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Imposing External Ideas on Communities In the Name of Development Is the Opposite of Empowerment

October 31, 2016

This season, it’s fashionable to quote Bob Dylan. He said, “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” I want to talk about a man I met a few months ago. His name was Aseem – which literally means ‘limitless’.

At the time, I was working for a non-profit focused on sustainable architecture and social housing while consulting for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and India’s Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD) to improve India’s longest-running housing assistance program aimed at the rural poor. As of 2012, upward of $15.5 billion had been spent on this program according to the MoRD, but India still faced a rural housing shortage of 4.1 million houses.

However, Aseem wasn’t one of the people looking for housing assistance. He was certainly poor: when he could work, he'd earn less than $5 a day. But in India, his earnings put him above the official poverty line. When I met him, he was putting the finishing touches on his new house that he had built with his own hands.

Aseem explained to me that on the days he couldn't find work, he and his wife would go to the stream near their house and make sun-dried bricks. Over the course of three months, they made about 20,000 of these bricks. For the roof, he bought wood (for trusses) from a nearby town and he bought clay roof tiles from a potter in his village. Then with the help of some friends and family, the house went up in about two weeks. All together, Aseem spent about $300 building his house.

In Mr. Dylan’s terms, Aseem had succeeded. This is how his neighbors and his larger community built their houses. This is how his father and his grandfather before him had built their houses. If he abandons the house, it will disintegrate without leaving a footprint on our ecology. Sure, this house will need annual repairs, but Aseem knows how to take care of them.

But MoRD would beg to differ. They’d say the house is inferior and not ‘permanent’. They’re ready to give him give him about $1,050 in financial assistance to build a more permanent house, but if the numbers are to be believed, Aseem wouldn’t be able to build a ‘proper’ house with this assistance. He might have to incur serious debt if he wanted to finish it.

The reason is that if Aseem accepted MoRD assistance, he would not be able to build the house in his way. His costs are low because he can rely on local resources, his community, and his traditional knowledge. But the government program requires him to use materials that are available only in towns, and technology he knows nothing about. The materials and skills are costlier, and his community wouldn’t be able to help him.

So, these are the questions I’d like to pose: Is this empowerment? When we’re talking about development in the Global South, should we tell the target communities what their problems are? Should we tell them what they should be doing in order to solve their problems? We can either be limited by a haze of buzzwords, or we can explore greater possibilities by listening, respecting each other’s perspectives, and working together.

Contact Information

Fels Institute of Government
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felsinstitute@sas.upenn.edu