ECTA focuses on grassroots empowerment in Nepal

KATHMANDU, Nepal - An important partner in the Women's Empowerment Program has been Education, Curriculum, and Training Associates (ECTA), a small Nepal-based non-governmental organization, which has played a key role in creating the program's innovative curriculum and training field staff.

ECTA, which means "unity" in Nepali, was founded in 1997 by a group of Nepali Bahá'ís who had been working in development. Their goal was to promote rural development strategies and programs that can be done at low cost by village groups without extensive outside aid, said Keshab Thapaliya, one of the founders of ECTA and a main contributor to the WEP project.

"Rather than build capacity at the local NGO level," said Mr. Thapaliya, "the program is building capacity directly at the grassroots level. We feel it is more sustainable that way."

As well, many of WEP's novel ideas and approaches came from David Walker, who formerly headed Pact in Nepal and who currently serves as an advisor to the project and to ECTA.

Indeed, Mr. Thapaliya and Dr. Walker, who are both Bahá'ís, worked together closely in creating the content and design of the WEP workbooks. And both say that many of the concepts and innovations they brought to the project sprang from their own understanding of the Bahá'í Faith, its view of human nature and capacity, and the resulting approach to development.

"The spirit behind the project comes from our belief as Bahá'ís that women could do things for themselves and that the building up of local institutions, which local people could manage, is the key to helping them solve their problems," said Dr. Walker, who currently works as an independent international development consultant.

"We were also concerned with the creation of wealth and capacity at the community level, and encouraging the processes of consultation."

As they created the Women in Business manuals, Dr. Walker and Mr. Thapaliya were also convinced that the program could not succeed without a strong component of values education.

"In the Women in Business manuals are found many spiritual principles that lie at the foundation of sound economic progress, such as sacrifice, honesty, discipline, accountability, responsibility and transparency," said Dr. Walker. "Corruption is not tolerated and a system of reward and punishment is introduced."

Dr. Walker said the women take these lessons very seriously and often add their own modifications.

"Other qualities important for building unity in the group are also introduced in the manuals, such as tolerance, avoidance of caste discrimination, and a prohibition against bringing political differences into the group meetings," he said. "The program encourages group work and mutual support. The group is seen as a source of encouragement and a place to learn."

Cheryl Lassen, an independent microfinance consultant who worked with Dr. Walker and Mr. Thapaliya in designing the workbooks, agreed that both contributed greatly to the design and conception of the program.

"I think you have to credit David [Walker] with some really innovative thinking," said Dr. Lassen, who is based in the USA. "Typically," she said, "microfinance programs start small, to ensure they can collect on their loans, and then they expand. Whereas David, who comes from the literacy and education field, comes from the point of view where you try to reach the masses."

Dr. Lassen said ECTA's role was twofold. First, it was essential in making the program and training materials suitable for Nepali villagers. Second, she said, ECTA took the lead role as field operatives, successfully communicating the program's novel methodology and ideas to the women themselves.

"This could not have been written for villagers without the input of highly intelligent Nepali educators, such as Keshab [Thapaliya]," said Dr. Lassen.