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Opinion

July 13, 2018

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Poverty and local governance

Poverty lies at the household level. This is why we need meticulously designed household-level solutions to address its multifaceted nature. This is, of course, not an easy undertaking, given the nature of the governance structure that is primarily shaped to deliver extension services.

Local government departments have neither the mandate nor the functional capacity to engage in providing household-level private goods and services. Hence, pubic goods and services alone have little impact in alleviating real poverty. The question that then arises is: what are the means to address household poverty and who should be doing this? That begs another question: do we have demonstrable models that could be replicated to help the government meet its commitment towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty in all its forms by 2030?

There are no easy answers to such questions since our performance in meeting the targets set in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) hasn’t been up to par. It calls for political will and commitment as primary conditions to do the rest. These factors are directly proportional to a well-governed and accountable local governance system, which must be able to engage citizens as the key stakeholders of the transformational process.

The local government structure in Pakistan is administrative in nature, with a top-down, supply-side organisational setup. In other words, the local government structure is nether representative nor inclusive in nature as it has no feedback and accountability mechanism to allow citizens define their local development needs. In its current structure, it wouldn’t be prudent to pin too many hopes in the local government structure to address household poverty. Even if functional reforms are introduced in the local government departments, it would only bring efficiency in administration and service delivery.

Social action programmes have failed to alleviate poverty due to their supply-side function and lack of focus on the household economy of the poor. The poor cannot participate meaningfully in determining the choices for local development without a representative institutional mechanism at the village and union council levels. This requires that the poor must have their own organisation to enter into a meaningful development dialogue with government line agencies, NGOs, private-service providers, and local political representatives.

The poor don’t have the means and power to influence the development agenda except when they have a platform to raise a collective voice that has the required capability to articulate their development demands. Investing to build a robust local institutional setup is the only workable and time-tested approach, which has already been adopted by one of the most successful community-driven rural development programmes across the world.

In our contemporary development discourse, building local institutions for the poor is considered to be an important function to effect local change. These institutions, which are owned, governed and represented by the poor, provide the basis for socioeconomic transformation. They also help improve the functional capabilities of the poor to access economic and social services equitably.

In rural development parlance, the formation of an institution for the poor has been termed as an attempt to ‘build social capital’. From the works of Alexis de Tocqueville on American democracy to Robert Putnam’s study of Italian society, we can find credible evidence on how the collective life of the people shapes the fundamentals of democracy, equality and transformative development.

However, it was Robert Chambers who had to develop a practical toolkit of social capital formation as a condition for empowering and representing the poor. His theorising of local development drew upon successful models of rural development initiated by Akhtar Hameed Khan in Comilla in the 1960s.

The perseverance of Akhtar Hameed Khan and his dedicated student, Shoaib Sultan Khan, came to fruition with the successful demonstration of community-driven development with the setting up of rural support programmes (RSPs) from the 1980s onwards across Pakistan. RSPs have been a real success as they have provided a full range of programmatic components to build social, human and financial capital at the village level as the basis for social transformation.

Back in the 1980s, Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen identified the lack of functional capabilities as the leading cause of the exclusion of the poor from economic and social opportunities. For a development project to work effectively, it is essential to invest in building the capabilities of the people so that they are able to access opportunities. According to Sen, “a person’s capability to live a good life is defined in terms of the set of valuable ‘beings and doings’ like being in good health or having loving relationships with others to which they have real access”.

The notion of capability has been employed extensively in the context of human development. For example, it has been used by the UNDP as a broader and deeper alternative to the narrowly-defined economic metrics, such as growth in GDP per capita. In this sense, ‘poverty’ is understood as deprivation in the capability to live a good life while ‘development’ is understood as capability-expansion.

In recent decades, Amartya Sen’s capability theory has emerged as an alternative model of progress and development. Rather than goods and resources (the inputs), the focus of Sen’s capability approach is people and their capabilities (the end-results). It also provides an alternative perspective on issues like poverty, inequality, gender bias, and social exclusion that are hardly touched by the economic perspective. Sen’s approach is both comprehensive and flexible. It provides dignity to the human race because the economic model of development has reduced people to the status of producers and consumers.

Our contemporary theory of rural development is influenced by Tocqueville, Putnam, Chambers and Sen, with successful practical demonstrations spearheaded by Akhtar Hameed Khan and Shoaib Sultan Khan in the South Asian region. The Comilla project in Bangladesh, the Andhra Pradesh model in India, RSPs in Pakistan, and the National Solidarity Project (NSP) in Afghanistan are glaring examples of how the theory of local development was translated into practical programmes.

One of the most vital contributions of the government in promoting this community-driven development was the decision to set up the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund in 1998 as an apex funding agency to provide financial and technical support to integrated rural development. However, government funding receded with time, barring the financial support that the government of Sindh provided for UC-based poverty-reduction initiatives.

Currently, the most promising integrated rural development programmes are being implemented by RSPs in Sindh and Balochistan. Funded by the EU, these initiatives entail organising poor households into well-governed, inclusive and participative institutions at the settlement, village and union council levels. The Sindh Union Council and Community Economic Strengthening Support (SUCCESS) seeks to build social, human and financial capital as the key ingredients of social transformation envisioned by Akhtar Hameed Khan and Shoaib Sultan Khan. Income-generation grants, community investment funds, and skill development initiatives to rural households have been initiated through the programme and have had some tangible impacts.

Policymakers in the provincial and federal governments must study these models, both as instruments of poverty alleviation and the democratic transition of the traditional mode of governance.

The writer is a freelancecolumnist based in Islamabad.

Email: ahnihal@yahoo.com

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