Someone you should know: an IDS interview

Today, we’d like to present an interview with someone who works for Avani, one of the NGOs that has received IDS grants for several years. I had a chance to meet Scott Kafora (right) this past August when he was visiting the Chicago area. Scott has lived in Kolhapur, Maharashtra for the past decade, working as a tactician and strategist for Avani, an NGO that works for the rights of child laborers and abandoned women. Because the interview was not recorded, I have relied on my notes and my memory in order to write Scott’s responses. Here are some highlights of the conversation:
IDS: Tell me a little about your background. I remember you were in town for the Journey of Ragas concert in May with Anuradha Bhosale of Avani, and the two of you spoke during the intermission. You mentioned then that you’d grown up a few blocks from the concert venue! Scott: Yes, I’m actually from Oak Park. I went to high school in Texas and got my architecture degree from Texas Tech University. Later, I got an MBA. For many years, I traveled around the world working as a freelance photojournalist, but for the last decade or so, I’ve been volunteering my time to work with Anuradha on Avani’s many projects.
IDS: What led you to India and, ultimately, to your work for Avani? Scott: In 2007, I had the opportunity to meet Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, in New York. At the time, I’d been traveling around the world and volunteering for many years, spending about six months in each country. Arun told me about Anuradha and her work, saying that he considered her the best example of a person who upheld the Gandhian ideal of working for the last man in society. I arrived in Kolhapur in 2009, and I’ve been there ever since. When I approached Anuradha, I asked two questions: What do you need? How can I help? Too often, I think, potential aid workers come with their own agenda and don’t listen to the people on the ground to find out what’s really needed.
IDS: What’s Avani’s mission statement? Scott: Believe it or not, I worked for months to boil it down. I wanted it to be simple and concise. It’s “protecting children, providing education, improving lives.” When I talk to our staff about what they’re doing at any given moment, I can simply ask which part of our mission statement is being satisfied. It’s easy to remember and effective in keeping us on track.
IDS: Tell me more about Anuradha. Scott: Anuradha was the youngest of many siblings. She became a domestic servant at the age of 6 to help support her family. Luckily, the family she worked for recognized her aptitude and allowed her to attend school. She won a college scholarship, but she literally had to tutor herself in the English language before she could take advantage of it. She ended up earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in social work. She married and had two children. As a young mother, she began working for Avani to help abandoned, divorced, and widowed women and their children. Neither Anuradha’s husband nor her in-laws supported her social work career, however. After eleven years of marriage, Anuradha’s husband abandoned the family. Anuradha suddenly realized that she was now very much like the people she helped: she had been a child laborer, and now she herself had been abandoned. This, she said later, became her inspiration.
IDS: How has Avani used IDS funding? Scott: One of the IDS grants helped us with a project that we ran in ten waste picker communities. That project resulted in the formation of a waste pickers’ union. We also offered  classes for the waste pickers’ children; these are now being run by the government, but Avani is monitoring them. Some of the women waste pickers have begun their own green businesses, collecting wet and dry waste from residential customers. In fact, it’s interesting to see how successful these businesses have become. The customers pay the women to collect the household waste from their homes, and that waste is separated and then ground up and converted to compost. Then it’s bagged and sold. It’s a very popular product. Though they may not realize it, many of these customers are paying twice—once when their household waste is collected, and again when they buy bags of compost made from the very same waste! Scott in group of children (color)
IDS: What project are you currently working on? Scott: The new Avani Children’s Home is now under construction. The current children’s home has space for 20 girls and 20 boys; the new one, which I’m working on with a female Indian architect, will be able to accommodate 120 children. We’ve incorporated features such as curved lines and rounded edges into the design—the furnishings give the impression of physically wrapping around the children to protect them. The new building will be very simple and self-sustaining. In fact, it’s already paid for. I see it as one big science experiment. The children often contribute to the work. For instance, there’s a tank to store water on the roof of the building. Because I can’t physically check on the water level, they’ve written an app that does that for me!
IDS: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk, Scott. We’ll look forward to hearing more about the new Children’s Home (and other Avani projects) in the next few years!