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‘Receiver’s dignity’ over ‘donor’s pride’

Nov 05, 2012

GOONJ, a Delhi-based NGO, has been selected as one of the finalists for the India Social Entrepreneur of the Year (SEOY) Award 2012. OneWorld South Asia’s Anubha Shukla speaks to Founder Director Anshu Gupta about their work and the dignity of the receiver versus the pride of the donor.

Anshu Gupta

OneWorld South Asia: GOONJ’s efforts are directed towards making clothing a national movement and ‘converting rags into necessities’. Besides the clothing that you provide does it impact people in any other way?
Anshu Gupta: That’s the gross misunderstanding about our work. I call it misunderstanding because it’s the limited vision of all of us which makes us to believe that clothing is not that important. Till date clothing has always been considered as a disaster relief material.

A large number of people think that we are just a collector and distributor of clothes. Of course, that is a large part of the job we do. We use cloth as a tool to initiate development work in villages under our ‘cloth for work’ project. The project aims at repositioning cloth as a development resource instead of a traditional charitable item.

It’s basically a parallel economy which is not cash based, but trash based. We live in a world where winter deaths are seen as natural deaths and not disaster. No compensation is given to people who die of winter due to lack of clothes because it is considered as ‘normal death’. Cloth is not something that shapes you or shelters you, for me it’s a symbol of dignity. For larger part of people in our country, it’s a piece of cloth that will save them from winter.

Why a woman does not have a basic right to cover herself? What about her dignity? In a country like India where we upfront say that 40-50% of population can’t afford two meals a day, then how can we expect them to have a piece of cloth? It’s a huge dignity issue. The biggest problem with development work by NGOs, governments or corporates is - “You want to live, but you want others to survive”.

"You don’t donate old clothes, you discard them. Be thankful to the people who use such clothes."

OWSA: You always talk about ‘receiver’s dignity’ over ‘donor’s pride’. Can you please elaborate on this?
AG: Let’s see the larger picture. People come and say, “I want to donate clothes. Please, come and collect.” Now my question is - “If you want to donate, why should I come and collect?” You go to a temple and offer something, does the God come to you or you go to the God? So, with what right do you call it a donation? You don’t donate old clothes, you discard them. Be thankful to the people who use such clothes. You name your discard as donation; you want to get rid of it when it has lost all value for you. It has lost emotional value for you. That’s it. Someone who is using your second hand used material is actually doing a service to you. They are extending the life-cycle of a material which has already been used.

Secondly, if you talk about village people, not only in India but across the globe, the best thing you will find in them is self-respect. How many of us have found beggars in the villages? That means begging is not a village phenomenon but a typical city phenomenon. You beg to survive, you beg once you lose yourself.

So, with what right these CSR people, social enterprises, NGOs and the government go with a box of sweet and some pencils and claim that they are donating something? Give the needy a piece of cloth so that they could cover themselves with dignity. And we say that we don’t do any charity. If you give something to someone for free, it becomes valueless. That’s why we care for donor’s pride. The whole ‘work for cloth’ project works on this concept. Even in our own team, if someone wants something, he/she has to give a minimal price. Nothing is free.

OWSA: One of the key areas addressed by GOONJ  is reproductive health which unfortunately doesn’t find any mention in any health budgets. Why have we neglected this issue up to such an extent?
AG: GOONJ’s sanitary napkin project ‘not just a piece of cloth’ won the World Bank’s Global Development Market Place Award in 2007. Before we got this award, people from WHO, World Bank and many other agencies were grilling us on sustainability and many other similar buzz words. We asked them, “How many programmes have you ever funded or seen till now which have a separate budget for sanitary napkins?” They didn’t have an answer. Before six years, nobody had even talked about health issues related to sanitary napkins. So, you can see that we don’t take this issue seriously at all.

"Cloth is not something that shapes you or shelters you, for me it’s a symbol of dignity. For larger part of people in our country, it’s a piece of cloth that will save them from winter."

OWSA: What are the challenges you face and what’s the way ahead?
AG: We can share many emotional stories of problems and impact but at the end of the day it’s a hardcore logistics issue. Many times we collect some data and send a proposal that these are our requirements and this is what we want to do. It’s unfortunate that every single organisation said ‘no’ to us citing that it doesn’t fall under their area of work. Unfortunately, people don’t understand the macro-impact of addressing the micro-issues. If you solve the problem of sanitary healthcare today, half of the health problems can be avoided. People will give money for post-effects of not using a sanitary napkin but won’t give money for making sanitary napkins. Who is going to decide what is important, the people who have the money or people who need it for basic requirements?

Our goal is very simple. We don’t want just to grow an organisation; we do want people to replicate our idea so that more and more people could be benefited. If people can take that learning, our job is done.

The benefit of getting awards for our work is not monetarily important. The benefit is that the so called opinion leaders in the development sector are forced to listen to us. They are forced to understand the importance of clothing and sanitary napkins which otherwise they would have thought as useless. Our not-for-profit model, without any government help, is doing a wonderful job and we are proud of it.

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