Letting The Poor Steer The Development Agenda



The perception that the poor do not have skills or would not be able to survive on their own is a myth. My experience with development finance has demonstrated that we have to encourage strategies that ensure wider participation of poor in schemes aimed at solving their problems. It is the unleashing of their social and mental energies and, not hackneyed government programmes and tiring lip service of politicians, which will make India’s development ambition a reality. All that the pro-villages rhetoric does is to pay lip service to the people who still live there without electricity and running water.

During all these years of my association with the rural sector, I have come to know that development is fuller when put in people’s hands, especially the poor, who know best how to use the scarce ad precious resources they could be provided with for their uplift. The first generation leaders of Independent India believed that economic justice would be advanced by the lessons of cooperation where common efforts to achieve the common good will subsume all artificial differences of caste, community and religion. Increasingly, these dreams have been dashed against the shoals of politics, bureaucracy and disregard for the fundamental principle of cooperation. They are all part of a virus sweeping the country, a malaise called dishonesty. Much of what the leaders promise is empty rhetoric and much of the harvest that false promises could reap was owing to the gullible public who saw quicksilver in mirages.

Although there is so much discussion in public forums of involving the stakeholders for appropriate development of the society in which the poor live , poor people rarely get the opportunity to develop their own agenda and vision or set terms for the involvement of outsiders. The entire participatory paradigm illustrates that people are participating in plans and programs that we – outsiders – have designed. Not only is there little opportunity for them to articulate their ideas, there is also seldom an institutional space where their ingenuity and creativity in solving their own problems can be recognized, respected and rewarded

Today the most important need for a development worker posted in a rural area is the need to listen. The best advice one could ever give to new entrants in the field of development is to listen to what the people want instead of trying to assume to know what the problems and solutions are.

If the primary focus is really ending poverty, we must establish partnership between poor communities so that they learn from one another and share traditional, practical knowledge and skills. Importing expensive, unworkable ideas, equipment and consultants simply destroys the capacity of communities to help themselves. That model encourages colossal falsification of figures, the excessive hiring of private consultants and contractors, conflicts of interest and a massive patronage system.

To fresh entrants in this field of development work, I can only suggest that it is important living in a village rather than dropping by for the day, if one really wants to get full insight. I think the main reason why many of our programmes have gone awry is because development workers particularly the senior bosses never had the patience to understand the problems and needs of villagers. During their official visits, they move through villages as if they are passing through revolving doors, rarely interested in dropping into a villager’s house, afraid of catching infection if they are made to taste the villager’s hospitality. Remarks like, ‘ I am a farmer myself’, ‘ you can’t pull wool over my eyes’ and ‘I was born and brought up in a village’ ‘ I know rural problems better than anybody else’ are a sign of arrogance and will not go down well with the people with whom you want to work.

It is only through long and close contact with the poor themselves and through our work with them that we are able to gain a deeper understanding and a more balanced view. In this way our experience is not that of a typical non-governmental organization (NGO) many of which work from within the confines of the project enclave or are based in urban centres from where excursions are made out into the villages by jeep. Such brief or sporadic encounters are unlikely to give any great insights into the lives of the poorest. Sadly, many NGOs are far removed from the realities of poverty and often fail to reach those most in need. For me the most surprising thing has been the simple human-to-human connection that has let me overcome both language and culture barriers.

The truth of a village can come out only slowly, with time — time for trust to build between the villagers and outsiders, and time for the outsider to peel away all the layers to get at the truth.

In his reflections on fieldwork the doyen of Indian anthropologists, Professor M.N. Shrinivas, has talked of successful ethnography as having to pass through three stages. An anthropologist is ‘once-born’ when he initially goes to the fields, thrust from familiar surroundings into a world he has very little clue about. He is ‘twice –born’ when, on living for some time among his tribe, he is able to see things from their viewpoint. To those anthropologists ,fortunate’ enough to experience it ,this second birth is akin to a Buddhist urge of consciousness ,for which years of study or mere linguistic facility do not prepare you. All of a sudden, one is about to see everything from the native’s point of view –be it festivals, fertility rites or the fear of death.

Economic development and social change must begin from within even though the initial nudges may have to come from outside. Well-meaning people should have the open mindedness to listen to those who work in the field and live the day-to-day challenges. That respect opens many doors .Lasting change comes about so slowly that you may not notice it until people resist being taken care of—they need to be given a chance to fulfill their own potential. When we design solutions that recognize the poor as clients or customers and not as passive recipients of charity, we have a real chance to end poverty. Importing unworkable ideas, equipment and consultants destroys the capacity of communities to help themselves. The people who pioneered the world’s most successful development programmes recognized this potential and always sought to evoke it. These are the ones who enabled the poor to take the right step on the right ladder at the right time. The results have been miraculous.

When we design solutions that recognize the poor as clients or customers and not as passive recipients of charity, we have a real chance to end poverty. And I believe we can do that in our generation. This logic comes from the importance of empathy—not one that comes from a place of superiority, but one born from a profound humility.

Doing things locally may bring multiple development impacts. Providing autonomy to local governments in formulating and implementing local development plans allows the plans to reflect the aspirations of local communities. Fiscal decentralization can also empower local governments to collect their own revenues and depend less on central government grants. But if the local approach is to ensure human development for those left out, it will also require people’s participation and greater local administrative capacity.

As Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s Milk Revolution repeatedly emphasized: “India’s place in the sun would come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural people and skill of its professionals”

Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher .He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He was Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He has authored several books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts. He is author of the bestselling book Village Diary of a Development Banker. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur and can be reached at [email protected]










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