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Can A Cup Of Cappuccino Really Empower Indian Women?

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So how much does it cost to strategically support long-term change in women’s economic empowerment per year per woman in India? According to UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the amount is two British pounds.

What is the cost of a cappuccino in London? Two pounds! Is it a mere co-incidence? No. DFID has finally found the magic bullet that can remove mass-scale poverty and bring prosperity to the world. All it takes is British people skipping a cappuccino.

But does this sound impossible? The expectation that one cappuccino or a philanthropist simply pouring money will solve one of the most persistent problems of economic dis-empowerment of women or issues of hunger is part of a larger economic and social malaise in the global order. DFID is neither an outlier nor is it an agency without good intentions. But it is likely to fail at what it intends to do.

The Cappuccino Miracle

Let me unpack the ‘Cappuccino Miracle’ first.

DFID is a UK government department which delivers foreign aid to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty. The ‘Cappuccino Miracle’ is a flagship programme of the department and is actually called the Work and Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme.

The objective of this important program is that women have access to improved economic opportunities through business interventions in supply chains and economic development programmes. The thematic focus of WOW is:

• Recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid care and domestic work

• Improving outcomes for women in informal work

• Enhancing women’s land tenure security

In short, this WOW will ensure economic empowerment of women and build a robust ecosystem for the participation of women in the global value system.

Some more magical numbers and figures follow. This program will empower a staggering 3,00,000 women in the course of three years at the cost of £ 1.8 million. Let me break this number for easy perusal. Cost per year for economic empowerment of 3,00,000 women = £ 0.6 million.

India is a priority country under this programme. It makes sense to convert the figures into rupees: Rs. 5,48,10,393 per year. If we further break the cost, the cost per woman per year comes to Rs. 183. This is about two pounds. Just enough to get you a cappuccino in London!

There is something more interesting going on in this so-called development ecosystem. Mathew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary for DFID, earns £1,10,000-£1,14,999 per year. That will buy you more than 5,00,000 cappuccinos.

India’s Two Million Cappuccino Miracles

The Oxford dictionary defines a development agency as “any of various agencies that help support economic growth, social progress, etc., within a specified country or region, especially one currently underdeveloped”.

The bottom line is that development agencies work in areas of deprivation — be they in education, livelihood, sanitation or empowerment — to create a better world or society. They come in to fill the gap where the State has largely failed to deliver the goods. Any guesses about the result today of the failure of the Indian State in delivering what it is supposed to deliver?

According to the World Bank, over 270 million people (22% of population) are below the national poverty line in India, where the standard of measurement of poverty itself is pretty low. India houses around 50% of undernourished children of the world according to an Assocham and EY study, and at the end of 2015, 40% of the Indian children were undernourished. About 37% of children under-five are underweight, 39% are stunted (low height-for-age), 21% are wasted (low weight-for-height) and 8% are severely acutely malnourished, according to the same study.

Mass illiteracy, hygiene and sanitation, healthcare, gender inequality, pollution and bio-degradation are other issues that the country is grappling with. The State, both because of its inability to deliver, and in many instances just plain indifference, has not been able to adequately address this situation.

On the other hand, to its credit, the Indian State lifted 133 million people out of poverty between 1994 and 2012. The grave danger is that despite poverty alleviation programmes, the staggering amount of money and energy spent, every other Indian remains vulnerable to fall back into poverty.

So the challenges of development — particularly inclusive development — are monumental. And in this larger framework of poverty and deprivation, development agencies have spurt out to address the multitudinous and inter-connected instances of disempowerment of the Indian populace.

In fact, the Central Bureau of Investigation estimates that there are more than two million NGOs in India. Let that number sink in. One NGO for every 600 people in this country. Why does anybody have any problem at all in the country!

Re-Inventing the Wheel

India is home to a plethora of development agencies, be it international agencies like DFID or domestic and international NGOs. Apart from them, there are 26 United Nations organisations working in India..

