By Jamie Nyqvist
A Peak Into SAMUGAM
In 2015, the United Nations set up a roadmap for sustainability marked by 17 global Sustainable Development Goals. As part of this agenda, several NGOs in India have been working hard (even before the goals were set, mind you) towards a more sustainable future. One of these NGOs is SAMUGAM trust (Social Awareness for Mutual Upliftment through Guidance and Motivation), registered under the India Trust Act since 1991. It is a community-based organisation that provides education and support for the gypsy community.
Bruno, an advertising producer and radio personality turned metaphorical “father” for hundreds of children, presented SAMUGAM trust to the group. He has been involved with the trust for 10 years now, building a safe space for gypsy children residing in Narikuravar Colony outside of Pondicherry. Bruno grew up within an Indian context and has always been close to the community he seeks to help. SAMUGAM began as a dream to provide support for children in impoverished conditions, but also as a way to support these children’s community as a whole.
The trust works under six pillars of development: JALY Home, SamuPlan, Livelihood Support, Gypsy and Tribal Communities, Leprosy Victims, and Revolving Goat Project. The ones that will be honed in on are the first three.
SamuPlan is the “umbrella” plan that encompasses JALY Home and the Sewing the Seeds project. In essence, this pillar’s goal is to improve the communities that the children come from. By doing so SamuPlan provides for the educational and nutritional needs of the gypsy children with a goal of 100 percent literacy amongst the children in these communities.
JALY Home was established in 2008 as a day home and safe space for children. Since then, Bruno has built one home for girls that houses 70 children; a second home for boys is currently under construction. In 2015, JALY Home received recognition from the Indian government for its efforts to support and house 250 children in need. What is important to note about JALY Home is that Bruno intends to provide each child with opportunities that he or she would not have access to at home while also granting the children access to their parents. Bruno is passionate about what he does and explains that “every child has problems that they bring in.” He speaks of children who have traumatic pasts that are brought to JALY home, and these issues are addressed through psychologists and social workers.
Child development is not the sole way that SAMUGAM helps within these gypsy communities. The trust also focuses on vocational training through its Sewing the Seeds project, an initiative that empowers women by teaching them valuable skills such as sewing and screen printing that can be applied not only within the Sewing the Seeds project, but also in enterprises throughout India. Sewing the Seeds is a sustainable fashion project that works with the gypsy women to create eco-friendly products such as bags and necklaces.
After spending time with SAMUGAM, I starting to ponder a few things. While the organisation in itself is an attempt to eliminate poverty in India by targeting an “at risk group of people,” there are several aspects of the organisation that led me to ask further questions, not about the intention of the organisation, but the direction in which it is moving. One of the red flags that immediately came to mind is their use of video as a tool for manipulating emotion. This is also prevalent in several other NGOs that are looking to fund their projects – so not an isolated incident. The common discourses surrounding these so-called promotional videos are that the children within them are helpless and are desperately seeking a saviour. In my opinion, these children are being dehumanised from individual thought and emotion and shown without livelihood. This concept is further propagated through individual sponsorship – telling individual “sad” stories of children in order to create enough empathy to donate money. The problem with this scheme is that it does not promote strength, independence and determination. Instead it propagates the idea that those who are below the poverty line are lazy, undetermined and have no future.
So rather than “promote” the vulnerable, I would flip that perspective and show how SAMUGAM actually empowers those who have been through his program and can attest to his intentions. Rather than enforcing negative stereotypes, the NGOs should walk their talk and show those potential donors that the child or adult they are sponsoring truly has the chance to be more successful in life through education and other fields.
While contemplating this revelation, I came across RADI-AID, an annual campaign that raises awareness of NGOs who utilise empowering imagery surrounding poverty and children. RADI-AID awards the best videos (as well as the worst videos) annually in order to challenge stereotypical perceptions around poverty and development. Each year the campaign invites filmmakers to provide share documentaries that portray dignity and strength, thus changing the way fundraising campaigns are communicated.
Don’t get me wrong, SAMUGAM represents an NGO with good purpose and intention striving to reach its goal of establishing a safe space for children. Unfortunately, its communications, particularly what is being communicated to those who donate, is not one that empowers those who live in the home. The active role Bruno has in these children’s lives is incredible and has potential for lasting impact on the sustainability goal to eradicate poverty through the SAMUGAM projects.
Image credit to SAMUGAM Trust