None listen to what the poor need 

None listen to what the poor need 

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other .That time is now, stated Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai. 

Empty Garibi Hatao plans
In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other .That time is now, stated Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai.

Notably, poverty reduction is not a discipline. You can not get somebody from a university who has done a PhD in lessening poverty. Nor is there a talisman for eradicating poverty. It might also not be possible to locate a common denominator for a successful rural manager or to lay down a standard blueprint for a rural development programme.

Indeed, rural banking veterans from their own experience can spell out the ingredients that one may need to be successful. But new managers would have to work out their own recipes for blending these ingredients in the right proportions. There is so much cultural diversity even in neighbouring villages that a blueprint for one village might need a drastic change for a village next to it.

Alas, these consultants live in a planet of their own in a total disconnect with the average citizen --- dominated by fancy summits and conclaves indulging in steroidal hospitality and conferences. Whereby, these are considered an important saloon for designing unique and path breaking solutions.

The same big names on podiums with lofty aspirations and oversized ambitions preening and drooling the same set of figures, the same weary phrases reverberating in halls and the same denizens chewing on the same cud amidst the usual fanfare that marks such events as development experts and barons of finance parade in their pinstripe suits, labour in their ivory towers and ride in their personal jets as poor people continue to suffer the pangs of poverty.

Rhetorical adrenaline is substituted by glib talks. Public discourse is rarely nuanced. The people’s attention span is short, and subtleties tend to confuse. Better to take a clear, albeit incorrect, position, for at least the message gets through. The sharper and shriller it is, the more likely it is to capture the public’s attention, be repeated, and frame the terms of debate.

Buzzwords like empowerment, participation, partnership, ownership, transparency and accountability all imply changes in power and relationships, but these are contradicted especially in aid by top down standardised demands and the mindset that goes with ‘delivery’.

Importantly, reputed consultancy firms now use the “curveball” technique during training to put consultants in situations where they need to think fast and solve problems on the fly. “The aim is to see how they respond and whether they can think on their fee,” asserted a consultant. Modern education means that younger consultants are better prepared for this than more senior staff because students today are encouraged to discuss and question rather than just being told what to think.

Many consultants have excellent technical skills or expertise in a specific area such as business analytics or strategic analysis. But however technically brilliant, they will not make it to partnership without softer inter-personal skills such as the ability to listen, negotiate and persuade. Such skills are hard to teach in a classroom and are easier to learn by observing a more experienced colleague on the job along-with being given feedback, tutoring, mentoring and support.

Of course, we need to bring in the poor to the conversation. Interventions that take the end user into account almost always have better success rates than top down decision-making. But, many social enterprises are still not talking enough to their poor customers to find out what they really want.

Worse, too often policy makers have no idea what their end beneficiaries really need. I hope that the expanding use of technology across all segments of society will help to create platforms for exchange of ideas, so that people can better express their needs.

One lesson one has learnt from working on poverty issues at grassroots levels is the importance of empathy and patience. Given this is a field with a great many experts who are committed, knowledgeable, well-intentioned and used to speaking with authority. T

Understandably, perhaps they are a little impatient with upstarts who start talking about data and evidence and even sometimes implementing large-scale interventions to fix things, without necessarily having spent decades immersed in educational theory.

Undeniably, the poor are yet to find their voice, even as the media, for that matter, the entire establishment, have become the megaphone of the classes that are prospering. The preference for growth over social justice as also the argument that economic growth is the road to social justice is advocated over and above increased spending.

Questionably, is this required for accelerated growth to translate into inclusive growth? The answer, I fervently believe, lies in inclusive governance. In the absence of this the people at the grassroots i.e. 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.

Besides, not only is responsive bureaucratic administration almost a contradiction in terms, the Indian experience of the last six decades would appear to confirm that bureaucratic delivery mechanisms absorb a disproportionately high share of the earmarked expenditure.

Recall the late premier Rajiv Gandhi’s famous words, “Up to 85 paisa in a rupee.” Pertinently, even the Planning Commission dittoes “85 paisa” in its recent evaluation, even as Prime Minister Modi states it is “not quite so high.”

True, we can leave it to the experts to argue how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but for our purposes, it is enough to note that 75% to 85% of the expenditure on poverty alleviation schemes is absorbed by the delivery mechanism itself.

In fact, the failure in practice of so many normal professional solutions points to a need for examination of the perceptions and priorities of professionals, those normal, non-poor, urban-based and numerate members of the elite who define poverty and what should be done about it.

The other is to examine the perceptions and priorities of the poor themselves. Sadly, neither has received much attention in anti-poverty discussions. Most professionals, be it politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, academics and others have plunged into debate and action in the middle, without questioning what has brought us where we are, what we are conditioned to see and to believe, or what others see and believe.

We have had neither time nor incentive to examine ourselves and our predispositions, nor the poor and theirs. In contrast with normal professional practice, our starting point here is different: It is to stand back and analyse the divergent views of deprivation and priorities held by these two groups professionals and poor people themselves.

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