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Epidemic of Empathy

Our idea is a program (with social enterprise elements) that tackles the problem of holistic child development through economically and socially empowering networks of mothers, and extending the mother-child empathy to the decision-making and transactions of the wider community.

Photo of Syed Mohammed
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Epidemic of Empathy

One of the key insights that popped out during the research phase of the challenge was the sheer number of challenges that little children face in low-income communities on their path to becoming healthy five year-olds. Technical solutions to creatively solve each of these challenges are much needed, however by themselves they will have limited impact on the complete development of children. Perhaps what is then required is also a way to create the right conditions, access to resources and a foundational platform for enabling community-led generative solutions driven by design thinking and appreciative inquiry, that in turn will tackle the myriad of problems with panache.

How can we achieve this while keeping our focus firmly on tangible outcomes rather than 'fluffy' ideas? One way is to start from what is the most successful characteristic of the ecosystem the child is in, i.e. what works, rather than one of the many problems, and then leverage that strength to holistically solve our challenge. What can this characteristic be? The answer that most people respond with is pretty much similar - the Mother-child bond is the backbone of the welfare for children. How do we leverage this to solve problems, many of which depend on external community/market/economic factors? Perhaps by making it so that every decision impacting the development of children, is made by someone who thinks like a mother. In other words, can we use the mother-child relationship as a fundamental basis to create an 'Epidemic of Empathy', that exponentially spreads through communities, and ever-so-subtly reorients the objectives of the various everyday transactions (food, business, education, village infrastructure, health services etc) occurring in a community, to include the welfare of the specific children in a community (rather than the general concept of children), the way a mother would?

How do we go about creating this epidemic of empathy and then sustaining it? There is some interesting research done by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo from the MIT Abdul-Jameel Poverty Action Lab. One of their key research insights is that giving control of household finances to mothers rather than fathers has a significant and measurable positive impact on the welfare of children, particularly with regards to nutrition and education. This is essentially our 'epidemic of empathy' in action - having the mother-child relationship influence a greater proportion of decisions impacting child development.
Using this insight as a basis, we propose an idea for bringing epidemics of empathy into action, that will be measurable in its outcomes.

Creating Mother Collectives

As many of our colleagues have mentioned already in this challenge, creating strong networks of mothers in communities goes a long way towards child development. In order to take this idea to the next level, beyond parental education, awareness and support, we propose to leverage the mother collectives in 4 steps which build on each other to form a resilient and sustainable framework.

1. Economically empowering the Mother Collectives

We can use these networks as a means of greater female empowerment, with an objective to bringing household finances under greater influence of mothers. The mother collectives in communities can act as distribution channels for delivering products and services to the Bottom Billion of the Pyramid. Hindustan Unilever has successfully implemented such a project in india, whereby these mothers are known as 'Shakti Ammas' (Power Mothers), and act as distribution channels for fortified nutritional supplements and other unilever products. Enabling mother collectives in this manner has a number of benefits -
  •  It results in greater female economic participation in the community
  •  This results in greater influence of mothers in household finances, which in turn have been proven to have significant impacts on the wellbeing of children
  •  By economically empowering the mother collectives, their influence and position in the communities is strengthened, which becomes an agent for change that is beneficial for development of the children in the community

2. Bulk Purchase of Food by Mother Collectives

Families in low income communities have two issues with income revenue -
  • The daily revenue is low in magnitude. This results in families being able to purchase only the cheapest food, usually subsidised grain, resulting in lack of other important sources of nutrition in the diet, such as vegetables, lentils, dairy products and meat.
  • Frequency of income can be sporadic, as many families live on unreliable daily wages. This results in children often skipping meals altogether, or drinking only low-nutrient broth on many days.

The mother collectives can be leveraged to collectively buy foodstuffs in bulk by pooling in their resources, which -
  • enable them to negotiate better food discounts in the market
  • plan the diet of the families in advance and in a better way than ad-hoc purchasing. Rather than 10 families having only enough money to buy rice, through collective purchase rice, lentils and vegetables can be bought and rationed amongst members 
  • prevent to a certain extent the skipping of meals, by having the collective cover for families who have missed on their daily wage, and later enabling those mothers to repay their share to the collective when they do receive some income.
This collective activity can be supported by the income generated from #1.

