Pandemic doesn’t just require technical fix, it must help rethink our relationship with planet

planet

By Moin Qazi*

The pandemic has caused unprecedented crisis and disruptions around the world, creating a vast number of ‘new poor’ who will continue to be severely affected even after the immediate public health emergency is brought under control. The crisis has frozen the wheels of economy and affected every aspect of life. Lockdowns and disease distancing measures have dried up wage-work and incomes, and are likely to disrupt agricultural production and supply routes as well, leaving millions of hand-to-mouth households to worry about their next meal. The tragedy is as much humanitarian as economic with its cascading social implications. Many businesses have folded in ways that they may not trade again.

The pandemic has shown that our social security and welfare delivery systems are under-resourced and underserved, and we need to build long-term, resilient solutions and robust systems. The interconnectedness-and vulnerabilities-of the complex systems that make the modern world run have never been more apparent.

Certainty is like a rainbow: wonderful but relatively rare. More often than not, we know that we don’t know. We may seek to remedy this by seeking help from those who may know what we want to know. But knowledge does not advance just by formulating plausible hypotheses. How do we know that they know? If we cannot ascertain whether they actually do know, we have to trust them. Historically, we have bestowed our trust on the basis of experience, or divine inspiration. In many cases even science knows that it does not know what is being asked of it

That is the situation we currently find ourselves in with COVID-19. Our knowledge of the new coronavirus is rapidly increasing, but utterly inadequate. We have not yet learned much about how to treat the infected, much less figured out how to make an effective vaccine. We do not even know how to control the pandemic reliably through social-distancing measures.

All crises are opportunities for radical reform, for realigning priorities in pursuit of the common good. The pandemic can serve a useful purpose if it can jolt humanity out of its profligate habits. But instead of regarding the pandemic as merely another problem requiring a technical fix, the world should see it as an opportunity to rethink humanity’s relationship with the planet.

As the challenges of COVID19 unfold and governments and civil society scramble to provide relief, one recurring idea is to use this disruption to reimagine the global economic architecture. The UN Sustainable Development Goals are expected to suffer a mortal blow if the world does not get to grip with the systemic risks of COVID19. Many of our development gains have been jeopardised, and we must now build a new economic world order which is humane, inclusive, and sustainable.

.Like other countries, India is seeking to steer a judicious path between the need to contain the spread of infection, and let workers revive the economic engine. Hope remains that the COVID19 crisis brings about a balancing of the often-conflicting objectives of economic progress and ecological protection.

The great anthropologist Oscar Lewis, who travelled in India in the 1950s to assist the Planning Commission, coined the phrase “the culture of poverty”, which became a convenient handle for legislators and economists to deny villages the tools they needed to flourish. Since villagers were considered inert, inefficient, backward, and lazy, it was thought unwise to funnel our resources and energies into transforming them. Instead, providing them with basic oxygen for biological subsistence was considered enough.

It has been a constant urban refrain that agriculture is India’s bane; that manufacturing is the way forward; that villages need to be urbanised, that they need to become the appendages of cities. And for what? To sustain cities where lies the future of India?

It is now becoming clear that the future, in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic which has destroyed the myth of a planned urban India, can only be saved by revitalising the farm sector.

Can the economy rebound fast enough to make life stable again? Long periods of state inaction have their economic and social costs. With thousands of migrant workers returning to their native villages, it is extremely necessary to create additional employment to stave off social, political, economic unrest.

Some of these labourers are considered unskilled, but many are skilled or semi-skilled. A large-scale deskilling could take place if they do not find work quickly, because their skills will begin to rust and diminish if not used.

A marriage between their skills and the business acumen of local entrepreneurs can help a great deal. Villagers can be trained as para-veterinarians, health workers, solar engineers, water drillers and testers, handpump mechanics, artisans, designers, masons and technicians who support the local entrepreneurial ecosystem.

It all depends on how fast the state responds and what types of stimulus it uses. The first task for governments would be to map the skills of these returned migrants and then work out a longterm rehabilitation plan that uses these skills through necessary upgradation or reorientation.

The Union government has provided paltry direct cash transfers to more than 300 million people in addition to similar cash transfers to famers. These efforts are a lifeboat to help businesses survive the coming months, and for households to continue to cope with daily emergencies as normal economic life stutters through the recession.

When the ambitious Etawah project was launched with tremendous hope by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, it was expected the country would soon achieve Gandhi’s dream of purna swaraj which he defined as “wiping every tear from every eye”. Since then we have rolled out a record number of programmes in trying to achieve a quick fix. Sadly, we have not been able to achieve even short fixes.

Most of these programmes were myopic and the state lacked the political will. Most of India’s rural development history has been marked by a lack of seriousness on part of the politicians and policymakers.

The current pandemic has reversed the migration tide in a big way and the country will have to focus on long term planning. This will require a more nuanced understanding of the issues and the underlying dynamics.

