Alternative approaches to poverty alleviation

THIS BOOK focusses on poor women of the Third World and recommends a particular approach for poverty alleviation. After a brief, but commonplace critique of current strategies, including Arthur Lewis' growth model in which benefits supposedly trickle down to the masses, Wignaraja discusses an "alternative approach" -- Participatory Action-Research (PAR).

PAR is based on the premise that solutions to poverty are possible only by mobilising the poor to evolve and implement local action plans according to their own priorities. Inputs from governments, academicians and donor agencies would be incorporated only when required.

In elaborating this approach, as it applies to women's poverty, the author cites the Grameen Bank and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, the Production Credit for Rural Women in Nepal, the Self-Employed Women's Association and the Working Women's Forum in India and Baldia Home Schools in Pakistan as successful PAR examples. In all these cases, says Wignaraja, "large numbers of women have been able to move out of poverty and into sustainable development".

Some features common to all the efforts are identified. The poor women first built their own participatory and self-reliant base before seeking external technical and financial inputs. They used these inputs efficiently and democratically, considering the social needs of group members. In these grassroots processes, the women developed their own knowledge and skills and created new structures. In each example, training and reflection were ongoing processes.

Wignaraja suggests that similar innovative programmes be evolved in Africa and Latin America. And the study, which is "primarily intended to reinforce the implementation strategy for UNICEF's policy on women and development", brings out the policy implications of the PAR approach for donor agencies.

This is a good book for clearing out some of the ancient cobwebs that infest the offices and minds of governments, developments planners, policy makers and donor agencies.

However, the suggested approach does not consider the plethora of factors behind women's poverty, which is increasing in the Third World. Can such an approach actually combat poverty? Can it defeat the processes continuously reinforcing poverty, including grossly unjust terms of trade, neo-imperialistic ideologies, undervaluation of female labour, inappropriate development models, the class structure and patriarchy?

By itself, organising poor women to articulate and assert their needs and rights cannot eradicate poverty. While such efforts are crucial and should be encouraged, the parameters within which they occur have to be recognised. Wignaraja, however, glosses over these broad contextual issues. In fact, the book is not about strategies for poverty eradication (as one might imagine, from the rhetoric employed), but is literally about poverty alleviation.

Finally, most of Wignaraja's "successful" cases have been aided at some time or another by UNICEF -- with whom he himself is attached. When he hears "a new sound from sensitive donors", there is an uneasy suspicion: is our not hearing such sounds simply because of our distance from the source? Or, is Wignaraja's imagination working overtime? Has objectivity -- of the necessary, valuable kind -- become a casualty?

Wignaraja's work, reverberating with a sense of involvement, seems to have no place for doubts, contradictions and ambiguities that face anyone committed to the processes of social change. There is black in his world, and there is white, but no grey. Who will speak to us of that wide, wide terrain?

Deepti Priya is a research scholar at the Department of Political Science, Delhi University.