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US recession: Citizens have found an opportunity in adversity

Sunday, 3 July 2011 - 12:15pm IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: dna

I have always been fascinated by the concept of a website called craigslist. Basically, it is a website for classified ads but what a breadth of stuff is on it.

I have always been fascinated by the concept of a website called craigslist. Basically, it is a website for classified ads but what a breadth of stuff is on it. If you live in Philadelphia and have a mother in Arkansas who needs a pink furry toy you can find one locally by searching on it.

Some years ago on a nationwide tour with a production of mine called Unsuni, I had an idea of setting up a similar site for volunteering among students.

So, for instance, if your mother in Ahmedabad needed someone to come and read for her once a week and you were in Indore, you could put this on the site and someone in Ahmedabad wanting to volunteer their time to help someone would offer to do this. 

Or if you were a student wanting to offer your sports skills to coach the poor or the deserving, you could put your offer up there, with specifications of sports, city and timings and an NGO or school might pick you up. Alas it never worked out that way but I still think it's a great idea and one that can engage youth and retired people in meaningful and satisfying usefulness.

Thinking of that got me wondering about how individual initiatives and entrepreneurship might have blossomed in times of financial hardship that the US has been facing.Between 2005 and 2009, according to the Economist newspaper, real incomes declined and 44 million people went below the poverty line.

Middle class households had to tighten their belts. Were there people and companies creating opportunities out of want and hardship?The answer is yes and the list is fascinating. And it is born out of what is being termed as the nouveaux pauvre - the new poor!
Credit has shrunk dramatically in the country and people are frightened to buy with credit cards. So after decades more and more companies are selling on a cash basis alone. And rather than the jumbo-sized cartons and jars, a smaller size has come in for most things - that way a family can buy in cash for this week and know that the purchase is done and paid for.

Many items besides sim cards are coming pre-paid, including  electricity - you buy xx units paid for, once again in cash, at the beginning of a month and then you know that you are not going to use more - you learn to be careful in case you need to do without completely.  (For a nation as profligate as the US, this is good news indeed as it is for the green conscious).

There are websites offering loans against stuff - a virtual pawn shop. People courier stuff like unwanted wedding gifts and borrow against them. Another website allows people to swap DVDs and CDs rather than buy, yet another allows you to find two or three companions with whom to share transport to work.

One can exchange children's clothes, utensils, beds and most other things too. And there is no shame in any of this.
When a few years ago CK Prahlad wrote his book Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, many Indian companies had already started marketing small packs of most household items from shampoos to masalas and hair oil in one rupee pouches.

But would we go for schemes like the ones mentioned or would we feel ashamed? And how would we bridge the gap between the people who could truly benefit from these and those who use computers? Could women's self-help groups not introduce this as a concept for additional help to the women and their families?
It is certainly worth giving some thought to.

The writer is a noted danseuse and social activist.

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