Manavodaya and Congregate Care

Can Manavodaya help reawaken a sense of purpose and mutual dependence as a basis for understanding wellbeing after COVID-19?

Author: Pete Richmond

In these early days of the pandemic, apart from helping as many people as possible to survive the immediate crisis, we are questioning what the post COVID-19 world will look like. Will we just learn to live better with COVID-19 and largely go back to the same old ways of operating, or can this be an opportunity for change?

The pandemic has exposed two key truths of human society – at some time or other we all need to be cared for and the previously invisible and marginalised unpaid and low paid care force is critical to the wellbeing of society as a whole.

Over the last 30 years Manavodaya, in small but careful ways, has been developing approaches to what they describe as People Based Development, which has changed the lives of millions, primarily in rural Uttar Pradesh. In recent years, Manavodaya has begun to influence the lives of people much further afield across India, other South East Asian countries, East Africa as well as small projects in Europe and North America through its international facilitator training programmes. This has not been through institutionally well-funded academic programmes or having armies of professionally trained development workers, but instead through truly ground level development, focusing on the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ dimension of facilitators themselves. They in turn facilitate communities to take greater control of their individual and their communities lives. As one of Manavodaya’s founders, Varun Vidyarthi says:

"We are educated to be smart and aggressive for quick success, instead of being humble and patient. The two approaches appear to be contradictory. Not necessarily. We learn from our experience that being humane is more important than being smart."

In this paper we will tell a short story of Manavodaya, introduce its method of training facilitators and consider if there are lessons we can draw upon to influence different ways of operating in a post COVID-19 world.

No doubt the rhetoric will be that of change. Cynical perhaps, but this quote from The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, may be prescient. The supposed radical, Tarcedi, turns out to just want a new dictatorship. He says to the Prince of Lampadusa:

“Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Contradictory? Possibly not, how many of us have expressed a dissatisfaction with our institutional systems and then go on to seek professional justification (to ourselves at least) by saying we are ‘changing the system from within’? Many others, including George Orwell in Animal Farm, have made similar observations of how hierarchical and often oppressive systems have a tendency to reproduce, even when overthrown by the new wave.

People at Manavodaya, often speak of a ‘paradigm shift’, a change that really does see a different way of doing things rather than a mere technical shift or a change of words which keep the same old same old inequalities and regimes shaping our lives. Manavodaya does not have all the answers, indeed it does not have an answer, but rather an approach that may point in a helpful direction.


Amla and Varun Vidyarthi both had promising careers in academia and engineering. They gave up these careers to work with the rural poor in efforts to seek purpose, beyond profession success, status and wealth.

Problems for those they met went way beyond lack of money: a deeply ingrained caste system; lack of education; the oppression of women on many levels; and widespread bonded labour – a form of slavery which dictates that you cannot leave without paying your debt, whilst keeping your wage so low you can never pay the debt. All of these factors suppress the opportunity for positive change.

Varun noticed that many cooked on open fires for which they needed firewood. The use of firewood caused greater devastation of the forest and therefore impact on the environment. Young women risked assault in isolated settings collecting firewood from further and further afield.

"Our early experimentation focused on technical changes to villagers cooking habits to protect the environment and reduce the risks to young women. Developing solar ovens, better cookers and bio-gas plants had relatively little impact on the energy situation of the poor."

They had anticipated little objection as everyone would gain.

"However villagers had different priorities, the metal cabinet of the solar oven were being used for clothes storage and the glass reflectors as vanity mirrors."

This led the Vidyarthi’s to question their interventions:

Subsequent projects supporting farmers groups and youth groups did achieve something. For example Amla assisted a carcass flayers group in winning an auction bid that enabled them to work for their own community organisation rather than work as waged labours.

However, they began to question if even these successes really did bring about sustainable change.

Although there was a shift in power to farmers and youth groups, as ‘leaders’ from these groups emerged, similar inequalities resurfaced that had gone on before, whereby the lot of the poor and powerless didn’t really change, just the background and faces of some of the leaders had changed.

