Faultlines In Our Battle Against Poverty

 

By MoinQazi

 

I firmly believe that we can create a poverty-free world if we collectively believe in it. In a poverty-free world, the only place you would be able to see poverty is in the poverty museums. When school children take a tour of the poverty museums, they would be horrified to see the misery and indignity that some human beings had to go through. They would blame their forefathers for tolerating this inhuman condition, which existed for so long, for so many people.

 

- Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Laureate

 

Tackling poverty requires an approach that must start with the people themselves and encourage the initiative, creativity and drive from below. The strategy must be at the core of any transformatory exercise if the results are to be lasting and enduring. I had the privilege of watching the village women acquire a sense of dignity once they were given tools for self-sufficiency. And I learned, maybe most importantly, to listen with my heart and not just my head. Are poor clients last in the long list of our objectives?

 

The panchayat leaders and block officials and the local elite show no sensitivity to the poor people’s problems during their visits to villages. They strut through arrogantly, treating others like prajas (subjects), which anyone of consequence of India usually does. It requires a temperament honed in the company of individuals steeped in noble values to endow oneself with charm, grace and ability to mix easily with all ranks. The villagers consistently speak to visitors scathingly of the snobberies of the elite.The ‘bottom up’ approach is about living and working with the poor, listening to them with humility to gain their confidence and trust. Their trust cannot be bought outright or manipulated with money, or by grafting urban assumptions of development onto existing rural practices, which in fact may destroy existing workable structures. We must first understand their economy at a granular level and, most important, thoroughly understand their local culture. That approach is a welcome contrast to the grandiose foreign-aid schemes that do more harm than good. Experiences show that governments too often derail the money intended to help the poor to pad the pockets of civil servants instead. Mired in bureaucracy and corruption, the benefits rarely reach those who needed them the most.

 

The bottom-up approach means that local actors participate in decision-making about the strategy and in the selection of the priorities to be pursued in their local area. Experience has shown that the bottom-up approach should not be considered as alternative or opposed to top down approaches from national and/or regional authorities, but rather as combining and interacting with them, in order to achieve better overall results.

 

Rural policies following this approach should be designed and implemented in the way best adapted to the needs of the communities they serve. One way to ensure this is to invite local stakeholders to take the lead and participate. The involvement of local actors includes the population at large, economic and social interest groups and Villagers no longer trust the elite. In this, their instincts are right. The gram panchayat (village council) members are also handicapped. On their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy. They are self-perpetuating cliques who thrive by invoking the slogans of caste and religion and by enmeshing the living body of the panchayat in their net of avarice. For such persons, the masses do not count. The lifestyles of such persons, their thinking—or lack of it—their self-aggrandisement, their corrupt ways, their linkages with the vested interests in society, and their sanctimonious posturing are wholly incompatible with work among the people. They are reducing the panchayat organisation to a shell from which the spirit of service and sacrifice has been drained. representative public and private institutions. Capacity building is an essential component of the bottom-up approach, involving:

 

- Awareness raising, training, participation and mobilisation of the local population to identify the strengths and weakness of the area (analysis);

- Participation of different interest groups in drawing up a local development strategy;

- Establishment of clear criteria for selection at local level of appropriate actions (projects) to deliver the strategy.

 

Participation should not be limited to the initial phase but should extend throughout the implementation process, contributing to the strategy, the accomplishment of the selected projects and in stocktaking and learning for the future. There are also important issues of transparency which need to be addressed in the mobilisation and consultation procedures in order to reach consensus through dialogue and negotiation among participating actors.

 

Too often the way in which outside aid has been given displaces or discourages local resource contributions, resulting in total aid that is zero-sum, or worse, negative-sum. The constant presence of poverty and despair on your doorstep imparts an oppressive sense of guilt and frustration to life here which no amount of benevolent paternalism ever fully removes. When poor communities think at the human level, all their goals are interconnected. But under the top-down model, in the absence of a global grass-roots movement partnering with the communities, the goals have been compartmentalized to suit donors and governments. In fact, rural development involves integration of its subsystems into an organic whole.

 

The buzzwords empowerment, participation, partnership, ownership, transparency and accountability all imply changes in power and relationships, but these are contradicted especially in aid by top down standardised demands and the mindset that goes with ‘delivery’ Reputed consultancy firms now use the “curveball” technique during training to put consultants in situations where they need to think fast and solve problems on the fly. The aim is to see how they respond and whether they can think on their feet. Modern education means that younger consultants are better prepared for this than more senior staff, because students today are encouraged to discuss and question, rather than just being told what to think.

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