The view from below

Development strategies cry out for a "bottoms-up" approach that involves the intended beneficiaries

By Evan Goldsmith
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- AFTER spending 6 months in the Indian Himalayas, my pessimistic attitude towards the developing world has eased somewhat. My experience has also led me to believe that the current ideology needs to be changed in order to restore the environment to the people, alleviating some of the everyday drudgery in their lives while preserving the resources on which they depend so much.

"Development" is conventionally viewed as a struggle to uplift the poor and deprived citizens of the world to the living standards of their industrialised counterparts. But should this ideology of upliftment be the main focus of development in the present context of shrinking resources and mounting debt? Do the present development strategies actually have any chance of providing positive changes for their intended beneficiaries?

On a personal level, these questions have become real issues since I came to India. I am working on a micro-watershed management project called WISER (Women In Sustainable Ecosystem Rehabilitation) for the Shri Bhuvneshwari Mahila Ashram. The WISER project is located in the Tehri Garhwal district of Uttar Pradesh. It is here, working amongst the villagers, that the ground realities of development have come into focus.

The WISER project is in part supported by Western funding organisations, but functions without the Western ideology of material gain as an indicator of success. Development is measured by how well the villagers have improved their livelihoods to meet basic daily needs through a renewed sustainable relationship with their surrounding environment. This simple concept serves to both conserve the environment and reduce the level of daily drudgery of the women, who carry almost the entire burden of the work on their shoulders.

The greatest irony of this vision of development is that the goal of the project is to lead the people back to a sustainable relationship that they had with their environment in the first place. This ancient bond between the people and their resources has been disrupted by forces beyond the local population's control and has led to the same people to live off their resources at an unsustainable rate because they had no choice.

One example of such disruption is how governments have claimed ownership to forests for logging, thereby disallowing the local people to use a resource that they have had access to, but no legal ties with, for centuries. This has resulted in the sad and destructive situation in which the local people have had to resort to pilfering their own backyards just to survive.

When a sustainable relationship is restored, the benefits cannot be measured on a material scale, but can be indicated by people having a clean and constant supply of drinking water, enough fuel to cook with and can feed their livestock. The other aims of development like improved literacy and increased income should only be seriously considered if meeting basic needs are addressed simultaneously. And if these are fulfilled, significant improvements in health and overall stability will naturally evolve.
Programmed to self-destruct There are few development success stories, which leads many people to wonder why there is so much failure when such enormous amounts of funds are being poured into these projects. Many of these projects had noble intentions at conception, yet the realities of their implementation methods caused them to self-destruct, causing physical, social and environmental damage to the very people who were supposed to gain from the project.

In general, many problems of modern development strategies can be attributed to the trends of projects being done on a "mega" scale, the failure to recognise the importance of people's participation in the process and the absence of cultural sensitivity in planning. These interrelated factors have cost governments in the West millions in wasted dollars, while eroding the confidence of the local populace in development projects by promising great changes and producing little results.

"Family planning" projects, which failed miserably in the past 15 years due to insensitivity and lack of training, is a prime example. Horror stories of mis-inserted IUDs that led to internal damage and of villagers being used as guinea pigs for new birth control technologies in which the side effects were devastating for those who participated -- all served to make villagers averse to any programme that is viewed as "family planning".

The micro watershed management project which I am involved with encompasses only 11 villages, yet the complications we are encounter in introducing our ideas makes me wonder how the mega projects, which involves hundreds of villages, are handling similar issues. Trying to identify the needs of the local people, avoiding monetary loss through corruption and mismanagement and maintaining motivation among workers have all been an enormous challenge even at this micro-level. When you analyse the reasons for failure at the mega level, you can generally point the finger to a basic lack of efficiency and honesty.

I was amazed at the small size of the WISER budget, but now realise that it is possible for large amounts of productive work to be achieved at low costs when funds are closely monitored. So much money is lost to corruption, unmotivated staff and poor time management, circumstances that easily surface when the development game is played on such a large, unaccountable scale. There is a drastic need to redistribute the finance and personnel of the mega-projects into more realistically managed micro-projects that provide actual gains for the intended local people and not to the local politicians and powermongers.

Accountability has to be a central issue in any development strategy to involve the local people in the development process from conception and implementation. Failure occurs when technology is just dumped on to a population without them participating in the least. This philosophy of direct involvement is appropriate for all types of development policies like forestry, health and animal husbandry, and not just for programmes dealing with tangible items like the building of a tank.

The local people know that they want and need, but are lacking the means to provide for themselves. A dialogue between the planners and the local people is absolutely essential to ensure that the people are getting what will actually help them, instead of a minimal benefit that only the planners view as vital. This "bottom-up" ideology has to be continued in the implementation phase to ensure accountability to the beneficiaries.

For the WISER project, this meant having the villagers form resource management committees, which met monthly to discuss the area's resource conditions and form appropriate strategies to manage these resources. These committees worked directly with the project staff to develop programmes that would address the problems that they felt were most important. In the case of accountability for infrastructure, it was decided with the villagers that they would provide some days of free labor or provide local materials free of charge, so that they develop a sense of ownership and maintain the structures for their own benefit.

Tailormade for culture
Cultural realities also play an important role in the formation of a development process. On a very basic level, one has to understand that a project that was successful in the high mountains of the Chilean Andes is not guaranteed to work in the Nepalese Himalayas, just because both areas have similar ecosystems. The huge differences in the cultures and traditions of those peoples forces the realisation that development strategy cannot be transported or replicated from one area to another. Constructive ideas and concepts can float successfully between continents, but the actual strategy must be tailor-made to suit the cultural conditions of the people it intends to benefit.

Coming from the West, I was amazed to see the issues which surfaced as major importance in the development process. Quarrels within the caste system, Hindu-Muslim conflicts and deep-rooted superstitions -- all weaved their way into the formation of the resource management polices. My lack of knowledge of the people in the WISER project area caused me to consider the following question: How can foreign or even indigenous centralised government agencies expect to arrive in an area with a workable development plan when they have no idea of the ground realities that exist in that area?

As a Westerner from the Hudson Valley region of New York and having spent just 6 months in the Himalayas, who am I to tell the Garhwali villagers what their problems are and how to fix them? How can anyone, even those with extensive educational or technical qualifications, expect to know the realities of an area better than the people who live there?

Suggestions can and should be presented by interested individuals or organisations, but ultimately, it has to be the local people who play the part of the decision-makers. Why? Because it is the local people, and not the Phd from the foreign or national institute, who will be living in that area and dealing with the consequences of development. Wouldn't you expect to have that same type of control over your life?

Evan Goldsmith has a degree in environmental planning from Bucknell University in the US. He is currently working in Anjanisain village in the Tehri Garhwal region of the Himalayas.

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