Mercy Corps’ literacy program in Assam, India, works because it is local—designed and taught by staff with an understanding of the culture there. As a global organization, Mercy Corps needs to balance investment in a deep understanding of local issues with the imperative to make a difference in as many lives as possible.
By Ted O'Callahan
Bobita Dahn stood nervously in front of the chalkboard on the first night of class. The women looking at her from rows of long desks were her elders. They had watched her grow up. They had seniority over her in the fields. But in the classroom, Dahn was the teacher.
Many of Dahn’s new students had children or grandchildren who sat in the classroom during the day, but this was the first time they had set foot in school themselves. The spare concrete room was lit by two dangling bulbs. Insects chirred loudly from the darkness outside. Dahn realized her pupils were nervous too. She decided to break the tension by leading everyone in a song.
The one-story school where Dahn teaches is located on the Singlijan Tea Estate in rural Assam, India. Assam is to tea what Idaho is to potatoes; it accounts for more than half of the 2.4 billion pounds of tea India produces each year. But tea must be picked by hand, so across hundreds of plantations in Assam, hundreds of thousands of women spend their days plucking tea leaves from closely planted bushes, appearing, in their bright saris, to be wading through a waist-high green sea. It’s a beautiful agrarian tableau, in which the workers earn 84 rupees, or about $1.54, a day.
There have been surprisingly few changes to tea growing since the British started production in Assam in the 1820s, the first commercial tea cultivation outside China. Closer to Bangladesh and Bhutan than to Delhi, Assam has experienced little of the economic boom that has helped other parts of India.
The region can still have a colonial, or even feudal, feel. While tea garden ownership and management has been in Indian hands for many decades, there is still a social hierarchy on the tea estate. The estate manager and assistant manager are provided stately homes, while other managers live in modest houses, and workers generally receive mud and thatch structures with no running water or electricity. These basic shelters are commonly shared by three generations of extended family. Families often depend on the income of one or two family members who have full-time work, which may be periodically supplemented if others get seasonal day work.
Most of the 800,000 workers on some 800 tea estates in the state are descended from migrants who came from other parts of India, more than a century ago. They have been effectively trapped on the remote estates for generations by poverty and a lack of education and access to other opportunities. Fewer than 30% of the women on Assam’s tea estates are literate.
When the international aid and development organization Mercy Corps started programs for tea estate workers, the initial focus was microenterprise and microfinance. Soon organizers realized that many participants were struggling because they didn’t have even basic literacy or numeracy skills. For a long time it wasn’t seen as important to send girls to school, especially when money for fees, books, and uniforms was limited. “In a family of boys and girls, boys are given preference because they are likelier to get jobs where they could earn more,” says Rosy Choudhury, Mercy Corps India’s program director.
The results of a pilot literacy project were promising. “We saw literacy was the key. Once people can read they open up to more information, to more changes,” Choudhury says. “Once they are literate, change comes from within.” The program came to be called Women’s Empowerment through Literacy or WEL.
Marina Barla was one of Dahn’s students on that first night, and for her, she said later, singing with her classmates helped her overcome her skepticism and unfamiliarity with school. Her husband had died several years before. The Plantation Labor Agreement, a nationally negotiated framework for working conditions on all tea estates, allowed her to take over his status as a permanent employee. That meant she kept access to the house where her family lived and a small but steady year-round income.
Barla had always valued education enough to find the money for a tutor for her children, ages 12, 10, and 8. But “school” was an abstraction. She hadn’t known what her daughters and son did all day.
Now she understood. When neighbors questioned her about leaving her children for two hours every night, she replied, “When I have problems, you don’t help. I’m not leaving to waste time. I’m going to improve myself, so I will be able to solve my own problems.”
Mercy Corps designed WEL specifically for Assam, with an appreciation of local realities. All the teachers are women because there is physical contact in the classroom, helping female students learn to hold a pencil or piece of chalk, that wouldn’t be acceptable with male teachers. The teachers, like Dahn, come from the tea estates, not only to simplify safety, logistics, and travel, but in order to introduce a social contract of sorts; for example, teachers can visit a neighbor who missed a class. Mercy Corps provides training, support, and oversight, but local teachers help give the community a sense of ownership.
Dahn grew up on the Singlijan Tea Estate. Her story demonstrates both the potential for education in Assam and the numerous challenges involved in moving up the economic ladder there. She saw what the work and the poverty did to her family and her neighbors and had every intention of having a different life. She was the first in her family to finish high school.
Though Dahn wanted nothing to do with plucking tea leaves, she worked on the estate seasonally to earn tuition for a year-long computer training course that helped prepare her for college. But then her family asked her to earn money for the household. College was deferred, indefinitely, in favor of work on the estate. She had promised herself that she would become her own person before getting married, but she didn’t know how to do that. Then the chance to participate in the literacy program appeared.
After a slow start, reflecting initial caution among the women at the Singlijan Tea Estate, the classes there filled. The limits were expanded. Even so, the demand outstripped the capacity to meet it. Five nights a week for 10 months, Dahn taught from a government-approved workbook for “non-standard learners.” She showed her students how to write their names—a point of pride because, for the first time, the women could sign for their pay instead of leaving a thumbprint.
