Acceptance speech – Participatory Institute for Development Alternatives (PIDA)

Bringing out the creativity and the potential of the people is the means as well as the end of development.

Mr Jakob von Uexkull and Distinguished Guests,

As the representative of the Action Research Group of the Participatory Institute for Development Alternatives (PIDA) may I thank wholeheartedly the Right Livelihood Foundation, and its executive trustee Mr Uexkull, for the honour and recognition given to us by selecting our group as one of the recipients of the 1982 Right Livelihood Award, very appropriately termed Alternative Nobel Prize. It is a tremendous source of encouragement and satisfaction to a relatively small and young group of grass root action researchers operating in a far away island, Sri Lanka.

May I say straightaway that we are not an isolated initiative in an isolated island. Rather we are a part of a wider process towards ‘another development’ in the Asian context. We have built up useful linkages with grass root movements and groups in different parts of Asia, and continuous interaction is taking place among these groups, enriching each other’s experiences and initiatives. Hence, I stand before you in this August assembly to accept the award not just on behalf of PIDA, but on behalf of a wider process of grass root initiatives and innovative experimentation towards ‘alternative development’ taking place in Asia. I may also mention that there could be no better place to accept the award than Sweden, where institutions such as Dag Hammerskjold Foundation and SAREC, have sponsored the case of ‘ Another Development’ as a global need.

Although PIDA is still a young organisation, no more than two years old as an independent entity, our roots go back to the mid-seventies when a team of Asian Scholars centered around the UN Asian Institute of Development in Bangkok, initiated a process of reflection on the reality of Asian poverty, the failure of past developmental efforts, and attempted to develop a conceptual framework for an alternative development in Asia.

Asia is predominantly a rural society. For about three decades, these countries have adopted an initiative and an alien development model with industrialisation, growth of the modern sector, transfer of capital and technology, ‘trickle down’ and some kind of ‘top-down’ planning as the central elements. In many countries, the model failed on its own terms, More over, what resulted was maldevelopment; the society was polarised and people were alienated from their culture and tradition. Relentless forces that produce poverty continued unabated. Poverty has in fact increased both under conditions of stagnancy in production and in situations of greatly increased production.

The conventional model failed and became less and less accepted. It was in this context that the team of Asian scholars began their search for alternatives. They studied the macro as well as micro development processes that were going on in Asian countries and evolved a conceptual framework, Towards a Theory of Rural Development. The internal dynamics of an Asian grass root movement namely Bhoomisena in India, was studied in depth using participatory research methodology which helped to sharpen further the conceptualisation on alternate development. People’s knowledge and practice at the grass roots interacted with modern knowledge and scientific analysis to produce a new praxis on how the creative initiatives of the people of rural Asia may be released and mobilized for all round development of their livelihood.

The next logical step was to undertake an experimental project to translate the theory into operational terms and to train a group of personnel in participatory action research. Sri Lanka was selected for this experimentation and an action research project was started under the auspices of the government and with UNDP resource support. The project trained a core group of action researchers over a period of some eighteen months who in turn trained village level cadres (‘change agents’) for initiating the new praxis of people’s development at the village level. The project proved a success. PIDA was born out of this experiment. It was set up in August 1980 by a group of action researchers trained under this project assisted by the scholars who pioneered the search for an alternate development in Asia.

PIDA’s Vision of Development

Let’s look at development in fundamental humanistic terms as a process of overall development of the people and their potential. Bringing out the creativity and the potential of the people is the means as well as the end of development. People are the subjects and not mere objects or targets of development. There are several important aspects to such a humanistic view of development:

  • Development cannot be delivered to the people as a package from outside. It is essentially an endogenous process which stems from the heart of each society.
  • Development can acquire its full meaning only if rooted at the local level and in the praxis of each primary community. Development is first and foremost lived by the people where they are, where they work and live, that is in the first instance at the local level.
  • No development model can be universal. In fact the richness of development consists in its variety and plurality of patterns deeply ingrained in the culture and tradition of each society. Attempts at uniformity and universalism is mechanistic and alienate people.
  • Self reliance participation and countervailing power are central components in the development process as conceived by us. The three concepts are a unity, an integrated whole. Self-reliance is not to be confused with the narrow concepts of autarchy and self-sufficiency. It is rather an autonomous capacity to take decisions affecting one’s livelihood and to choose one’s course of development uninhibited by external influences. It is a reappropriation of man’s control over his livelihood and environment hitherto alienated to others. It is a process of self-assertion. It aims at breaking away from dominant-dependent relationships and forging relationships on an equal footing. Participation as a central democratic value is organically linked with the assertion of self-reliance, for it denotes that people acting through their own free-will take decisions pertaining to their lives. Participation requires organised efforts to increase control over resources and institutions on the part of the people who have hitherto excluded from such control. Liberation from domination and exploitation requires that people build up and exercise a measure of counterpower to the dominant interests in the society. Power dominates. Countervailing power liberates.

