Travels in human-based development: Personal reflections on Manavodaya

Manavodaya is a centre for learning in human-based development based in Lucknow India. Manavodaya is a Sanskrit word meaning “Human Awakening”. It is recognised as a centre of excellence in promoting people’s participation through a process of self-help and empowerment.

Although India-based, it has helped develop projects across the globe, from Participatory Development projects in Nepal of self reliance, pastoralists in the Afar region of Ethiopia and in to supporting former child and women soldiers in post-civil war Eritrea. Manavodaya International UK was established in 2010 to take some of the learning from these human-based development initiatives and see if they could be applied in UK and other European contexts. More about the specific work of Manavodaya can be found on the websites of Manavodaya India and Manavodaya UK

This article began as an attempt to give an organisational description of the impact of Manavodaya UK, but as it developed, it seemed more pressing to first reflect on what Manavodaya might offer the discourse on Personalisation. My specific concern was related to the observation that changing the language we use to describe how to support people well does not in itself change things. Rather, my contention is that positive change is related to how we conduct ourselves.

As a care assistant in the 1980’s and a social worker in the 1990’s onwards, I have witnessed (and been culpable in) implementation of a variety of approaches to individualised support and the tools to help achieve this. Some proved more effective than others, but on balance I would say that these have generally had a positive impact on us all – not just on those of us described as ‘service users’. These innovations are commonly known as Person Centred Approaches and/ or Person Centred Planning (often shortened to PCP). PCP developed from a marginal activity and mind-set into the mainstream and now every organisation concerned with care and support declares its PCP credentials.

However, as far back as 2000 Peter Kinsella had concerns about the fate of PCP: “Frequently seen as a tool to aid quality improvement, care planning, resource allocation and staff planning, it has become a darling of services”. This focus on PCP as a technological fix to what is essentially seen as an economic problem, resulted in “a bureaucratic and mechanical approach” that “indicates a superficial understanding of PCP; a desire to be seen to be doing the right thing and a continuing obsession with a mechanical approach to change that belies the necessary changes in culture and attitude.”[i]

Fourteen years on since he made these observations, I fear the situation has not improved – in fact it may have got worse with the confusing plethora of associated language that promises the ‘service user’ not just a PCP, but a ‘Personalised, Self-directed, Outcome focussed, Co-produced Plan’! It is perhaps too easy to be cynical in the face of so much jargon – and I do strongly believe there has been improvement – but often just improvement in the Plan, without a corresponding improvement in practice. There are many examples of individuals and organisations who have helped achieve transformational change for a significant minority of people, but in the majority of cases (at least in my experience) there is little or no real change in the degree of choice and control people with additional support needs exercise. For some, a better Plan has meant things getting a little better, but for many others, I fear the application of positive language to how their support is organised merely obscures a reality of no real change in control over one’s life.

Chasing Utopia?

Why is this and what can help create a true paradigm shift? Are we chasing a utopia or something more tangible? These are questions I have grappled with in my involvement with Manavodaya.

Varun and Amla Vidyarthi from Manavodaya facilitating training in Self-Help for Women War Fighters in Mekelle, Ethiopia.

Manavodaya in India has helped to create a paradigm shift in rural Indian villages where the caste system has been in place for hundreds of years and the social status of women has been that of subjugation. Manavodaya has successfully promoted empowerment of rural women by enabling social workers to explore paradigm shifts in their own lives and by developing systems that enable the poor to have better control over their lives. When I first heard of their work I was intrigued. How was it that such progress was possible in the context of real poverty and deprivation when here, in the wealthy and liberal UK, it still seemed elusive? I enrolled on the International Programme at the Manavodaya Institute in Lucknow and travelled to India.

Now one challenge for Manavodaya in the UK and Europe, is (with a foreign-sounding and perhaps mystical-sounding name) the impression that this might be some sort of cult or unfamiliar faith-based organisation (queue visions of Westerners heading out on the hippy trail seeking spiritual enlightenment… comparisons between myself and George Harrison are always welcome). However, Manavodaya is not big on gurus seeking to indoctrinate passive participants and I have yet to meet anybody involved with Manavodaya like that. In fact my experience has been the opposite.

The late Carl Poll was a leading figure in getting Manavodaya UK off the ground and it was his example that inspired me to find out more about Manavodaya for myself. Founder and former Chief Executive of Keying, a pivotal figure in the development early days of In-Controland co-founder of theCampaign for a Fair Society, Carl had a track record as a sound forward-thinker. He was also fiercely atheist with a strong instinct for sniffing out when people were making claims that are “quite frankly a load of bull”. He took the work of Manavodaya very seriously and that was recommendation enough for me.

Another challenge, is the possible perception that Manavodaya is too distant from the lives of those of us in Europe. What can an institute working with villagers in rural India teach us about social care in Sheffield, Ealing or Aberdeen? Manavodaya offers an approach that links individual and social transformation. For local authorities things like ‘community capacity building’ and improving ‘public participation’ are key priorities, partly stemming from having to implement policies (like personalisation) that give people more control. The advent of personalisation has been met in certain quarters by concerns about the readiness of communities and support organisations to respond to these consumers who will commission their own services and a trawling of long-standing Community-Based Development (CBD) initiatives by public sector bodies. A problem is that the outcomes desired for these communities are often defined externally, making CBD vulnerable to a similar fate to PCP.

