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Poverty a trillion dollar industry, yet poor wait with blank stares


By Moin Qazi*
A development professional’s career demands not just technical skills but empathy; not a form of empathy that comes from superiority, but one born from a profound humility. l’ve learned hard lessons that have shaped my ideas about good principles and practices in development. The most abiding lesson is that we should value people over projects, and at the same time value effectiveness over good intentions.
There was an occasion for me in my professional career when my managerial acumen was put to a rigorous test. The farmers in northern Maharashtra had poorly suffered on account of low yields of cotton. Additionally, the government procurement prices for cotton were pegged low. As a result, our loan recoveries plummeted. I conducted a detailed assessment of the farmers and realized that their plight was genuine and a rehabilitation package had to be worked out.
I informed my bosses in my report that on account of the twin effect of low yield and low prices, the farmers didn’t have enough money to service our loans and would need rescheduling. No one from my headquarters came down to meet the farmers and understand the issue. Our boardroom pundits, whose usual way of monitoring the economy is through the reading of business newspapers, came across a news item which stated the state government had worked out a new paradigm to address the woes of the farmers; instead of raising the prices paid, the government had decided to compensate the farmers by paying subsidies based on landholdings. Our senior officers must have been terribly excited at having got a fix and believed they had scored a victory.
But I was not the one to get trumped by these armchair know-all individuals. I was familiar with this tribe and was convinced that the poor reading of the problems and unrealistic solutions were the root cause of anti-farmer policies being churned out in regal boardrooms. Moreover, most senior executives were out of touch with ground realities, their only source of information being the newspaper where experts’ opinions could be grounded in a particular ideology. Also, these opinions take a macro view and do not account for the wide diversity of regional problems. I shot back a tart letter informing them that the government move was, in fact, a conspiracy against small farmers and smacked of outright feudalism; since eighty percent of the farmers were either tenant farmers or share-croppers, they would not stand to gain anything. Instead, the wealthy landowners would get this subsidy without having cultivated their land or suffered any loss.
I had seen for myself how the anti-poor-farmer lobby operated and how its policies impoverished the farmers rather than offering assistance. Had I not been aware of the pernicious implication of this system at the ground level, I would have kept building pressure on the farmers. Such serious instances of ethical dilemmas keep buffeting the conscientious manager’s mind on account of blatantly political exercises like this. I don’t want to talk about how loan waivers have penalized and demotivated good borrowers and vitiated the credit culture in rural India.
For development staff career ambitions and the lure of closeness to power centres, there are similar pressures and patterns. On the first appointment, the younger and less experienced technical or administrative staff is posted to the poorer, geographically more remote, and politically less significant areas.
Those who are less able, less noticed, less smart or less influential, remain in those outposts longer, if not permanently. The more capable and visible, and those who can manage to ingratiate themselves to bosses or who have friends in headquarters, are soon transferred to more accessible or prosperous rural areas, or to peripheral urban areas which continue to be classified as rural areas, thanks to certain inept yardsticks set by the government. With promotion, the contact of these staff with rural areas, especially the more remote districts, recedes and they soon get immersed in the urban power circuit.
Rural postings are mostly perceived as punishment postings and at times genuine workers may suffer and could be used as scapegoats or soft targets. If a serious error is committed, or a powerful politician offended, accountability has to be fixed and a few heads have to roll on. Sometimes an innocent officer may earn a ‘penal posting’, to serve out punishment time in some place with poor facilities: a remote area, inadequately connected to the nearest town, without proper amenities, distant from the capital; in short, a place where frustration will abound. Officers use rural postings as interim schedules or transit assignments. The pull of urban life will remain: children’s education, medical treatment for the family, chances of promotion, congenial company, consumer goods, cinemas, libraries, hospitals, and quite simply, power, all drawing bureaucrats away from rural areas and towards the major urban and administrative centres.
Once established in offices in the capital or regional or provincial headquarters, bureaucrats and bankers quickly become over-committed regarding their time, unless they are idle and incompetent, or exceptionally able and well-supported. There are times of the year, during the budget cycle, performance review, preparing and approving business plans, supervising proper juxtaposition of figures on the spreadsheet, when they cannot contemplate leaving their desks. The very emphasis on agricultural and rural development creates work, which further restricts them in their offices. All this leads to their distancing from the grassroots and they start viewing all issues with a telescopic lens.
If the head of the department or organisation is inactive, he may be relatively free. But the more he tries to drive his goals and introduce new management techniques that he picks up from the occasional seminars that are part of his professional circuit, the busier is the official. Post-seminar and workshop organisation consume further precious time: business cards sorted, emails sent to essential participants with brief but pithy sentences praising their ideas, and acknowledging with appreciation emails from participants who have similarly eulogised him.
By then it will be time for the next seminar. The same formalities have to be completed again. Registration, travel and hotel bookings, a short background paper prepared by the subject expert in the organisation. The circuit continues, and the networking process keeps sprawling, spawning a planet of its own. So the more paperwork is generated, the more coordination and integration are called for, the more reports have to be written and read, and the more inter-departmental coordination and liaison committees set up. The more important these committees become, the more members they have, the longer their meetings take, and the longer their minutes grow. The demands of aid agencies are a final straw, requiring data, justifications, reports, evaluations, visits by missions, and meetings with ministers. Each member is on so many committees that it is hard to ensure that he at least marks his attendance even though he may be mentally occupied with the agenda of another meeting.
The staff has to spend overtime processing data, finding logical conclusions and marshalling arguments to support their assumptions. A whole battery of staff is immersed in designing flip charts and preparing PowerPoint presentations, embellishing them with illustrations, charts and tables and drafting executive summaries of committee reports. The grip of the urban offices, capital traps and elite activities has tightened for the government, aid agency and NGO staff alike: more and more emails, meetings, negotiations, reports, often with little staff. Participation has risen in the pandemic of incestuous workshops, many of them about poverty, consuming even more precious time.
Poverty is now a trillion dollar industry. The poor wait with blank stares as entourages of convoys come and go leaving them in wonder what this whole circus is all about.

*Development expert

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