July 2, 2009
I would not begin to presume that my attempts to figure out my place in my internship have been harder than most other interns’; this job alone is seldom an easy one, perhaps especially for an unpaid intern at a busy firm. The people in charge are constantly busy and don’t feel a pressing need to get everything they possibly can out of the intern. Interns on the other hand come in excited to get some work experience, willing to do almost any task, and eager to learn. Though the firm or NGO receiving the intern is likely to benefit from the intern, serving the intern’s desire to work is not their first priority. My acute awareness of this made me feel lucky once I had been given a task, and then disheartened when I began to feel I couldn’t complete it as I had been instructed to do. I was coming to terms with the fact that I might not find the interview that I had already scripted in my head, I was still nervous about what I would present to Jayshree. “She finally gave me a task to do and I don’t know if I’ll even be able to do it,” was a constant worry of mine.
Yesterday, while I was sitting on my usual couch in SEWA Bank I confessed my fear to Maya. “You should still tell Jayshree what you found,” she said, “you never know what insights she might find useful.” I nodded but instead my head I was doubtful.
Maya joined me on the couch and we began to talk about our interactions to date with SEWA members. She has been observing SEWA’s financial literacy class for 16, 17, and 18-year-old girls. The girls are very sweet and are excited to talk to Maya, someone their own age from the West who is interested in what they have to say. Maya and I talked about the experiences of the women of all ages that we had been talking to. We discussed Indian culture as it was coming out in our discussions with SEWA members. Talking to Maya helped me too further see how different Indian culture was from my own and it further cemented the fact that it would be counterproductive to try to impose my wishes or ideas on the people I wanted to help.
As we were talking about the importance of family I started to further appreciate not only how “families as pension” works but also how willing people are to sacrifice for their family. Suddenly the idea hit me, to market pensions I didn’t need to fight against the importance of family in old age but rather use it. I might not be able to make these women want to save for retirement, but maybe they could still benefit from the financial security that having a pension would bring in their old age. This may seem like a very obvious thing but it took me a couple days to come to. For those who are interested what I ended up writing up for Jayshree is copied below.
Micropensions – background research
The overwhelming response when women were asked about retirement was that they cannot imagine not working. If they are not working they are not earning and this means they are not contributing to their families.
The family structure in poor India is such that kids (boys) do not move away from the home. Women even will say that they have a lot of children to help bring in income. While a daughter may move away to live with her husband’s family, a woman’s sons will stay close and bring his wife into her family. This means if a woman does get to the point where she can no longer work, she has a family to support her.
The combination between even old women wanting to feel that they are contributing and the family support structure makes pensions and retirement a hard concept to hold onto for many poor Indian women. However, today in India the elderly population is growing rapidly, this combined with a decreasing birth rate means that in the future the traditional support structure will be limited.
The question remains of how to change the mindset of these women to help them see the benefits in saving now. It seems many of the younger women who have the capability to save and are made aware of the pension scheme are more than willing to put away money for a pension. It is unclear whether they actually see retirement as being an end goal but either way they are pleased with the idea that they will be able to get more back at the end and have a cushion for old age. For those for whom saving does not come as easily there must be some other push or incentive that motivates them to save with the pension scheme. I feel that the best way to do this is to use both the hard-working, selfless nature, and the importance of family – both of which are central aspects of Indian culture.
Rather than talking about having a pension so that one can “retire” from working in old age I suggest talking about pension as a way to make sure that one can still contribute to their family in old age. The women know that if they are no longer able to bring in money they will be a burden on their families, furthermore the idea of not working is foreign to them. However inevitably the women also know that as they get older they will not be able to work as long hours or as quickly as they were in their youth, this means a reduction in income for the family, unless they have a pension account.
After many years of serving the self-employed women of Ahmedabad [India?], SEWA Bank has realized there is a pressing need that must be addressed. Until recently there was no program to assist SEWA women when they reached old age. The very first SEWA members did not have a program that would allow them to feel financially secure when the work does not come as easy as it once did. SEWA is working to change this for its members.
Being in the informal/self-employed sector also means that there is not an employer putting money into a pension fund that you will be able to withdraw from when you are too old to work. Many SEWA women say that they will “work for as long as they have their hands and their feet,” or even that “they will work until they die,” there are no certainly no thoughts of retirement.
Even if you do not have thoughts of ceasing to work or of retirement, there is still reason to plan for the future. Today, and every day, you work hard for your family and you only want the best for them. With hungry mouths to feed at home it can be very difficult to save money. How can you think of putting away money now for the future when the needs of the present are so acute? But as you get older, and you are unable to work as much, the needs of you and your family only grow. By beginning to save now and putting money away regularly until old age, you will not only be helping yourself but also contributing to your family more than you ever could be by working to the point of exhaustion.
Begin saving now, with 50, 100, 200 rupees a month or whatever you can manage, in ten years it will be worth ? [I don’t know the exact numbers] in twenty years ? It is important to contribute regularly to ensure that the money grows at a steady rate. The peace of mind you will have knowing that you and your family can have a sense of financial security in your old age is priceless.
I was excited, I had an idea to pitch, but I was still nervous, were my ideas too obvious? If family was such a central part of Indian culture wouldn’t Jayshree, who lived here already have accounted for it? Would I be useful? I arranged a meeting with Jayshree for today. To discuss with her what I had so far and how to proceed. Well, I have now had my meeting and things went wonderfully. She read what I had and to my surprise, because it was Indian culture was her culture, she had never thought of the importance of the family in the way I saw it. She liked my work and when someone suggested pulling me away from this project to do something else she seemed perturbed. A compromise was reached; I will spend part of my time on the interviews and part of my time creating and helping to give a presentation to university students that may be interested in helping SEWA to reach out to more women.
It turns out there can be benefits to having an outsider look at an issue, and (to my delight) that my insights could be useful to SEWA. While meeting with Jayshree I had to fight to keep my excitement from showing too much; it feels good to be actually working with SEWA in their mission to help women achieve financial security.