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Recognise poor as clients or users, not passive recipients of charity


By Moin Qazi*
Poverty won’t allow him to lift up his head; dignity won’t allow him to bow it down
— Malagasy Proverb
The global battle against poverty has acquired a new dimension this year with Pope Francis declaring 19 November 2017 as the First World Day of the Poor. Hereafter it will be observed on 33rd Sunday of every year. The occasion provides us an opportunity to reflect on growing inequalities and realign our thinking and approach in the light of our learning and experiences.
The perception that the poor do not have skills or would not be able to survive on their own is a myth. This conclusion is grounded in the premise that a paternalistic conceit has hindered the development of poor families and negative beliefs perpetuated about them. The new findings are challenging traditional development wisdom—particularly the assumption that poor families need a great deal of advice, aid, support, and motivation to improve their lives, instead of engaging in wishful thinking we need to do honest analysis
Experts who have been scratching their heads for breakthrough solutions suggest that the poor no longer have mindsets that expect governments riding a white horse with a bucket of money to fill their bowls. They argue that strategies that ensure wider participation of the poor in programmes meant for them deliver amazing outcomes.
Development is fuller when put in people’s hands, especially the poor, who know best how to use the scarce and precious resources they could be provided with for their uplift. The first generation leaders of independent India believed that economic justice would be advanced by the lessons of cooperation where common efforts to achieve the common good will subsume all artificial differences of caste, community and religion.
There is a lot of discussion in public forums of involving the stakeholders in development progammes. However, poor people rarely get the opportunity to develop their own agenda and vision or set terms for the involvement of outsiders. We need to develop our human capital which is an important piece in this ecosystem. The entire participatory paradigm illustrates that people are participating in plans and programmes that the outsiders have designed. Not only is there little opportunity for them to articulate their ideas, there is also seldom an institutional space where their ingenuity and creativity in solving their own problems can be recognised, respected and rewarded. The poor are themselves best placed to figure out how to get out of poverty and also have ideas about how to get their lives together.
One can’t talk about design of programmesa without quoting Steve Jobs: “Design is a funny word. Some people think design is how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.” We need to be better informed about what the poor value, what they think could be done to improve them, and how they could work better. There is also a need to focus on social welfare programs through a very specific gender lens. Most of our extension efforts have tended to bypass the women who actually hold the key to the poverty puzzle .They are a vital piece n the entire development ecosystem.
If the primary focus is really ending poverty, a partnership must be established among poor communities so that they learn from one another and share traditional, practical knowledge and skills. The field has shifted profoundly and has become much more nuanced but far too still we cling to the old development playbook. There is need to properly understand the interplay of various factors to assess their impact in the whole constellation.
The hallmark of any intervention for the poor is that it should stand on the following legs: empathy, humility, compassion, conscience. Observations like, ‘I am a farmer myself’, ‘ you can’t pull wool over my eyes’ and ‘I was born and brought up in a village and know rural problems better than anybody else’ are a sign of arrogance and will not go down well with the people with whom one wants to work.
Importing unworkable ideas, equipment and consultants destroys the capacity of communities to help themselves. Ensuring that those most in need are not forgotten and that they have the freedom to make their own choices is just as important as delivering concrete development outcomes. The people who pioneered the world’s most successful development programmes recognised this potential and always sought to evoke it. These are the ones who enabled the poor to take the right step on the right ladder at the right time. The results have been miraculous.
The truth of a village can come out only with time—time for trust to build between the villagers and outsiders and time for the outsider to peel away all the layers to get at the truth. In his reflections on fieldwork, the doyen of Indian anthropologists—Professor M.N. Shrinivas—has talked of successful ethnography as having to 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 he spent time living among the tribe and is able to see things from their viewpoint. To those anthropologists, fortunate enough to experience it, this second birth is akin to a Buddhist urge of consciousness for which years of study or mere linguistic facility is 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.
Economic development and social change must begin from within even though the initial nudges may have to come from outside. Well-meaning people should have the open-mindedness to listen to those who work in the field and live the day-to-day challenges. That respect opens many doors. Lasting change comes about so slowly that one may not notice it until people resist being taken care of and they need to be given a chance to fulfil their own potential.
When solutions that recognise the poor as clients or users and not as passive recipients of charity are designed, a real chance to end poverty is created. Humility is needed for any revolution to succeed. This logic comes from the power of empathy—not a form of empathy that comes from superiority, but one born from a profound humility.
From the drawing board to delivery, one has to inhabit the product and the programme, living every detail as if it were a living, breathing organism. One has to put so much of life into this thing and there are such rough moments that most people give up. They cannot be blamed. One has to be burning with an idea, or a problem, or a wrong that (s)he wants to right. If one is not passionate enough from the start, (s)he will never stick it out.
As Pope Francis says, while underlining the solemnity of dedication of this day for the poor:” We may think of the poor simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work, or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience. However good and useful such acts may be for making us sensitive to people’s needs and the injustices that are often their cause, they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life."
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*Development expert

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