In the process of learning to read, the students are exposed to a range of topics related to health and family. “The class becomes a platform to talk about their issues. They often discuss and solve problems for themselves. That process builds common goodwill,” Choudhury says. By the end of the class, students are functionally literate. They have completed the rough equivalent of four years of grade school. The impact of being educated ripples though the women’s lives, Choudhury explains. They get more of a voice in family decision making. They take on leadership roles within their work crews. They are more aware of their children’s needs related to education.
Marina Barla feels that impact. Even if her older children are farther along in their studies than she is, she now knows if they are doing their homework. Neighboring children in first or second grade come to her for guidance. She is excited to share what she knows, and doing so builds ties to her neighbors. Her own children express pride in what she has done. In a place where people have to fight for scraps of dignity and power, Barla has found both.
The success of the course is astounding to Dahn. “What I teach them, they learn,” she says. “That is satisfaction.” With a bright-eyed smile, she describes going to visit a student who missed a class. Approaching the house, Dahn heard the woman’s children call, “Mama, your teacher is coming.” That identity means the world to her.
And for both teacher and students, the literacy classes became such a welcome refuge that, after the final tests were taken and the certificates given out, the women continued to come to the classroom. Dahn and the other teachers no longer received stipends, but they continued to teach.
Since 2009, the WEL program has run on 12 tea estates, reaching 1,140 students. One of many challenges facing Mercy Corps is how to build that local success to a scale where it can help an entire population. “With Assam and the tea plantations, in particular, you have such high rates of illiteracy, and people trapped in circumstances that go back generations, says Neal Keny-Guyer '82, Mercy Corps' CEO. “You’re not going to get progress until you get to a certain scale. So it’s important to be able to expand throughout Assam.” With an established model, the program can be duplicated more easily; Mercy Corps can now provide 10 months of classes that teach someone to read for $50 a student.
Development organizations often work to a goal of being able to step back. “If the goal is building local capacity, people need to feel they did it themselves,” says Rodrigo Canales, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale SOM. “It’s an ineffective program that builds some sort of dependency. A good program is one where people say, we now have enough infrastructure to continue building our own capabilities. It’s almost impossible to get there if local people are not deeply engaged in the design and ownership from the beginning.”
Canales notes that, for some time, the private sector has recognized that a locally customized approach is important, but it’s newer to the development world. “Think of the World Bank model. It has traditionally been almost the opposite of this. They try to standardize their processes. They have all these intricate bureaucracies that provide a very similar experience everywhere they go.”
Mercy Corps is toward the other end of the spectrum, having been built around a particularly decentralized model that encourages innovation and experimentation. Ninety-five percent of Mercy Corps’ local staff come from the region they are working in. This means they have deep local expertise. But the autonomy afforded by the organizational structure and culture requires intentional efforts to share lessons and local successes throughout the organization (See Yale Insights’ interview with Neal Keny-Guyer for more).
Mercy Corps’ team in Assam is from Assam. The program manager for WEL, Tasaduk Ariful Hussain, is familiar with the experiences of the students and the teachers. He is also in a position to serve as a cultural and linguistic translator and facilitator as he moves across the numerous socio-economic boundaries that typically separate workers, managers of the tea estates, government officials, donors, and country- and global-level staff within Mercy Corps.
Just gaining access to the tea estates, which are often quite closed-off, requires overcoming skepticism. Between markets and weather, commodity production is always uncertain. The industry is very labor intensive—efforts to mechanize harvesting have only resulted in machines that yield a very low-quality product—so growers are particularly sensitive to any change in their labor pool. There is a fear educated workers would leave. Even Mercy Corps’ apparently small request for access to tea estate classrooms was significant.
While the world’s two largest tea producers, Unilever (through the Lipton brand) and Tata (through Tetley Teas) have some presence, family-owned Indian companies play a large role in production in Assam. This meant that Mercy Corps had to create many partnerships and build a reputation with growers. But successful pilots and ongoing conversations tended to alleviate concerns. Some estate managers even came to see the commitment to finish the classes as a transferable skill that engenders more reliable and capable workers.
For any development organization, working so closely with communities to design programs requires a significant investment, and it isn’t easy to see how to transfer that to new situations. Professor Canales says that the product of that effort and expense isn’t simply the specific program. “When you talk about local engagement, the pushback is usually, ‘That’s a nice little story, but this doesn’t seem to be scalable. The involvement is incredibly intensive and incredibly expensive. It doesn’t seem sustainable.’ The reply is that while you gain insights about the local population, the key insights are about the process of engaging any local population in co-design. It’s the process that is replicable.”
In Assam, where the success of WEL has created trust and momentum, that process has led to additional programs. “Almost all the WEL participants go on to the joint-savings programs,” Choudhury says. These programs build financial literacy and reduce dependence on high-cost moneylenders to meet unexpected expenses. There are 192 saving groups that include some 11,650 people. An enterprise development program has helped establish 834 micro-enterprises, mostly tied to livestock or agriculture, providing new income for 4,170 individuals. And many of the schoolrooms WEL uses for night classes also open early so Mercy Corps tutors can help students from tea estates prepare for national placement exams.
But in a situation where need far exceeds available resources, there is no easy answer about where to focus. Keny-Guyer says, “Ideally, we’re both going deeper and expanding to more communities, but sometimes the resources aren’t there, and we have to make choices.”