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September '03

Stichting de Zaaier

In conversation with Carel

Since 1986, the Dutch Foundation 'De Zaaier' has played a very active role in Auroville. Auroville Today interviews Ms. Mia Berden, who, apart from being Board member of De Zaaier, is also honorary life member of Auroville International.

Mia Berden

AVToday: What is the origin of De Zaaier's interest in Auroville?
Mia: Yoka [an Aurovilian who passed away in 1991, eds.] and I were board members from the day the Foundation became active in 1986. We shared a deep interest in the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo and The Mother and in Auroville's development. Yoka moved to Auroville in September 1986 and I got involved in the work of Auroville International The Netherlands. That's how Auroville became a part of our funding.
At the end of the eighties, Dr. Henk Thomas joined as chairman of the board. He is Professor Emeritus of the Dutch Institute of Social Studies and became professionally involved in Auroville with the research project in the Auroville economy. The other two board members, Ms. Martine Bush and Ms. Carmelita Zeyl joined later. They have both visited Auroville, were impressed by the manifold activities and have a positive position towards Auroville. I am now holding the Auroville project portfolio on behalf of De Zaaier.

How does the Foundation decide which projects to sponsor in Auroville?

Over the years a modus operandi has been worked out with the Auroville Project Coordination Group. Each year they receive all the project proposals from within Auroville, check them and then present us with a shortlist for funding, indicating their priorities. From this shortlist we select the projects. Apart from this shortlist, we have given special grants to particular large Auroville projects such as recently the Land Fund (Rs 1 crore /Euro 200,000) and the Town Hall (Rs 52 lakhs / Euro 100,000). We also sponsor individual projects, such as study and research proposals. The total of our donations since 1986 is now about Rs 6 crores (Euro 1,2 million).

Clearly De Zaaier's goodwill for Auroville is enormous. Is Auroville de Zaaier's main project?
Mia: No. Auroville features high on our list. Apart from The Netherlands we have projects all over the world. In Pakistan, for example, we are supporting the Institute for Labour Education and Research, which is active in issues such as the status of women, child labour and general labour conditions. This Institution has become a centre for peace in the south-Asian region.

In January this year you visited Auroville to review the projects submitted to De Zaaier with the project holders. Are you satisfied with the projects you receive?

Mia: I can't really answer this question with a simple yes or no. For example, this year's short list contained requests to fund three buildings. But we have given substantial grants for buildings in the past and we would now like to shift our focus to sponsoring new initiatives, for example to promoting the development of small industrial units and to giving fellowships for courses in India and abroad.
We built up experience by sponsoring the organic food processing industries, which have not taken off as we had anticipated. We learned how difficult the situation is for Auroville's small industrial units. The unit executives have to struggle all by themselves; their units develop because the unit holders put in their own money. There seems to be little possibility for them to get additional capital at low interest rate. There is as yet no support for entrepreneurs where they can receive expert advice on marketing, accounting, legal affairs, taxation, building a factory etc. Now time and energy is lost to acquire necessary information and help. A centre for the promotion of industry would help to create the climate whereby industry can develop.

De Zaaier is also supporting the farms.
Mia: Yes. In the beginning, we were approached by individual farmers. Afterwards the Farm Group came into existence and we agreed to support them with a yearly amount which they were free to distribute. This Farm Fund was intended to grow and attract new money. But this hasn't happened. Instead, it only served as an instrument for the distribution of our donations.
This year we received additional requests for support from three farms, submitted with the approval of the Farm Group and the Project Co-ordination Group. These projects were not part of the shortlist. It made me understand that the position of Auroville's farms is very difficult and that, as the Farm Group had already budgeted, a large sum is needed. After discussions with the concerned farms a proposal was made for a farm-assessment research project. This is now happening. [see AVToday June/July 2003]

It appears that De Zaaier prefers a passive attitude and is not using its position as a donor to influence Auroville's development.

Mia: No, we would not like to be considered as exercising undue interference on Auroville's affairs. The expression of our views might come as a consequence of our analyses of the problems presented to us, but not as an independent push.
For example, the position of women in society is one which is very close to my heart. In this respect Auroville is not in the forefront of progress. Women work very hard and also participate in the affairs of the community and some women hold important posts with great results but male domination still prevails. Personally I would welcome a plan to change the situation, but that is all. I can't take the initiative.
Another example that I feel that Auroville could consider starting is a kind of public reward system for outstanding workers, as one of the means to improve Auroville's relationship with the employees and the villages. I have been told that years ago an open day, a Good Work Fair, was organized for all the employees, where they displayed the products they produced, but it appears that the effort has not been repeated. That is a pity. But here again, we can't take the initiative to promote this.

Nevertheless, De Zaaier got deeply involved in the study of the development of Auroville's economy and also initiated a research into the living conditions of the Auroville's employees.

Mia: Yes, but that was only because, in 1998, the Economy Group had asked Henk Thomas if he could make recommendations for the future development of the Auroville economy. Henk replied that that was impossible without studying the key issues of the economic history of Auroville from its beginning in 1968 till the present and he took up the challenge to conduct the research. A spin-off of the economic research is the Socio-Economic survey of Auroville employees 2000, as a way to learn about the specific dynamics between Auroville and the villages that surround it. That survey was done in the period February to July 2000. It included all Auroville employees. All this will be published as a research monograph, The Economic and Social History of Auroville 1968-2002, perhaps as early as winter this year. [see also AVToday June-July 2002 and May 2003] So here again, De Zaaier only got involved because we were asked to do so.

Do you foresee any changes in the future relation between De Zaaier and Auroville?

I cannot predict. I only can say that our income has suffered due to market circumstances, and this may influence the extent to which De Zaaier can meet Auroville's request. It will very much depend on the projects Auroville submits.


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