The Poor Know How To Escape From Poverty



The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. 

—F.A. Hayek, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors Of Socialism

I firmly believe it is possible to eliminate poverty in our country— provided we re-examine the   wisdom of our professional approaches. The poor are poor not because they are unskilled or illiterate but because they cannot retain the returns of their labour. They neither own capital, nor does anyone give them access to credit, except on the most unreasonable terms. They live on the edge, in constant fear of a catastrophe or tragedy. But they have no insurance because insurance companies consider them a losing proposition. The State’s social safety nets are not only grossly inadequate but mired in corruption and bureaucratic red tape.

We need to bring in the poor to the conversation. Interventions that take the end user into account almost always have better success rates than top down decision-making ones. Many social enterprises are still not talking enough to their poor to find out what they really want, and too often policy makers have no idea what their end beneficiaries really need. Let us hope that the expanding use of technology across all segments of society will help to create platforms for exchange of ideas, so that people can better express their needs and there is a more meaningful exchange of information,.

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 and precious resources .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. But the whole idea was lost in  the new brand of politics that has sucked most development institutions.

Although there is so much discussion in public forums of involving the stakeholders for appropriate development, 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.

Their trust cannot be bought outright or manipulated with money, or by grafting urban assumptions of development onto existing rural practices, which in fact may destroy existing workable structures.  I found this approach a more impactful contrast to the grandiose foreign-aid schemes that do more harm than good. Experiences show that governments too often derail the money intended to help the poor to pad the pockets of the programme machinery instead.  Moreover the funding is volatile and this tap on, tap off approach made the design and delivery of aid programmess far less efficient.

For rural communities, participation is a way of engaging with development agencies to ensure better use of   resources and planning for objectives that can have real benefits for them. To do this, communities  need to analyze constraints as well as available resources, identify and agree on the nature of priorities , develop action plans to address the various constraints, take charge of implementation, and use collective pressure for making sure that the service providers   do their job. Communities also identify what incremental resources are needed and organize themselves for mobilizing these resources. Through their empowered organizations, villagers can more strongly voice their approval or disapproval with the services received, and indicate  how service delivery can be improved.

A critical success factor is creating organizational capabilities at the local level that can mobilize and manage resources effectively to benefit the many intended recipients. We need plans, systems, mutual accountability and financing mechanisms. And even before we have all of that apparatus in place—what I call the economic plumbing—we must first understand more concretely what such this ecosystem means to the people who are being helped.

Tackling poverty requires an approach that must start with the people themselves and encourages the initiative, creativity and drive from below. The strategy must be at the core of any transformatory exercise if the results are to be lasting and enduring. I had the privilege of watching the village women acquire a sense of dignity once they were given tools for self-sufficiency. And I learned, maybe most importantly, to listen with my heart and not just my ears. We must try to relate to our clients as people and not as some mathematical abstraction, some algebraic alphabets.

I was once associated with the setting up of a village centre which I supervised delegated the villagers the entire job. It showed me the potential for collective action that lay beneath the villagers’ apparently passive exterior and paved the way for the building of the village centre. Villagers worked together, stitching banners, painting posters, erecting flagstaffs on the roofs, and stringing wires across the street for the reception of government officials who came to visit. They marvelled at this voluntary initiative of the local community. It was a major lesson even for them.

I saw villages that enjoyed a dramatic increase in crop yield and incomes after agricultural scientists advised farmers on watershed techniques—a fancy term for digging ditches so good that soil is not washed away. While it will not solve India’s deep-rooted agriculture problems, better information can significantly boost food production and rural incomes.

The right way ahead to let the poor lead the development agenda. Although the development community in India has a vast trove of expertise and wisdom on advancing social change, that knowledge is no blended with ground skills and wisdom. Together they  can do more and do right for the millions of Indians whom they work with and for.

We need to heed the wisdom of the legendary philosopher Lao Tzu:

“Go to the people. Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task accomplished, the people will say ‘We have done this ourselves.”

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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