What Makes Social Programmes That Work


Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

28 Dec 2016 – 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—set up health services; if the poor lack capital to start businesses, give them credit. But the actual reality is not simple, it is very complicated. Well 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 make appropriate choices.

Most development programmes for   poor have been designed on the assumption that the poor need charities 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. 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 microfinanciers because bank loans, despite being cheaper, are mired in redtapism. The poor despise the bureaucratic systems that consume precious mandays and may not yield any benefits in the end. These poor now understand that loss of several mandays in chasing government departments for   official largesse   neutralizes the net benefits. And they also suffer so many indignities in the process.

There are critics who believe the poor are so poor, why you would make them pay for things. My experience over almost four decades, during which I closely connected with rural India, has taught me that for the rural poor dignity is more important than anything else and that the poor already pay for things, so let’s find a way to provide them things they can afford and want. What the poor insist is that the development programs must deliver what they actually 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’re going to come in and fix something for them, and they  should remain beholden to us.. The only way for these programmes  to really build trust is by starting from what people really feel what change their lives for the  better..

Tackling poverty requires a fundamentally different approach: one that starts with people themselves and encourages the initiative, creativity and drive from below. This principle  must be at the core of any programme that wants to   transform the lives of the poor   . If people can be given the support they need to make important decisions in their own communities, to build their own democracies in their own ways, they can do the rest themselves. In doing so, they will not only move their own communities out of poverty, they will take the world with them. Change must come from within: communities must  be empowered with proper tools to  enable them to make their own decisions .the outcome will be more meaningful and impacting .

Economic development and social change cannot be imposed from without. It must begin from within even though the initial nudges may have to come from outside. Lasting change comes about so slowly that you may not notice it until people resist being taken care of—they need to be given a chance to fulfill their own potential. When we design solutions that recognize the poor as clients or customers and not as passive recipients of charity, we have a real chance to end poverty. Importing unworkable ideas, equipment and consultants destroys the capacity of communities to help themselves.

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 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. In short, we need development anthropologists.

The “bottom up” approach, which is being repeatedly emphasized in the development discourse, is about living and working with the poor, and listening to them with humility to gain their confidence and trust. It cannot be bought and manipulated with money, or by grafting urban assumptions of development which in fact may destroy existing workable low cost structures. It is about respecting and implementing the ideas of the poor, encouraging them to use their skills and knowledge for their own development. It is about taking a back seat 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 significant advances in improving those people’s lives.

During the last several decades, Third World governments, backed by international aid organizations, have poured billions of dollars into cheap-credit programmes for the poor, particularly in the wake of the World Bank’s 1990 initiative to put poverty reduction at the head of its development priorities. And yet those responsible for such transfers had, and in many cases continue to have, only the haziest of ideas of what they achieved, and how their intervention could be redesigned to improve matters. Although imported programmes have the benefit of supplying ‘pre-tested’ models, they are inherently risky because they may not take root in the 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 not only them but also the rest of us of the greater value they could produce if only they were empowered and equipped with the right tools.

The people who pioneered the world’s most successful development programmes recognized 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.

If we see and analyze societies which have grown and prospered we will observe that several development successes have occurred in less than optimal settings. A lot of good programs got their start when one individual looked at a familiar landscape in a fresh way .In each case, creative individuals saw possibilities where others saw only hopelessness, and imagined a way forward that took into account local realities and built on local strengths. . We increasingly have the tools. But we lack the necessary political will .If we have the courage to use them, the course of history will be truly different.

Panchayat Raj is just one of the ways of involving and empowering the grassroots to participate in the development agenda .The poor don’t want handout ,they want hand up.

It is time we 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”.


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 2 Jan 2017.

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One Response to “What Makes Social Programmes That Work”

  1. rosemerry says:

    If we valued real people and their actions, it would help a lot. What is more important than food, shelter, families, friends, access to education? Why are bankers paid so much? Why are the rich given so much power? Not because they are more worthwhile. Democracy does not mean just voting every now and then, regardless of who chooses the candidates. I do not believe that Modi was chosen in full understanding by the poor in India!!!!