As Varun describes:

“I had read widely on participation and empowerment. But when considered in real life situations these writings seemed little more than ‘nice words’ – good on paper but rather irrelevant in practice.

“The situation was made all the more challenging by the fact we were dealing with high levels of contradictions and conflicts among the people we worked with: feudal mindsets, deeply embedded caste differences, powerful gender divisions and extremely low literacy levels."

The Vidyarthi’s recognised every society faces contradictions of various kinds and that developing people’s ability to deal with such contradiction is the essence of social change. This set them on a road to develop processes and methods that could deal with contradiction in local and wider contexts. The challenge was not just to help improve the material wealth of the rural poor by a few hundred or thousand, but to deal with problems in a manner that would led to widespread sustainable social change.

In its early days Manavodaya recognised that bringing ‘good ideas’ from a hero leader to isolated rural villages in Uttar Pradesh would have at best short term value. This would not achieve a paradigm shift that could be felt by villagers themselves, rather than judging success on measured targets set by outside observers.

Manavodaya’s Approach

To begin with, a facilitator from outside the village fosters individual and collective reflection. As is the case for most of us, as Amla and Varun Vidyarthi the founders of Manavodaya point out:

“One needs to remember that a village is not a community, it’s a place where different people live together.”

Therefore a self-help group needs to develop in its own cultural context - it is not for an outside facilitator to define.

In Manavodaya’s experience, this takes time - lots of time. Which is at odds with performance target driven cultures in developed and developing countries. Almost always an outside facilitator is viewed with suspicion, sometimes amusement ‘what on earth is this person doing in my village?’ and sometimes hostility and violence from the local established patriarchy.

Manavodaya’s Eight Steps is based on the work of self-help groups. Methods adapt between villages/ regions/countries, but the key is the facilitator’s attitude based on:

1. Belief in the capacity of People

People are experts in their own lives, we all need help at times, individually we can all at times lose perspective and need support from others, our expertise in our own life come from our own unique first-hand experience of our life. Professionals, with their expertise and sometimes with well-meaning sympathy, can be guilty of seeing people as deficient and in need of their help, rather than capable of solving their own problems. This is a common feature of aid and social work. The problem, as the reader will likely recognise, is that this approach keeps people in place as passive recipients, often waiting and waiting for professionals to solve the problem.

2. Humility

Facilitation will not work without a certain attitude of the person intervening. This is not merely an intellectual exercise or aspiration - ‘wouldn’t it be good to be humble’. It is a lived thing. It is how we conduct ourselves in our personal and professional lives. Few of us are saints, or live a fault-free life. However, a facilitator must be prepared to truly embrace self-reflection, to question themself, not to punish themself or blame others but to ask ‘could I have done this or that better, what did this mean, how did others interpret what I said?’

3. Values

If the facilitator does not have a genuine internalisation of humility, dependency will be created. Letting go of one’s own opinions is necessary to learn from the perspective of people. This can in turn help overcome the arrogance of giving, helping or knowing, necessary to be truly listening.

4. Leadership by a hero is not the answer

The contemplative approach the Vidyarthi’s took from the outset sought to avoid reliance on charismatic leadership. They recognised that all have the power to contribute if given real opportunity.

For Manavodaya the quality of meticulous facilitation is the key building block.

Many of us have a desire to ‘do the right thing’, ‘give something back’, create a more equal society through political action and so on and so on. But what is the ‘right thing’? ‘Give back’ what? As for political action, well yes this can be necessary but too often the utilitarian actions for the greatest good for the greatest number miss the humane impact on the individual.

COVID-19 and Congregated Living

Brought into the spotlight by the horrific death figures in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, congregated living has previously been challenged as being structurally impersonal in its delivery of personal care. Now we see ‘patients’, ‘clients’ and ‘residents’ as just an addition to the daily statistical mortality figures.

This paper is being written in the mist of the pandemic and does not question the dedication of individual NHS workers and care organisations that support people in models based on congregated living. However, congregated living has been at the centre of outbreaks of this horrible virus. In the post-COVID-19 world. it will be valid to again reflect on whether the predominance of congregated living models for vulnerable people is the safest option, or whether more locally-based community initiatives are not just more personal, but also more protective from disease and pandemic.