3. Informal Zero Interest Short-term Lending Program within Mother Collectives

One of the issues that greatly impact early child development is the sensitivity of low income communities to economic, natural, civil and social fluctuations, which entrap them in the vicious cycle of poverty. Mother Collectives, by becoming economically empowered through #1, can act as informal lending programs for mothers in unexpected short-term economic distress. This helps in providing a more stable environment for children to grow up and develop in, by softening the impact of 'rainy days' for the families. Such community programs have been proven to be successful in Nigeria, although participation is general and not centered around mothers. This is particularly helpful for covering unexpected shortages in monthly tuition fees as well for preschool. At a later stage, when trust and funds have increased within collectives, the lending program can help finance infrastructural investments by the mothers that improve health (better cooking stoves).


4. Social Empowerment of the Mother Collectives

A successful demonstration of creating an 'epidemic of empathy' is the rapid spread of the 'Gulabi Gang' in India, which was created by a woman activist in response to domestic abuse. The Gulabi Gang now has given a powerful voice to a group that did not have a voice before. The network of mother collectives can become catalystic social agents of change through social and political participation for better representation of interests for their children, such as clean water and sanitation investments by the local and central government bodies. Through #1, a base will have been created to increase the social influence of our mother collectives.

Bringing it together by mapping the mother-child dynamic into most social and economic decisions or transactions impacting children     

Through economic and social active engagement of mother collectives, we are trying to position the motivations of key family and community decisions to be driven by the mother-child dynamic. In this manner, an epidemic of empathy can be created across communities to drive coordination of resources and activities by the public sector, NGOs and private companies who can benefit from innovation at the bottom of the pyramid. Incentives are created for various players in the market for sustained engagement (empowerment and financial security for mothers, profits for private companies, improvement in social and economic metrics for public sectors,  self-organised low-investment interventions for NGOs).  #1 creates the basis for the initiative, #2 and #3 are two of multiple generative ideas to solve local challenges, and #4 sustains the initiative and gives it a 'viral' nature.

Who will benefit from this idea and where are they located?

The idea can be adapted for urban and rural communities across the global spectrum.

How could you test this idea in a quick and low-cost way right now?

We can go to local mother support groups and get them to group buy food for a week to see what changes can be brought about in diets.

What kind of help would you need to make your idea real?

Help from NGOs on the ground to engage mothers. Collaboration with companies looking to tap markets for the poor.

Is this an idea that you or your organization would like to take forward?

  • Yes. I am looking for partners that might be interested in taking this idea forward in their communities.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Em Havens

Syed, what a well thought out and researched idea! As you think about how this idea could be implemented and prototyped, have you and your team come up with possible partner organizations you might work with or more specific ways to prototype? Do you have any specific challenges or areas of opportunity you'd like to share to help folks here understand where they might join the conversation?

Photo of Syed Mohammed

Thanks Emily, your questions have helped to focus on the main challenges to execute the idea! The prototyping needs some more thought into it to really get it on the field. I was actually hoping to collaborate with other folks here on figuring out the different sub-components. I'm updating the entry with some thoughts on implementation and prototyping, which hopefully will generate inputs from the community here.

This idea could work well through collaboration with the IPA (Innovations for Poverty Action), especially in measuring the impacts of the sub-initiatives, iterating quickly on the field and then scaling up across the network of mother collectives. For making inroads at the beginning a possible partnership could be with GAIN (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition) and a private sector company (for example, one in the business of fortified foods/daily perishable products like Nestle, P&G, or working with Unilever to expand its Shakti program to other countries). Input from experienced members of the OI community would really help!

The Epidemic of Empathy concept would also benefit from folks subdividing it into three parts to discuss and join in:

1) Building:
- Which organisations might we want to establish relationships with to execute this idea in particular communities. Which companies are interested in tapping markets for low-income customers, and can we contact their marketing teams? The overall setup should help us interact with mothers on a daily basis. Are there any OI members on the field who are interested in executing a quick prototype in the communities they are working in?

2) Measuring and Iterating:
Working with the IPA would probably help a lot here. Question to the OI community - what metrics will help us identify rapidly which parts of the concept are working and which parts aren't, in a very short time period, so that the implementation can be adjusted quickly?

3) Scaling and Sustaining:
What marketing elements from other industries can we get inspiration from to make the idea 'infectious' across communities? How can we rejuvenate the empathy network regularly to sustain a certain level of momentum and energy, that will see us through the first five years of a child?

While constructing the idea, the main motivation has been for helping rural families in survival mode. Would be great to get input from people who are working with these communities to understand implementation challenges.

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