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An Amazing Indian Gentleman - Microfinance and Self-help Groups in India


As part of my recent trip to India, I was privileged to spend two or three hours in the company of Aloysius Prakash Fernandez – the founder of Myrada, the organisation which hosted us for the first four days of our trip, a man with a distinguished career which covers roles in the World Bank, the Canadian and Indian Government. Perhaps it says something about his humility in that, having bought all four books which documented the development of Myrada and provide practical help with implementing their model, there is nowhere in any of them a write up about this exceptional man.

He grew up in Karnataka in India but was educated at Oxford University and worked abroad until he felt moved to come back to India with a vision to lift one million people out of poverty, starting in the area where he grew up. This area was suffering from the loss of a mining industry which had been the major employer and source of prosperity for years. Without it, the region had declined dramatically’ (obvious parallels with South Wales made this just one more example of the relevance of what I was learning on this trip!) He came back to India with a donation of 100,000 rupees to get something started – a generous gift but very small in the scheme of things. His advice – don’t be afraid to start small because great things can grow. Since it started 30 years ago, Myrada has achieved a great deal in terms of improvements to people’s lives and livelihoods, establishing proper institutions for the poor etc and at any one time is working directly with over one million poor people in rural villages and settlements and increasingly also in small towns – so Aloysius achieved and exceeded his vision. He has also successfully changed Government policy and bank attitudes towards lending to the poor.

During the course of our meeting, he had many interesting and helpful things to say and I am just going to record a few which resonate with what Purple Shoots is trying to achieve:

He talked about two key objectives when he worked in the Canadian Co-operative movement – (1) the provision of credit and (2) the alleviation of poverty and he emphasized the importance of seeking to do both – it is possible to do (1) without (2). He commented that the poorer people are, the less is credit a trigger for the removal of poverty – and this is possibly at the root of some of the harmful instances of the use of microfinance. He also said it was important to distinguish between management and entrepreneurship – most of the poor in India are good managers because they manage to survive, but not all of them are also entrepreneurs. His approach, through Myrada, is to encourage confidence building and self-reliance which will then help them to be good managers of what they have and what they develop, and will allow some to go on to be entrepreneurs.

The Self-help groups and the institutions associated with these which Myrada creates (more about this in another blog) are what create the self-reliance and confidence amongst their members to enable them to lift themselves out of poverty. Disadvantaged and marginalised people need their own institutions where trust and empowerment can grow. The model is not rigid and can adapt to different circumstances and he encouraged us as pioneers of the concept in the UK to be prepared to modify it, to allow it to develop organically from the ground up, to adapt it to fit in with existing institutions if that works better, to encourage the principles of self-reliance and confidence building.

Having lived in the UK (including spending some time in Wales) he had a very good grasp of the UK context and an understanding of the impact of the recent economic downturn. It was encouraging that he believed that in seeking to establish self-reliant groups in the UK, in conjunction with microfinance, we would be offering a route out of poverty and benefit dependance for many of those who get involved with them.

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