For the policymaker viewing from his perch in Delhi (or any mega city), the poor are a faceless homogeneous mass too passive and weak to help themselves. The obvious next step prompted by this view is to count their number, identify them, and carry relief to their doorsteps. Such a strategy did make sense in the years immediately after Independence when the unprecedented crisis the country faced warranted action on a war-footing. Inexplicably, the strategy continues to be substantially the same even now, after six decades that have seen major changes in society and the economy. The irony is that there is growing disillusionment with this line even at the policymaking level, but the response has been just to allot more funds in the hope that higher doses of the same medicine will help.
Uplift of the poor
The book under review should be of particular interest not only to policymakers but to all those who have a stake in designing and implementing programmes for the uplift of the poor. The authors argue persuasively that the poor need to be recognised as individuals with their own identity, as much as the better-off sections. Their decisions and actions are rational and sensible, given the specifics of their situation in terms of opportunities and constraints as perceived by the poor. It is particularly important for the stakeholders to understand this link between the decisions of the poor and the environment in which they take those decisions. It is the neglect of this link that results in failure to strike a rapport with the poor, in the programmes proving ineffective, and, eventually, in aid-weariness and cynicism about the strategy itself.
The authors argue that, while understanding the poor is a necessary first step in any endeavour to uplift them, it does not make the task of poverty alleviation easy to accomplish in all situations. Noting that “we have no lever guaranteed to eradicate poverty,” they contend that “time is on our side…[if] we join hands with millions of well-intentioned people across the world in the quest for many ideas, big and small, that will eventually take us to that world where no one has to live on 99 cents a day.” Are the authors just naïve and starry-eyed? It doesn't seem so. Their propositions related to the poor and poverty are based on extensive fieldwork wherein randomised control trials, a method pioneered by them, were used.
Secondly, their views seem to have drawn support from some top economists. Says Theodore Schultz, in his book Transforming Traditional Agriculture, that farmers in traditional agriculture are poor but efficient. The poor, according to him, make the best possible use of their meagre resources, and it is the lack of new technologies that accounts for their poverty. This position of his stood vindicated by the Green Revolution in India that demonstrated what traditional farmers can achieve when given access to new technologies.
Particularly interesting is the discussion, supported by two simple diagrams, on poverty trap, leading to the conclusion that “there is no grand universal answer [to poverty trap] … we need to make [an] assessment case by case [to] identify the key factors that create the trap.” The chapter on health makes a persuasive case for preventive health services: “The primary goal … in poor countries should be to make it as easy as possible for the poor to obtain preventive care … An obvious place to start is delivering preventive services free or even rewarding households for getting them.”
On schooling, the authors assert that all the available evidence strongly suggests that “making sure that every child learns the basics well in school is not only possible, it is in fact fairly easy, as long as one focusses on doing exactly that, and nothing else.” While it is quite reassuring to know from the book that the poor do respond when the approach is right, one feels rather diffident about the policymaker's response. Is he ready or even inclined to draw lessons from it?
There is as yet no scientific or reliable estimate of the poor, and the numbers put out by different agencies are widely divergent and, worse, are often too large for comfort to those at the helm. Maybe, the authors could bring out a companion book on the decisions and actions of the policymaker.