Flashlights for Warriors of Development Programmes

DEVELOPMENT, 23 Jan 2017

Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

“There is no limit to what a man can do or how far he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.”

Robert Woodruff —Coca Cola CEO 1926 -1954

India spends more on programmes for the poor than most developing countries, but it has failed to eradicate poverty because of widespread corruption and faulty approaches. To use the development jargon, India are not getting the ‘bang for the rupee’. This   apparent failure has haunted social scientists and policy makers, making poverty seem all the more intractable.

A major flaw in our development paradigm is that the focus is more on physical resources and less on human resources .We seem to discount the human factor in all our programmmess. To refresh the words of the gat anthropologist Margaret Mead:”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” –

Behind the gleaming images of icons of successful development revolutions is the untold saga of the sacrifice of the grassroots staff that holds the fort as brave and heroic warriors.    The honor and reverence due these brave extraordinary individuals who have fought and   for a cause bigger than themselves cannot be embodied in awards and citations. Though our focus   is most often on   issues such as chronic poverty; empowerment of women and the disenfranchised; and a sustainable solution to economic instability; the lessons of all successful policies and progammes for achieving these objectives   cuts to the heart of something we should never forget. .The individuals, and their families and loved ones, who have made and continue to make the ultimate sacrifice for something larger than themselves In ensuring the success of these missions.

Development work is dirty, you have to soil your hands, you have to cope with vile at the lowest dregs of some of the societies in which you have to pursue the work. Business schools don’t teach you how to fight goons; risk mitigation strategies like sophisticated metrics and business algorithms can’t hold water in the face of the mad frenzy of populist politicians; technological gadgets can’t speak the language of humanism.

We should really applaud and honour ordinary men and women, who have nobody to back them, yet are working doggedly to keep projects rolling .Nobody can fathom the immense mental and physical suffering they and their families undergo. I doubt whether   outsiders like us, protected by passport, police and the state, can be justified in goading others to risk their livelihoods, their families’ well-being, or their lives. To take risks for oneself is one thing. To encourage others to do so is quite another. As Adlai Stevenson has commented so pithily:  “It is easier to fight for principles than to live up to them “.

Even more, for any outsider to encourage vulnerable poor people to take risks raises ethical questions, especially when it is they, and not the outsider, who will pay the price of failure. A very   honest and painstaking reflection is demanded of all so called social interventions touted as serving the bottom of the pyramid population .New agricultural practices being propagated with inducements and promises raise several ethical questions. Too much has been talked about of the wealth at the bottom of the pyramid as if it is a cash cow to be milked at will or they are so many low hanging ripened fruits waiting to be plucked. The peasants might have a keener understanding of development and its implications than the economists sitting in the rarefied atmosphere of Yojana Bhavan.

It is this distance that has grown between the planners and the people in the rural matrix that has plagued the rural financial system. Too much dependence on data and much less direct engagement with the poor has been the major cause of failure for most state mandated development programmes

Those brave and committed development workers may feel that their position is hopeless, that there is nothing they can do. The ‘system’ is too strong for them. Perhaps the best antidote to this despair is to study the examples and lives of those who have fought against the odds and succeeded. In every country there are some courageous people — political and religious leaders, civil servants, workers in voluntary agencies, academics, scientists, and others — who have refused to give in, who have stuck by their principles and whose lives shine as examples to others of what can be done. For those who side with the poor, too, there may be unexpected floods of support. But not all can expect recognition or to become folk-heroes. For most of those who put the last first, the satisfaction and rewards are not fame, but in knowing that they have done what was right, and that things are, however slightly, better than they would have been. Their small deeds may not command attention; but in merit, they may equal or exceed the greater and more conspicuous actions of those with more freedom and power.

For the test is what people do. Social change flows from individual actions. Small gains well consolidated as part of a sequence can mean more than big gains which are unstable and short-lived. By changing what they do, people move societies in new directions and themselves change.   Big simple solutions are tempting but full of risks. For most outsiders, most of the time, the soundest and best way forward is through innumerable small steps could be just nudges and tiny pushes. Slower and smaller steps also help building up people’s adaptability to changes. We should look for small innovations, not just blockbusters.

Several development successes have occurred in less than optimal settings often under appalling conditions of weak governance ,widespread corruption  ,minimal infrastructure ,deep-rooted social divisions and poorly functioning judicial system .in each case ,creative individuals saw possibilities where others saw hopelessness .They imagined a way for ward that took into account local realities’  and built on local strengths  they were willing to experiment and ignore the skeptics ,until the skeptics became supporters and often partners working to bring about change on a larger scale .