Just like the ‘Cappuccino Miracle’, the other anticipated miracle is that the market and its many players will alleviate the problems that engulf the majority of Indians. The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) rules under the Companies Act of 2013 have forced many corporates to do social work using their profits. They are required to work within the geographical proximity of their factories and offices.

Unfortunately for them and the anticipated development miracle, much of India’s poor population lives in far flung hinterland. This mandate also ends up in the reinvention of the wheel again and again and results in multiple similar kinds of interventions in villages around industrial areas by different corporate agencies. It comes as no surprise that many of these interventions just end up being photo-ops and an employee-engagement scheme and nothing else.

I recently visited the Bhiwadi industrial area in Alwar district of Rajasthan, not very far from Delhi, where one agency renovated a toilet in a school, and in two months’ time another agency renovated that again!

You are in for a rude wakeup call if you expect industries to drive the agenda of development. From the data I have at my disposal, there were 24,914 registered industrial units in Alwar employing more than 1,12,554 people up to the year 2010-11. Yet drop-out rate of girls in rural primary schools of the district was above 55% around the period. And although the district as a whole has literacy rate of 62.48%, the literacy rate of minorities is 30.10%.

One visit to villages around Bhiwadi even today re-affirms two things. Industrialisation of an area does not necessarily lead to trickle down of benefits and that CSR funds can push development only in a certain limited sphere.

If Development Agencies Don’t Develop Us, Who Should?

So the bigger question now is who should or who can drive development and alleviate poverty that mires millions of Indians if not NGOs, agencies like DFID, or CSR foundations? The answer lies in the same route taken by all developed nations in the past in their journey from underdevelopment to their present status: development driven by the State.

The State has always played an unfulfilling yet vital role in handling issues of entrenched poverty in India. In 1990, the HDI of India was a low 0.428. Today (2015), it stands at 0.624, which is a marked improvement but still behind even war-torn countries like Iraq.

Despite improvements, there has been consistent low investment in key areas of poverty reduction, education, and health care, and the institutional delivery by the State has been weak. Public spending on health was 0.22% of GDP in 1950-51, which today stands just above 1%, well below the world average of 5.99%. The average investment on human capital across the globe is more than 4.5% and India lags behind not just BRICS countries but also many poor countries.

No Cappuccinos In Real Life

For the success of any human experiment — be it nation building, successful market economy, politics or harmonious diversity — we need enough investment on human capital to take that agenda forward. There has to be an enabling condition which supports and nourishes the participation of the vast chunk of the Indian populace in all these human experiments.

Developmental agencies exist and will always exist in the context of the State and the society. But until and unless the State decides to pull its socks up to start working on issues that matter to the vast majority of people in this country, I am afraid that the biggest experiment in the history of mankind, of empowering and unifying 1.2 billion diverse people, is doomed to be a failure.

With the opening up of the India economy in the 90s, the starkness between India and Bharat has never been more prominent. India, today, is a country full of paradoxes: fastest growing economy housing the largest number of poor, one of the top markets for Amazon when 80% of the workforce is in the unorganised sector, and a country where economic empowerment of poor women is expected at the cost of a cappuccino even when two ministers in the Union Cabinet are women.

Striving for women’s economic empowerment, delivery of services to those who have missed out on them, relief, supporting implementation, innovation, etc. are all important functions that development agencies can carry out. For this to effectively pan out, there has to be focussed investment, both financial and HR-wise, in communities.

The other important role development agencies can play is support citizenship and inclusiveness, so the poor in India can find voice, since the people who have the voice in this country have bigger issues to handle: Pakistan, sowing religious divide, and beating their chest to announce their patriotism.

All this would entail much heavier and consistent investment in working with poor communities and engaging with the State so that basic infrastructure and systems are in place. But there are massive costs involved in bringing about these systemic changes.

Unfortunately, there are no ‘Cappuccino Miracles’ in real life.

Note: The title of this post was changed on May 5.

The author is a part of the Youth Ki Awaaz Writers’ Training Program.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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