View from a village in Manipur- The last ridge of mountains here is over the border with Myanmar

As a dedicated supporter of Kiva, I love all of the fascinating new loan products and businesses that are financed through Kiva loans; however, after spending over 2 months in Northeastern India, I feel compelled to highlight Kiva Partner WSDS’s loans because the impact and ingenuity of their programs may not be immediately apparent.

WSDS works in Manipur, a small state on the far North Eastern border of India, just a mountain range away from Myanmar. Here, many of the people live a life very different than the rest of the country. For example, 40% of the residents are Christian, the traditional dress for women is a wrap around skirt instead of a Sari, and their language and physical features group them with the Tibeto-Burmese instead of their Indo-Aryan neighbors. They have also only been a fully recognized state of India since 1972, and there are many in the community who fight for their state to be recognized instead as a separate political entity. The insurgency is often divided along tribal lines, with the more than 30 tribes of Manipur forming 15 proscribed or active insurgent groups.
These groups also fight amongst each other, vying for power, land, prominence, and sometimes just a voice. As to be expected, the presence of these groups due to their fighting and protests further disadvantages an already unstable economy.  This additional instability makes it difficult for large business to come in from the outside or even to flourish from within. To this day, Manipur remains one of the least developed states in India. This is not aided by the fact that larger development projects led by the government often get bogged down and diluted within the bureaucracy.
All of these factors make WSDS unique to the area.  The organization maintains diversity with their staff and programs, spanning tribes and political identities. Their loans are small and often for basic business purposes, yet through them, loan by loan, small business by family farm, they are contributing to the breaking down of tribal barriers and growing the economy from the grassroots up.
While in Manipur, I was able to travel with the WSDS team to the site of a new branch location on I-T road, named for the two villages it connects by a winding dirt path dug into the steep mountainside. Five years ago vehicles couldn’t pass this way, so WSDS’s CEO Mr. Mang went by foot, two days in, two days out, to understand the local economy and how he could grow WSDS to support it. With the new road now under construction, along with the financial backing of the Kiva community, he is finally able to follow through on this dream.
A village along I-T Road

WSDS’s work is particularly bold in this region because it goes beyond teaching people about savings and credit to convincing the tribal people to trust one another enough to work across tribal lines. I-T Road Region is in the north of the state and contains villages of both of Manipur’s largest tribes, the Kukis and the Nagas. Twenty years ago, the tribes fought for control over the region. The Nagas hoped to succeed what they considered to be their land from Manipur to join the state just to the north that is named for their people, Nagaland. What ensued was years of bloody conflict, escalating throughout the state and resulting in the loss of over 1,000 lives. While most relations are peaceful now, there is still a sense of distrust between many people in both tribes.
Mr. Mang is a Kuki, as is his brother-in-law helps him run WSDS. They also have several Naga staff members, and when moving into the I-T Road Region, Mr. Mang deliberately visited the Naga villages first. When we visited the first location that would be covered by the new branch office, it took us almost four hours by jeep to from the WSDS Head Office, with several gasps looking down from the road at the cliffs cascading beneath us. When we arrived, the newly hired local loan officer had brought over 40 members of the village, mostly women, into the meeting hall to learn about WSDS. After an introduction from the loan officer in his tribal dialect, Mr. Mang got straight to the point.
“We can’t ignore that I’m a Kuki and you’re a Naga,” he said in Manipuri, which they all could understand, “But development isn’t just within tribal lines. We all need to improve our lives. Money doesn’t care if I’m a Kuki or a Naga.”
Mr. Mang explaining the WSDS and Kiva finance program

The reaction wasn’t immediate, and questions were slow to come. But after an hour or so of explanations, they began to roll in. People wanted to know where collections and disbursements would be. Would the regional office be in a Kuki village?  What if there was a surge in conflict, would they not be able to get their money?
A villager asking Mr. Mang a question

To this, Mr. Mang answered: there wouldn’t be a conflict, but if there was, they would be sure that everyone received what was due. He went on from there, speaking about all of the opportunities possible through microfinance. It could go beyond loans for small stores or fertilizers, to even pooling funds to build store shelters or investing in crop diversification.
By the time he was through, everyone was paying attention. There would still need to be a meeting of the village council, but the interest was clear. I was then invited to explain what Kiva was, and how the women were joining this international community of lenders and borrowers in villages and cities all over the world. There were smiles, and jokes, and at then end, a plate of hot milk tea.
Several villagers laughing at one of Mr. Mang's jokes
Our half-drunken tea

The reason I chose to highlight this story is simple. The loans in Manipur are often basic in comparison to some of the other loans you might see on Kiva: stocks for a shop, funds to buy land, and other small steps in the lives of the women WSDS supports. The story however, is much larger. It’s the story of people living in unstable times, in which the larger economic tides of their state can seem so out of their control. Yet, with just one loan, they can build their business and save some money. Maybe, they can then send their children to a better school in the valley that coincidentally has kids from families of all of the tribes and nationalities that comprise the increasingly diverse tapestry of Manipur. Maybe, it can even be a step towards peace.
A WSDS-Kiva client with her family in her store
Hellut, a WSDS-Kiva client with her daughter in her store

Support one of the women in WSDS's network by funding one of thier loans here!
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Hi Michelle, You've rightly put those words Mang said for all to see and read! When it comes to economical support towards someone you care, communal feeling/identity or religion isn't something that matters but livelihood. It is also something that has no barriers, it can go higher than than the mountains and deeper than the seas. WSDS's inner joys, I guess, lie here!

