Thinking about novel uses of existing products, such as mobile phones, is a powerful source of solutions.
Financial institutions and business corporations working with bottom-of-pyramid communities have traditionally focused on scaled-down versions of their conventional products for serving their varied needs. They realised very late that low-income communities have their own peculiarities and they require exclusive and mass customised products and services appropriate to their needs. These clients have different requirements than traditional urban ones and hence research has to be done before introducing products and services in the field of financial inclusion or consumer goods — to see their feasibility for the market.
Thinking about novel uses of existing products, such as mobile phones, is a powerful source of solutions. The mobile phone is being integrated into various business processes, from vital health information to rural families, poor farmers gaining access to commodity prices to providing to paying for water. Since the majority of these farmers are women, this means not only overcoming decades of neglect of smallholder farmers in general, but also overturning generations of entrenched gender inequality, during which women have had less access to the essential elements of farming: land ownership, education and training, capital and credit, seed and fertiliser.
Over years of wandering the villages, I have been compelled to revise much of my received wisdom about what our rural priorities should be. We must be challenged to see the reality of poverty and vulnerability through the eyes of a particular individual, typically a woman, and to understand how that person strives to overcome it. This way we can get a feeling of her daily worries and needs and develop solutions that have relevance to her needs.
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 bank clients to people like themselves who are succeeding in the kind of environment in which they themselves will need to succeed. The tacit knowledge that senior executives have accumulated over the years must be passed on face-to-face, revealing culture in action.
Consider, for example, the remoteness of our professional lives as bankers from our villages. In the village, each successive generation is born into the rigidity of caste; each generation must bear the rapacity of the moneylender and the merchant and the random cruelty of nature: floods, famines and pestilence. And yet the majority survives and adapt. In other words, there is in the villages some collective wisdom for which the professional’s knowledge is not a substitute. This is why the divide between the professionals and the villages is so serious; now if we do go to the villages, it is to study them, to do good for them — but not to become of them.
You must not volunteer for work where you “educate” the community about its problems, in which you generate plans and then get “buy-in” from the community, and in which the priority is the development product (latrines, health centre, church building) rather than the people, for which you bring in the capacity rather than help build it within the community. This kind of “help” is likely to stunt development because it creates dependency, conflict and feelings of helplessness. If you are already inside such an organisation, do what you can to help colleagues realise that development is an ongoing, endogenous process. It cannot simply lurch along, dependent on outsiders arriving with solutions and resources.
Instead of mapping problems from needs through external solutions, we must help the community identify its values and then map these through local resources to develop a vision and action plan. Intervention may still be called for appropriate strategies to be devised, but the kind of intervention that gets them over a bump in the road, not the kind that builds the road, provides the car, petrol and driver, buckles the seatbelts and pays the tolls.
The real tragedy of the poor is that their voice is unheard in forums, even at those which are exclusively devoted to their problems. As the Malagasy proverb goes, “Poverty won’t allow him to lift up his head, dignity won’t allow him to bow it down”. They are shouted down by those who consider them illiterate and uninformed and who abrogate to themselves the wisdom and the right to speak for the poor. The oppression of impatience came home to me only when I was on the other side, years later. It is not pleasant for anyone to be pushed away with an “All right, now sit down”, when that person is halfway through expressing an issue of life and death. And, of course, the public places where such meetings are held are designed to keep the poor away from any scope for voicing their problems.
The most committed advocates are those who have first-hand 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 have pathways to address it. 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 suit their own situations. Even the best university-taught skills aren’t going to be particularly useful there.
The preference for growth over social justice, indeed, the argument that economic growth is the road to social justice, is advocated over and above increased spending. But is it required for accelerated growth to translate into inclusive growth? The answer, I fervently believe, lies in inclusive governance. In the absence of inclusive governance, the people at the grassroots, that is, the intended beneficiaries of poverty alleviation programme are left abjectly dependent on a bureaucratic delivery mechanism over which they have no effective control. The alternative system would be participatory development, where the people themselves are enabled to build their own future through elected representatives responsible to the local community and, therefore, responsive to their needs.
What is required is sympathetic but hard-headed leadership, operating from a variety of institutional bases (government agencies, NGOs and banks). It should make common cause with rural people, learning with and from them how to make desired and sustainable improvements in the customers’ conditions of life.
We cannot approach people with readymade solutions. It is important to analyse the problems together to evolve solutions. Incidentally, this process itself is a great capacity-building one on both sides.
Our questions should be: “How can we help?” or “How can we contribute” and not “This is what you should do”.
We need to be very sensitive while interacting with them. It is a tough balance between not being subservient and not coming across as disrespectful. Winning a point is not as important as achieving long-term change. If, for this, we have to compromise for the time being, we must be prepared for it.
The core of our relationship must be with the people as also with the government at ground level. We must deal with people who are more permanent in the system and are the key interface with children and parents.
Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities, intelligence and initiative of rural people and systematically build on their experience have a reasonable 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.
We need to heed the wisdom of the legendary philosopher Lao Tzu: “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’.”
The writer is a well-known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He can be reached at email@example.com