By Moin Qazi
Poverty is humanity’s cruellest affliction and India is home to the largest absolute number of poor people on the planet. People who are trapped in a cycle of poverty can’t often realise their lives can be changed for the better through their own efforts. Once they understand that, it’s like a light getting turned on.
Developing a new approach
For serving the poor and underserved, both reliably and consistently, a new development approach will have to be designed: One that treats the rural poor not as objects of charity but 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.
This reminds us of the Chinese sage who would tell his disciples: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” One day he was visited by one of his disciples with a nagging problem. “Master,” the disciple said, “I have five people who are hungry and thirsty, and I have rice, curry, soup, pickle, and water. How do I divide it among all the five? On the pretext of equality, if I divide all the five items equally among the five, nobody’s thirst or hunger is quenched. If I divide five items into one for each, again, I end up satisfying nobody.” The sage smiled and replied, “Give all the five items to the neediest and the one most willing to find food for others, and after his hunger and thirst are quenched, you both jointly find food for the rest.”
Defining an anthropologist
In his reflections on fieldwork, the doyen of Indian anthropologists, Professor M.N. Shrinivas described successful ethnography as passing through several stages. An anthropologist is ‘once-born’ when he goes initially to the fields, thrust from familiar surroundings into a world he has a 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 do not prepare one. All of a sudden, one sees everything from the native’s point of view, be it festivals, fertility rites, or the fear of death. A banker or a development expert is no less an anthropologist than a sociologist: He is a financial or a development anthropologist.
Throughout my early work in villages, I remained frustrated by the small scale and slow pace of change. At each inflexion point in a development career, the question one has to constantly ask oneself is: How can we have the biggest impact on the maximum number of people? In other words, how do we make development more sustainable in a world with no shortage of problem? It was a close engagement with the people that I realized that they were the most critical piece of the whole puzzle.
Story of Laxman
I always cite a lesson from this field experience. Laxman was an extremely poor landless agricultural labourer who lived in a village in Chandrapur. A well-meaning official decreed that Laxman should be given a subsidised loan to buy a rope-making machine. Laxman, afraid that he might not be able to repay the loan, tried to resist this offer; however, by that time, the loan had already been sanctioned and he was firmly told to accept it. The rope-making machine turned out to be defective, and while the bank officials kept promising that they would send someone to repair it, this never happened. Unable to get the machine repaired himself, Laxman sold it for a relatively small sum and bought seven goats with the proceeds. One year later, six of the goats had died. Laxman was left with one small goat and a debt larger than his entire annual income. It is extremely necessary that we ensure that development programmes have relevance to the beneficiaries and can be profitably sustained by the local economy. Or else we will be pushing them further into distress.
Dearth of a perspective
Although the data is skimpy, many of the anti-poverty schemes don’t appear to have a beneficiary orientation. The beneficiary perspective, i.e. the scheme seen from the point of view of the beneficiary, the rural poor, is missing. Targets, commands, exhortations, and threats come from above. From the periphery and bottom comes a weaker flow of filtered information which placates and misleads. In meetings, subordinates are upbraided, cajoled, and given orders and plaudits from visitors. A few prominent villagers are cultivated and are made to hear parroted sentences that can sound musical to the ears of visitors.
When programmes view their clients as beneficiaries, they tend to see them as relatively passive people and picture finance as a transfer of money from rich to poor. In such a context, decisions about what type of help to provide are made at the local level on the basis of what programme designers think is good for the beneficiaries.
It is extremely necessary to think of policy as a live object, a domain to engage all stakeholders. We should talk to customers because they have a sense of what they want, of the life they want. Every time we make policies, we forget that the customers have ambitions and aspirations. They are not zombies.
Multiple dimensions of development
When foreign dollar investors make millions off the backs of the poor, the poor are liable to display a decided lack of gratitude. This is a global issue which should be addressed by scaling back, going local, and giving borrowers the ownership of the process. The word “development” has many meanings—even within the “development community.” For Amartya Sen, the Nobel-winning economist and philosopher, development is freedom. Sen’s “freedom” is not the freedom of libertarians—not merely freedom from interference—but the increased agency in one’s life and an increased control over one’s circumstances. Many things bestow such freedom: Income, education, equal rights, and the ability to develop their own solutions to their daily problems.
The idea is to use local wisdom before we involve expertise from outside. The failure of so many development interventions over the past half-century can be partly attributed to their lack of rootedness in the society they were designed to change. Capacity-building needs to be grafted onto pre-existing foundational values, rather than importing another’s value base. Experience suggests that a participatory process helps ensure more active engagement by local people, a greater degree of local ownership, and increased reliability and quality assurance. It also helps overcome some of the ethical issues around such processes, including agreeing to its scale and scope, who is involved, and who has access to the data.
Role of academic orientation
Fortunately, the academic community is now no longer dominated by the elite. The social background of this tribe his now more representative of the population. The academic work is hands-on rather than hands-off, solving real problems but also learning better how the world works. The traditional dichotomy between the starry-eyed researcher working on the high perches and the practically minded development manager who is too busy to reflect is crumbling. Good academics know how to be practical and good policymakers know when they need to move out of their comfort zone, and they relish the experience.
Appropriately, President John F. Kennedy declared a half-century ago: “By defining our goal more clearly, by making it seem more manageable and less remote, we can help all people to see it, to draw hope from it, and to move irresistibly towards it.”
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