The process of development as envisaged above, requires that people (the disadvantaged, oppressed and poor) investigate, analyse and understand the socio-economic reality of their environment, in particular the forces which create poverty and oppression and build up the confidence and the capacity through organised efforts to contend with such forces. Conscientisation (critical awareness of the reality, perception of the possibility of changing the reality, and building up the capacity for such change) assumes a central place in the development process. Conscientisation leads directly to organisation and action to breakaway from dependency links (dominant-dependency relationships). Each action is followed by reflection and analysis thereby improving the actions and more over, creating space for further action. People’s praxis (a progressive action – reflection rhythm) is set in motion. Liberation from forces of domination releases creative energies of the people; the dormant productive forces are activated. A process of capital accumulation based initially on own resources, technological improvements, production and productivity improvements, enhanced resource utilisation is set in motion. People embark upon a self-reliant development process, which at each stage is determined by the people themselves through a progressive interplay of action and reflection and not defined for them from above.

PIDA works primarily with the rural poor in Sri Lanka. An important point of departure for PIDA’s work is that rural communities are not homogeneous entities. Existence of contradictions among different social groups having conflicting (rather than harmonious) interests is a fundamental fact of village life. In general, the basic social structure in a village is characterised by the existence of a dominant interests (such as traders-cum-money lenders, landowners, rural elite and even rural bureaucrats) who benefit from the status quo, and the minority consisting of the small and marginal farmers, other peasants, landless workers, and rural artisans who live in poverty. In this context most rural institutions and so called ‘neutral’ interventions in rural areas by governments as well as voluntary agencies get adjusted to the dynamics these con-traditions and end up by benefiting the dominant interests and perpetuating the status quo.

While there is a conflict of interests between different classes and groups in the rural society, they are also mutually dependent on one another. These relationships are however asymmetrical in form and assume a dominant-dependent character, an unequal dependency relationship. The small commodity producers (whether small farmer or rural artisan), for example, loose a considerable portion of their incomes (economic surplus) to money lenders, traders, landowners, elite, and the bureaucrats through exorbitant interest rates, combination of low product prices and high input prices (lower terms of trade), high land rents, corruption and other ways. The drain of economic surplus through dependency links (dominant/dependent relationships) creates a process of impoverishment, suppresses the rural productive forces, and keeps the productivity of the rural economy at a low level of equilibrium.

These asymmetrical relationships also create dependency attitudes among the rural poor; mental attitudes and value systems are created to legitimise the dependency relationships and the existing social structure. More over, the poor themselves are not a homogeneous category being divided on caste and many other issues. They also compete with each other for the limited economic opportunities in the village. These factors, namely dependency attitudes and disunity, inhibit the poor from taking initiatives to improve their lot, and tend to make them non-innovative, non-problem solving, and non-experimental, and acquiesce in the status quo. This in turn reinforces and stabilises the asymmetrical dependency relationships, and a vicious circle of dependency and poverty is created.
This explains why it is difficult, if not impossible, for self-reliant rural development process to be a spontaneously generated process. A catalytic intervention is, more often than not, a necessary initial input in the mobilisation, and conscientisation of the rural poor for organised action to achieve self-reliant development.

Brief Review of PIDA’s Work

PIDA’s role is essentially a catalytic one of intervening in rural communities to assist the rural poor to investigate, analyse, and understand the socio-economic reality of their environment, in particular, the poverty generating forces. The essential task of PIDA is to facilitate the mobilisation, conscientisation, and organisation of the rural poor. For this purpose PIDA currently has a trained cadre of 15 action researchers, and a few more are undergoing training in the field. PIDA will remain essentially small, with a maximum of not more than about 20 action researchers, to facilitate its operation as a collective non-hierarchical group. All action researchers withdraw from the field for a period of about three-four days each month to meet together and reflect on their work and to expose the work of each to the group as a whole. In these monthly action-reflection exercises, actions are continually being reviewed, evaluated, and improved upon. As a collective body, all decisions are taken by the group as a whole through consensus, and all operational/organizational work is carried out by the action researchers working in rotation. An atmosphere conducive to collective deliberation has been created; action researchers live together as a group to facilitate interaction and dialogue when they meet monthly for reflection sessions. The organisation is been run with minimal overheads, without administrative staff or vehicles.

PIDA does not maintain an office or any office staff; it has only a simple “home” to hold its meetings and where action researchers and any visitors could stay.

