India Needs To Focus On Its Development Warriors


 Women farmers at work in their vegetable plots near Kullu town, Himachal Pradesh, India. Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT).

India spends more on programmes for the poor than most developing countries, but is not getting  the expected dividends that significant public expenditure would seem to warrant, and the needs of important population groups still  remain  partly addressed. This   has been haunting  social scientists and policy makers .

India has ranked a lowly 131 among the 188 countries surveyed for human development in 2016, according to a just released UN report. it   has made no improvement in its ranking over the previous year .The report  puts it in the “medium human development” bracket, which also includes nations like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Kenya, Myanmar and Nepal.

A major flaw in our development paradigm is that the focus is more on physical resources and less on human resources .We seems to discount the human factor in all our programmmes. To refresh the words of the great anthropologist Margaret Mead:”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Behind the gleaming images of icons of successful development revolutions is the untold saga of   sacrifice of the grassroots staff that holds the fort as brave and heroic warriors. It is the   incandescent honesty and unvarnished selfishness that imparts purity to thief mission and translates s state policies into real ground action.

The honor and recognition that society owes to these brave extraordinary individuals for their crusade   for a cause bigger than them cannot be embodied in awards, promotions and citations. Though our focus   is most often on   issues such as chronic poverty; empowerment of women and the disenfranchised; and a sustainable solution to economic instability; the lessons of all successful policies and progammes for achieving these objectives   cuts to the heart of something we should never forget: The tenacious and committed officials, and their families   whose sacrifices have enabled and continue to make the world a far better and just place.

India should really applaud and honour ordinary men and women, who have nobody to back them, yet are working doggedly to keep projects rolling .Nobody can fathom the immense mental and physical suffering they and their families undergo. I doubt whether outsiders like us, protected by position, passport, privileges and police   can be justified in goading others to risk their livelihoods, their families’ well-being, or their own  lives. To take risks for oneself is one thing. To encourage others to do so is quite another. As Adlai Stevenson   commented so pithily:  “It is easier to fight for principles than to live up to them “.

Development work is dirty, you have to soil your hands, and you have to cope with crude elements at the lower dregs of society.  If you care about your mission, and your community, then it hurts when colleagues let you down, your social enterprise stumbles, funding is denied, or other hurdles materialize. Business schools don’t teach you how to fight goons; risk mitigation strategies like sophisticated metrics and business algorithms can’t hold water in the face of the mad frenzy of plundering bandits; technological gadgets can’t speak the language

Social change flows from individual actions. Small gains well consolidated as part of a sequence can mean more than big gains which are unstable and short-lived. Accumulated over time they snowball into giant achievements.  By changing what they do, people move societies in new directions and then change.   Big simple solutions are tempting but full of risks. For most outsiders, most of the time, the soundest and best way forward is through innumerable small steps that could be just nudges and tiny pushes. Slower and smaller steps also help building up people’s adaptability to changes. We should look for small innovations, not just blockbusters. 

Gandhi’s mantra is the most soothing credo in such moments and endeavours: “First they
ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” There are managers who have shown personal courage and ingenuity in creating safe spaces in which they can pursue development work. Their reward is not early promotion or early transfer. Their families stay far away in towns where the faculties for education and health care are at least satisfactory.  Their transfer is ruled out because there are no replacements to relieve them

Everywhere, we hear people talking about a crisis of leadership, yet we constantly meet extraordinary leaders tenaciously take on the world’s toughest problems, even at   risks to their lives and reputation.  We see a generation yearning for shared values, for goodness, a shared sense of what is right. It is easier to be an entrepreneur than to be a leader.  Effecting real change requires both.  As the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe who we lost recently wrote: “Leadership is a sacred trust like priesthood in civilized, humane religions.  No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly because it demands qualities of mind and discipline, of body and will, far beyond the need of the ordinary citizens.”

Senior bureaucrats are smart enough to leave little paper trail behind to provide clues to their motives. Junior officials are not intelligent enough and their naivety also imposes severe handicaps on them. They are also under direct fire as they serve as the primary interface of the administration. The system gives no protection to the sincere and honest among them. A bureaucrat once told me if he cleared files immediately, he might face vigilance inquiry as it will be perceived that he had acted in undue haste. The soon to retire bureaucrat decided that the best option was to pass the buck, by delaying the application until it became someone else’s responsibility.

We do have the example of talented men and women who have renounced their ambrosia of official positions and pledged their lives for empowering the economically and socially   disenfranchised.

Though much rural development is welcomed by the whole population and does not involve outsiders in personal risk, much also involves conflicts of interest where the weak are dominated and exploited   by the powerful. Where that happens, many of the rural poor and those who work with and for them face abuse, discrimination and danger; the   are often threatened; some are assaulted; and some are even killed.

There is much innovation and even heroism and sacrifice by staff of  development agencies known only to project beneficiaries and other staff, which is not only left anonymous but undocumented. Even when programme results are reported, the names and actions of the individuals who made the process successful on the ground are seldom known. We should really applaud and honour ordinary men and women, who have nobody to back them, yet are working doggedly to keep projects rolling. The real development story is an aggregate of initiatives in thousands of clusters led by extraordinary people, few of them known and the vast majority of them unknown.

A compelling message is that helping people is much harder than it looks. A lot of good programmes get their start when   individuals look at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. These practical idealists demonstrated passion, intellect and gritty determination and are supported by heroic, skillful, and inspiring field staff. Pairing experts   with “on the ground” teams   and field workers has yielded lasting solutions to tough social and economic problems.

Several of these programmes have been remarkably successful but have been difficult to scale up. Nevertheless the seed has been sowed and some, if not all of them, will bloom and yield fruits. As Bill Clinton noted during his presidency, “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere.” The frustration is that, “we can’t seem to replicate [those solutions] anywhere else.”   We know what to do if we just can summon the political will.

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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