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Laurien Meuter of Tiny Miracles talks about an Approach to Solve Poverty in India

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Laurien Mueter, Founder, Tiny Miracles.
 
Mother Teresa has rightly said, “When a poor person dies of hunger, it has not happened because God did not take care of him or her. It has happened because neither you nor I wanted to give that person what he or she needed.” Tiny Miracles is an Amsterdam- and India-based foundation and social enterprise with a deep-rooted belief that our generation must and has the power to solve poverty. After ten years of hands-on trial and error on the ground, the organisation has developed an innovative and proven approach towards achieving its mission. A mission to enable one million people to get out and stay out of poverty by 2030.
In an exclusive interaction with The CSR Journal, Laurien Meuter, the founder & CEO of Tiny Miracles describes her journey of working in India to address the issue of poverty.

1. Can you tell us more about Tiny Miracles and its mission to solve poverty?

For us, we look at poverty in a holistic manner – it’s such a complex issue – it can’t be reduced to feeding hungry mouths or paying for schooling. At the risk of oversimplifying things, the solution to solving poverty lies in giving those afflicted by it the tools to pull themselves out. At Tiny Miracles, we help people pull themselves out of poverty, we do not do it ourselves.
A key to solving it is to encourage and grow the area of social procurement. By encouraging organisations to use their buying power to generate social value, we can help more communities become financially independent. So far, we have worked with multiple companies in the West and created undeniable value for them because they love our story and appreciate that they’re actually solving a problem via the products they purchase.
We live in a capitalist society. Therefore, if our solution has to be sustainable, it has to ­fit within the parameters of demand and supply. I strongly believe in the impact and the sustainability of this method.
We work with underprivileged communities in and around Mumbai where we currently help provide work to 500 women, whose children are able to be in school because their mothers are earning a living. Via these women, we make 2 million products a year which we export.
I think the beauty of what we are doing is that we employ women, and we pay them higher salaries than they may find elsewhere (for more than 50% of them, this is their first job), which allows them to fund the education of their children, focus on healthcare and so on. So, we’re not patronisingly pulling them out of poverty, we’re just giving them a chance to do it themselves. Which is so much more empowering as well as sustainable in the long term.
At Tiny Miracles, we don’t aspire to be a massive company. We really just want to learn and then put these learnings out there so as help more people. We are always willing to let anyone and everyone under the hood and show them what we do and how we do it. Why we do it is obvious, I think.

2. What were the initial challenges you faced in trying to address poverty in Mumbai’s slum areas?

My personal challenges were of course a language barrier when I began work with the communities – in fact, at the start they thought I was trying to convert them to Christianity but nobody told me, so I had no idea what was going on! As time has progressed, I have of course learnt what these sensitivities are and adapted to them.

3. What were some of the reinforcing factors that kept families trapped in a cycle of poverty?

According to research (Stanford Centre for Poverty and Inequality), there are, amongst others, a few key reasons. In general, the real issues of the poor are not as universally understood as we tend to believe. We think we understand them but many times it’s something totally different and that’s why we need to dig deeper and talk directly with communities and their leaders.
Most families are not able to afford market price, because they earn too little. They barely have education, knowledge or life skills to think beyond today. Many look for one day jobs, because they are largely unskilled but desperate to feed the family. Education and healthcare are not exactly on the priority list. That’s why and how many are trapped in a circle of survival and will never be able to participate in society.

4. Can you explain the six key dimensions of life that Tiny Miracles focuses on to empower local communities?

When we begin working with a community, we delve very deep into every aspect of what the community is going through. We have developed around 150 topics that we run awareness sessions on, which range from what rights people in the community have as human beings, to why they should be saving money, sessions on mother-in-law and daughter-in-law dynamics, drug abuse, and so much more. A lot of times, these communities don’t even know that the Government has a lot of schemes designed to help them, so we educate them on those as well. We sometimes have to work to reframe the entire social fabric of a society – an example being, that many times women aren’t allowed to leave the house by their husbands, so we have to first do the groundwork to change that mindset before we can get to anything else. We work closely with our communities to empower them across six key dimensions of life: Social Awareness, Healthcare, Education, Skills Training, Life Celebration, and Employment. So far, this approach has created impact that matters – which means that we are helping people unlock their potential and allowing them to realize what they are capable of. By creating this impact that matters, members of our communities can pursue opportunities with dignity and are enabled to fully participate in society.

5. How did you transition from providing education for children to also empowering their parents with work and education opportunities?

Once upon a time, we sent a street kid to school. We paid for his clothes, his books, his school and his food. However, after a few months he stopped going. This was because his parents needed him to work to sustain themselves. That’s when we first realized how deep we needed to go to affect real, lasting change. We need to go deeper than just thinking that education will solve everything. We need to figure out what the real issues are, try to measure these, improve the approach (The Get Out Phase) and then ensure these wonderful people earn enough so that they can start walking on the road towards independence (The Stay Out Phase) to participate freely and with dignity in society as they wish.

