Covid-19 Underscores Importance of Local Planning
A leader is best when people barely know he
exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it
ourselves. - Lao Tzu
This pandemic has
inflicted the greatest pain on those who had already been rendered most
vulnerable, spurring great hardship and growing unease among low income
families and micro businesses. It has uncovered existing inequities and created
Our failure to respond
effectively to COVID19 reflects how deeply entrenched - and skewed - are our
values and priorities.
Our current economic models do not benefit
everyone equally. This has been true for a very long time, despite our growing
To combat this we will have to contend with the almost universal
suspicion of grand political schemes. We will need plans, systems, and mutual
accountability. But 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 it is meant to serve, who know best their own problems and
also have relevant and sustainable solutions for them.
Tackling the problems of the disprivileged
requires a fundamentally different approach: one that starts with the people
themselves and encourages initiative, creativity and drive from below. This
principle must be at the core of any strategy that hopes to transform their
lives; only then that it can be lasting and meaningful.
Approaches to rural development that respect the
inherent capabilities of the people who live in rural areas, and systematically
build on their experience, have a reasonable chance of improving their lives.
This can include enhancing their capacities to mobilise and manage resources
effectively. If people can be given the support they need to build their own
democracies in their own ways, they can do the rest themselves. In doing so,
they will not only move their own communities, they will also take the world
Change must come from within: communities must
be able to make their own decisions regarding their future. Economic
development and social change cannot be imposed from without. It must begin
from within even though the initial nudges may have to come from outside.
Lasting change comes about so slowly that one
may not notice it until people resist being taken care of. They need to be
given a chance to fulfil their own potential. When we design solutions that
recognise the poor as clients or customers, as people we must negotiate with,
and not as passive recipients of charity, we have a real chance to end poverty.
The anthropologist MN Srinivas described
successful ethnography as passing through several stages. An anthropologist is "once-born" when he goes initially into the field, thrust from familiar
surroundings into a world he has very little clue about. And he is "twice-born" when, on living for some time among his tribe, he is able to see things from
their viewpoint. All of a sudden, one sees everything from the host tribe's
point of view, be it festivals, fertility rites, or the fear of death.
In short, we need development anthropologists.
This is because local leadership is critical to
driving ownership of social programmes. Successful programmes empower a
community by valuing its voices and respecting their decisions. These
programmes harness the power of communities to help them achieve their
development, with the help of coordinated support, leading to equitable and
inclusive growth. These approaches provide a guiding answer to the question
often asked: "What does development mean?"
By building leaders within communities, we
are ensuring that development programmes can eventually be handed back to them,
and run independently of the original drivers.
We also need to design collective processes to
develop an understanding of the communities' needs and then provide them with
the tools, technical support, and guidance they need to build leadership
skills. It is very important to create a space where people can voice those
opinions, disagree with each other, and criticise you. For instance, as an
outsider, you are navigating years of patriarchy.
As agents of social change, we need to interact with local social
and political structures, consulting with them and incorporating their views in
making decisions. The pace of social change should be in keeping with the
capacity of the local population, to carry them forward with it. This way we
ensure that sustainability becomes a natural consequence of the process itself.
There is a Bahai dictum which says that social actions should be
pursued with the conviction that every population should be able to
trace the path of its own progress. Social change is not a project that one
group of people carries out for the benefit of another.
We need to hire individuals with the entrepreneurialism
and drive to create change on the ground. You can't solve the problems of
the "last mile" from the headquarters. It takes local entrepreneurs, empowered
to adapt easily to the nuances of local cultures to succeed. This approach has
to be guided by local wisdom, and must show a deep appreciation of ground
Each development agent will have to use her own
creativity to ensure that interventions deliver the best value to stakeholders:
the state, donor agencies, and recipients. Like a good doctor, she will have to
know the general principles, and know the specifics.
Leaders can truly lead when they fully
understand their team members and what inspires them. This knowledge comes with
time and observation. Real leadership is when everyone else feels in charge.
This is the only way to make sure that inequality and exclusion do not remain
India's enduring heritage.
In development, as in most public-policy areas,
the question of values must be dealt with straightforwardly. A programme may
have as many goals as there are institutional or individual actors, with the
most crucial issues not openly discussed at any level among the principal
stakeholders. Ambiguities and inconsistencies will remain unacknowledged and
unaddressed, and conflicts of the assembly rooms and boardrooms will be pushed
out into the field.
We need to develop more inclusive policies to
ensure that rural development is made socially, economically and
environmentally sustainable. Inclusive rural transformation can be promoted through
people-centered development in which beneficiaries become agents of their own
development, participating in designing, decision-making and execution of the
processes. Moreover, the strategies for inclusive transformation have to be
context-specific, building on local solutions which best address local
Such solutions may require adaptation over time.
People will not actively and emotionally participate in an intervention unless
it has relevance to their lives and their strengths. 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
This ownership also helps ensure 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.
Most development academics and professionals are
researchers with little real-world experience. The underdeveloped and
marginalised communities are highly stratified, each one different from the
other, and they need development experts who understand the subtle nuances of
the dynamics at play in these communities. Intellectual sophistry cannot become
a substitute for local-level social engineering.
Global developmental and economic planning
models have reduced India's disprivileged to a set of abstract data. They have
followed developmental agendas that fail to reflect the real, micro-level needs
of communities and have led to increased marginalisation and inequality for the
To rectift this, we need to invest in developing
local leaders who are typically under-acknowledged and under-supported so we
are able to effectively engage with popular movements, community-based
organisations, and grassroots activist groups that are close to locals.
These efforts will also foster better
citizenship at the grassroots level and promote awareness of rights and
obligations. This type of enlightened and engaged citizenry fosters a working
democracy and ensures transparency and accountability.
Since local entrepreneurs know the community
dynamics and power relationships, they are well-attuned to handling the actors
in the local ecosystem. Their potential to drive change is tremendous, but they
often lack opportunities for training and education, and are unable to access
networks and finance. Yet they are an essential part of society and often don't
receive the credit they deserve as policy drivers and implementers in India's
challenging developmental space.
There are many lessons to be brought to table
from field experience. We need to understand the existing human conditions
rather than hastily proposing templates that serve the interests of the owners.
Experts need to combine their knowledge with grassroots action and a wider
community of practice. The incredibly evolving and complicated ecosystem
requires better collaboration and partnerships for understanding, analysing,
designing solutions, and undertaking impact studies to contribute to the wider
knowledge pool within the sector.
There is need for integration of an entire gamut
of resources, ranging from financial and human to markets and entitlements.
When we address these issues empathetically, we can move ahead with a more
self-assured, robust and proactive engagement towards inclusive growth and
What we essentially need is a community based,
business-like approach, encompassing grassroots action, policy advocacy, and
everything in between.