Currently PIDA workers are operating in a diversified range of rural communities which include small farmers of different types (those with/without irrigation facilities, highland/paddy cultivators, cash crop producing/subsistence farmers, old/new settlers, and squatters or encroachers on state lands), marginal farmers (living partly by cultivation and partly by casual wage labour), landless labour, small fishermen, rural artisans, and women cottage industry workers.

The initial phase of PIDA’s intervention in a community is to stimulate the poor to get together and to inquire why they are poor. PIDA worker will investigate and analyse with the people the poverty generating forces operating in the immediate environment. In the case of the small commodity producers (small farmer or rural artisan), for example, these investigations and analysis have often focused on the magnitude of the income (economic surplus) lost to money lenders, traders, landowners, and others through dependency relations. The extent of the surplus drain is often quantified using simple arithmetic for each producer as well as for the producing community in the village.

Such calculations often reveal that small village producer does not even realise one half of the market value of the produce because of dependency relations. The village trader-cum-money lender supplies credit to the small producer at exorbitant interest rates (generally in the range of 200-250 per cent per annum), and with the credit supply there is often a commitment on the part of the producer to sell his produce to the same trader, buy his inputs and consumer goods from the same trader thereby creating further avenues to extract the surplus from the producer.

Such pre-capitalist relations are a fetter on the development of rural productivity. Initially people will begin to relate their poverty to forces in the local space; gradually, however, they would begin to relate their immediate experiences to the wider social structures to which they are less exposed.

In this way, the interaction between the PID worker and the community of rural poor sparks off a certain chemistry. The accumulated knowledge and experiences of the community is integrated with the analytical tools supplied by the PIDA worker which generates a process of scientific enquiry among the poor. People move from sensory perception of heir poverty and fatalistic beliefs and attitudes about their abilities, to a conceptual and analytical framework in their deliberations on poverty, and to realize that it is within their power to change the reality. People are now stimulated to explore what they could do to counter the impoverishment process. Small producers, for example, would begin to explore what means are available within their power to retain the economic surplus they are producing. A process of experimentation on alternative possibilities, a trial and error process, may be initiated. Often the first action is to build up a small savings fund and to achieve a measure of group strength and economic staying power. Each action is followed by reflection and analysis so that the next step could be improved. With each action, ‘people gain the confidence in their ability to change the reality. Perception of the possibility of changing the immediate reality leads to the emergence of people’s organisations whose structure and operations are defined by the people themselves based on their own experiences and to suit their specific needs.

This process leads to the emergence of internal cadres and catalytic skills within the organised people’s groups. At this point, the PIDA workers would gradually withdraw from the scene allowing the people to carry out their work on their own. This, however, is not a total withdrawal. PIDA worker would begin to devote more of his time to the multiplication of the process in the new villages and to arrange periodical interactions among different people’s groups within a given locality so that people could share their different experiences and learn from each other.

Some Results of PIDA’s Intervention

Organised people’s groups emerging out of PIDA’s intervention have achieved significant gains in improving their livelihood.

  • Organised small producer groups have successfully retrieved the economic surplus which they not lost through dependency relations. Significant gains have been wrested from local level exploiters. As a result, substantial income improvements, in some cases as much as one-hundred per cent increases, have been achieved by small producers.
  • The ability to retain the economic surplus has created a powerful incentive to increase production by greater utilisation of available resources, through productivity improvements, adoption of improved technologies, cultivation of new crops, and improved access governmental delivery systems. The productive forces, hitherto suppressed by dependency relations, have been released.
  • All groups have set apart a portion of their enhanced incomes into a group fund. This collective fund has enhanced the staying power of the people to withstand crises and has provided funds to meet emergency family needs (such as illnesses and deaths). More over, an investment process has been set in motion using largely people’s own resources and supplemented by credit from outside sources.
  • Many groups have diversified their group actions by taking initiatives to provide own health services (by the creation of health funds and obtaining training for a member of the group in primary health care – a kind of ‘a barefoot doctor’), and to organise cultural and social activities. People have created their own organisations which a e non-hierarchical and informal in character. Almost all groups have preferred to remain small in size (generally not more than 5 neighbourhood families). Being small, they are able to operate as collective entities without creating formal offices and delegating the work to a group of office holders. Self-management is a characteristic feature in all groups. Members form into small teams and undertake work in rotation. Groups meet regularly often on a definite day (evening), of the week, reflect on the actions initiated, undertake further social and economic investigations, and decide on new actions. Actions are being internally evaluated by the group itself. In this way, a process of people’s praxis, i.e. an action-reflection spiral, has been set in motion.
  • A measure of self-respect and self-confidence has been introduced into the people’s lives. By acquiring a measure of control over their immediate environment, people have been able to gain confidence in their ability to change the reality. People are no longer passive and non-experimental.
  • Organised groups have succeeded, in varying degrees, to operate as a countervailing power to the local power structures. They have improved their bargaining power vis-a-vis traders, input suppliers, elite groups, and the bureaucracy. Enhanced bargaining power coupled with the greater receiving capacity have enabled the groups to improve their access to governmental services. The process has not been entirely conflict free. People’s groups had to meet opposition and acts of sabotage emanating from the dominant interests. In most instances, these conflicts have been either effectively overcome or have only led to temporary set backs; they have not been effective in weakening the people’s initiatives.
  • After a point the organised groups have felt a need to spread the process to other villages thereby breaking the isolation of the original groups. When such new groups come up, interactions have taken place among the groups in the locality. Such intergroups interactions to share experiences and to learn from each other’s actions have become regular features in some village clusters.

