Edit & Opinion

Economic Plugging: Pandemic exposes faultlines

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

The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted the greatest pain on those who are already the most vulnerable. It has spurred great hardship and growing unease among low income families and micro businesses. The government’s initial response was a cash transfer in the accounts of 400 million households.

With conditions easing and economic activities resuming the government launched a massive rural public works scheme ‘Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan’ to empower and provide livelihood opportunities to the returnee migrant workers and rural citizens. The campaign of 125 days across 116 districts in 6 states aims to work in mission mode to help migrant workers. It will involve intensified and focused implementation of 25 different types of works to provide jobs and create infrastructure in rural regions with a resource envelope of Rs 50,000 crore.

While efforts are laudable we need to remember learning of the past while implementing such programmes. We need plans, systems, and mutual accountability. But before we have all of it — economic plumbing–we must concretely understand what such a strategy means to people, who know best their own problems and have relevant and sustainable solutions.

Local leadership is critical to driving ownership of social programmes. Successful programmes empower a community by valuing its voice and respecting its choices. This approach provides a guiding answer to oft-asked question: “What does development mean?”

The answer to modern development issues of people lies in nurturing local change agents. By building leaders within communities, we are ensuring our programmes can eventually be handed back to them, and run independent of original drivers. We need to design collective processes to develop an understanding of communities’ needs and then provide the tools, technical support, and guidance they need to build leadership skills.

It is critical to create a space where people can voice opinions, disagree with each other, and even criticise you. As an outsider, you are navigating years of patriarchy. We need to envision a new value-creating opportunity; one that builds a team of teams, creates synaptic architecture adaptive to such work, and then helps every person/group improve the vision/team/team architecture.

We need to hire individuals with entrepreneurialism and drive to create change on the ground.  You can’t solve problems of the “last mile” from headquarters. It takes local entrepreneurs to succeed — guided by local wisdom, a deep appreciation of ground reality.

Each development agent will have to use her own creativity to ensure interventions deliver best value to stakeholders — the State, donor agencies and recipients. You don’t give a medical diagnosis on a page without seeing the patient, because there’s no one remedy that fits all. Good economic doctoring is similar: know the general principles and specifics. This is the only way to ensure that inequality and exclusion do not remain India’s enduring heritage.

Another very popular quote by Tzu says, “To lead people, walk behind them.” Leaders can truly lead when they fully understand their team members and what inspires them. This knowledge comes with time and observation. Tzu’s words underline the importance of leading from a position of understanding. Real leadership is when everyone else feels in charge.

In development, as in public-policy areas, the question of values must be dealt with straight forwardly. In a programme, there may be as many goals as there are institutional or individual actors. The most crucial issues are not openly discussed at any level among stakeholders: not between collaborating agencies, not between donor and host governments, and certainly not between donor agencies and client communities.

Thus, ambiguities and inconsistencies remain unacknowledged and unaddressed and conflicts of the assembly rooms and boardrooms are pushed out into the field. The goals are left to be deciphered and outcome determined by the dynamics of the process.

There is a need for more inclusive policies that bring poor, rural populations into the economic mainstream to ensure rural development is socially, economically and environmentally sustainable. It can be promoted through people-centered development in which beneficiaries become agents of their own development, participating in designing, decision-making and execution of processes. Moreover, strategies for inclusive transformation have to be context-specific so these build on local solutions that can best address local challenges.

We know there is a geographical dimension to poverty— its concentration in certain parts. Hence solutions have to be context-specific, cannot be derived from generic ‘best practices’ and may require adaptation over time. People won’t actively and emotionally participate in an intervention unless it has relevance to their lives and strengths. When communities take charge of projects, they too contribute through their labour/commitment, and engage actively with the system to ensure completion on time. This ownership also helps in ensuring 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, with each different from the other, and need development experts who understand the subtle nuances of dynamics at play. Intellectual sophistry cannot become a substitute for local-level social engineering.

Global developmental and economic planning models have reduced India’s underprivileged to a set of abstract data. They have followed developmental agendas that fail to reflect the real, micro-level needs of communities and led to increased marginalisation and inequality for the rural poor.

Local leadership is critical to the success of any bottom-up effort. But local leaders may not immediately be apparent and we need to invest in developing them, who are typically under-acknowledged and under-supported so to be able to effectively engage with popular movements, community-based organisations, and grassroots activist groups. These efforts will also foster better citizenship and promote awareness of rights and obligations. This type of enlightened and engaged citizenry fosters a working democracy and ensures transparency and accountability.

For building an innovatively agile society we need to create workable and cost-effective solutions and scale these quickly. Through their individual and collective efforts, local entrepreneurs can lead significant change by building self-reliance in their geographies. They have potential to become local change-makers given their tremendous drive– but they often lack opportunities for training, education and are unable to access networks and finance.  They are an essential part of society and often don’t receive 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 elites. Experts need to combines 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.

This can give a better understanding of the key contemporary issues that are located at the interface between ‘finance’, ‘livelihoods’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘development’ several complex issues  interlock an entire web of cross-cutting issues and challenges.

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 livelihoods development. What we essentially need is a community based, business-like approach, spanning grassroots action to policy advocacy.

 

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