Monday, April 02, 2007

Review - Ending poverty in south Asia

Some bits of hope

The book is a guide to 12 cases that have beaten the odds of bureaucratic laxity, endemic corruption and deadening hopelessness to become tales of success in small, mainly rural communities. They have been compiled by Deepa Narayan and Elena Glinskaya, both World Bank economists working on issues concerning poverty reduction. The heartening cases cited in this book have been culled from across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, with eight of the 12 case studies discussing Indian successes. Notable among these are Operation Flood, ITC’s e-choupal, self-help groups in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). While most of us are familiar with the broad aspects of these stories, it takes a nuanced rendition such as this one to make the reader appreciate the extent to which micro-initiatives have changed the situation on the ground.

A case in point: Inspired by the wide success of the self-help movement in Andhra Pradesh, a couple of men and women came together to end the oppressive jogani system, a euphemism for institutionalised prostitution. As the book narrates, jogans “typically are first used by the local landlord until he tires of them, after which they are left in the temple to service any man who is willing to pay (the priests, not the jogan)”. The system has persisted for centuries as an effective means to suppress Dalit women into submission. Denied self-espect, the atrocious practice perpetuates itself over generations, with daughters of jogans getting into the trade as well.

The campaign launched by the multivillage joint action committee used street theatre and visited local authorities to sensitise people to the issue. With growing awareness, the committee was successful in ending the heinous practice in one temple and is now directing its efforts at other temples.

Such are the grassroots, little-heard-of stories that this book brings to light. Not only are accounts given, but the lessons that civil society at large can learn from them are also discussed. ITC’s e-choupal is a beacon of hope for farmers who were until now at the mercy of unscrupulous middlemen. Not only does it employ web-based tools to keep farmers informed of the latest market prices, e-choupal also busts the commonly-held notion that large corporate firms are run by rapacious agents who cannot work out strategies for rural transformation.

For those baulking at the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, this book shows how not all guarantee schemes are destined for failure. The Madhya Pradesh government’s education guarantee scheme (EGS), launched in 1997, has resulted in a dramatic rise in enrolment rates. Especially endearing is the fact that the programme has been successful in educating a large number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ninety-one per cent of the more than 1.2 million children enrolled in schools run under the scheme are from Schedules Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes. Political will had a major role to play in the success of this programme, with the then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh promoting it with missionary zeal. As Vimla Ramachandran, who has penned the piece, says: “Political will was clearly a distinctive factor in the EGS from the beginning ... Thus the start-up of the programme was not contingent on availability of foreign funds or grants from the government of India.”

The book also looks at rural support programmes in Pakistan and the National Development Framework, which is aimed at rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the recent global spotlight on Nobel winner Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, the microfinance story in Bangladesh is analysed with a keen eye on the anxieties for its future. How will Bangladesh’s microfinance institutions fare in the absence of charismatic leaders like Yunus? How will the transition from simple credit products to more advanced financial practices come about? Does scaling up involve stretching managerial capacity excessively? All these questions are raised and possible solutions debated.

By including pieces by the redoubtable Verghese Kurien and the inimitable Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, the book offers practical insights into how the public and private sectors, rather than working in opposition, can come together to devise innovative solutions. Success stories depicted in this book might not have been so under different circumstances. The challenge is to tweak practices that have delivered and tailor them to local needs. Shunning hysterical optimism for guarded pragmatism, this book is a notable primer on certain ideas that have borne fruit.

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This review appeared in Business Standard. The original link is here.

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