Citation for the 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Award
India is a veritable laboratory of social experiments in poverty alleviation and people empowerment. There are spectacular successes as well as uncounted failures. In what succeeds can often be found the story of one person—self-sacrificing, innovative, and driven by an extraordinary passion to lift people up from poverty and suffering.
One such person is sixty-five-year-old Kulandai Francis. Born to a simple family in the Salem district in Tamil Nadu, India, the only one of his siblings to go to college because of poverty, Francis carried with him two indelible memories of his early years: his parents sacrificing their only piece of land so he could attend university; the memory of his mother being cheated by moneylenders out of what little she had. Resolved to live a life of service, he joined the Fathers of the Holy Cross in 1970 and, during his novitiate, found some fulfillment in doing volunteer work among people struck by famine or displaced by war. His hunger to serve, however, remained. The turning point came in 1977 when he went to live in Natrampalayam, in a remote and impoverished part of Krishnagiri district, where he had the life-changing experience of sharing in the people’s miseries and dreams. He decided to give up being a priest to devote himself wholly to social work.
In 1979, he began the Integrated Village Development Project (IVDP), living in Krishnagiri, and starting out with small things like conducting a night school in the light of a gas lamp, setting up a first-aid center, and then, with the help of development organizations, undertaking a micro- watershed program that, over five years (1997-2002), built 331 mostly small check dams that benefited cultivators and their families in 60 villages. He was not content however. He knew he needed to do something that could be sustained for the long term even without external assistance.
The breakthrough came with the women’s self-help groups (SHGs) that IVDP started organizing in 1989, savings-and-credit groups that over the past 22 years have grown into an all-women movement of 7,549 SHGs and 135,000 members in three districts of India, with total savings of 183 crores, loan portfolio of 400 crores, and a reserve fund of 28 crores.
What impresses is not just scale. IVDP has become a financially disciplined, self-reliant, member-owned and member-managed organization; that group solidarity and access to credit have fueled effective village programs in health and sanitation, housing, livelihood, and children’s education, including scholarships, performance-based incentives for students and schools, a primary school for tribal children, and a computer training academy that has, to date, trained some 5,000 children.
It has accomplished this through an approach that has broken through the financial limits of traditional microfinance approaches. Organized into clusters and federations, SHGs are directly linked to banks through group accounts, bulk deposits and loans that have given the SHGs the power to leverage preferential bank treatment at the same time that they have won respect by demonstrating that the poor can manage their finances effectively and reliably.
In large part, all this has come to pass because, as Francis says, “when people want to do something, they can.” But undoubtedly as well, it is because, over the past 35 years, one man has completely devoted his life to building an organization that has transformed people’s lives. Despite his organization’s spectacular growth, Francis continues to inspire by example, living a simple life with the people he is serving. A missionary in the truest sense, he says, “Real happiness comes when I see people developing, children are improving, and suffering is removed.” Sharing knowledge and work, he says, is “like sharing in the Last Supper.”
In electing Kulandai Francis to receive the 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes the visionary zeal, self-sacrificing spirit, and total dedication with which he has given life to a movement of rural empowerment that has benefited over a hundred thousand women, their families and communities.