Why did microfinance, which originated in the subcontinent, become such a success in Bangladesh, but remained confined to Andhra Pradesh in India? Karnataka’s Bhoomi initiative, a landmark project to computerize 20 million land ownership records of 6.7 million farmers, was completed in 2002, but only a few states have taken tentative steps to replicate it.
The efficacy of Madhya Pradesh’s Education Guarantee Scheme has not inspired other states, though the concept of guarantee forms the basis for a 2005 national law to provide jobs.
In the seeming hopelessness of India’s pervasive and cloying poverty, there are many such bright ideas that have actually worked. Yet, they have not provided the rest of the country with a foolproof model. Verghese Kurien’s milk revolution could not be copied to edible oils. Nor did we have another Self Employed Women’s Association out of Gujarat.
World Bank’s latest publication on poverty, Ending Poverty in Asia: Ideas That Work, edited by Deepa Narayan and Elena Ginskaya, tries to document 12 such trailblazing feats by civil society/bureaucrats/private companies or individuals from South Asia, eight of them from India. This is a departure from its previous exercises, because the idea is not to find a one-size-fits-all solution for poverty, but to go deep into the experiments and distil some lessons on public policy.
Why do attempts to replicate successful small-scale experiments on a bigger scale rarely succeed? In the concluding chapter, Ravi Kanbur and Shantayanan Devarajan argue that poverty persists because of the failure of markets, governments and civil societies. Eleven out of 12 cases in the book emerged out of market failure, with some of them aggravated by the government’s botched attempts to set them right, and government or civil society stepping in subsequently.
For instance, in the case of the Employment Guarantee Scheme in MP, the government decided to tie up with communities to create a market for schools (education), which was in great demand. Or in the case of Operation Flood in 1970 (an initiative that helped dairy farmers drive their own development by setting up milk producers’ cooperatives in villages), through the private sector. Or even in the case of Bhoomi, a government-only, institution-aided e-governance programme.
What is the key word or effort in all these cases? It is the forming of coalitions between the people and civil society or between the government and community or private sector. The coalitions helped the champions of reform to either overcome the opposition from vested interests that benefited from the failure, or to tackle the market failure better or simply to create an efficient market.
But the authors ignore the role of local factors (half the examples come from two prosperous states with well-developed administrations) in the success of an idea and the time invested in it. Operation Flood has now run successfully for 30 years. So has SEWA.