Merging self-help and microfinance, Indian activist empowers poor farmers and women

October 19, 2011

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(AP/Prashant Bhoot)
This sign in Maharashtra, a state plagued by farmer suicides, reads, 'Village for sale along with houses, cattle and fields.'

Mohandas Gandhi famously articulated the idea of the “self-sufficient village,” in which poor villagers run their own lives and help each other reach a higher, more dignified standard of living. Through unconventional means, activist Nileema Mishra is trying to make this vision a reality in rural India.

Early in her career, Nileema veered away from the established activist model of competing for foreign donors and government grants. Instead she decided to leverage her community’s intrinsic strengths and try to solve its issues from within. Through her grassroots organization, Sister Nivedita Rural Science Center, Nileema organizes poor villagers into small self-help groups. Working together, these Indians acquire group loans and help each other save money, make smart financial decisions and elevate their incomes above the poverty line. So far, she’s worked with 20,000 people, from struggling farmers to budding female entrepreneurs, in rural India.

Nileema is a recipient of the 2011 Magsaysay Award, commonly considered Asia’s Nobel Prize. She tells us what low-income Indians need, and don’t need, to escape poverty.