Elitism and Development
One of the most dispiriting features of
modern development discourse is the strong and pervasive influence of elitism
in policy circles. Development experts live on a planet of their own, in total
disconnect with the ground world, and dominated by summits, conclaves, and
There is now a mountain of scholarships and a
huge circuit of academics and researchers dissecting statistics, furrowing
through libraries, wracking their brains and pontificating.
But if we want to move the needle on tough
problems, recycling jargon and reusing the same old frameworks is not good
enough. It is is an arduous task to discover and practise development.
There are plenty of ethical questions to be
asked of those who make a professional living from their expertise in poverty
and despair. I know that what used to be said about malaria applies just as
cynically to poverty: that there are more people living with it than dying from
For instance, a number of NGOs make a killing
on starvation deaths. So at what point does a scholar stop being a scholar and
become a parasite feeding off despair and dispossession?
Most development academics and professionals
are researchers, with little real-world experience. But the underdeveloped and
marginalised communities are highly stratified, and different from one another.
Intellectual sophistry is not a substitute for local-level social and financial
Then there is a tribe of researchers who
believe that Euro-US development policies have failed. They're not just talking
about individual, misguided projects, but the entire model. They believe that
development aid merely exports those countries' notions of poverty, consumerism
and wealth to traditional village communities, creating an unhealthy
dependency. They believe such aid does more to boost the donors' economies than
to improve the lives of the people it is assumed to help.
In my career in development I have seen
projects and strategies succeed as well as fail. I have seen misguided project
designs, poor implementation, and the squandering of large sums of money. But I
have also witnessed incredible achievements. When development works well, it
can transform lives by providing the underprivileged with the capital and
knowledge to open up opportunities for them and reduce their poverty.
But the development community seems
constantly and restlessly in search of a singular approach. The flaw in this
system is that each new approach fails to break out of the underlying
technocratic and specialised paradigm.
The contrast between India's economic might
and the reality of our crumbling development sectors - with India ranked among
the lowest in the Human Development Index - points to what is wrong with our
What are the ends of development? To grow
what is called GDP, or to enhance people's capabilities, and widen their
choices and freedom?
In the impatience for results, and the
urgency to achieve career goals, it is easy to get lost in our desk, our task
lists, our spreadsheets and emails forget our primary engagement with the
Like Lincoln, Ambedkar, Gandhi or Mandela, we
needn't live to see the ultimate goals of our life's work accomplished, but we
can certainly lay the foundation for a revolution.
The truth of a village or its marginalised
community can come out only with time. Time for trust to build between
villagers and the outsider, so the outsider can peel away the layers and
approach the truth.
In his reflections on fieldwork, the doyen of
Indian anthropologists M.N.Srinivas says that successful ethnography must pass
through three stages. An anthropologist is once-born when he initially goes to
the fields, thrust from familiar surroundings into a world he has very little
clue about. He is twice-born after spending time living among the tribe, when
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 surge of consciousness
for which years of study or mere linguistic facility are not enough to prepare.
All of a sudden one is about to see everything from the native's point of view,
be it festivals, religious rites or social mores.
We must understand that there is no precooked
blueprint ready to be replicated. Individuals can make a difference in fighting
poverty when ways are found to institutionalise creative ideas. But along a
factory model, the replication of successful models continues to be the guiding
mantra of development programmes.
We must also recognise, when examining
specific experiences with replication in mind, that the personal charisma and
passion of inspirational leaders cannot be transfused. The imposition of
unwilling leaders has been the bane of most development programmes.
Poverty reduction is not a discipline. You
can't just get somebody from a university who has done a PhD in poverty
reduction. Nor is there a talisman for eradicating poverty. Leadership in
rural development programmes is a clinical art and people need the experience
to learn it.
From their own experience, development
veterans can spell out the ingredients one may need to be successful. But the
practitioners will still have to work out their own recipes for blending these
ingredients in the right proportion. There is so much cultural diversity even
in neighbouring villages that a blueprint for one village may need a drastic
change for the next.
Consultants have for long been the key people
in policy mechanics, and there are many instances of glaring overdependence on
them. Why? It is necessary to moderate the reports and prescriptions of
consultants with realities on the ground in question. For some the old adage
about teachers applies: "Those who can, do - those who cannot, consult."
Elitism has given rise also to techno-utopians, who
see potentially revolutionary possibilities in the proliferation of cell phones
and other shiny gadgets that appear and vanish with the rapidity of fashion.
The promises are very seductive. Why is the international development community
having a love affair these days with the mobile phone and other new
The reality is much harder than we imagine.
It is easier to spread technology than to bring about extensive change in
social attitudes and human capacity. It is easier to purchase a thousand PCs
than to provide real education for a thousand children. It is much less
agonising to run a text-messaging health hotline, than to convince people to
boil water before drinking it.
The "technological layer" is only another
tool - the means to an end - and not a solution in and of itself. In certain
conditions it may be the most powerful tool, enabling services to be delivered
efficiently at scale with great benefits. It has to do with how we use it and
how we define the outcomes. But the unfulfilled promise of past technologies
rarely deters the optimistic advocates of the cutting edge, who believe their
favourite new tool is genuinely different from all others that came before.
We must not forget that we are working with a
constituency which is both politically and socially mute. At any rate, we
cannot hear it.
The poor are rarely visible because the
well-off urban developers have little interest in their lives. In a country
with more poor people than the 25 poorest African countries combined, this
apathy is a failure not merely of intellectual curiosity but of moral instinct.
A committed practitioner must use her own
natural instincts to bring together authentic rural voices in unfamiliar
milieus. We have to make efforts to discover their insights, or even to sketch
out their basic understanding of their society. In the face of skilful
deflections it is the quest that propels deep insights, for people like
ourselves, into the struggle and solitude of poverty.