One of the most dispiriting features of modern development discourse is the strong influence of elitism. One of the pitfalls of elitism is that it places a disproportionate value on the style rather than the content of the approach. There are authors and writers on rural development who arrogate to themselves the right to hand out certificates for best practices. These people shut themselves from the world and give lengthy opinions on the basis of reports and statistics appearing in journals. Development experts live on a planet of their own—in total disconnect with the ground world —dominated by summits, conclaves, and conferences. If we want to move the needle on tough problems, recycling jargon and reusing the same old frameworks are not good enough. It is easy to dish out lectures on development, but it is an arduous task to practice it.
There are plenty of ethical questions to be asked from those who make a professional living from their expertise in poverty and despair. I know that what used to be said about malaria applies as cynically to poverty too: There are more people living with it than dying from it. A number of NGOs make a killing on starvation deaths. For instance, at what point does a scholar stop being a scholar and become a parasite who feeds off despair and dispossession?
There are plenty of researchers who believe that Western development policies have failed. They’re not just talking about individual, misguided projects — they’re referring to the entire model. They believe that development aid merely exports Western notions of poverty, consumerism and wealth to traditional village communities and creates an unhealthy dependency. According to them, development aid does more to boost the global economy than to improve the lives of the people it supposedly intended to help.
During my career in development, I have seen projects and strategies succeed as well as fail. I have seen misguided project designs, poor implementation, and squandering of large sums of money. But I have also witnessed incredible achievements. When development works well, it can transform lives by providing the underprivileged with the capital and knowledge that can open up opportunities for them and reduce their poverty. The development community seems constantly and restlessly in search of a singular approach. The fundamental flaw with this system is that each new approach fails to break out of the underlying technocratic and specialized paradigm.
I have learned one significant lesson from my engagement with the poor and uneducated: They are nowhere near as helpless as the rich and educated like to believe. Often they find solutions that we don’t understand.
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. However, we must recognize, when examining specific experiences with replication in mind, that the personal charisma and passion of inspirational leaders cannot be transfused. Imposition of unwilling leaders has been the bane of most development programmes.
Poverty reduction is not a discipline. You can’t get somebody from a university who has done a PhD in poverty reduction. Nor is there a talisman for eradicating poverty. It may also not be possible to lay down a standard blueprint for a rural development programme. Leadership in rural development programmes is a clinical art and people need the experience to learn it. From their own experience, development veterans can spell out the ingredients that one may need to be successful. But the practitioners shall have to work out their own recipes for blending these ingredients in the right proportions. 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 and vice versa.
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 reports and prescriptions of consultants with ground realities. There are those who have been making points that if the consultants are so confident of their advice and plans, why don’t they execute it themselves. The old adage about teachers gets changed slightly: “Those who can, do; those who cannot, consult.”
Consultants must seek a more active engagement with the poor so that they have an authentic feel of the reality. 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 local people. There are too many consultants willing to give advice. However, most of it is descriptive and very rarely contains prescriptions.
Nevertheless, consultants do have a role to play. There is always 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 of the latest thinking in the academic and practitioners’ worlds and of their own often-considerable inner research to the real world.
A close analysis would reveal that it is elitism that has given rise to techno-utopians who see potentially revolutionary possibilities in the proliferation of cell phones and other shiny gadgets that appear and vanish with rapid periodicity. The promises are very seductive. The international development community is having a love affair with the mobile phone and other new technological apps. However, the reality is much harder than we imagine. It is easier to spread technology than to bring about extensive change in social attitudes and human capacity. It is easier to purchase a thousand PCs than to provide real education for a thousand children. It is much less agonising to run a text-messaging health hotline than to convince people to boil water before drinking it.
The unfulfilled promise of past technologies rarely piques the most optimist advocates of the cutting edge, who believe that their favourite new tool is genuinely different from all others that came before. We must not forget that we are working with a constituency which is both politically and socially mute.
The “technological” layer is another tool—the means to an end—not a solution in and of itself. In certain conditions, it happens to be the most powerful tool and certainly enables services to be delivered efficiently at scale with great benefits. It has all to do with how we are using it and how we are defining the outcomes. We need to be careful to not, in our over-haste, throw the baby out with the bathwater; it will be detrimental to all.
We all know what the real issues are and we also have the tools. What we lack is the will and honesty to embrace solutions that may threaten some of our self-serving privileges. What we need is a new and improved form of development support—one that also seeks to preserve the independence of the traditional village communities where it carries out its projects. We just have to keep believing in the goodness of people. We must give up our arrogance and choose empathy. Before changing the system, we must change ourselves from within.
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]