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Why role models, mentors matter more than words, formal training


By Moin Qazi*
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
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 set right.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Solutions have to be context specific, and cannot be derived from generic ‘best practices’-and they 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 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.
The notion that ‘poor people are lazy and are averse to change’ is not true. They are certainly amenable to change but don’t always know how. They need information and hand-holding. We need to give them the tools, and nudge them to use them for their own betterment.
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 instead of helping 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 initiative for change has to come from ‘within’ — within an individual, and within the community. The mental shift from being a passive victim to being a changemaker is crucial in the social change process. Enhancing the inner strength for bringing a transformation in the mindset is more important than external or material support.
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 approach.
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 extract value.
Through convergence 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 privileges.
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.
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*Development expert

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