Development in India has so far been defined by grand utopian schemes that have brought disruption to millions, wrought by the negative consequences of faulty programmes and impractical schemes. Conventional development policy has always been driven by grandiose plans, moving from one big fix to another, one set of best practices and universal blueprints to the next.

Why do well-intentioned plans for improving the human condition go tragically awry? In his acclaimed book Seeing Like a State, James Scott argues that centrally managed social plans misfire when they impose schematic visions that obscure the complex interdependencies which are not and cannot be fully understood.

According to Scott the success of the design of any programme depends upon the recognition that local, practical knowledge is as important as formal, theoretical knowledge. He makes a persuasive case against “development theory” and imperialistic state planning that ignores the desires, values and objections of its “subjects”.

What we need instead are policy innovations tailored to local social contexts, economic circumstances and political complexities. Two critical elements are (a) local solutions, particularly in areas like infrastructure – such as local roads and local water storage solutions like check dams, basic healthcare and primary education – and (b) trust in the innate ability and intelligence of the local community to understand and harness opportunities for their social and economic well being.

Well crafted development plans flower from the mutual synergy of all stakeholders, and are identified, tested and sustained locally, not by career technocrats using huge sums to assemble and deliver them to “beneficiaries” as a charity handout or dole from on high.

Familiarity with the local context is necessary for a lasting impact and outcomes. Several well-intentioned policies and programmes fail because they are not well grounded, and do not incorporate the perspectives of the local communities, leaving important gaps that cause enduring harm, unintentionally or otherwise.

But there is so much diversity even in contiguous villages that a blueprint for one village may need a drastic change a short map’s distance away.

And when we look to specific experiences, searching for parallels, we must not fail to recognise the personal charisma of inspirational leaders, which is not facilely transferable. Nor can passion be transfused. Leadership in rural development programmes is an art which people hone through long and sustained empathetic engagement with communities. We need to appropriately reward and recognise good ideas and good performance so as to further enhance it.

The failure of so many “normal” or conventional professional solutions points to the need to re-examine the perceptions and priorities of these professionals: the degree-bearing urban elite who define poverty and give lengthy prescriptions for what should be done about it.

The other need is to examine the perceptions and priorities of the poor themselves. Neither has received much attention in discussions against poverty.

Most such professionals-from every sector of society, be it governments, civil society, private sector, entrepreneurs, trade unions, academia, scientists social influencers and others-have neither the time nor the political will to examine their own predispositions, leave alone those of the poor.

Development administrators, professionals, authors and writers arrogate to themselves the right to hand out certificates on best practices. They shut themselves from the ground realities and give lengthy opinions on the basis of reports and statistics.

Senior managers usually turn into glib talkers on poverty and underdevelopment, and tragically or by design, they are the ones who influence the directing of public policies and programmes.

If you want to serve the marginalised and underserved, and serve them reliably and consistently, your work should not stop at providing clients with mere prescriptions. You have to remain partners with them during the entire project cycle. From the drawing board to delivery, you have to inhabit the product and the programme, living every detail as though it were a living, breathing organism.

We have to walk with the project users every step of the way. We need to build trust with the people we serve by working alongside them to develop practicable and sustainable solutions. It is preposterous to assume that we know best: this approach will justifiably scare any community away.

Consultants have for long been the key people in policy mechanics, and there has been a glaring over-dependence on them. It is vital to temper their reports with ground realities. Practitioners would do well to ask why, if the consultants are so confident of their advice and plans, they don’t simply execute these themselves!

This should not however prevent us from recognising the contribution of consultants in guiding several successful programmes. There is something of continuing value about bringing an outsider in. If the consultant is experienced, they can ferret out problems. Deep knowledge of the way many other organisations have handled similar problems can help provide solutions to the new context. In addition, consultants can act as disseminators of state-of-the-art expertise and practices in the academic and practitioners’ worlds.

Community development is not an academic discipline. Universities don’t offer clinical courses on the subject. It may not be possible to locate a common denominator for a successful development manager, or to lay down a standardised blueprint for a “rural development programme”.

But the development community does possess a vast trove of expertise and wisdom in advancing social change. Not all of it is accessible, locked as it is in people’s heads or within organisational memory. It is important to enable free access to these valuable insights in order to move the field forward.

From their own experience, rural development veterans can spell out the ingredients for successful programme drivers. But local practitioners will have to work out their own recipes for blending these ingredients in the changeful right proportion.

If the primary focus is to transform the lives of communities driven to the margins, we must establish a partnership with them so that they learn from one another, and collaborate in pursuing common goals.

After all, it is also human nature to come together and fix problems.

Any development plan or initiative that seeks to respond to the social and economic damage wrought by COVID19, or to prevent its recurrence, should keep in mind the drivers that made it a global disaster.

The political economy right now is on an unsettling journey headed to an uncertain destination. We will need a calibrated and careful out-of-the-box response to come up with resilient solutions and robust systems that help us ride out the current crisis and protect us from future disasters.

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