take up.

The group’s main tools of struggle are mediation, legal counseling, vocational trainings and the education of women. But it has also organized mass protests, civil disobedience and the public shaming of corrupt government officials. With new members continuously joining its ranks, the Gulabi Gang has slowly become a mass social movement.

In contrast to the large bureaucracies that we have often come to expect in most international assistance organizations, the Gulabi Gang requires hardly any funds, since there is little in the way of administrative costs. The little money that is required for its work comes directly from the group’s own members in the form of a fee when they first join. There is also hardly any hierarchy; Sampat Pal is the group’s leader, but she leads more by example and inspiration than through decree or fear of punishment. The movement already seems to be outgrowing the charisma of its leader because it is so tightly bounded by the connections developed among its members, as well as by the fact that it continues to effectively address the needs present within the community.

There are no reports to write, no strict time deadlines to meet, no complex implementation models to follow, no outside donors to own up to. There is hardly any waste. Sustainability and effectiveness are already built into the system since the core resources, know-how and energy needed to sustain the group come directly from the community members themselves. This means that its time horizon for significant transformation could be significantly longer than the comparatively short-term focus of most assistance and development projects. Rather than being concerned with pleasing foreign donors, the Gulabi Gang will remain relevant as long as its work addresses what people in the communities where it operates identify as their core needs and concerns. Their approach remains effective because it is carried out by those who know the community best — its own members.

The way this movement has developed is no coincidence. Pal’s goal has been not only to develop a movement that would help those most marginalized in their communities, but to do so in a way that would distance itself from the perpetual handout and dependency culture so prevalent in areas served by the traditional aid and development industry. For this reason, community members receive assistance with the clear understanding that this help will be repaid by participants’ commitment to join the group and to actively assist others in return. In order for people to improve their lives they must be prepared to help themselves, Pal often explains.

Pal’s message is simple yet profound. Those who are in desperate need will find support and encouragement from the group as long as they also take an active role in contributing to the improvement of their own condition, as well as that of others. Key to guaranteeing the effectiveness of this process is the participation of the community members themselves. Someone may be able to fool even an experienced foreign aid or assistance worker into continuously providing support or assistance while at the same time continuing to misuse or waste it. However, this same person stands a slimmer chance of fooling the community members she or he lives among.

The Gulabi Gang’s experience stands as a powerful example of the power of organically developed, self-organized initiatives designed entirely at the local level. A high level of community participation, an ability to adapt to constantly evolving communal needs, a non-hierarchical form of organization and a lack of dependence on outside resources are all essential parts of what makes this movement so successful.

The Gulabi Gang is unusual in that it has managed to attain some significant national and international recognition. News of its work has appeared in national, as well as international news media. Several international documentaries have showcased its work, and the Gang’s story has even served as the inspiration of the plot of a Bollywood film. However, similar initiatives may exist all over the world. We rarely become aware of them not only due to their lack of interest in marketing themselves to outside donors or supporters, but because we often fail to look for them. It is only when we change the lens through which we see activism or assistance work that this wide array of possibilities begins to show itself to us.

Assistance workers and activists can play a key and vital role in supporting, facilitating and legitimizing such initiatives at every step. Although their position as outsiders poses a considerable challenge, their skills and knowledge can serve as powerful catalysts for the potential already present within a community. Meanwhile, outsiders can contribute to the global pool of knowledge by documenting and reporting on such powerful approaches. This must be done, however, with great care, recognizing the danger of finding ourselves dismissing or suppressing the very same elements that make movements like the Gulabi Gang so successful.

World-renowned Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef has often pointed out the commonly held belief that big problems require big solutions, while in fact they may be much better addressed by a great number of small initiatives. The Gulabi Gang is just one of the countless signs that this is true.

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