Peter Winchester worked for many years as an architect during which time he became involved with housing in the developing world. The lack of understanding often shown by his profession in the social and political contexts in which they worked prompted his move into academic research with a PhD in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia, and later consultancy in development. In 1997 Peter founded Divi Seema Foundation.
- Winchester, P. J. 1979. “Report on a Conference about Relief Operations after 1977 Cyclone”. Disasters, 3(2): 173-177.
- Winchester, P. J. 1981. “From Disaster to Development: Notes from India”. Disasters, 5(2): 154 – 163.
- Winchester. P. J. 1992. "Power, Choice and Vulnerability. A case study in Disaster Mismanagement in South India.", London. James and James
- Winchester, P. J. 2000. “Cyclone mitigation and Resource Allocation”. Disasters, 24 (1) 18-37
- Winchester, P. J. 2000. "The Political Economy of Riverine and Coastal Floods in South India." In Parker, Floods. Volume 1, London. Routledge
First Person: A charity 20 years in the making
How Peter Winchester started a charity inspired by India
Article in the Oxford Times, October 2106
Born in Malaya to a rubber planter father, I put my strong feelings for south India down to my south Indian amah who looked after me for the first five years of my life. I was educated fairly spasmodically as a result of the war in Malaya, in Australia, America, England and then Australia again before returning to study architecture in England and moving to North Oxford with my wife and our two children.
The Divi Seema charity for poor women in rural India had a very slow birth – 20 years to be precise. The initial trigger in 1977 was a deadly cyclone and storm surge that struck the coast of the Krishna Delta, drowning 10,000 people. World-wide publicity followed and aid poured in, much of it in the form of housing.
At that time I was working as an architect at Milton Keynes and also involved in designing part of Abuja, the new Nigerian capital. As a result, I was interested in low-cost housing and attended a conference at the school of architecture at Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes University).
This led to an invitation to present papers at two further conferences held in south India. After the second I visited Divi Seema, a village in the Krishna Delta, where I stayed with the Jesuits who, funded primarily by Oxfam, were engaged in recovery and development of the area following the cyclone.
A second trigger was Frances (now Baroness) d’Souza whom I had met at Oxford Polytechnic who encouraged me to publish my papers and challenged me to do a doctorate. This was taking a leap into the dark – financially as well as intellectually.
Six years later, and after four spells of fieldwork in Divi Seema, the gamble bore fruit and I gained a doctorate in development studies from the University of East Anglia.. My chief finding was that cyclone housing, and to some extent the physical infrastructure, was of very limited value for the poorest people for whom access to credit was far more important.
In 1988 I revisited Divi Seema. Back in my old stamping ground I stayed with the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, who had taken over the Jesuit mission. From this base I found that despite 10 years of mainly physical infrastructure development the poor had got poorer and the rich had got richer. Nine more years passed, and on returning again to Divi Seema I found that conditions for the poorest had actually got worseThis was the final trigger: I had to do something to help and the Divi Seema Foundation was bornI knew the area, I knew the people. Together, focusing on micro credit, we helped women from the poorest families to form savings groups (providing access to credit on a rotational basis). We also funded nursery school places and medical support for members.
Things were going well; we had two Hindu, two Muslim and two Christian groups, and worked with the nearby St Ann’s sisters. From there, we expanded to 110 savings groups and introduced training programmes. Currently we are looking for support funding to provide salaries for co-ordinators who supervise women’s savings groups, mobile clinics run by the sisters who, apart from medicines, provide dietary education, tailoring centres for women to learn a skill to provide a supplementary income for their families, children’s parliaments (in six villages), an innovative community programme for five to 14-year-olds run by college-age village boys and girls to raise awareness among the younger children and give them confidence, and continuing education for six college-standard orphan girls.