|Thursday, 8 November 2001|
Poverty eradication - poor not as objects but as subjects
by Ranga Jayasuriya
Four hundred and forty million South Asians live below the poverty line. Poverty. It is what is hidden in South Asia's beauty, its charm and its picturesque landscapes. A vicious cycle of poverty is everywhere in the sub-continent; from modern metropolises of Culcatta or Dhaka to the isolated rural villages of Hambantota or Rajasthan.
Neither the liberalisation of economies nor welfare systems which have been operational in the region throughout its post-colonial history was capable in reducing the widening gap between rich and poor.
In 1991, when the heads of the SAARC nations gathered in Colombo, the magnitude of the problem forced leaders to find more effective and constructive means for poverty eradication. Thus, the SAARC Independent Commission on Poverty Eradication was set up. The commission report which remarkably brought quarrelling South Asian nations to a consensus, underlined the link between poverty and the region's inherited multi- faceted crisis which has made the problem further complicated. Holding the conventional approaches are not adequate, the commission report underlined the need for an innovative approach to deal with the situation; a strategic plan designed according to the needs and the capacities of the poor.
Now, after a decade, though the region has not yet got rid of poverty,there are some success stories coming from rarely known isolated corners of the region kindling hopes of a better future.
The Ranna Story: "Bare Hands" approach to Poverty Eradication
Located in the forgotten corners of Sri Lanka's South which twice was fertile ground for Leftist revolutionaries who sought alternative solutions to widening gulf between the rich and the poor, and deteriorating of democracy, Ranna tells the ability of the poor in participating sustainable economic development. A tale of an impoverished community investigating own reality, making itself economically viable. The poor are not asking for charity, but opportunities,the story tells.
When the first phase of the program began in 1983, the whole village was experiencing the throes of poverty; only one fifth of the villagers' harvest remained for their consumption, when the rest was grabbed by the moneylenders and shopkeepers.
The contradictions and polarisation between the rich and the poor have sharpened, the plight of the villagers made an external facilitation necessary. It was then Wickremarachchi, a humble man but with tremendous determination came to the poverty stricken village. He was to guide the villagers in Sri Lanka's one of the pilot projects in poverty eradication designed according to the proposals of the report of the SAARC Independent Commission on Poverty Eradication.
The role of the external facilitator was to assist in releasing the creative energies of the poor through several stages of social mobilisation and organisation, in the proper sequence.
The external facilitator was responsible for building primary organisations of the poor and then much larger secondary groups and federations thus making the process further sustainable. Such a buildup helped the community to face the challenges collectively, thus reducing their vulnerability before such obstacles. The villagers discussed their matters at the community meetings and sought solutions. Thus, the solutions for prevailing problems came within the community structure, so the villagers would work in each other's farms in order to reduce labour costs while their representative would do the shopping for all of them , so that they could buy goods at wholesale prices.
With the leaders emerging within the community,the external facilitators became progressively redundant, allowing the community leadership to lead the community in the development process, but the external facilitators were always available for the community in their need.
The facilitation of poverty eradication is a value -led process, so the external facilitator would help to build up new innovative partnerships between organisations of the poor and the government organisations, banks, NGOs and the donors.
At every stage of the process the efficiency of the poor gradually increases and the use of local resources and knowledge results in a pro- poor growth.
Now,18 years after the program being implemented, the people in Ranna have investigated their own reality,the real income of the village has increased fourfold and the community has itd own bank,"Swakeeya Benkuwa".
What the success story of Ranna has underlined is the ability of the poor to participate in the sustainable development process. They are not mere recipients of aid, nor are they objects of the process. Their participation in the process as subjects is a socially vibrant process, and when they are empowered they are quite capable of investigating their reality. What is however necessary is breaking their mentality of passivity and dependency - that is why an external facilitator is needed. Ranna is not the only success story in poverty eradication, there are hundreds, perhaps, thousands of such tales everywhere in the region.
But, poverty is still there, taking more men and women under its vicious grip. But, the courageous men and women in Ranna tell us that poverty can be defeated, if they are given opportunities. What they ask is not subsidiary packages, but equal opportunities to participate in the development process.
Produced by Lake House