6. What challenges did you encounter in finding decent jobs for unskilled workers in Mumbai?

Once people have passed the skills training exam, we give them a job. We believe in crafting the highest quality durable products that people actually want to buy because of the attractive design. We have very high standards. However, our biggest challenge is finding the right companies who are as invested in the idea of social procurement as we are, especially here in India. If companies are not willing to do this, they will be paying too little, less than people need to survive. Many times, people are so desperate that they will still take those jobs, however the process of becoming self-reliant will then never happen, as they won’t be able to make a stable income

7. How did the collaboration with your cousin Pepe Heykoop and the design of products contribute to providing well-paying jobs for Mumbai women?

We wanted to create beautiful products that people wanted to keep in their homes. High-end and quality products that people purchased not only because of who made them, but because they loved the design. After 3 years of dedicated testing, we thoughtfully designed a selection of contemporary products that combine the use of simple easy-to-train techniques (such as hand-folding & stitching), and sustainable resources (such as bamboo & paper). All our products are of course a means to a larger ambition: to create life-changing opportunities for people. Our design products have been featured in The New York Times, Vouge Living, Elle Decoration, Financial Times and The Fast Company.

8. Could you elaborate on the skills training provided to women and how it helped them in their employment?

As part of our ‘Get Out’ program we offer skills-training classes. We start by teaching sewing, folding, product manufacturing, and the basics of quality control. The classes can include only one or all three of these skills, depending on the abilities of the participants. We ensure all these skills are valuable and relevant for future endeavours. All classes happen within the communities, making participating in them more accessible and practical. Once the participants have passed an exam, they always have the possibility to work at our social enterprise. The jobs range from stitching and folding to quality control depending on their acquired skill. We believe that good employment is key to living a life in dignity. Besides being able to pay daily expenses, it also raises self-esteem. You can be more meaningful; for yourself, for your family and for your community. A job also offers a safe haven to learn, develop skills and socialize. By training and by granting certifications, community members turn into future-ready employees, ready for the job market after they leave Tiny Miracles.

9. How did Tiny Miracles support Mumbai women in managing their personal finances and dealing with their newfound income?

When every day is a struggle, it is hard to believe that better opportunities exist. Growing people’s awareness about the life that they can live, is at the core of our approach. Awareness Sessions are mandatory. It is about creating an understanding of rights and of responsibilities. It is about showing possibilities and thinking beyond current limitations. Improving self-confidence has proven to be an important change that communities go through. An empowered mindset is a capable mindset. Tiny Miracles awareness sessions make that happen. We cover over 150 topics during our awareness sessions, ranging from financial literacy, how to open a bank account, budgeting and saving money, confidence to speak up to, domestic abuse to hygiene and human rights.
We believe that good employment is key to living a life in dignity. Besides being able to pay daily expenses, it also raises self-esteem.  We witness a growing number of people who are aware of their responsibilities. When community members start to earn a decent income, they realise they can influence their own future in the long run. For example, women we’ve worked with have started investing in better housing, more nutritious food, and their children’s education among other things.

10. Can you share some success stories or examples of families who have benefited from the holistic development program of Tiny Miracles?

Yes, I’ll tell you about Simran, one of the first girls to attend English high school in her family. Simran is now a successful woman at only 25 years old. Back in 2011, Simran was living in a tiny wooden room in the heart of the slum, with her two sisters, her brother, and her parents. Her father, a cane worker who like many others suffered from the declining market and increasingly irregular orders saw no way to afford to send his children to school. Her mother did her best trying to support the family with the little money she made by stitching school uniforms. With the help of the Tiny Miracles scholarship program, Simran successfully completed an English-medium high school and later graduated from university with a degree in commerce, where she completed courses such as accounting, marketing, and financial law. Simran had a “student job” with the help of the skills she learned in the Tiny Miracles program. Her work was so valuable that she was even offered a staff job, which she declined so she could focus on her priorities: finishing her studies to become financially independent and helping her family break the poverty cycle. Today, Simran is successfully working in the real estate space, where she recently got a promotion. Having a stable income and being able to support her family is something she is very proud of but also being able to save money for her bigger dream.

11. How do you inspire businesses, individuals, and NGOs to join Tiny Miracles in making a social change?

At Tiny Miracles, we give value-based organizations the opportunity to contribute directly to a brighter world by buying aesthetically designed products that help raise the communities they’re made by, out of poverty. We aspire to thrive by creating a win-win-win for all involved. It’s the only way to get something done and create meaningful change. It’s called stakeholder capitalism. And it’s how we, as a civilization, can tackle the biggest challenge: Inequality and poverty. We all want a thriving future and a stable society.
We do this by pushing further ahead so that we have a more scalable approach with an ever-growing skillset that helps us create more value and attract more customers. None of this works without our partner companies. Our partnerships help us create more value, attract governments and NGOs and increase the well-being of everyone associated with us. We strongly feel there is an incredible opportunity right in front of us to reimagine the world and solve poverty within our generation.

12. Looking ahead, what are your plans and aspirations for Tiny Miracles in the coming years?

We constantly look at our communities and see what they need. Then we act and solve. This has led to some unique features for both the Get Out (foundation) and Stay Out (social enterprise) phases. We are now looking to reach scale in communities – we are currently working with 8 communities in and around Mumbai and will be aiming to double that number by the end of next year beyond the current regions.
Through trial and error, we have developed an innovative community-based approach. Our vision is to eradicate poverty for one million people by 2030.