How Best To Engage Communities In Development



In India, the priorities of   people are constantly undergoing changes. These   are, in fact, a result of the changes the development landscape is undergoing. A generation or two ago, ending hunger would have been the overwhelming need. Not any more even if malnutrition remains a challenge. Development also has brought electricity, more roads, pumps and overhead tanks — all non-existent a generation or two ago.

But we haven’t woken up to the reality that the effective maintenance of these assets and the effective provision of services is what are now needed. Nothing so cruelly mocks village India as electricity in the wires but bulbs  which don’t switch on; or pumps costing several thousand rupees rendered idle because a five rupee rubber washer needs replacement. We give Dalits free pucca houses because they cannot build their own. Yet how many of them suffer from substandard construction and water seepages we don’t care.   It is time we ask the people what they want. Or, better still, leave it to the people to ask each other what they want and then decide themselves how they want to spend their resources.

Development economists acknowledge that the poor act rationally, however straitened their circumstances .  they advise that tackling poverty requires a fundamentally different approach: one that starts with people themselves and encourages the initiative, creativity and drive from below .This principle must be at the core of any programme aiming at transformation of their lives. It is only then that if it can be lasting and meaningful. If people can be given the support they need to make important decisions in their own communities, to build their own societies in their own ways, they can do the rest themselves. In doing so, they will not only lift their own communities out of poverty, they will take the world with them. Change must come from within so that the inherent momentum continues to be self driving.It requires a new kind of leadership: not top-down, authority-based leadership, but leadership that awakens people to their own power — leadership “with” people rather than leadership “over” people.

The best approach to local development is to tap into the knowledge already available and think of ways it can be leveraged to achieve a more appropriate, locally useful and sustainable development. Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities and native    of rural people and that systematically build on experience have a reasonable chance of making significant advances in improving those people’s lives. A critical success factor is creating organizational capabilities at local levels that can mobilize and manage resources effectively for the benefit of the many rather than just the few. While it will not solve India’s deep-rooted agriculture problems, better information can significantly boost food production and rural incomes.

Experts  must not volunteer for work where they  ‘educate’ the community about its problems, in which they generate plans and then get ‘buy-in’ from the community, and in which the priority is the development product (latrines, health centre, church building) rather than the people.  It results in a subtle dehumanization of the people who are the objects of the development intervention. It’s not intentional, but it happens, especially when they roll into a village with projects already formulated .This kind of ‘help’ is likely to stunt development because it creates dependency, conflict and feelings of helplessness among the recipients of development aid. It’s as if they have got a hammer and are looking for nails. This approach shifts the people in the   community from the subject to the object of development. If the inhabitants have not yet given their trust, and shown their social topography, the people may even seem like obstacles!  .Development is an ongoing, endogenous process. It cannot simply lurch along, dependent on outsiders arriving with solutions and resources.

Instead of mapping problems from needs through external solutions, the planners must help the community identify them and then map these to develop a vision and action plan that embodies the local vision. In other ways Intervention has to be of the kind   that gets them over a bump in the road, not the kind that builds the road, provides the car, petrol and driver, buckles the seatbelts and pays the tolls.

Although there is much discussion in public forums of involving 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.

One of the things that can happen as you go into a community to serve it is a subtle dehumanization of the people there. It’s not intentional, but it happens, especially when you roll into a village with projects already formulated. There is a difference between being invited into town to live and learn where you can help with the endogenous development process already underway, and arriving with ready-made solutions to problems you haven’t yet encountered, but assume (or hope) exist. It’s as if you’ve got a hammer and are looking for nails. This approach shifts the people in your new community from the subject to the object of development. If the inhabitants have not yet given you their trust, and shown you the social topography of the community, the people may even seem like obstacles! You think “If it weren’t for these damn people and their baffling behaviour, I’d have had these women’s projects finished long ago!”

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. The situation of the proverbial cart having been placed before the horse.

The “bottom up” approach, which is being repeatedly emphasized in the development discourse, is about living and working with the poor, listening to them with humility to gain their confidence and trust. It cannot be bought and manipulated with money, or by grafting urban assumptions of development which will destroy existing workable low cost structures. It is about respecting and implementing the ideas of the poor, encouraging them to use their skills and knowledge for their own development. It is about taking a back seat and providing the space for them to steer themselves.

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. When poor communities think at the human level, all their goals are interconnected. But under the internationally conceived top-down model, communities are not treated as equal partners, and the goals have been compartmentalized into project mode, to suit donors and governments. Where possible, I think it’s much better to support local groups rather than those international organizations, as the locals cost much less than foreigners and they usually have a much better idea of what people need. Outside aid prevents people from searching for their own solutions, while corrupting and undermining local institutions and creating a self-perpetuating lobby of aid agencies.

In a country as large and diverse as India, it makes sense to connect those who live in similar climates and by tracking the effectiveness of the projects they manage and making appropriate, informed changes to those that aren’t working. People who pioneered successful social programmes   recognized this potential and sought to evoke. It is possible if we imbibe the true spirit of Modi’s oft repeated mantra:  “sabka saath, sabka vikas” (partnership of all, development for all “

(The writer is author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker and Women in Islam: Exploring New Paradigms)


Support Countercurrents

Countercurrents is answerable only to our readers. Support honest journalism because we have no PLANET B.
Become a Patron at Patreon

Join Our Newsletter


Join our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Get CounterCurrents updates on our WhatsApp and Telegram Channels

Related Posts

Join Our Newsletter

Annual Subscription

Join Countercurrents Annual Fund Raising Campaign and help us

Latest News