ASHA, an IDEX partner, offers sustainable agriculture training to women in the Nuwakot district of Nepal. Photograph courtesy of Jan Sturmann.

Sandwiched between Osha Thai Restaurant and Santora Supply on Valencia Street is a nondescript glass door that leads to three different continents.

International Development Exchange, or IDEX, as it is known, has spent a quarter of a century funding and otherwise facilitating grassroots development in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Most international development organizations in San Francisco are headquartered in the Financial District. But IDEX is an international organization with strong neighborhood ties. They screen films at the Roxie, sponsor events at Modern Times Bookstore and 826 Valencia, and host fundraisers at local bars and restaurants.

IDEX’s decision to, in 1989, move their headquarters next to a janitorial supply store on Valencia Street was, says executive director Rajasvini Bhansali, a more strategic move than it initially seems. “This was the hub of solidarity work. This is where the Latin American Diaspora was. This is where the intersection of labor struggles and housing struggles and LGBT work was happening.”

And IDEX was founded by a group of Peace Corps veterans largely in response to the large-scale development models being offered or imposed from Washington D.C., New York or San Francisco.

IDEX found that partners visiting from the grassroots organizations that they were funding in Guatemala, India, Mexico, Nepal, Zimbabwe and South Africa felt comfortable in the Mission. They could walk into a small business or afterschool youth program, or take part in a cultural arts activity or a conversation on tenant organizing, and see that IDEX was part of a larger web of grassroots organizations not unlike their own. And, using the Mission as a starting point, a small NGO from another country could easily begin to build alliances with like-minded progressive organizations in the Bay Area.

“Over the years, it’s been clear to us that being located here, and not in the Financial District or Embarcadero, has an impact on how our partners see us as being part of something bigger than just being a funder,” Bhansali explains. “We feel we have an important role to play to bring people working in the Global South together with people here in the Bay Area.”

The World Affairs Council in San Francisco regularly asks IDEX to sponsor events. On January 18, they are co-sponsoring the panel, Haiti: One Year Later. IDEX doesn’t do direct work in Haiti, but the circumstances there are similar to those of their grassroots partners in other countries.

“One of the things we hear from our partners is ‘look, any one of us could be Haiti,’” says Bhansali, “‘if the forces of colonialism had looked slightly different, or if the forces of neoliberal policy had looked slightly different.’”

She said the Haiti crisis has highlighted flaws in how development has been done there. It is often called ‘The Republic of NGOs’ because there are more aid groups per capita in Haiti than anywhere in the world. Estimates range from 3,000 to 10,000. Some say the glut of external aid has created barriers to long-term improvement for the lives of most Haitians.

In contrast, says Bhansali, IDEX tries to go into a country without a preconceived idea of how to best help the country “We really take their lead. We find existing grassroots organizations with credible track records, we fund them, and then we help them scale to the next level,” he said.

With a staff of seven and many dedicated unpaid volunteers and interns, IDEX operates on $1 million a year. Half of their budget comes from individual donors and the rest from foundations.

For IDEX, making it to 25 years means recognition that its model for development is more relevant now than ever. IDEX added ten new partner organizations this year, and Bhansali is confident the organization will continue growing. “In the economic crisis, people are turning more towards ‘the small is beautiful,’” she says.

“With the economic crisis and rising challenges in the Global South,” says Bhansali, “we’ve seen that this way of resourcing grassroots work is really effective and it doesn’t take a huge bureaucracy to do it.”

IDEX used to give small, short-term grants to several organizations around the world.  But about ten years ago, it changed its model when it became clear that focused, long-term funding led to greater impact and more trusting relationships with partners.

Nowadays the nonprofit is supporting groups in six countries that focus on environmental justice, local economic development and women’s empowerment. Many funders give one-year grants, but IDEX commits to long-term support – anywhere from three years to as long as a decade. The grants can be anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 a year, but the duration of funding means that the groups can plan for the long haul, according to development associate Deborah Goldberg.

The rise of networking among groups in the Global South and gatherings such as the World Social Forum also challenged IDEX to rethink its grant-making priorities a few years ago.  It now provides grants for convening, alliance building and information exchange.

Bhansali said the most inspiring thing about IDEX partners is they don’t just fight problems, they create solutions. Take the case of Biowatch in South Africa that in 2009 won a nine-year legal battle against Monsanto and the South African government for access to information about genetically modified crops.  Biowatch now uses that information to create public awareness campaigns about food security. At the same time, the non profit continues to train rural communities on small-scale gardening and indigenous seed preservation.

“We truly believe in indigenous knowledge,” says Bhansali. “If a group is doing something to change lives of even fifty people in their community, that’s worth investing in.”

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Walking in the streets of the Mission takes Lauren back to the streets of South America. Up until now, she’s known the Mission through its bars and restaurants; now it’s the buzz on Mission Street that attracts her. She loves listening to the Spanish in the streets.

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