What is not needed post-COVID-19 is the ‘one solution’, idea or hero initiative. Instead, real participative discussions and structures at local levels need to be nurtured. The economic impact of COVID-19 is only just developing at this time, but we can be sure that the real economy value of ‘care’ needs better recognition in economic models, both in its contribution to all our individual lives and the ‘care’ contribution’ to wider economic activity.

Does Manavodaya’s approach make any real difference?

With limited research available, one might ask why explore such an approach further?

Amla and Varun were early innovators in the field of micro lending 10 years before it was embraced and modified by the Indian government. To date there are around 2.2 million Self Help Groups across India primarily made up of over 20 million women, whose participation benefits their family. With an average family size of 6 people, we are seeing a massive impact. According to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NAMBARD), these groups mobilized savings, raised production and organisational capacity of villages throughout the country. Manavodaya are not responsible for all these groups and in some respects have been concerned at this scaling up of some programmes which have placed less emphasis on individual and collective reflection. Without this reflection on both levels real change is more fragile. The goal was never just to improve material wealth, important as this is, but to see women and disenfranchised villagers become agents of their own change both economically and socially.

Manavodaya have found, that beyond economic benefits, the groups become the basis for taking action on social, civic and personal issues, fostering a spirit of collective self-help.

International Programmes

In Norway and the UK we have organised Development from Within facilitator programmes. Starting from a premise that although challenges in rural Uttar Pradesh are clearly very different, the approach, of facilitating marginalised people to come together, identify and then action change for the better in their own lives, has much merit and could be transferable.

On this programme the participants, often from professional social care and community development backgrounds, have come to learn about being facilitators in their own settings. Participants often had a direct or indirect association with the facilitators of the programme either personally or through the organisation they are employed in, attempts to promote the programme outside this sphere saw very few participants.

The programmes appeared very well received, whether facilitated by Varun Vidyarthi with his vast experience or by those of us who had previously participated in programmes. Short-term evaluation was certainly very positive, longer-term evaluation of the programme may indicate that it has contributed to the individual participant’s personal development and possibly wellbeing, with less tangible impacts on the wellbeing of what might be described as oppressed groups.

Beyond the West, Manavodaya has run programmes in East Africa, and other South East Asian countries again very well received in the short term but there is a lack of research in the longer term impact of such facilitator programmes.

Closing remarks

Over the last 30 years Manavodaya’s approach, rooted in contemplative traditions, has made massive steps in alleviating oppression and poverty in rural Uttar Pradesh. Yet it is barely recognised further afield. Perhaps because it is not the organisation or a system as such that has made these sustainable changes for the better. It is something less easily measurable - the attitude and values of those undertaking the very practical tasks through self-help groups, trying to address not ignore the contradictions we face in our communities.

Manavodaya’s work embraces contemplative traditions with economic realities. The pandemic highlights our interdependency, economically as well as emotionally.

No doubt as we emerge from the pandemic and its devastating economic impact there will be those who claim we cannot afford high quality health and care systems that embrace truly personalised approaches – a paradigm shift from today’s hierarchical systems. We can learn from Manavodaya’s approach, which shifts notions of value or benefit, from the lens of economic monetarism, to a wellbeing perspective.


1. “Social Change, Inner and Outer Dimensions of Transformation” by Varun Vidyarthi, In Community (2009) Ed Carl Poll , Jo Kennedy, Helen Sanderson, HSA press

2. Development from Within (2008) by Varun Vidyarthi and Patricia Wilson, Xlibris 

3. The Heart of Community Engagement: Practitioner Stories from Across the Globe (Community Development Research and Practice Series) (2019) by Patricia Wilson, Routledge

4. Travels in Human Based Development (2014) by Pete Richmond, Centre for Welfare Reform.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Manavodaya and Congregate Care © Pete Richmond 2020.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Article | 16.09.20

Manavodaya, social care, tax and benefits, India, Article

Pete Richmond


CEO Partners for Inclusion Group

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