Poking a hole

via David Roodman, Lant Pritchett’s comments on microfinance and gives us this really sobering thought

Certainly not necessary…, probably not sufficient, probably not actively harmful, probably just not that big a deal one way or another

I have (naively) tried to defend being idealistic about microfinance in a previous post. I strongly believe that often, the dominant tendency in the ‘development’ world is to find satisfactory fixes to ‘their’ problems, that are neither high quality, nor are they likely to improve the underlying systems. Lant’s story about water supply systems in India further demonstrates this point. He says –

I was living in India and discussing arrangements for household water supply with some development colleagues of mine. After about half an hour of pretty fruitless discussion I said, “let’s step back. tell me your long-run vision of the household water sector in India” They said “Our vision is that India meets the target that every household lives within half a kilometer of an improved water source capable of providing 40 liters of safe per person per day.” I said, “I see the problem. My vision of success is that every Indian can take a hot shower inside their own home.” The difference is that one can imagine meeting the first goal “programmatically” or with a series of “interventions” while the latter clearly requires endogenously functional systems. No one I know wants to have to go to a group meeting to take a hot shower. They want to turn the tap and it works.

When the NGO I used to work for talked about a private shower for households living in rural Orissa (in addition to a private toilet), lots of donors and the general public would openly wonder what the big fuss was about. Of course, the dominant paradigm of development being pushed by the governments then was a public tap for a designated number of families in every community. That made this NGO’s ambition even more preposterous.And often, the resistance did not stem from lack of technology or resources – it was the mindset. 

I am grateful to David for bringing us this debate. We really do need a reality-check…

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