Putting the Last First


Moin Qazi – TRANSCEND Media Service

Handing the Poor the Reins of Development

29 Jan 2017 – The priorities of village people are constantly undergoing changes. These   are, in fact, a result of the changes the development landscape is undergoing. A generation or two ago, ending hunger would have been the overwhelming need. Not any more even if malnutrition remains a challenge. Development also has brought electricity, more roads, pumps and overhead tanks — all non-existent a generation or two ago.

But we haven’t woken up to the reality that the effective maintenance of these assets and the effective provision of services is what are now needed. Nothing so cruelly mocks village India as electricity in the wires but bulbs  which don’t switch on; or pumps costing several thousand rupees rendered idle because a five rupee rubber washer needs replacement. We give Harijans free pucca houses because they cannot build their own. Yet how many of them suffer from substandard construction and water seepages we don’t care.   .it is time we ask the people what they want. Or, better still, leave it to the people to ask each other what they want and then decide themselves how they want to spend their resources.

Development economists acknowledge that the poor act rationally, however straitened their circumstances. If their undertakings are too small, or their efforts too thinly spread, to be efficient, it is not because they have miscalculated, but because the markets for land, credit or insurance have failed them. Good management of even the smallest asset can be crucial to very poor people, who live in precarious conditions, threatened by lack of income, shelter and food. To overcome poverty, they need to be able to borrow, save and invest, and to protect their families against adversity they need to be insured. With little income or collateral, poor people are seldom able to obtain loans from banks and other formal financial institutions.

For serving the poor and under served, both reliably and consistently, a new development approach will have to be designed ones that treat the rural poor not as objects of charity, but that 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. Although imported programmes have the benefit of supplying “pre-tested” models, they are inherently risky because they do not grow out of local culture and may not take root when transplanted. Home-grown models have greater chances of success.

Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities, intelligence and responsibility of rural people and that systematically build on experience have a reasonable chance of making significant advances in improving those people’s lives. A critical success factor is creating organizational capabilities at local levels that can mobilize and manage resources effectively for the benefit of the many rather than just the few.

Now more than ever, it is important to reaffirm that significant advances are attainable for the hundreds of millions of households whose constitute “the rural poor.” They are a potential source of great knowledge 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 under more conducive circumstances. People who pioneered successful social programmes   recognized this potential and sought to evoke it.

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. For development interventions to catalyze fundamental change, they have to engage with people’s identity and values, whether they be individuals, communities, organizations or indeed nations. 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 on its scale and scope, who is involved, and who has access to the data.

Many of the anti-poverty schemes don’t appear to have a beneficiary orientation. The beneficiary perspective, that is, 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 to them are parroted sentences that can sound musical to the ears of visitors.

Most of the governments reports on several development programmes as on the education system in villages are based on cooked up figures .However, this rarely finds its way onto the record. Principals telling the truth are likely to be penalized for “poor performance”. Better to cook up the numbers.  That is how governments lie to themselves .An officer recording figures honestly will be seen as an inefficient one. More so when a neighbouring district produces figures that are music to the ears of the government. The junior officials have to tweak the figures before submitting them to the district headquarters. Officers filing cheery reports become the favoured boys of the management.

What is needed most of all is moral leadership willing to build solutions from the perspectives of poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them. This is true for all people working in all organizations. Big ideas that are impractical and are not shared by the people who implement them are doomed to failure. Rather, what is needed is leadership that understands how to facilitate the process of idea creation within the context of the community in which it is created.

Many years ago, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made a speech that is often quoted by our cooperators. It was the speech in which he spoke of “convulsing India in cooperation”. Less noted, but far more important, were other words he spoke that day, words that are most relevant today.

“I do not accept the statement often made that the Indian peasant is so frightfully conservative that you cannot make him come out of [his] rut. He is a very intelligent person — given the chance — only a little cautious, only wanting some proof, some evidence of what he is asked to do…and not taking too much for granted. Now that makes cooperation in India for the rural people absolutely essential.”

He continued to say:

“That is why we do not want, as in the past, the district official, or any other official, to throw his weight around too much. Again, he is the adviser and friend, but not the boss.”

He then said:

“…we wanted to draw the mind of the people out of the old conception of some big officials sitting on top and ordering about people to do things…”

Nehru expressed his faith in our rural people and remarked:

“…theirs will be the decisions and if they make mistakes, they will suffer for them, and learn from them.”

  What Jawaharlal Nehru was telling us was that we must learn to trust our citizens. They would learn from their mistakes. Most important, there would be a clear, unambiguous link between the exercise of authority and responsibility on the one hand, and accountability to those who had given that authority and entrusted our leaders with responsibility — the people of India.


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 6 Feb 2017.

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