Reexamining Professional Development Wisdom



The development community seems constantly and restlessly in search of a singular approach that will solve poverty, unveiling new theories  every few years only to toss them aside. The fundamental flaw with this system is that each new approach fails to break out of the underlying technocratic and specialized paradigm. We must understand that there is no precooked blueprint for replication. Individuals can make a difference in fighting poverty when ways are found to institutionalize creative ideas. Replication of successful models continues to be a guiding mantra of development programmes. But an associated caveat when examining specific experiences with replication in mind is the personal charisma of inspirational leaders and organisational synergies, both of which are not readily transferable. We must respect the fundamental truth that charisma and passion cannot be transfused.

We need to have charismatic and highly motivated leaders to lead programmes. It is equally important that we must appropriately reward and recognise good performance so as to further enhance the quality of leadership. Leadership finally remains the most crucial element of the success of any new initiative.. There is now a mountain of scholarship and a huge circuit in operation: dissecting statistics, furrowing through the libraries, wracking the brains and pontificating. Most development finance academics are researchers with little real world experience. Leadership in rural development programmes is a clinical art and people need experience. There is so much cultural diversity even in neighbouring villages that a blueprint for one village may need a drastic change for a village next to it. The fact is that what works in Haryana does not seem to work well in Bihar. What works in India is not automatically transferable to Peru and vice versa.  .

The failure in practice of so many normal professional solutions points to re-examination of the perceptions and priorities of professionals — those normal, non-poor, urban-based elites who define poverty and what should be done about it. The other is to examine the perceptions and priorities of the poor themselves. Neither has received much attention in anti-poverty discussions. Most professionals — politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, academics and others,   — have   neither time nor incentive to examine ourselves and our predispositions, nor that of the poor. There are development panjandrums and authors and writers on rural development and planning who arrogate to themselves the right to hand out certificates on best practices. These people shut themselves from the world and give lengthy opinions on the basis of reports and statistics appearing in journals. I have found even senior executives turning into glib talkers on poverty. Even while publicly proclaiming their commitment to a public cause, they don’t hesitate to speak in a different voice at internal forums.

Consultants have for long been the key people in policy mechanics and there have been many incidences of glaring overdependence on them. It is extremely necessary to moderate the reports and prescriptions of consultants with ground realities that can be gleaned fro;m the wisdom of   grassroots leaders. There are those who have been making points that if the consultants are so confident of their advice, and plans, why they themselves don’t execute it. The old adage about teachers gets changed slightly: “Those who can, do; those who cannot, consult.”

I feel consultants must seek a more active engagement with the poor so that they have a truly authentic feel of the reality. We must remove our academic blinkers to get an accurate picture of the society we want to serve. I have been inspired mostly by people who have followed their printed blasts with long tiring journeys in inhospitable terrain to demonstrate their solidarity with these people. Consultants have never lived down the description of them in Robert Tomasend’s Up the Organization as people who borrow your watch in order to tell you the time. There are too many consultants willing to give advice most of which is descriptive and very rarely contains prescriptions. This is the hubris of the consultant who believes he can wear down the problems with sheer studiousness. Consultants are like burnished glass: they live their whole lives off the reflected glory of the organisations that they were privileged to provide consultancy. They keep on using the word “holistic” very liberally like the way the environmentalists use the word “sustainable”. It’s the world’s most pretentious word I have ever come across. Consultants have abused its original connotation and stripped it of its dignified place in development lexicon. Nevertheless, consultants do have a role to play.

This, however, is not to diminish the role of professional outsiders who have successfully entered into the conditions and outlooks of rural people in order to fashion programmes from the inside out, so to speak, by showing deep respect for the capabilities of the people whose lives they hope to improve and being persistent as well as patient (being impatiently patient, one might say) in their goals and mission..

There is something of continuing value about bringing an outsider in. If the consultant is experienced, he or she can sniff out problems. A wide knowledge of the way many other organizations have coped with similar problems can help provide solutions that the organizations by themselves could never have stumbled across. In addition, consultants can act as disseminators to the real world of the latest thinking in the academic and practitioners’ worlds and of their own often considerable inner research.

Poverty reduction is not a discipline. You can’t get somebody from a university who has done a Ph.D. in poverty reduction. Nor is there a talisman for eradicating poverty. It may not be possible to locate a common denominator for a successful rural manager. It may also not be possible to lay down a standard blueprint for a rural development programme. From their own experience, rural development veterans can spell out the ingredients that one may need to be successful. But the local practitioners shall have to work out their own recipes for blending these ingredients in the right proportions.

The development community in India has a vast trove of expertise and wisdom on advancing social change. However, not all of it is accessible, locked as it is in people’s heads or within organisations. It is important to enable access to these valuable lessons, insights and decisions in order to move the field forward.

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.

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 the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades .He can be reached at [email protected]



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