Manavodaya’s approach is profoundly bottom-up and antithetical to the approach of many NGOs. It does not have a vision or predetermined outcomes beyond its fundamental concept of promoting human awakening. Manavodaya starts from the conviction that individuals, living in families and in communities, must be the catalyst for any change and have within them an inherent capacity to transform their own lives. The task is to enable people to individually and collectively determine their own vision. This requires not just harnessing individual and collective potential, but letting go of some of our own ideas about what we think other people need and reflecting on ourselves, as potential change agents.

We can’t change anything if we don’t attend to change in ourselves

Those involved in Manavodaya UK now come from a variety of backgrounds within the social care system, but are driven by a shared sense that the support people get is all too often just mediocre and that this will only change through more (genuinely) participatory approaches. Furthermore we all share, in different ways, a nagging feeling that simply telling other people they should do things differently will not achieve meaningful or sustainable change. Put simply, we can’t change anything for anyone if we don’t attend to change in ourselves. As a result, Manavodaya is having a profound influence on what we do in our own personal and our professional lives.

In its four years of existence Manavodaya has run several courses to introduce the Manavodaya approach to facilitation in Norway as well as the UK. In subsequent evaluations, participants have stated that the experience was powerful on a personal level. Incorporating the features of Manavodayan practice into their own lives is difficult to evaluate, but nonetheless small changes such as a commitment to local purchase and income sharing has reportedly increased. Some participants have made comparisons with Mindfulness which has recently received attention in the media, not least as increasing numbers of business leaders and even MP’s have promoted it as an introspective method to reduce stress and develop personal skills to succeed. Some Mindfulness scholars have observed that the appropriation of the contemplative tradition to increase one’s capacity for personal gain is missing the point and may prove ultimately self-defeating.

Manavodaya, along with many Mindfulness scholars, takes the view that if the practice is founded on a desire to achieve pre-determined ends – such as success in business – it is not about achieving a paradigm shift but merely reinforcing the status quo. Nor is it simply about arriving at a more desirable psychological state. Manavodaya is not about making people feel better in themselves so they can validate what they already do, ultimately it has to be about action. In Manavodaya we focus on the inner and outer dimensions of human experience.

The specific techniques drawn from the contemplative tradition are about connection with ourselves and how we connect with others – with humility. It is not just about how we can help others have better lives, but the application of wellbeing for ourselves and for others. The training offered to facilitators helps us to question our motivations and (sometimes uncomfortably) the extent to which we are motivated by things like vanity and ambition. The Manavodaya approach is about radical action and changing lives through a paradigm shift that starts with honest self-appraisal and cultivation of personal discipline that puts in check our tendency to shift the focus to intervening in other people’s affairs. For someone from a social work background who has been trained to meddle this is quite a challenge.

Contemplative traditions have developed across the globe as humans and society have developed. In this respect Manavodaya is not offering a new remedy, although it is quite distinct in marrying deep contemplation with self-help, community development and civil society more broadly. Manavodaya in India has engendered personal, social, economic and political change within the communities facilitators have worked. For me personally, it is an antidote to the patriarchal, hierarchical systems in which many of us spend our lives. It offers a basis for commonplace and every day actions rather than grand gestures. This can manifest in little acts of human kindness that need no basis in religion or other extraneous rationales. Fundamental is a belief in the capacity of others, especially the disenfranchised – as opposed to arrogant “I will do good for you” approaches.

School for Scoundrels?

One might think this is all well and good, but is this possible for those of us who might often fail to be pious, always considered, always humble and have a leaning towards scoundrelism in one way or other. To this I would say that regardless of one’s personal failings, we all contain within us the power to act. To make a contribution, however small, in arousing the world, be it how we conduct our self with others, or are mindful of how we inadvertently prevent others from making their contribution because somehow we think they do not have capacity in one form or other.

For some reading this, or indeed for some who have participated in the Manavodaya facilitator programme, the prospect of achieving greater personal fulfilment and being more able to help others to help themselves may appear inspiring. Unfortunately, the reality of our everyday lives may get in the way of incorporating all the learning from Manavodaya to become the perfect facilitator. We must be supremely intelligent, free from our own and other’s human failings – perhaps living in a utopian society akin to that of the Houyhnhnum’s in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

The Houyhnhnum’s were intelligent horses who are free from human failing. These horses for all their high character and unfailing common sense are really rather dreary creatures who are mainly concerned with avoiding a fuss or problems. They live their subdued uneventful lives in a reasonable manner, free from quarrels, disorder or insecurity of any kind. But also free from passion including physical love. They choose their mates on eugenic principals and avoid an excess of affection and appear somewhat glad to die when their time comes. According to George Orwell, Swift is suggesting that take away human folly and scoundrelism, all you are left with is a tepid sort of existence hardly worth living.

A Manavodaya Federation of Self Help groups Solidarity Campaign Procession in Uttar Pradesh.

Manavodaya does not seek to make us always well balanced reasonable human beings, merely to recognise our failings and not let this be a barrier to act in manner which helps all of us to connect, with ourselves and with others in order to move forward.

By Pete Richmond | 2015

“What Are The Barriers In Relation To Person Centred Planning?” (2000) by Peter Kinsella. Available at