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Amor, Tecnica, Human Connections and Sustainable Development

Interior of the Sagrada Familia, roof in the nave.
Interior of the Sagrada Familia, roof in the nave.

This Sunday I visited the Sagrada Familia, the magnificent basilica in Barcelona still in fieri (on-going construction), the huge project of the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The Sagrada Familia has been my source of inspiration since I was in Barcelona for volunteering with Fundació Catalana per a la Paràlisi Cerebral, in 2009. Every time I am there I think about the dedication of Gaudí. Antoni Gaudí was a genius, he dedicated his life to his opera magna and once he said:

« Para hacer las cosas bien es necesario: primero, el amor, segundo, la técnica. »
« To do the right thing is necessary: first, love, second, the technique. »

I guess this quote can synthesize why I am here, in Barcelona, collaborating with IESE Business School (IESE) and its research centre CBS – Center for Business in Society.

In my life I just followed my intuitions, driven by: dedication for my work, love and empathy for human beings and commitment towards a positive change. I deeply believe that without love and compassion you can’t have an authentic impact in the life of others. As affirmed by Gaudí, the technique is just a tool that we have for a better impact but everything is first about human connections, about our compassion and understanding others.

Here in Barcelona, I am studying the incredible figure of Vicente Ferrer, a Spanish man who dedicated his life to others, able to bring a huge social change in Andhra Pradesh (India), empowering rural communities to lead the lives they want. My research will bring me in India in a couple of weeks to see the incredible change that the organization of Vicente and Anne Ferrer (his wife) created among the communities that participated as active players of the “miracle of giving”, a cooperative approach Vicente Ferrer introduced as the basis of his intervention.

But why did I speak about empathy, understanding and commitment? Well, I deeply believe that Vicente Ferrer was, first of all, a man who took the time to listen, to share knowledge and emotions with people. Then, deeply committed, he acted seriously and in a straightforward way for a real and long lasting change, keeping in mind that development is about people in primis.

The output of my research will be a case study to be used for the course of “Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship” of the MBA program at IESE.

In particular, the case study will analyse the work the Rural Development Trust – Vicente Ferrer (RDT-VDT), the organization founded by Vicente and Anne Ferrer, in order to present and discuss with students the challenges, the opportunities and the strategic issues a social innovator have to consider in starting a project of sustainable development.

Silvia 2Vicente Ferrer: Action, Not Words

Vicente Ferrer (1920-2009) understood the importance of human connections for a sustainable development: with his support, 2.5 million of people escaped the chronic poverty in the district.  Vicente Ferrer was known as a man of action, a man able to make possible the impossible, to start the silent revolution of the most disadvantaged in India, the people at the bottom of the caste system.

Vicente Ferrer started working with rural communities in Manmad. There, he promoted a work system among the peasants that generated a great movement of solidarity and awareness: “the miracle of giving” consisted in providing a small amount of financial aid and the necessary technical advice to obtain water for the crops. If, after finishing, every worker returned the loan (without interests), a spillover effect began to spread among the community with the re-investment of the resources for another worker and so on. The goals of this collaborative approach were accomplished in terms of creation of infrastructures for agricultural activities (channels for water supply, seed banks, small irrigation plots), schools and, more important, the creation of a sense of community and trust among people, crucial element for sharing knowledge and good livelihood strategies. However, the empowerment of the most disadvantaged people scared the local authorities and the landowners: it was a threat for the status quo of their political, social and economic power. His cooperative methods, emphasis on education, the challenges to the caste system and to the subjugation of women represented serious potential destabilizers for the established formal and informal institutions. Indeed, after the publication of the article “The Silent Revolution” in 1968 in The Illustrated Weekly of India, Vicente Ferrer received an expulsion order, giving him thirty days to leave the country. The article underlined the slowly but relentless movement he gave birth to and the improvement of the conditions of the poor in the search for dignity. The expulsion was the logic consequence an innovator has to face in a hostile political environment dominated by particular interests. But something unexpected occurred: 30,000 peasant farmers protested against this decision, marching 250 km from Manmad to Mumbai to demand justice from the Government. Indira Gandhi granted him permission to return so that he could continue his work in India, in Andhra Pradesh.

