Transferring Grassroots Experiences into New Development Theories and Concepts

Chapter 5: Sub-group Discussions

At the completion of the presentations and preliminary discussions, participants divided into two discussion sub-groups to further debate based on the presentations made. The debates were again thematically organized as per the presentation categories, and brief summaries of the debates were made to the group.


As was discussed during the presentation, poverty is a complex issue. During the sub-group discussions, the need for a good—yet flexible—set of indicators and the need to carefully analyse the various definitions of poverty were addressed. For example, whose perspective should be taken in defining poverty? Can the same set of indicators be used for defining poverty in North India as can be used for South India?

There was a general consensus that communities should be able to develop their own definitions of poverty. This would enable the community itself to be able to identify its poor and develop community-based actions to address this. Development practitioners should conduct case studies on the efficacy of these community developed definitions and on the livelihoods taken up by varied communities to see the effect livelihoods have on poverty.

Both sub-groups also felt that comprehensive collective action provided ample scope to address poverty. This collective action should be a bottom-up approach which starts with developing trust among the people to where they are willing to mutually help in dealing with vulnerability and sharing risks. This is difficult to develop because the prevailing attitude is often “Somebody else is benefiting at my cost.”

Other ideas developed by the sub-groups included lobbying for policy and advocacy at the macro level for poverty reduction, scaling down technology to bring it within the grasp of the poor, and establishing poverty monitoring cells for all projects.

Development Perspectives

During the sub-group discussions, a point was raised that it is challenging for the development practitioner or field worker to develop a bigger total picture of how small, specialized components fit together. Often, the vision of the founder or leader was the primary influence for these issues. However, if an internal mechanism was established to allow room for an action—reflection—refined action process, field workers would be better able to identify the significance of their work and better be able to conceptualize based on their experiences.

There were other concepts which emerged from these discussions. For example, some institutions concentrate on a single (or limited) area while others have assumed a more comprehensive approach towards development. Each approach has its strengths and weaknesses. Some NGOs feel the “super speciality” approach is more appropriate for them since it fosters greater competency for them in their chosen field. However, if this approach is employed, it is important that the NGO can recognize when the saturation level has been reached and that they understand that the same tool often cannot be applied as a blanket solution. Instead, they should attempt to develop “strategic partnerships” with other groups to increase the options available for development.

Funding also affects the potential of NGOs in several ways. At the very least, funding—or the lack of funding—can, in part, determine the outcome of a project. Additionally, many NGOs would also agree that another challenge is reconciling differences between a donor’s perspective on development priorities and the development practitioner’s perspective. These are important considerations, especially in terms of an organization’s accountability, and one option might be a three-dimensional “open social audit” in which a project is reviewed by the practitioner, neutral third-parties, and the community.

Understanding Communities: Culture, Structure, and Economics

While there was a unanimous view of the importance of a proper understanding of the community for a development initiative, questions were raised regarding how to develop this understanding as an individual and how this understanding should lead to a heightened sensitivity of the changing dynamics of a community. It was agreed that care should be taken to preserve traditional knowledge while at the same time space should be created for the emergence of new cultural practices. Both sub-groups also suggested heightened observation by development practitioners. This observation should be accompanied by the simultaneous evolution of development tools.

Development Professionalism

Managers at many organizations find that their employees fall into three categories: self motivated people, people who are able to deliver if they are given the right environment, and people who, even with motivation and the right environment, still need more time to deliver on a product. The more conscious a manager is of the types of employees within his or her organization, the more likely that organization is to perform better and more efficiently.

It is also important that organizations can foster an environment in which, at the end of the day, a development practitioner is able to feel a sense of pride and joy in his or her work. Part of this is the responsibility of managers too, who are responsible for appraising employee performance; more clearly defined work parameters would allow employees to better self assess when they are meeting performance objectives, and at the same time, give them a sense of pride in achieving these objectives.

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