Issues for the Future

Our experience is that there is always some political, and economic space to initiate a process of self-reliant development at the grass root (village) level. More over, such space does not remain static but expands with each successful action. For one thing, people’s confidence in their ability to change the reality is enhanced, and for another, improvement in the economic status of the people and the creation of group funds enhances the people’s capacity to undertake further actions. More over, when a number of people’s groups emerge in a locality, the isolation broken down, inter-group interaction takes place and linkages are forged among groups providing a further source of encouragement and strength. PIDA’s experience in working with a variety of poor groups reveal that a process of mobilisation, conscientisaion, and organisation can be initiated under different economic and social conditions and the development process is replicable. These are very interesting and useful results in themselves; people’s initiatives have been liberated (within limits of course) and a degree of countervailing power to local power structures has been built up.

What are the prospects of such grass root initiatives expanding beyond the local level to become a countervailing power at the national level? How far are grass root micro processes capable of ultimately expanding into national macro level movements? How far do grass root initiatives represent the first glimpses of a new liberated society? These questions take us to an arena where a single organisation such as PIDA acting alone can do little. There is a need to build a network of linkages within a country, among grass root organisations as well as with ‘friendly’ organisations, institutions, and groups, so that, a protective cover is available for a wider movement arising from grass root initiatives.

Grass root initiatives are still a very controversial animal in many third world countries. Often they have been looked upon with suspicion and sometimes they have been interpreted as ‘subversive’ moves of some kind. They often run the risk of either co-optation or repression. Hence grass root initiatives needs legitimacy and recognition if they are to move away from the marginal place which they currently occupy to the main stream of social life. They have to be recognised as effective methods of reaching the poor and of fostering participation which is a basic human right. A government committed to another development and to participation as a basic human right, could go a long way in creating the necessary political climate for grass root initiatives to expand into wider social movements. But such political environments are getting increasingly scarce in the third world. One encouraging feature is that many inter-governmental organisations, in particular, some parts of the UN System, have shown an increasing interest in introducing community participation as an important component into their third world development projects. PIDA itself has assisted several UN agencies in this regard. The enlightened sections of the international community can play on important role by acting as a lobby/pressure group to facilitate more space, legitimacy and protection to grass root initiatives operating ‘another development’.

Grass root initiatives working towards ‘another development’ are still in their infancy. There is a need for further experimentation, conceptualisation, and learning to refine the methodology, mechanics of replication, and micro-macro linkages. Such learning cannot be undertaken in the abstract. It is necessary for action researchers operating in different parts of Asia to interact with each other on a regular basis, share and analyse the experiences, and create a learning process based on action-reflection analysis. Interactions of a limited nature have already taken place in Asia. PIDA in its formative period has benefited immensely from interactions with two Asian groups namely People’s Institute for Development and Training (PIDT) in India and PROSHIKA (Centre for Human Development) in Bangladesh. Under ILO/ICDC programme, the action researchers of Bangladesh, India, Philippines and Sri Lanka were able to interact with each other which also helped the further development of individual country programmes. More recently, the society for International Development has initiated a special programme (GRIS: Grassroot Initiatives and Strategies) for linkage building among grass root groups on a global scale. These are significant developments. But there is still a need for interaction on a continuing basis and to bulb up a network of Asian grass root initiatives.

Mr Uexkull, and distinguished guests, I have now presented to you a brief sketch of PIDA’s vision, work and some results, as well as some reflections on the future. There are many organisations and individuals who helped PIDA at various stages of its development. I must specially mention the contribution of late Mr G.V.S. de Silva who laid the foundation for PIDA’s vision and work. I must also mention that it was the assistance received from the Government of the Netherlands and CUSO of Canada that enabled PIDA to get off the group and to reach its present level of development and recognition.

The award money received from the Right Livelihood Foundation will be used to set up a Trust Fund for PIDA, which should give a measure of stability to our group and hopefully reduce the need for external funding over time.

Finally, I wish to thank all distinguished guests present here. I am deeply honoured by your presence.

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