Dear Michelle You have capture the true essence of Mang's endeavors and passion to improve and alleviate the marginalize section of our society( manipur) against all odds and despite extreme adversity have proved in deeds and actions that poverty knows no caste nor creeds or community , it affects all and that if energetic and honest social workers like him sets the task, all differences vanishes in the face of economic up liftment. For poverty and economic disparity is the main cause for the ills of the society .Great Article.

This part of your presentation is excellent and great. Expecting still for more stories of your experiences ( the good, the bad and the wonderful) .

This is a beautiful post Michelle -- thank you for sharing what you see. Help me become more mindful of the fuller context behind the WSDS loans on Kiva.

This is an absolutely wonderful post, Michelle. I am so glad you were able to so accurately describe the incredible organization WSDS is. I miss it there and am glad to read that they are doing so well!

Great post Michelle. Your story and photos are captivating. We all know how Kiva loans impact social change but your story has delved into another level of impact. It showed how a common goal of economic prosperity for all can break down long standing conflict. I will certainly view loans through this partner differently. Thanks so much.

I don't wish to dampen the good news. My interest in Manipur my fiancee is Irom Sharmila Chanu who is a Meitei one of the valley girls but I appreciate that means something different in American English. She has been on a satyagraha for the removal of the AFSPA. Now if this is too political then you will stop listening. I am like you. Not my problem that's how I lived my life. And I know I should not have. The dampener is to consider facts intelligently. I don't know which conflict might be more familiar Northern Ireland or the former Yugoslavia. Among the Nagas who themselves are divided. So there are Paite Zomi and several others some of whom say the others aren't really Nagas. But that aside one group is accused of deliberate genocide against a group of Kukis. Ethnic cleansing because they don't want to be part of Manipur. They don't like the term Manipuri which they equate with Meitei. To the north is the State of Nagaland so their movement has morphed into an Alternative Arrangement perhaps redraw up State Boundaries within India cleaving off northern Manipur and joining it to Nagaland or making it a more autonomous region within India. If you compare with areas you do have knowledge of it is very difficult for people to forget atrocities, stories they were told since childhood. And these groups have not gotten fed up of the suffering. My fiancee is campaigning against the AFSPA by satyagraha following the model of the Mahatma Gandhi. If Kiva could send a letter of support or any one here could to her that would help break past the isolation order placed upon her. It was challenged by the Indian NHRC and a separate High Court action last December but access to her is still limited and for example she is not sent to Delhi for trial. Her address is Irom Sharmila Chanu, Human Rights Defender, Security Ward, Jawaharlal Nehru I M S, Porompat, Imphal East, Manipur 795005, India. I have never ventured outside of Imphal when I visited. Those missionaries who did always went with a convoy of troops. I presume that hasn't changed and every few kilometres outside of Imphal there'd be road blocks. It's a heavily militarized State. On the whole foreigners are safer than locals. And if this is wrong to point out or I am being excessively judgemental most NGOs have a bad reputation in terms of corruption. Money always gets misused and I accept following the Grameen Bank microfinancing model it doesn't take all that much to take people out of debt and give them a chance. But too many in Manipur prosper from corruption. It is a joke but has validity when a Naga family wants to make an intervention with a drug addict son they send him to study theology at a bible college in the mainland or abroad. Whatever works. I know the HIV/AIDS NGOs have a good reputation because they are run by clients who will die without the drugs. I know Sharmila's trust fund which had at one stage over 6 million rupees was closed recently less than 10% was returned to her which she immediately disbursed to regional and international disaster relief. But most disappeared without any auditing, bribery and corruption of the trustees. If they publish fully audited accounts though I would be grateful for a copy. I know part of the problem is the inability to access the tribal communities without first liaising with NGOs in Imphal. And they will want their cut. Manipur is run more like families of gangsters disorganized crime. That has been my experience of it. But I am sure if you are less politically involved you get to see another side of the country. Most places I visit I have no political interest or any intention of helping anywhere there and I find the other lands of south east asia therefore a land of smiles where the guest is treated as a god. If you could write to her Sharmila I'd be grateful. I don't need anyone to agree with my analysis. Just to write a letter of support for my fiancee. We hope next year the AFSPA will be removed. And then I'll trouble you no more. No harm in asking.

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Growing up outside of Detroit, Michelle became passionate for finding ways to bring about equitable economic development. She earned her BA in Public Policy from the University of Chicago with a focus on urban development and networks between community organizations. Taking time off during her third year to travel through China, South Asia, and the Middle East, she gained a more global perspective on the inequalities faced by many people worldwide. After graduating, she stayed in the States to serve as a New Sector Alliance resident at a nonprofit in the Bay Area supporting small business owners and evaluating public and private policies that direct capital into low-income communities. She also worked as a research consultant advising a natural resource firm on their tactics for sustainable community development in emerging economies. Michelle is looking forward to going abroad again and getting first-hand experience with the role microfinance can play in generating social justice in rural India. An avid traveler and backpacker, she loves to be outside. She can be found running, hiking, camping, or reading when she finds the time.