I always believe that people can do wonders, if their energy is channelized and focused on a given task. Tomorrows are made by people. A lesson I learnt early in life is that great leaders don’t teach. They touch and transform. They don’t instruct; they inspire by their conduct and disposition. They help people discover within themselves the strength to find the pathway to the stars.
This lesson kept me in good stead in my rural development journey over four decades .During my early engagement with the poor I trying to relate to them through personal association. My fertile, overheated conscience was stung by my academic reading of the sufferings of people in Latin American countries. Driven by guilt, buried under the weight of my attractive job and haunted by the sight of excruciating poverty every day, I volunteered to spend the weekends off from my office with villagers, trying to make up for the fact that I had so much while they had so little.
The friends whom I consulted before embarking on my rural mission admired my aspiration but moderated my enthusiasm with caveats. “They know a lot more than we do. You can at best learn from them.” “Don’t try to supplant their culture; that will be the greatest disservice.” I initially wrote off these responses as an attempt to unnerve me. Later I realized that these advices were not pure banter.
I put away my books and immersed myself in the rhythms of villages learning from the poor and understanding their problems, trying to see their culture and society through their own eyes. I had to invert everything I’d learned in economics classes. My status as a qualified sociologist was worth zilch. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. That status did make me a little ashamed at my inadequacies, yet it freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life. I was able to turn my ideas into workable goals. The humble beginnings taught me life as only a villager can know. It brought me to terms with the inadequacy of my learning. I realized I had to become part of the villagers’ heartbeat to be in a position to help them.
My exposure to villages came from our home stays. This was known as a ‘night halt’. This was not just a paper fad. The bank’s regional offices monitored these night halts and we were expected to give a monthly report on them. Rural branches were opened in such remote hinterlands that the bank manager was the only literate denizen in some of these desolate islands. We lived the lives of the locals so that we would feel the pain the villagers felt. I remember once a poor woman telling me “Uncle, I will fetch rice from the village headman’s house as what I cook is very dirty. It’s so full of stones you’ll crack your teeth if you eat it.” When I checked the cavernous kitchen, I found her daughter trying to light the damp wood. She fingered the kindling gingerly for fear of the community of scorpions living, loving, and reproducing in the pile.
Once I decided I would remain a permanent creature of the planet of the poor, I started religiously making myself part of the villagers’ beats—interacting with people, speaking their earthy language, rallying the masses for meetings. Without a common language, we communicated through gestures and occasional local words which I had picked up from colleagues. Languages interest me very much—as the basis of communication, and in their own aesthetic right—but I have never been very good at learning them. My lingua franca was Hindustani which is itself a mongrel of two hybrid languages, Hindi and Urdu. In remote villages, I spoke pidgin Marathi. I made very serious efforts to respect linguistic sentiments and tried to avoid mangling any of the culturally rooted modes of communication.
It was only through long and close contact with the poor themselves and through our work with them that we were able to gain a deeper understanding and more balanced view of the local society. In this way, our experience was not that of typical non-governmental organizations (NGO), many of which work from within the confines of the project enclave or are based in urban centres from where excursions are made out into the villages by jeep. Sadly, many NGOs are far removed from the realities of poverty and often fail to reach those most in need. For me, the most surprising discovery was the simple human-to-human connection that let me overcome both linguistic and cultural barriers.
We have to get rid of the pernicious notion that the roots of poverty lie with the poor themselves and that cultural differences are responsible for the gap between less-developed countries and the industrialized West. I found the villagers had many of the same economic needs, beliefs and aspirations as the most capitalist of Westerners. Village craftsmen were keenly interested in profits, and entrepreneurship was in plentiful supply in rural India, having been part of the traditional culture for a millennium.
Now more than ever, it is important to reaffirm that significant advances are attainable for the rural poor, who are a potential source of great wealth and creativity, but who must first and foremost seek their own survival under present institutional, cultural and policy conditions. Their poverty deprives not only themselves but also the rest of us of the greater value they could produce under more conducive circumstances. I feel that the people, who have pioneered the various programmes that have now become models, recognized this potential and sought to evoke it.
We should not forget that poor villagers are not just statistics but people like you and me, and apart from the poverty that they share in common, there is as much variety of humankind among them as anywhere else in the world: the hardworking, the lazy, the shy, the outspoken, the honest, the devious, the intelligent and the dull, the improvident and the enterprising. The people with whom we worked were all of these, though, in my experience, the positive characteristics almost always stood out.
The best approach to local development is to tap into the knowledge already available and think of ways it can be leveraged to achieve a more appropriate, locally useful and sustainable development. Approaches to rural development that respect the inherent capabilities and native of rural people and that systematically build on experience have a reasonable chance of making significant advances in improving those people’s lives. A critical success factor is creating organizational capabilities at local levels that can mobilize and manage resources effectively for the benefit of the many rather than just the few.
As Verghese Kurien, the father of India’s Milk Revolution repeatedly emphasized: “India’s place in the sun would come from the partnership between wisdom of its rural people and skill of its professionals”
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher .He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He was Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He has authored several books on religion, rural finance, culture and handicrafts. He is author of the bestselling book Village Diary of a Development Banker. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org