Monumental disasters in recent years have starkly exposed the vulnerabilities of the world’s poor, but have also shown that there is a tremendous wellspring of human empathy that can be tapped to help them. The formidable challenge is to find ever better, more sustainable ways of organizing the effort to help those in need.
In India, Anshu Gupta left his job in a well-known firm to devote himself to this task. His journey began in 1999, when he and his wife contributed sixty-seven pieces of personal clothing for the use of the homeless during winter. This experience drew their attention to the vast quantities of underutilized cloth and other materials lying unused in India’s urban households, while many rural poor die because they do not have enough clothing. Thus Gupta founded Goonj, a volunteer organization built on the powerful, life-changing lessons he learned: that much more than random disaster relief needed to be done; that better ways of mobilizing public concern and assistance had to be organized; and most importantly, that giving must put at the center the recipient’s rights and dignity rather than the giver’s goodness and satisfaction. For Gupta, extreme poverty is actually a continuing human disaster; hence, giving must have no season. Choosing cloth as an entry point for giving, he has seen its importance for a person’s dignity and survival in a vast country where, aside from disastrous flooding, the winter cold kills many who are underclothed. Gupta’s own epiphany came in meeting a poorly-clad six-year-old girl who grew up with corpses because her father eked out a living picking up abandoned dead bodies and cremating them for a fee. When he asked the girl what she did to avoid the cold in Delhi’s harsh winter, she said: “When I feel cold, I hug a dead body and sleep.”
Goonj is now a movement working in twenty-one of India’s twenty-nine states, and is much more than a channel for clothing and other recycled articles. Through its staff, its thousands of volunteers, and numerous partner organizations, Goonj redistributes contributed items, and processes cloth and others to fit the identified needs of recipient groups. Dormant, underutilized cloth—including cloth scraps and loose threads—are used to fabricate essential articles like rugs, blankets, mattresses, and even clean cloth sanitary pads, as a hygienic alternative to the rags that poor girls and women use during their menses. Goonj has branded them “MY Pads,” producing to date over three million sanitary pads that are the cheapest in the world, while raising the taboo subject of menstrual hygiene as an issue of social concern.
The Goonj strategy involves the poor in identifying their needs, employs them in recycling and fabrication, and inspires poor communities to undertake projects like building bridges and repairing schools in exchange for clothes and other essential articles. Every year, over a thousand such projects have been undertaken in rural India under Goonj’s “Cloth for Work” initiative, a program that innovatively converts cloth into a development resource.
Today, Goonj handles more than one million kilograms of materials annually; has a wide network of collection and processing centers; and runs a vigorous program that educates the public in sustained and responsible giving. It has had an impact on the lives of millions. Paradoxically, Goonj is concerned less with its organizational growth than with the spread of its ideas. Gupta says, “We live in a world which has problems in volumes. We need solutions in volumes, and people who work on these in volume. We all need to get up and do something.”
In electing Anshu Gupta to receive the 2015 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his creative vision in transforming the culture of giving in India, his enterprising leadership in treating cloth as a sustainable development resource for the poor, and in reminding the world that true giving always respects and preserves human dignity.
On behalf of millions of people in India and the rest of the world, our sincere thanks for this acknowledgement. This award is recognition to the many ‘taken for granted, non-issues,’ and the viable solutions which lie amongst us. In an era of machines, this is a recognition to the needles. We see cloth as a needle in the holistic human development process, and a piece of cloth in the form of a sanitary pad as a needle in the bigger struggle for dignity for millions of women.
We don’t want to change the world; we are ordinary people, we want to improve it first. We strongly feel that somewhere, something is wrong. Because despite a whole lot of us in this room and many similar rooms across the globe who are applying so much intellect, resources, good intentions and hard work to improve our societies, poverty and other troubling issues are not getting resolved. The gap is growing, the issues becoming more complicated.
Perhaps it is time for us to change our vocabulary, to remove demeaning words like “donor” and “beneficiary,” and treat everyone as a stakeholder. It’s time to change the meaning of disaster and accept that half the world doesn’t need a disaster, as poverty is the biggest ongoing disaster. It’s time to stop imposing development agendas and policies, and listen to the people whom these decisions affect. It’s time to reduce charity and dignify giving. It’s time to re-look into our knowledge and intellect, and value the wisdom of the grassroots. It’s time to stop treating money as the only currency in the world and start looking for parallel currencies for development.
Today thousands of tonnes of second hand material, so far treated worldwide as disaster relief material or charitable subject-object, constitute our organization’s currency. Goonj’s ‘Cloth for Work’ invites communities to choose their own problem—whether it is a broken road or a dirty pond, whatever is a real concern —work on that with your wisdom, pay back to the nation in a currency you have—called “labor”—and you are rewarded in a currency that people of the nation have—called “material.” It is about the barter between these two new currencies, labor and material, creating a new economic model. Maybe somewhere in this process is the genesis of a parallel economy which is not cash-based but trash-based.
I hope that when the celebrations around this year’s award are over, there will be some people out there—from the governments, academia, development sector, research organizations, policy makers, opinion leaders and decision makers—who will see this work as a possibility which can turn the tide on the colossal waste we all are facing.
This world is the world of volume. The problems are in volume. We do need solutions in volume and the people who work on those are also needed in volume. No need to have intellectual debates on either/or. It is about AND. Right now we do need more and many different solutions.
We have just been able to touch upon some issues in our part of the world. Goonj is a constructive and positive movement by the common people, for the common people. With all humility from this prestigious stage, we want to give a copyright for others to copy our ideas. Do copy, replicate, add more wisdom and take our Goonj solution to other nations, geographies and communities. Let’s see what can be achieved with the world’s so-called waste. For us, the mission is to grow as an idea and not just as an organization.
I do have high hopes for the youth, even as they are the most troubled with the present; the future is in their hands. In the end, doing good is a collective responsibility and we all truly want to live in a better world.
Thank you for listening and calling us here. I dedicate this beautiful day and this award to my parents—up above watching as shining stars; my family; the amazing Goonj team for standing together in the best and worst of times; the volunteers, and the people of my country, for being with us. Thank you and Jai Hind.