Poor must lead agenda
By Moin Qazi
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the declaration by the United Nations of 17 October as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. We have still a long way to go for making this world poverty free. One of the key strategies for eliminating poverty is equipping poor with the right development tools.
A decade or two ago, many in India’s development community acted with the best of intentions, but without the best of evidence. If households lack clean water—help build wells; if people suffer ill health—set up health services; if the poor lack capital to start businesses, give them credit. But the actual reality is not simple, it is very complicated. Well water can be contaminated, people don’t always use their local clinic, and savings or insurance may be better than credit. In theory, the poor themselves are in the best position to know what their communities need and what the right choices are.
Contrary to Third World assumptions, the Indian poor are willing to pay for quality services if they are genuinely useful and are available through hassle free systems. Today, the poor are investing their precious savings in private hospitals and private schools. They are also borrowing at heavy rates of interest from private finance because bank loans, despite being cheaper, are mired in thickets of red tapism.
The poor have lost trust in the State’s bureaucratic system that consumes so many precious mandays, involving loss of earnings, and may not finally yield any benefits. In fact, the poor are wiser now and understand that in several cases the loss of income in chasing government departments for official largesse neutralises the net benefits.
Every year, wealthy countries spend billions of dollars to help the world’s poor, paying for seeds, beans cows, goats, textbooks, business training, microloans, and much more. Such aid is designed to give the poor people things they can’t afford or the tools and skills they need to earn more. Much of this aid undoubtedly works. But even when assistance programmes accomplish things, they often do which get far more weightage than they deserve. More worrisome is the actual price of procuring and giving away goats sacks of beans and seeds, textbooks, and the like.
Indian planners should not discount completely the merit of providing certain goods and services to the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid, but we must understand that poor are not at the bottom of the knowledge or innovation pyramids. Unless they encourage building on the resources in which poor people are rich, the development process will not be mutually respectful and learning cultures will not be fostered in societies. Inclusive development cannot be imagined without incorporating diversified, decentralised, and distributed sources of solutions developed by local people, on their own, without outside help.
For serving the poor and underserved, both reliably and consistently, a new development approach will have to be designed, one which treats the rural poor not as objects of charity, but that holds the development administration accountable and responsive to their needs. This is only possible when the instruments and institutions of development are placed in the hands of the poor. Although imported programmes have the benefit of supplying “pre-tested” models, they are inherently risky because they do not grow out of local culture and may not take root when transplanted. Home-grown models have greater chances of success.
The argument for a systemic reordering of the planning and delivery mechanism to shift from bureaucratic delivery to participatory development has been made right form early planning era, but somehow has not been integrated forcefully into our grassroots plans.
We must build the capacity of our people to solve problems on their own. Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities of native people and that systematically build on experience have a reasonable chance of making significant advances in improving those people’s lives. With the goal of empowering people, social development is a process of transforming institutions for greater inclusion, cohesion and accountability.
A critical success factor is creating organisational capabilities at local levels that can mobilise and manage resources effectively for the benefit of the many rather than just the few. Developing skills and competencies in people, and strengthening institutions and structures that can channel them are a critical part of that capacity.
We need to commit resources such as time, talent and strategic counselling to the beneficiaries. Solutions come from pairing passion with skills and digging deep into the challenge at hand.
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.
Grant making is not the solution. This is not to say that grants are bad; they are just one part of the solution. Aid is sometimes given badly or not in the way it should be. Aid is not purposeful when it is used to patch up the effects of basic differences that are built into the structure and values of society. In such cases, aid may amount to actually accepting the injustices of society while trying to mitigate the results of the injustices.
The right way ahead is to let the poor lead the development agenda. 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 compartmentalised into project mode, to suit donors and governments.
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. 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.”—INFA