In the quest for QUALITY

Some time back, I attended a seminar by Prof. Malcom Harper – on microfinance. He put it quite simply: Millions of people the world over are offered a service, called microfinance (but basically implying micro-credit) as a route to exit their current unfavorable circumstances. Of course, there is a catch. The service comes at a precious premium – not just in terms of higher interest rates on credit, but also the time one is required to spend every week and the risk one is required bear by physically or morally under-writing the loans of other members of the group. Prof. Harper summed it up succinctly when he termed a third-rate service pushed down the throats of the poor. Of course, it is too expensive for anyone who is not-so-poor.

There are arguments. The poor have no alternatives; they have greater social capital that suffices as collateral; the alternative for them in most cases are exorbitantly expensive and patently exploitative. In the last decade, microfinance has come to be seen not just as a great innovation, but in some instances as a panacea for poverty. Granted, it is a great way of reaching down to the poor. It also steps in where the government has failed, not due to paucity of funds, but for want of incentives. However, it is also the same old story – that of fixes for the poor and the quality of services that are put on offer for this section to choose from.

Financing the poor is obviously not the only instance of its kind. Lets look at sanitation – the Total Sanitation Campaign, that touts itself a success, measures itself solely by numbers achieved, not the final frontier – of actual usage of the toilet and behaviour change. Thus, achieving national targets become a function merely of numbers – counting the numbers of cement rings and soak-pits become a mere statistical exercise – until the number equals the number of families in the country. Then, we will declare ourselves to have attained the MDGs (its not all dark and gloomy – there are reasons to cheer)

Water is also a mode of such discrimination – in contrast to the individual piped water that we take for granted, water supply in rural areas or in urban slums often envisage a single tap for 10-15 families (or for all houses within a certain radius around each tap).

Housing schemes for the poor represents another such charade. For years now, the Indira Housing Scheme has allocated a dwelling here, a dwelling there – often determined by people in power, doled out to their narrow constituencies. Even what is available is quite unfit for living – a 200 sq ft space with walls and a roof, irrespective of the number of members in the family. After all, it is better than having no house at all. The other big issue with housing schemes is the lack of technical assistance that can make it possible to have structurally sound houses built in the limited budget available. Again, success is measured using number of beneficiaries each year and amounts disbursed.

Lets look at power – it impacts livelihoods, children’s education, reduces dependence on kerosene…overall, improves productivity. Till recently, the government was committed to expanding the grid out to remote areas where there were communities living in darkness since years. Come privatization, the power companies demand that in order to benefit, these communities have to share costs of installation and pay user-charges and maintenance as well. Capital costs were never borne by any community that accessed grid electricity previously. Urban consumers like us never had to pay for installation costs; and yet, this is how any future expansion would take place.

There is another interesting dimension in the power tale. If you or I decide to use a motor to pump water to our respective overhead tanks, it is viewed as domestic consumption of power and hence charged at domestic rates. At the same time, if a rural community comes together and sets up a water supply facility with a common overhead tank, they are charged at commercial rates for the power they consume. Surely, there is no better way to kill a community’s cooperative enterprise. There is more! I hear non-conventional sources of poor being touted as the big solution for poor communities living in remote areas – solutions that are so very expensive and relatively much more complicated and difficult to maintain. These are interesting projects no doubt, but I cannot escape the feeling that in the name of self-help, we spend time teaching tribal communities how to manage a micro-hydro electricity generating system, how to fix solar panels and understand LEDs. This is stuff you and I are unlikely to have much clue about. How about our cities going solar?

The poor woman’s (and man’s) health and that of their animals seem to be another victim of circumstances. Isn’t it strange that we don’t hear of para-nurses, para-medics, para-vets, para-everything in cities? These seem to the exclusive domain of rural areas where the qualified cannot reach, and even if they manage to reach there, they cannot for sure live there.

Among all this, what is most glaring is the limited availability of highly skilled manpower in these sectors – that serve the poor, whether in rural or urban areas. These jobs, just like the people they serve, are left to compete in the larger market, where higher salaries and a glamorous lifestyle take precedence. It thus seems that by and large, the development sector has become a last resort choice. This urgently needs to change. To explore innovative development strategies, to engage the poor and investing in their productive capacities requires manpower of the highest quality. The state of human resources in this sector is reflected by state of policy instruments and schemes that are in vogue. Development is seen either as handing out aid, or as a partnership which often pits the poor against larger forces of the macro-environment.

In India, the limits of duality are being stretched, with the gap growing wider year by year. Successive governments have toyed with rhetoric, mega-schemes and sporadic sops, all of which has not been able to improve the condition of the millions of people living in miserable conditions. The numbers are mind boggling and understandably, it staggers any government. It is not something that government departments can resolve on their own or with help from a few non-government agencies.

Countries that live in a perpetual state of military emergency have resorted to compulsory conscription. In our country, we are still unwilling to acknowledge the state of emergency we are in. When it was announced that one year of rural service was mandatory for doctors, there were widespread protests all around. Since the government funds higher education in the country so heavily, let it introduce a similar condition on the young bright graduates from these institutes where they are required to spend two years in community service on graduation in order to receive their final degrees – for at least all government-subsidized institutions of higher education. At present, only those who are recruited in the civil services (both in the central and state cadre) are required to work in rural areas for a certain length of time in their career. I would argue that the government has more to gain by such a policy rather than by increasing fees to offset the spiraling subsidies to these institutions. I don’t see why the same rule should not apply to private institutions, but I do understand there may be more of a debate here, given that students already pay significantly higher fees.

A beginning could be made by listing all the sectors and organizations that would be a part of such a programme. Criterion could be set down, regarding the nature of work that one is permitted to take up; the range of remuneration that should be provided (with a reasonable minimum salary). One of the problems development professionals today face is that of fitting into the conventional industries once they have served in the non-profit space. Their mobility is restricted and the non-profit tag is often hard to shake off. A uniform policy where everyone goes through the development sector will be a leveler and allow everyone to explore equal opportunities in future. Much can be done – the retirement age in government jobs can be raised by two years – al though I would argue no compensating incentive is necessary in responding to the call of duty in a nation faced with an emergency.

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