CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

CENTRE for POLICY ANALYSIS

“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx

ARTICLE


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 conferences.  

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 it.  

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 engineering.  

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 development paradigm.  

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 development sector.  

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 technological apps?  

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.    

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