My colleagues and I are in Bangladesh to pilot test methodology for research into the impact of the Jita system (originally the CARE Rural Sales Programme) on the communities where it operates. “Jita,” which means “win” in Bangla, is also a shortened version of the name given to the women who work in the system: “aparajita,” or “woman who will not accept defeat.”
Our wonderful research assistants, from left: Radia, Famy, Nill, and Antora.
The women in the Jita system work as independent entrepreneurs to sell a “basket” of consumer goods, on foot, in areas that cannot be reached by conventional distribution methods. Most of the population of this country lives in such areas, often where there are no roads or electricity or media. The “aparajitas” are chosen from among the very poor. Often, they have experienced some major disruption, such as the death of a husband, and have been reduced even to begging. The Jita system, a spin-off from a project begun by CARE Bangladesh in 2004, has demonstrated its ability to generate incomes for these women that allow them to become independent, as well as its ability to provide efficient distribution for companies selling consumer products.
Here I am sitting in front of a house typical of the villages we are working in right now. Walls and roof are made of corrugated tin, floors inside vary from dirt to cement.
Our past research on this system has also suggested strongly that it provides an important distribution channel for locally made goods. And, it is a useful service in a culture where women seldom are allowed to leave home even to shop.
Jita, jointly owned now by CARE and Danone, is under some pressure to expand to other countries, but there is hesitation to do so, especially on the part of CARE, because of fear of criticism by those who not feel consumer goods should be sold to the poor, for any of several reasons.
So, we are here to try and start assessing what the impact of the system, in the form of consumer goods, is on the people in the communities where the women sell. Of course, the first thing was to articulate what harms critics would expect from these objects and design ways to capture these negative effects. To the degree that there are positive effects, we will want to capture those, too.
It isn’t very hard to speculate about what criticisms there will be, as these have emerged as a consistent litany. So, we will be trying to assess the amount of additional rubbish that is created by these goods. We will be attempting to measure whether there is a disempowering effect on the women who buy the products, which include cosmetics and toiletries, especially Fair and Lovely, a popular skin whitening cream. We will endeavor to capture the impact of the soaps being sold on health. We will be asking a battery of questions designed to measure changes in subjective well being, as well as increases in “materialistic” values. At the end, we will be trying what I think may become an ingenious new method to demonstrate changes in saving or spending patterns–that is, whether the presence of consumer goods causes people to spend “foolishly” on things they “don’t need.”
This household is a bit more prosperous, but the wash is still done by hand, hung out to dry, and the women dry their own rice in the sun (always in a neat circle or oval in front). The houses are built in clusters, often around a central space, each inhabited by members of the same extended family. These “compounds” prepare and eat food together. Married couples often have a separate space they share with their unmarried children.
Yesterday, we were selecting households in the test villages, getting agreement to participate. The places where Jita operates are not the very poorest, but communities where there might be a little more, in terms of spending money. These homes are definitely “bottom of the pyramid,” but they are neatly kept and prettily decorated.
One woman invited me in for a glass of Tang. Her home was made of corrugated tin and she had only one large room in which food was served and four people could sleep. But it was neat, clean, and pleasant. She served me from a set of matching glasses painted with red flowers. A TV with a cricket game playing was prominent in the room, though the sound was off. Her husband sat down, wanting to discuss international politics–in perfect English and with a clear command of the issues.
Families grow their own rice, but have been encouraged by NGOs in recent years to diversify their diets by growing vegetables, too. One of the innovations sold by Jita is a line of high quality packaged vegetable seeds. Jita teaches residents how to grow these seeds, which are selected to have a better yield than those available in the local market
So, though this was a home in a poor, rural village in a country often ravaged by disaster, there was dignity, hospitality, grace, intelligence, and sociability. Remembering this image of a poor, but proud and gracious home will be important to the design and interpretation of the research.