Tackling Poverty, One Meaningful Step At A Time


The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt

In India, the priorities of village 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 anymore 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 is 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 Harijans 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. If their undertakings are too small, or their efforts too thinly spread, to be efficient, it is not because they have miscalculated, but because the markets for land, credit or insurance have failed them. Good management of even the smallest asset can be crucial to very poor people, who live in precarious conditions, threatened by lack of income, shelter and food. To overcome poverty, they need to be able to borrow, save and invest, and to protect their families against adversity they need to be insured. With little income or collateral, poor people are seldom able to obtain loans from banks and other formal financial institutions.

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.

What is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them. Big ideas that are impractical and are not shared by the people who implement them are doomed to failure. Rather, what is needed is leadership that understands how to facilitate the process of idea creation within the context of a community.

Programmes can be more effective when issues and problems are identified by the people. Though well thought, externally introduced projects can help development, an absence of people’s active involvement and linking these projects with their problems, such projects will most likely not be sustained. When villages organize, identify needs and communicate problems, the community becomes the solution.

The most powerful weapons for reducing poverty are policy instruments that benefit poverty reduction without in any way harming the dominant coalition of political power. If a set of instruments harms the interests of the dominant coalition, it will not be implemented, even if it is known to reduce poverty. Advocacy for poverty reduction must mean not only advocacy for instruments that we know will lead to this outcome, but also for a realignment of the dominant coalition in a way that will orient it to the interests of the poor. We should alternately advocate for the empowerment of the poor so that they can indeed challenge the dominant interests, and re-engineer alliances in a way that will make possible policies and interventions for poverty reduction.

During the last several decades, Third World governments, backed by international aid organizations, have poured billions of dollars into cheap-credit programmes for the poor, particularly in the wake of the World Bank’s 1990 initiative to put poverty reduction at the head of its development priorities. And yet those responsible for such transfers had, and in many cases continue to have, only the haziest of ideas of what they achieved, and how their interventions could have been better designed to achieve real impact.

The international poverty industry is worth trillions of US dollars a year. It’s bursting with experts, advisors and consultants. There is a surfeit of reports studies, books publications, PhD grants, consultancies, loans. Rural development is now becoming an old-fashioned cause. It is now dominated by a new breed of savvy professionals calling themselves development experts. Social entrepreneurship is another of its kind and has become the bandwagon everybody is clambering on and every progressive politician across the country wants a piece of the development pie? There is big money in these development projects. What the new bandwagon implies is a new way of development in the villages.

Although imported programmes have the benefit of supplying ‘pre-tested’ models, they are inherently risky because they may not take root in the local culture when transplanted. Home-grown models have greater chances of success. The hundreds of millions of households who constitute the rural poor are a potential source of great wealth and creativity who, under present institutional, cultural and policy conditions, must seek first and foremost their own survival. Their poverty deprives not only them but also the rest of us of the greater value they could produce if only they were empowered and equipped with the right tools.

We need to temper our optimism about several untested interventions whose potential is grossly overvalued. One of them is technology. Technology—no matter how well designed—is only a magnifier of human capacity and intent but is not a substitute. If you have a resource of competent, well-intentioned people, then the appropriate technology can amplify their efforts and lead to amazing outcomes. But, in circumstances where that devotion is lacking, as in the case of corrupt government bureaucrats, or minimal capacity, as in the case of people who have lack basic education, no amount of technology will turn things around. A glaring case is of telemedicine. It has been touted as a revolutionary tool for curing dysfunctional rural health. But we all know it has not been able to deliver the promised results. Most projects rarely fulfil their promise. For instance, teaching farming practices through video requires capable agriculture-extension officers and devoted nonprofit staff. Technology has positive effects only to the extent that people are willing and able to use it positively. Our obsession with so many shiny gadgets has never helped us in delivering development in developing societies. This is the lesson of most social programmes the world over. They have a role to play when we develop the capacity of the people to absorb it.

What we really need is solutions that the end users can work with and sustain them in the long term. This is now a popular approach, known in development discourse as the “bottom-up”approach. It 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.

In my own engagement with rural projects, 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. We now have the techniques and resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will

(Moin Qazi is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker.)



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