A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves -Lao Tzu

This pandemic has inflicted the greatest pain on those who had already been rendered most vulnerable, spurring great hardship and growing unease among low income families and micro businesses. It has uncovered existing inequities and created new ones.

Our failure to respond effectively to COVID19 reflects how deeply entrenched – and skewed – are our values and priorities.

Our current economic models do not benefit everyone equally. This has been true for a very long time, despite our growing apathy.

To combat this we will have to contend with the almost universal suspicion of grand political schemes. We will need plans, systems, and mutual accountability. But before we have all of that apparatus in place – the economic plumbing  we must understand more concretely what such a strategy means to the people it is meant to serve, who know best their own problems and also have relevant and sustainable solutions for them.

Tackling the problems of the disprivileged requires a fundamentally different approach: one that starts with the people themselves and encourages initiative, creativity and drive from below. This principle must be at the core of any strategy that hopes to transform their lives; only then that it can be lasting and meaningful.

Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities of the people who live in rural areas, and systematically build on their experience, have a reasonable chance of improving their lives. This can include enhancing their capacities to mobilise and manage resources effectively. If people can be given the support they need to build their own democracies in their own ways, they can do the rest themselves. In doing so, they will not only move their own communities, they will also take the world with them.

Change must come from within: communities must be able to make their own decisions regarding their future. Economic development and social change cannot be imposed from without. It must begin from within even though the initial nudges may have to come from outside.

Lasting change comes about so slowly that one may not notice it until people resist being taken care of. They need to be given a chance to fulfil their own potential. When we design solutions that recognise the poor as clients or customers, as people we must negotiate with, and not as passive recipients of charity, we have a real chance to end poverty.

The anthropologist MN Srinivas described successful ethnography as passing through several stages. An anthropologist is “once-born” when he goes initially into the field, thrust from familiar surroundings into a world he has very little clue about. And he is “twice-born” when, on living for some time among his tribe, he is able to see things from their viewpoint. All of a sudden, one sees everything from the host tribe’s point of view, be it festivals, fertility rites, or the fear of death.

In short, we need development anthropologists.

This is because local leadership is critical to driving ownership of social programmes. Successful programmes empower a community by valuing its voices and respecting their decisions. These programmes harness the power of communities to help them achieve their development, with the help of coordinated support, leading to equitable and inclusive growth. These approaches provide a guiding answer to the question often asked: “What does development mean?”

By building leaders within communities, we are ensuring that development programmes can eventually be handed back to them, and run independently of the original drivers.

We also need to design collective processes to develop an understanding of the communities’ needs and then provide them with the tools, technical support, and guidance they need to build leadership skills. It is very important to create a space where people can voice those opinions, disagree with each other, and criticise you. For instance, as an outsider, you are navigating years of patriarchy.

As agents of social change, we need to interact with local social and political structures, consulting with them and incorporating their views in making decisions. The pace of social change should be in keeping with the capacity of the local population, to carry them forward with it. This way we ensure that sustainability becomes a natural consequence of the process itself.

There is a Bahai dictum which says that social actions should be   pursued with the conviction that every population should be able to trace the path of its own progress. Social change is not a project that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.

We need to hire individuals with the entrepreneurialism and drive to create change on the ground.  You can’t solve the problems of the “last mile” from the headquarters. It takes local entrepreneurs, empowered to adapt easily to the nuances of local cultures to succeed. This approach has to be guided by local wisdom, and must show a deep appreciation of ground realities.

Each development agent will have to use her own creativity to ensure that interventions deliver the best value to stakeholders: the state, donor agencies, and recipients. Like a good doctor, she will have to know the general principles, and know the specifics.

Leaders can truly lead when they fully understand their team members and what inspires them. This knowledge comes with time and observation. Real leadership is when everyone else feels in charge. This is the only way to make sure that inequality and exclusion do not remain India’s enduring heritage.

In development, as in most public-policy areas, the question of values must be dealt with straightforwardly. A programme may have as many goals as there are institutional or individual actors, with the most crucial issues not openly discussed at any level among the principal stakeholders. Ambiguities and inconsistencies will remain unacknowledged and unaddressed, and conflicts of the assembly rooms and boardrooms will be pushed out into the field.

We need to develop more inclusive policies to ensure that rural development is made socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. Inclusive rural transformation can be promoted through people-centered development in which beneficiaries become agents of their own development, participating in designing, decision-making and execution of the processes. Moreover, the strategies for inclusive transformation have to be context-specific, building on local solutions which best address local challenges.

Such solutions may require adaptation over time. People will not actively and emotionally participate in an intervention unless it has relevance to their lives and their strengths. When communities take charge of projects, they also contribute through their labour and commitment, and engage actively with the system to ensure that projects are completed on time.

This ownership also helps ensure that assets thus created are maintained properly by the community. Professionals are only needed as facilitators, and this works very well for funders because they can get better outcomes at lower costs.

Most development academics and professionals are researchers with little real-world experience. The underdeveloped and marginalised communities are highly stratified, each one different from the other, and they need development experts who understand the subtle nuances of the dynamics at play in these communities. Intellectual sophistry cannot become a substitute for local-level social engineering.

Global developmental and economic planning models have reduced India’s disprivileged to a set of abstract data. They have followed developmental agendas that fail to reflect the real, micro-level needs of communities and have led to increased marginalisation and inequality for the rural poor.

To rectify this, we need to invest in developing local leaders who are typically under-acknowledged and under-supported so we are able to effectively engage with popular movements, community-based organisations, and grassroots activist groups that are close to locals.

These efforts will also foster better citizenship at the grassroots level and promote awareness of rights and obligations. This type of enlightened and engaged citizenry fosters a working democracy and ensures transparency and accountability.

Since local entrepreneurs know the community dynamics and power relationships, they are well-attuned to handling the actors in the local ecosystem. Their potential to drive change is tremendous, but they often lack opportunities for training and education, and are unable to access networks and finance. Yet they are an essential part of society and often don’t receive the credit they deserve as policy drivers and implementers in India’s challenging developmental space.

There are many lessons to be brought to table from field experience. We need to understand the existing human conditions rather than hastily proposing templates that serve the interests of the owners. Experts need to combine their knowledge with grassroots action and a wider community of practice. The incredibly evolving and complicated ecosystem requires better collaboration and partnerships for understanding, analysing, designing solutions, and undertaking impact studies to contribute to the wider knowledge pool within the sector.

There is need for integration of an entire gamut of resources, ranging from financial and human to markets and entitlements. When we address these issues empathetically, we can move ahead with a more self-assured, robust and proactive engagement towards inclusive growth and livelihoods development.

What we essentially need is a community based, business-like approach, encompassing grassroots action, policy advocacy, and everything in between.

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 moinqazi123@gmail.com


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