Development Beyond Numbers
"Go to the people.
Live with them. Learn from them. Love them. Start with what they know. Build
with what they have. But with the best leaders, when the work is done, the task
accomplished, the people will say 'We have done this ourselves." - Lao Tsu
India is at a
crossroads in its journey of "development". It is still perceived that the
development landscape continues to look jaded. Lessons from recent times show
that if we plant the right seeds, the native soil is fertile and can yield a
development bonanza. It is only the development paradigm that needs to be
We need plans,
systems, and mutual accountability. But even before we have all of that
apparatus in place-the economic plumbing-we must understand more concretely
what such a strategy means to the people, who know best their own problems and
also have relevant and sustainable solutions for them.
agent will have to use her own creativity to ensure that interventions deliver
the best value to stakeholders-the state, donor agencies and recipients. You
don't give a medical diagnosis on one page without seeing the patient, because
you know there is no one remedy that fits all. The truth of good economic
doctoring is similar: know the general principles, and know the specifics.
To understand the
context, and also to understand it in the larger economy, is what will give
professionals the most authentic insights into the ground realities and help
them address these in the best possible way. This is the only way to make sure
that inequality and exclusion do not remain India's enduring heritage.
Solutions have to be
context specific, and cannot be derived from generic 'best practices'-and they
may require adaptation over time. When communities take charge of projects,
they also contribute through their labour and commitment, and engage actively
with the system to ensure that projects are completed on time. This ownership
also helps in ensuring that assets thus created are maintained properly by the
community. Professionals are only needed as facilitators, and this works very
well for funders because they can get better outcomes at lower costs.
It's crucial to help
people shift their thinking so they believe they can do the job. Role models
matter more than words. Mentors are more important than formal training. To
that end, we must introduce them to those who are succeeding in the kind of
environment in which they themselves will need to succeed. The knowledge which
professionals have accumulated must be passed on face to face, revealing
culture in action.
You must not
volunteer for work where you "educate" the community about its problems, in
which you generate plans and then get a "buy in" from the community, and in
which the priority is the development product-creches, latrines, health
centres, temples-rather than the people, for which you bring in the
capacity rather than help build it within the community.
"Help" of this sort
is likely to stunt development because it creates dependency, conflict and
feelings of helplessness. You can help colleagues realise that development is
an ongoing, endogenous process. It cannot simply lurch along, dependent on
outsiders arriving with prefabricated solutions and resources that are agnostic
about the specific context.
The truly committed
advocates are those who have firsthand knowledge of the problem they seek to
solve. Personal experience is the best way to create agents for change.
Inadequate investment in locally led initiatives is one of the two ways in
which we fail to ensure that those who are most affected by inequity should be
provided pathways to address their problems. If the users do not value the
benefits, they will not use the facilities. Local users have much better skills
than engineers at transforming technologies to work in their situations. Even
the best university-taught skills aren't going to be particularly useful if
they are not grounded in the local cultures.
We cannot approach
people with readymade solutions. It is important to analyse the problems
together to evolve solutions. Incidentally, this process is itself a great
capacity builder on both sides. Our questions should be: "How can we help?" or "How can we contribute?" and not "This is what you should do."
Approaches to rural
development that respect the inherent capabilities, intelligence and initiative
of rural people and systematically build on their experience, have a fair
chance of making significant advances in improving those people's lives. The
real challenge for development practitioners lies in finding tools that are
aligned with local capabilities.
Consultants are like
burnished glass-living their whole lives off the reflected glory of the
organisations to which they were privileged to provide consultancy.
Nevertheless, consultants do have a role to play, and none of this is to
diminish the role of professional outsiders who have successfully immersed
themselves in these native communities. They have fashioned programmes from the
inside out. They have only to reaffirm their respect for the wisdom and ability
of those whose lives they hope to improve, and remain persistent in this
When done well and
from the ground up, development can improve people's lives by connecting them
to their environment, and other actors in the ecosystem. The current free
market lens will only give us a picture of these people in terms of their
monetary value-believing as it does that they are commodities from which to
and collaboration, locals benefit from the expertise and support of professionals,
and professionals benefit from the perspective and knowledge that locals offer.
The participatory approach grounds academics and scientists with a worm's eye
view rather than just the bird's eye, which creates an abstracted, technocratic
distance between developer and undeveloped.
We must understand
that it takes time for local realities to unfold in their entirety. Before
changing the system, we must change ourselves. We need to be aware that
economics is about the triumph of opportunity over scarcity.
In his defining
political essay "Hind Swaraj" Mahatma Gandhi emphasised the principles of
simplicity (daridra) fearlessness (abhaya) nonviolence (ahimsa) and unwavering
commitment to truth (satya). We can articulate this in five Ps-Passion,
Patience, Participation, Perseverance and Persistence.
For development to be
transformative in the hands of development professionals it will require a slow
courtship with the idea-in keeping with the inherently hawkish, suspicious
nature of a government official who must be mindful of the inertia of the
system to her passion and creativity.
A highly demeaning
approach to local development is to homogenise people into a single type. To
deprive every group of its special traditions is to convert the world into a
robotic mass. Processes can be standardized; not human beings. The uniqueness
of every individual is the miracle of human civilisation.
We know what the real
issues are and we also have the tools for addressing them. What we lack is the
will to embrace these solutions, because they threaten some of our self-serving
What we need is a new
and improved form of development support, one that seeks to preserve the
independence of communities. We just have to keep believing in the goodness of
people-including ourselves. We have to finally align all actors to make the
whole system work towards the development goals arrived at. This is the wisest
and most prudent way forward.