There are managers who have shown personal courage and ingenuity in creating safe spaces in which they can pursue development work. Their reward is not early promotion or early transfer. Their families stay far away in towns where the faculties for education and health care are at least satisfactory.  Their transfer is ruled out because there are no replacements to relieve them

Before I took up a full time career in development banking I worked as a journalist focusing on development sector. I wrote extensively in both the national and international press and travelled externally in remote hinterland. This experience provided me a firsthand idea of rural problems and it motivated me to become a part of the development revolution. As a journalist I could never visualize the hazards of a career in villages.  All along I had been protected with an important identity card which provided me ease of access to even the most powerful bureaucrats.   It gave me much needed security and protection from local leaders.

A village is served in too many conflicting ideologies and your city breeding doesn’t adequately weaponise you to deal with   the crude and rustic man oeuvres of local leaders. .  In the heady world of policy and investment conferences, it is easy for policy makers to forget the incredible tenacity and endurance demanded of grassroots development workers.

Everywhere, we hear people talking about a crisis of leadership, yet we constantly meet extraordinary leaders tenaciously take on the world’s toughest problems, even at the risks to their lives and reputation.  We see a generation yearning for shared values, for goodness, a shared sense of what is right. It is easier to be an entrepreneur than to be a leader.  Effecting real change requires both.  As the great Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe who we lost so recently wrote:

“Leadership is a sacred trust like priesthood in civilized, humane religions.  No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly because it demands qualities of mind and discipline, of body and will, far beyond the need of the ordinary citizens.”

True leadership requires a spiritual grounding, the humility to cultivate a shared consciousness that we are truly connected to one another. It requires confronting our own internal fears and external resentments. It means moving from a place that holds sacred the notion that “I am, because you are.”

The inability to put oneself in the shoes of the poor and to keep on living the same way thinking “thank god I don’t have to live THAT way” just doesn’t work. Berating or patronizing rural folks is both culturally and professionally the most undesirable extension of any rural development executive’s personal trait. Unfortunately most aid personnel have cultivated this mind-set and approach.

Much and warranted attention is paid to the lives of recipients of aid and benefits of social progammes – their household lives, saving habits, gender relations, etc. It’s held that a key to measuring the effectiveness of aid is contained in such details. Rarely, however, is the lens turned on the lives of   development workers themselves: how   workers’ moral beliefs interlink and conflict with their initial motivations, how they relate to aid beneficiaries, their local NGO counterparts, and other staff , the effect of transient lifestyles and insider language, and the security and family issues that come with choosing such a career. Personal courage and values count.   Whatever refined city values we hold so dear, they are tested in this field. Peaceful coexistence with political agents remains an ongoing challenge.

Senior bureaucrats are smart   and may leave little paper trail behind to provide clues to their motives. Junior officials are not intelligent enough and their naivety also imposes severe handicaps on them. They are also under   direct fire as they serve as the primary interface of the administration. The system gives no protection to the sincere and honest among them. A bureaucrat once told me if he cleared my file immediately, he might face vigilance inquiry as it will be perceived that he had acted in undue haste. The soon to retire bureaucrat decided that the best option was to pass the buck, by delaying the application until it became someone else’s responsibility.

We have the example of SEWA where highly talented women have renounced their ambrosia and pledged their lives for   empowering poor women. It would be outright vanity to dream of becoming social heroes overnight. The real development story is an aggregate of initiatives in thousands of clusters led by extraordinary people, few of them known and the vast majority of them unknown.

Though much rural development is welcomed by the whole population and does not involve outsiders in personal risk, much also involves conflicts of interest where the weak are dominated, exploited and cheated by the powerful. Where that happens, many of the rural poor and those who work with and for them face abuse, discrimination and danger; the bravest and most direct are often threatened; some are assaulted; and some are even killed.

There is much innovation and even heroism and sacrifice by staff of   development agencies known only to project beneficiaries and other staff, which is not only left anonymous but undocumented. Even when programme results are reported, the names and actions of the individuals who made the process successful on the ground are seldom known. We should really applaud and honour ordinary men and women, who have nobody to back them, yet are working doggedly to keep projects rolling.


Moin Qazi, PhD Economics, PhD English, is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades in India and can be reached at moinqazi123@gmail.com.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Jan 2017.

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