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 is not getting the expected dividends that significant public expenditure would seem to warrant, and the needs of important population groups still remain partly addressed. This has been haunting social scientists and policy makers.
India has ranked a lowly 131 among the 188 countries surveyed for human development in 2016, according to a just released UN report. It has made no improvement in its ranking over the previous year. The report puts it in the “medium human development” bracket, which also includes nations like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Kenya, Myanmar and Nepal.
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 great 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 sacrifice of the grassroots staff that holds the fort as brave and heroic warriors. It is the incandescent honesty and unvarnished selfishness that imparts purity to thief mission and translates s state policies into real ground action.
The honour and recognition that society owes to these brave extraordinary individuals for their crusade for a cause bigger than them cannot be embodied in awards, promotions 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 tenacious and committed officials, and their families whose sacrifices have enabled and continue to make the world a far better and just place.
India 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 position, passport, privileges and police can be justified in goading others to risk their livelihoods, their families’ well-being, or their own lives. To take risks for oneself is one thing. To encourage others to do so is quite another. As Adlai Stevenson 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 painstaking reflection is demanded of social interventions in hostile and harsh areas. When new agricultural practices are being propagated with enticements of extravagant promises. It raises 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 or there are so many low hanging ripened fruits waiting to be plucked.The peasants have a much keener understanding of development and its implications than the economists sitting in the rarefied atmosphere of India’s Yojana Bhavan where India‘s planning issues are dissected, analysed and, after a diagnosis, prescriptions are made. By manipulating the choices of consumers at the low-income pyramid, we have disempowered them and the damage to the economy and ecology of these already fragile societies is now starkly visible.
It is this distance that has grown between the planners and the people in the rural matrix that has plagued the development apparatus. 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.
Development work is dirty, you have to soil your hands, and you have to cope with crude elements at the lower dregs of society. If you care about your mission, and your community, then it hurts when colleagues let you down, your social enterprise stumbles, funding is denied, or other hurdles materialize. 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 plundering bandits; technological gadgets can’t speak the language needed to navigate this dense thicket of unruly and heterogynous groups.
One of the discouraging features of Indian democracy is the politicization of rural society. A decade back, villages had a very remote link with political parties. Those who contested panchayat elections were elected on the strength of their electoral merits, irrespective of their ideological stripes. Caste did remain a strong card, but the candidates’ character played a critical role. The growing tendency of village groups to seek outside political support for solution to local development issues has ruptured the traditional social structure. Each leader in a village has a political master in the nearest town. All these developments have made the village social structure highly complex and confusing. In the coming years rural assignments for officials of government and banks are going to become hazardous on account of the growing politicization of villages. The new roads and highways that provide a fast passage not just to towns but also to metros have demolished the concept of village republics.
In such a dispiriting scenario 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 fight against the odds and succeed. 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, pelf 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. Accumulated over time they snowball into giant achievements.By changing what they do, people move societies in new directions and then 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 that 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 and 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.
Gandhi’s mantra is the most soothing credo in such moments and endeavours: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
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 andit 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 strategies 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 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 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.”
Berating or patronising rural folks is both culturally and professionally the most undesirable extension of any rural development executive’s personal trait. 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. 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 peers, 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 enough to 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 files 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 do have the example of talented men and women who have renounced their ambrosia of official positions and pledged their lives for empowering the economically and socially disenfranchised.
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 and exploited 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 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. 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.
A compelling message is that helping people is much harder than it looks. A lot of good programmes get their start when individuals look at a familiar landscape in a fresh way. These practical idealists demonstrated passion, intellect and gritty determination and are supported by heroic, skillful, and inspiring field staff. Pairing experts with “on the ground” teams and field workers has yielded lasting solutions to tough social and economic problems.
Several of these programmes have been remarkably successful but have been difficult to scale up. Nevertheless the seed has been sowed and some, if not all of them, will bloom and yield fruits. As Bill Clinton noted during his presidency, “Nearly every problem has been solved by someone, somewhere.” The frustration is that, “we can’t seem to replicate [those solutions] anywhere else.” We know what to do if we just can summon the political will.