Silvia 4Expect a miracle.  This is the sentence that Vicente Ferrer found engraved on the wall of his house in 1969 in Anantapur (Andhra Pradesh). But he did not wait for it. He went out to look for it and began his particular silent revolution next to the most disadvantaged people in one of the poorest areas of India.

Over its 50 year evolution the organization he founded has become one of the largest social development projects worldwide.

The RDT – VF is a private, nonprofit organization committed to eradicate extreme poverty. The organization supports some of the most discriminated people in the Indian society, namely Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST), Backward Castes (BC) with a complex and diversified program, thanks to the support of Spanish public and private actors.

The RDT-VF works with a comprehensive development program, whose aim is to provide long lasting solutions to multiple problems affecting the rural population: lack of housing, access to health care, access to primary and secondary education, desertification and agriculture productivity. Since the beginning, the collaborative approach has characterized every activity of the organization: the members of each community are not merely recipients of aid but partners of the change, they decide the most important needs of their community and they are responsible for the results of each project. This collaborative approach enhanced an incredible inclusive growth that affected more than 2,500 villages, with a multiplier effect that brings together principles of solidarity, community, entrepreneurship and trust.

Integrated development approach: Areas of Interventions

As you can see in the picture below, people are the core of each area of intervention of the organization. Each person is an active player of the change in the community he or she belongs.

silvia 5

For instance, women are organized in self-sustaining groups for talking about their problems, for creating new opportunities of business, to share information about the education of their children. People with disabilities can actively participate in the life of their families, because they can read, communicate; even have a business to sustain them.

The project of sustainable development Vicente Ferrer started a long time ago gave to all the members of the communities the most important thing a person has to have to live: Dignity, the dignity each human being needs to feel as a member of a family and a community. The social recognition as an active member of the community and the provision of basic needs (rural hospital, schools) are the key elements of the success of this model. Indeed, the direct involvement of all members of each village community to increase their capacity for self-management and self-sufficiency is based on a firm belief in the possibility of transformation and in expanding people’s capacity to make their own decisions. In other words, the capability approach[1] promoted by the Nobel Prize Amarthya Sen found in the Vicente Ferrer’s development model a concrete translation in actions.

Lots of questions and reflections are still in my mind… let’s share with you!

So, what about the future?

  • If this integrated model of development is so successful in terms of poverty reduction, how could we scale and/or replicate it in other parts of the world? Who is going to be the next change maker and where?
  • How could we stabilize the economic sustainability of this model?
  • Thinking in bigger terms…is there a way to adapt this model to the financing constraints of the big institutions (long term vision vs. 2-3 years plans)? …or vice versa…?

Pole-pole (in swahili, slowly slowly) I will figure out…

I want to thank Professor Nino Vaccaro and Mr. David Camps of the Vicente Ferrer Foundation for giving me the opportunity to discover Vicente Ferrer and the RDT-VF.


[1] The capability approach is a theoretical framework that underlines the freedom to achieve well-being is of primary moral importance, ii) and second, freedom to achieve well-being is to be understood in terms of people’s capabilities, that is, their real opportunities to do and be what they have reason to value. See Amartya Sen (1999), “Development as Freedom”, Random House.


3 Responses to “Silvia Fontana’s AFE with IESE Business School in Barcelona, Spain”

  1. Catherine Admay

    Just as love and technique are the genius behind great music, your beautifully written post evokes the deep connection between authentic valuation and regard for people (“dignity”) and positive policy and law techniques. You are in good company with those who take dignity, equality and freedom to be the bedrock of human rights (as the South African people do in their Constitution, section 7.1). I can’t wait to read your case!

  2. Silvia

    Thank you Admay.
    The case will be finished by the end of September I guess. One of the things I like the most about writing this case study is its potential for sharing information and starting good discussion with other people. As you wrote, hopefully we are in good company; Authentic valuation and regard for people should be the core of any development project. Un beso muy grande!

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