De­vel­op­ment must look at the ben­e­fi­ciary’s per­spec­tive

The Asian Age - - News+ - Moin Qazi The writer is Mem­ber of Niti Aayog’s Na­tional Com­mit­tee on Fi­nan­cial Lit­er­acy and In­clu­sion for Women

■ Many of the de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes don’t have a ben­e­fi­ciary ori­en­ta­tion. Tar­gets, com­mands, ex­hor­ta­tions, and plans come from above. From the pe­riph­ery and bot­tom comes a weaker flow of fil­tered in­for­ma­tion which pla­cates and mis­leads. In meet­ings, sub­or­di­nates are up­braided, given or­ders from vis­i­tors. A few prom­i­nent vil­lagers are cul­ti­vated and made to re­peat par­roted sen­tences.

The great thinker Geert Hof­st­ede once out­lined cer­tain ba­sic is­sues that so­ci­ety needs to come to terms with in or­der to or­gan­ise it­self. He called them the di­men­sions of cul­ture. One of them is Power Dis­tance. Power Dis­tance is the ex­tent to which the less pow­er­ful mem­bers of or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­sti­tu­tions ( like the fam­ily) ac­cept and ex­pect that power is dis­trib­uted un­equally. People who are trapped in a cy­cle of low in­come and ex­clu­sion 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.

What we re­ally need to­day is a new de­vel­op­ment ap­proach: One that treats in­di­vid­u­als and pro­gramme ben­e­fi­cia­ries not as ob­jects of charity but as ac­tive par­tic­i­pants who can hold the de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity ac­count­able and re­spon­sive to their needs. It is ex­tremely nec­es­sary to think of pol­icy as a live ob­ject and the ben­e­fi­cia­ries not as func­tions in the sys­tem but ac­tive play­ers and the de­vel­op­ment ap­pa­ra­tus as a tool to en­gage all stake­hold­ers. We should talk to people be­cause they have a sense of what they want, of the life they want. Ev­ery­time we make poli­cies, we for­get that the ben­e­fi­cia­ries or clients have am­bi­tions and as­pi­ra­tions. They are not zom­bies. This is only pos­si­ble when the in­stru­ments and in­sti­tu­tions of de­vel­op­ment are placed in the hands of these com­mu­ni­ties.

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.”

In his re­flec­tions on field­work, the doyen of In­dian an­thro­pol­o­gists, pro­fes­sor M. N. Srini­vas 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. 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 prob­lems? How do we get the big­gest bang with the least money? It was with close en­gage­ment with the people that I re­alised that they were the most crit­i­cal piece in the whole puz­zle.

I al­ways cite a les­son from this field ex­pe­ri­ence. Lax­man was an ex­tremely poor land­less agri­cul­tural labourer who lived in a vil­lage. 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 their lo­cal con­text and can be prof­itably sus­tained in the lo­cal econ­omy. Or else we will be push­ing them fur­ther into dis­tress.

Although the data is skimpy, many of the de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes 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 plans 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 from vis­i­tors. A few prom­i­nent vil­lagers are cul­ti­vated and are made to re­peat par­roted sen­tences of eu­lo­gies that can sound musical to the ears of for pro­gramme directors. The top bosses are in­ter­ested only in se­lec­tive feed­back: one that is palat­able to them.

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 project re­cip­i­ents 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 of people to de­velop and fash­ion their own so­lu­tions to ev­ery­day prob­lems.

The idea is to use lo­cal wis­dom be­fore we in­volve ex­per­tise from out­side. The fail­ure of so many de­vel­op­ment in­ter­ven­tions over the past half­cen­tury can be partly at­trib­uted to their lack of root­ed­ness in the so­ci­ety they were de­signed to change. Ca­pac­ity- build­ing needs to be grafted onto pre­ex­ist­ing foun­da­tional val­ues, rather than im­port­ing another’s value base. Too of­ten, though, ex­pe­di­ent ap­proaches prove short­sighted, and fail to en­gage lo­cal lead­ers who hold the keys to eco­nomic and so­cial progress. Too of­ten, grass­roots-level voices, re­flect­ing first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence ad­dress­ing their com­mu­ni­ties’ prob­lems, are ig­nored. 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, of who is in­volved, and who has ac­cess to the right data, and who can lo­cally shep­herd the pro­gramme, both demo­crat­i­cally but also strate­gi­cally.

For­tu­nately, the aca­demic com­mu­nity is now no longer dom­i­nated by the elite. The so­cial back­ground of this tribe is now more rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the pop­u­la­tion. The aca­demic work is hands- on and minds- on rather than hands- off, solv­ing real prob­lems and at the same time learn­ing and un­der­stand­ing bet­ter how the world works. The tra­di­tional di­chotomy be­tween the starry- eyed re­searcher on the high perches who is too busy to re­flect and the prac­ti­cally minded and cul­tur­ally rooted de­vel­op­ment man­ager is crum­bling. Good aca­demics know how to be prac­ti­cal and good pol­i­cy­mak­ers know when they need to move out of their com­fort zone and soil their hands.

Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy very poignantly de­clared a half­cen­tury ago: “By defin­ing our goal more clearly, by mak­ing it seem more man­age­able and less re­mote, we can help all people in see­ing it, to draw hope from it, and to move ir­re­sistibly to­wards it.”

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