I was speaking with a colleague of mine about some of the more misguided enterprises that “social entrepreneurs” have pursued in Hyderabad. We, both within our company and within the microfinance industry, tend to view ourselves as pragmatists seeking to have the most immediate, demonstrated impact. I think there are benefits and downsides to this. For me, the right area of focus is addressing fundamental challenges that support an increasing quality of life and standard of living, thus enabling people to meet additional needs.
Other folks might choose to pursue more exotic ideas. Some demonstrate a surprising amount of creativity and create a novel path towards poverty reduction. Most are largely tangential to the immediate needs of the poor. One example of mis-adventurism was of a person who came to intern at an MFI in Hyderabad. They quickly attempted to reorient their internship towards a rather hilarious idea. They had decided that the most important area of focus, for them, was in starting a trash collection program to harvest recyclable materials to create school backpacks for students.
At face value, one would certainly want to ensure that kids have the right tools for learning. But, this misses two issues. First, backpacks are cheap and easy to purchase. By my thinking, don’t spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a trash recycling effort, design a bag, and create a manufacturing process, just buy the bags outright (you could buy millions of bags with that money and get them to children more quickly). Second, many people in Hyderabad (and throughout the world) make their livelihood, however meager, on the type of high value materials that would need to be collected to make the bags, which would be given away for free, so you could not empower, nor pay the trash pickers. All over the city, you see hundreds of people trudging through the streets carrying bulging sacks of materials culled from the waste bins throughout the city. It would seem that there is hardly a gram of usable waste that is not collected.
And so, a brief presentation on the trash collection industry as witnessed at the end of my street:
When I come home in the evening, these bins are completely full. By morning (and throughout the previous day), these have been completely picked through and the rest is cleared out by the “GHMC” – Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation.
And then there are the reinforcements we call in when we need extra (fillintheblank)power:
For the past few evenings, I have strolled home to find this horse helping with our trash collection needs. I have yet to meet the owner, but I suspect he is saving quite a bit of money on horse feed.
Finally, some groups have taken a different approach when it comes to helping the people involved in this industry. And, most significantly, some trash pickers have started to organize themselves to increase their strength, power, and training. It seems to me that this is the type of model that we should be pursuing for addressing, first, the needs of the people who feel compelled to make their livelihood in this manner, due to a lack of other options. After this, we can address issues of recycling.