By Moin Qazi
India’s expenditure on social welfare schemes is much more than other developing countries, but it does not get the expected impact that significant public expenditure would seem to warrant. As the needs of the marginalised groups are not fully addressed, this issue of low impact return has been haunting social scientists and policy makers for decades.
According to the UN’s 2016 Human Development Index, India ranks at a lowly 131 among 188 countries, alongside Bangladesh, Congo, Pakistan, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, and Namibia. The report puts it in the “medium human development” bracket, and it has made no improvement in its ranking from the previous year.
Choosing the road not taken
Tackling poverty requires a fundamentally different approach; one that starts with the people themselves by inspiring initiative, creativity, and drive. This principle must be at the core of all social welfare programs. Only then, the programs will produce impacts that are lasting and meaningful. People should be supported to make important decisions in their communities so that they can build their democracies and development will follow. In doing so, they will move their communities out of poverty, and take the world with them.
Economic development and social change cannot be imposed on communities. It must begin from within, even though the initial nudges may come from outside. Lasting change comes about so slowly that one might not notice it until the people resist being taken care of, for which they need to be given a chance to fulfil their own potential. When the programs designate the targeted community as participants and not as passive beneficiaries, only then can poverty be abolished. The Panchayati Raj is an innovative way to involve and empower the grassroots to participate in the development agenda.
The “bottom-up” approach, which is being repeatedly emphasised in the development discourse, is about living and working with the intended target population, and listening to them with humility to gain their confidence and trust. It transcends the barriers of modern development proposals. Many western assumptions of development may destroy existing workable low-cost structures. The “bottom-up” approach is about respecting and implementing the ideas of the poor while encouraging them to use their skills and knowledge for their own development. It is about taking the backseat and providing the space for them to develop themselves.
Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities, intelligence and responsibility of rural people and systematically build on their experience have a reasonable chance of making a significant impact on those people’s lives. Although imported programmes have the benefit of supplying “pre-tested” models, they are inherently risky because they may not take root in 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 them and the world of the greater value they could produce if they were empowered and equipped with the right tools.
The people who pioneered the world’s most successful development programmes recognised this potential and always sought to evoke it. They 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, as those societies have grown and prospered, even in less than optimal settings. A lot of good programmes got their start when an individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way.
In each case, innovators saw possibilities where others saw only hopelessness. They imagined a way forward that took into account the local realities and built on local strengths. A synergy of tools and political will is needed, then the course of history will be truly different.
It is time to heed the wisdom of the great 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”.
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