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The Last First~I

The professional lives of development experts are quite remote from the everyday strife of those who live in villages. In the village, each successive generation is born into the rigidity of caste; each generation must bear the rapacity of the moneylender and the merchant and the random cruelty of nature – floods, famines, and pestilence.

Moin Qazi |

A decade or two ago, many in the 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 ~ give them health services; if the poor lack capital to start businesses, give them credit. But the reality is complicated. 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 to demand accountability from their governments. 

Most development programmes for the poor have been designed on the fallacious assumption that the poor need charity and they cannot afford to pay for the services. This is erroneous and we have witnessed how dollops of free money have stifled their initiatives. 

Several studies have revealed that the poor are keen to have access to proper healthcare, education, sanitation and housing. They are willing to pay for the services if they are genuinely useful and are available through hassle-free systems. 

The real truth is that the poor do not deserve poor solutions to be thrust upon them. They have shifted from being price-conscious and conservative buyers to a value-seeking and brand-sensitive constituency. 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 micro-financers because bank loans, despite being cheaper, are mired in red tape. 

The poor are fed up with the bureaucratic procedures that consume their man-days and may not yield any benefits in the end. They are now wise enough to understand that the loss of several man-days in chasing government departments for official largesse neutralizes the net benefits. 

Some critics believe that the poor are so poor, so why you would make them pay for things? My experience over almost four decades, during which I connect- ed closely with rural India, has taught me that for the rural poor, dignity is more important than anything else. The poor already pay for things, so let’s find a way to provide the things they can afford and want. 

What the poor insist on is that development programmes must deliver what they need. This ethos underpins the new development paradigm. The mantra is: “Tell us what the poor want, don’t tell us what you think is good for them.” There’s arrogance to the attitude that we are going to come in and fix something for them. The only way for these programmes to build trust is by starting from what people feel which changes their lives for the better. 

Over years of wandering the villages, I have been compelled to revise much of my received wisdom about what our rural priorities should be. We must be challenged to see the reality of poverty and vulnerability through the eyes of a particular individual, typically a woman, and to understand how that person strives to overcome it. This way we can get a feeling of her daily worries and needs and develop solutions that have relevance to her needs. 

Development organisations working with bottom-of-pyramid communities have traditionally focused on clones of their urban programmes and strategies for serving the needs of these communities. The outcomes have inevitably been disastrous. 

They realized much too late that these communities have their peculiarities, and they require exclusive and mass customised products and services appropriate to their needs ~ be it in finance or consumer goods. Extensive research is required to establish their feasibility. Insurance is a major financial product that has to be tailored to the peculiar needs of rural people whose unpredictable income makes their profile far different from their urban counterparts. 

The novel uses of modern devices, such as mobile phones, offer a powerful source of solutions. The mobile phone is being integrated into various business processes, from vital health information to rural families, to poor farmers gaining access to commodity prices, to paying for water. Since the majority of these farmers are women, this means not only overcoming decades of neglect of smallholder farmers in general but also overturning generations of entrenched gender inequality, during which women have had less access to the essential elements of farming: land ownership, education and training, capital and credit, seed and fertiliser. 

The professional lives of development experts are quite remote from the everyday strife of those who live in villages. In the village, each successive generation is born into the rigidity of caste; each generation must bear the rapacity of the moneylender and the merchant and the random cruelty of nature ~ floods, famines, and pestilence. 

And yet the majority survive and adapt even when there is no external help. In other words, there is in the villages some collective wisdom for which the professional’s knowledge is not a substitute. This is why the divide between the professional and the village is so serious. Now also when we do go to the villages, it is to study them, to plan for them and to do well for them ~ but not to become one of them. 

It is highly laudable when we volunteer to work in marginalised communities, but it will be unfair if we go to ‘educate’ them about their problems. What is the type of ‘education’ we have in mind for them? We generate plans and then get their ‘buy-in’, and in this, the priority is the development product (latrines, health centres, church buildings) rather than the people, for which we bring incapacity rather than help build it within the community. This kind of ‘help’ is likely to stunt development because it creates dependency, conflict and feelings of helplessness. 

If you are already inside such an organisation, do what you can to help colleagues realize that development is an ongoing, endogenous process. It cannot simply lurch along, dependent on out- siders arriving with solutions and resources. The most 

committed advocates are those who have first-hand knowledge of the problem they seek to solve. Personal experience is the best way to create change agents. Inadequate investment in locally-led initiatives is one of the two ways in which we fail to ensure that those who are most affected by inequity have pathways to address it. If the users do not value the benefits, they will not use the facilities. Local users have much better skills than engineers at transforming technologies to suit their situations. Even the best university-taught skills aren’t going to be particularly useful there. 

The preference for growth over social justice, indeed, the argument that economic growth is the road to social justice, is advocated over and above increased spending. But is it required for accelerated growth to translate into inclusive growth? 

The answer lies in inclusive governance. In the absence of inclusive governance, the people at the grassroots, that is, the intended beneficiaries of poverty-alleviation programmes are left abjectly dependent on a bureaucratic delivery mechanism over which they have no effective control. 

The alternative system would be participatory development, where the people themselves are enabled to build their future through elected representatives responsible to the local community and, therefore, responsive to their needs. The participatory approach grounds academics and scientists with a worm’s eye view rather than that of the bird’s eye, which creates an abstracted, technocratic distance between developer and undeveloped. “Participatory development” has become development’s new avatar, and the rhetoric is replete with promises of empowerment and inclusion. But the fixes have been mostly semantic. 

In practice, there’s been little change in most outcomes and realities on the ground. People rarely get to choose the projects and programmes because of the inability of locals to be part of the process. 

Enhancing the quality of growth to promote sustainability, equity and inclusivity will require economists to connect their skills and perspectives with those of others. They must combine forces with political, institutional, and social analysts and also, crucially, with the people in public, private and civil sectors who are positioned to make real change happen. 

Development is about de- mand and delivery. If people know what to ask for, governments and development agencies will learn to respond. In the asymmetry that prevails, people lack awareness and access while policy designers have little touch with reality. 

Policy swings or policy paralysis fail to fulfil basic human aspirations for health, security, and the chance to contribute productively and creatively to society. They underutilize and misuse valuable human resources; and they often give rise to political or social turmoil, frequently marked by ideological or ethnic polarisation, which then leads either to more policy swings or to policy paralysis. 

Sustained growth requires a coherent, adaptable strategy that is based on shared values and goals, trust, and some degree of consensus. Of course, achieving that is easier said than done. 

In many places, welfare programmes have become essential buffers against drought and landlessness, but they also have been plagued by waste and corruption, a record cited by those who argue that a nationwide employment programme would funnel more money, not to the poor, but rather to corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, and local power brokers. Now, several organisations have shown that such projects can work and that grassroots capitalism is one of the best routes out of poverty. 

A development strategy that has been successful in one village may not necessarily give the same results in a neighbouring village. Hence there is a renewed emphasis of planners on area-specific plans. 

Transplanting cultures has been a favourite idea of armchair development experts, but time has shown that nothing could be as damaging as the imposition of an alien culture. Each society, howsoever nascent, has a social and cultural apparatus that regulates and balances the divergent traits and traditions. 



(The writer is an author, researcher and development professional. He can be reached at [email protected])