By Moin Qazi
The perception that the poor do not have skills or would not be able to survive on their own is a myth. Strategies ensuring wider participation of the poor in schemes aimed at solving their problems have to be encouraged. It is the unleashing of their social and mental energies and, not hackneyed government programmes and tiring lip service of politicians, which will make India’s development ambition a reality. All that the pro-villages rhetoric does is to pay lip service to the people who still live there without electricity and running water.
Development is fuller when put in people’s hands, especially the poor, who know best how to use the scarce and precious resources they could be provided with for their upliftment. The first generation leaders of independent India believed that economic justice would be advanced by the lessons of cooperation where common efforts to achieve the common good will subsume all artificial differences of caste, community and religion.
The need to listen
There is a lot of discussion in public forums of involving the stakeholders for appropriate development of the society in which the poor live. However, poor people rarely get the opportunity to develop their own agenda and vision or set terms for the involvement of outsiders. The entire participatory paradigm illustrates that people are participating in plans and programmes that the outsiders have designed. Not only is there little opportunity for them to articulate their ideas, there is also seldom an institutional space where their ingenuity and creativity in solving their own problems can be recognised, respected and rewarded
Today the most important need for a development worker posted in a rural area is the need to listen. The best advice one could ever give to new entrants in the field of development is to listen to what the people want instead of trying to assume what the problems and solutions are. If the primary focus is really ending poverty, a partnership must be established among poor communities so that they learn from one another and share traditional, practical knowledge and skills. That model encourages colossal falsification of figures, the excessive hiring of private consultants and contractors, conflicts of interest and a massive patronage system.
Why the heap of unsuccessful programmes?
Importing unworkable ideas, equipment and consultants destroys the capacity of communities to help themselves. Ensuring that those most in need are not forgotten and that they have the freedom to make their own choices is just as important as delivering concrete development outcomes. The people who pioneered the world’s most successful development programmes recognised this potential and always sought to evoke it. These are the ones who enabled the poor to take the right step on the right ladder at the right time. The results have been miraculous.
The main reason for many of the previous programmes going awry is that the development workers, particularly the senior bosses, never had the patience to understand the problems and needs of villagers. During their official visits, they move through villages as if they are passing through revolving doors, rarely interested in dropping into a villager’s house, afraid of catching an infection if they are made to taste the villager’s hospitality. Remarks like, ‘I am a farmer myself’, ‘ you can’t pull wool over my eyes’ and ‘I was born and brought up in a village and know rural problems better than anybody else’ are a sign of arrogance and will not go down well with the people with whom one wants to work.
Engaging one-on-one with the poor
It is only through long and close contact with the poor themselves and through working with them that one is able to gain a deeper understanding and a more balanced view. In this way, one’s experience is not that of typical non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Many of these work from within the confines of the project enclave or are based in urban centres from where excursions are made into the villages by jeeps. Such brief or sporadic encounters are unlikely to give any great insights into the lives of the poorest. Sadly, many NGOs are far removed from the realities of poverty and often fail to reach those most in need.
Something as simple as a human-to-human connection can let one overcome both language and culture barriers. The truth of a village can come out only with time—time for trust to build between the villagers and outsiders and time for the outsider to peel away all the layers to get at the truth. In his reflections on fieldwork, the doyen of Indian anthropologists—Professor M.N. Shrinivas—has talked of successful ethnography as having to pass through three stages. An anthropologist is once-born when he initially goes to the fields, thrust from familiar surroundings into a world he has very little clue about. He is twice-born when, on living for some time among his tribe, he is able to see things from their viewpoint. To those anthropologists, fortunate enough to experience it, this second birth is akin to a Buddhist urge of consciousness for which years of study or mere linguistic facility is not enough to prepare. All of a sudden, one is about to see everything from the native’s point of view—be it festivals, fertility rites or the fear of death.
The prerequisites of humility and passion
Economic development and social change must begin from within even though the initial nudges may have to come from outside. Well-meaning people should have the open-mindedness to listen to those who work in the field and live the day-to-day challenges. That respect opens many doors. Lasting change comes about so slowly that one may not notice it until people resist being taken care of and they need to be given a chance to fulfil their own potential.
All people deserve is to have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives but the most marginalised in society are too often denied a say of any kind. When solutions that recognise the poor as clients or customers and not as passive recipients of charity are designed, a real chance to end poverty is created. Humility is needed for any revolution to succeed. When solutions that recognise everyone as equal partners are designed, a real chance to achieve our national goals is created. This logic comes from the power of empathy—not a form of empathy that comes from superiority, but one born from a profound humility.
From the drawing board to delivery, one has to inhabit the product and the programme, living every detail as if it were a living, breathing organism. One has to put so much of life into this thing and there are such rough moments that most people give up. They cannot be blamed. One has to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that (s)he wants to right. If one is not passionate enough from the start, (s)he will never stick it out.
As Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s Milk Revolution repeatedly emphasised, “India’s place in the sun would come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural people and skill of its professionals.”
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