May 31, 2024

Swades Foundation: Empowering Rural India Through Village Development Committees

The Swades Foundation focuses on empowering rural India through a 360-degree model of change and a 4E strategy – engage, empower, execute, and exit. Their initiatives span health, education, water and sanitation, and economic development, together creating a community-centric, scalable, and replicable model of sustainable development.
Please visit our Community-Driven Change: Demonstrating Impact in Africa and India resource center for our full report and additional case studies.

"We all have a role to play in our community’s development. We follow the concept of 3Hs–head, heart, and hand. The village development committee is the ‘head’ that conceptualises interventions for the community. The senior citizens are the ‘heart’ that guide us and keep us true to our values. The youth are the ‘hand’ that implements the interventions."
Village Development Committee Member, Bhavshet, Raigad District 

The women of Angrekond village in the Raigad district of rural Maharashtra, India, speak proudly of the changes they have helped bring about over the past five years through their work with the village development committee (VDC) that the Swades Foundation helped to set up. Once forced to spend hours every day travelling to a nearby stream to collect water, the women have been freed from this task with the installation of a new water system. Now they focus their time on gaining skills that help them generate an income, including backyard farming, livestock rearing, and more. Income from these activities makes it possible for the women to open and operate their own bank accounts, which has boosted their confidence and agency when participating in community decision-making.

The Swades Foundation’s role in community-driven change

Founded in 2013, the Swades Foundation focuses on empowering rural India through a 360-degree model of change and a 4E strategy – engage, empower, execute, and exit. Their initiatives span health, education, water and sanitation, and economic development, together creating a community-centric, scalable, and replicable model of sustainable development. The VDCs, facilitated by the Swades Foundation, serve as the vehicle for change. They are made up of volunteers from the community, half of them women, with adequate representation of young people and senior citizens.

Swades Village Development Committee

Swades Foundation helps create village development committees that then identify and implement development opportunities for 
their communities.

The positive changes in Angrekond village stand in contrast to how things were when the Swades Foundation began its work there. “Earlier, before an increase in their income and a demand for their produce … women did not have agency or confidence,” says a Swades Foundation staff member. “Over time, as they got more involved in the VDC, they gained confidence and are now a key part of village-level decision-making. These women used to be shy and sceptical of doing things on their own. As they started seeing change, they began to take the lead.”

VDCs have been pivotal in changing the lives of rural residents in several communities in the Raigad and Nashik districts of Maharashtra. The Swades Foundation facilitates the VDCs as a mechanism to bring community members together. The goal is for each village to reach “dream village” status by ensuring that people are equipped with the necessary tools to drive transformation and break free from poverty.

Why the Swades Foundation adopted a community-driven change approach

The Swades Foundation began as a direct-service non-governmental organisation that provided toilets and clean water connections to communities in the Raigad district. Over time, the foundation realised that for impact to be sustained, communities must take ownership of the change. As a result, it pivoted its approach in 2018–2019 and has since worked to strengthen VDCs to act as their own powerhouses of transformation.

This push for community ownership sparked positive action from community members. “Earlier, without the VDCs, we [Swades Foundation] had to engage with each household individually,” says a Swades Foundation staff member. “There was no one to take ownership for the community. Now, with the VDCs, there is collective ownership and responsibility, and we can better understand the community and its needs, enabling us to provide the right support and facilitation.”

Strengthening the community’s leadership and asset base

While the Swades Foundation still plays the role of guide and facilitator, all decisions now rest with the residents of Angrekond village. For instance, “the farming community identified safed musli [white tubers] as a crop to grow along with paddy, as safed musli is more climate resilient and fetches more market value,” says a Swades Foundation staff member. “This year, 80 to 100 farmers are growing it.” Once local leaders made the decision to plant this crop, the Swades Foundation in its facilitator role helped train farmers to grow it.

VDCs also provide an opportunity for community members to develop leadership skills. They maintain village development budgets and ensure that all individuals have access to the government identification documents needed to benefit from government schemes that provide health care, pensions, loans, and cooking gas subsidies.

Focusing on equity

The Swades Foundation also intervenes in underserved geographies, prioritising villages with poorer socioeconomic conditions and higher proportions of vulnerable populations.

The VDCs include representation from women, senior citizens, and young people to ensure that issues specific to these groups are adequately addressed. The VDC in Gaydhond, a village in Nashik, is led entirely by the village’s young people, who are passionate about its development. Swades Foundation also prioritises strengthening capacity, especially for women, to help them become a more active voice and an agent of change in the community.

To facilitate more equitable decision-making, each VDC member represents certain households in the community and carries the responsibility of bringing the issues those households may have to discussion forums. This representation helps the community identify households that may require additional support.

Outcomes in communities

With the implementation of VDCs, women in rural villages have grown their agency and confidence along with their ability to generate income and savings through new agricultural practices and market opportunities.

When Dalberg, an international development consulting firm, conducted an evaluation study of the Swades Foundation’s work, they found that households including an active member of the VDC were reporting a 19 percent increase in their average monthly income. Beyond income, these households also reported a higher standard of living, school enrolment, and nutritional diversity.

The communities that the Swades Foundation works in have also been able to better leverage government resources to fulfil basic needs. For example, the VDC in Angrekond village was able to use government schemes to obtain Rs3 lakhs ($3,600) for a kitchen garden shed. They also secured Rs10 lakhs ($12,000) from local government to build a road to the village to help them transport produce for sale to nearby markets. The community is investing their own resources as well by pooling funds for the maintenance of toilets and water connections.

Due to increases in income-generating skills, a few rural families that were once dependent on money transfers from relatives working in cities have now saved enough money to build homes for their relatives to live in the city rent-free.

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