The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), an agency of the United Nations, provides interest-free funding for rural programmes across 13 states in India with 40-year repayment periods. The agency has so far loaned $564 million (Rs2481.6 crore) through 21 projects in India since 1974, part of a global portfolio of about 200 programmes and $4 billion in lending. As part of a visit to villages in Orissa, the fund’s president Lennart Bage spoke to Mint’s Paromita Shastri and Rahul Chandran on the agency’s plans in India. Excerpts:
In your interactions with the Indian government, what was the sense you got about their commitment to poverty alleviation?
I sense a very strong commitment to really address the issue of poverty and agriculture development. There is also a willingness to allocate resources and to find new approaches, because there is no blueprint for success.
The exact strategy and prioritization differs from context to context. So, coupled with the committment and willingness to allocate resources, there should be an openness to find the right approaches.
Can you talk about any new projects that you are undertaking?
There are five ongoing projects and three that are ready to start. We do roughly one new project a year. We are planning a project on watershed management in arid and semi-arid areas in Jodhpur. In addition we have two proposals from the government that we are considering.
Most IFAD projects are financed by multiple sources—the government, the communities themselves and local banks sometimes pitch in. We are also planning a national project that will provide vocational training for unemployed youth.
How do you ensure accountability and sustainable development after your involvement ends?
NGOs form a large part of our strategy. They also help in accountability. If we do enough training and build good institutions, we can ensure that these projects and their impact retain sustainability. The key is to get the local community involved. In my experience, the success of a project depends on the quality of the frontline staff. The government alone cannot lead development. There are some cases where the project has grown considerably after IFAD involvement stopped. And that is a very good thing.
Overall, what is your sense of India? Is poverty decreasing at the right rate?
Poverty itself is unacceptable so you can never reduce poverty fast enough. And the huge numbers make it a daunting challenge. You cannot expect to go to zero overnight but at the same time, you cannot get complacent. You have to work intelligently to try and reduce poverty. You have to be innovative and try different approaches to try and reduce poverty.
Do you feel that India is on track to reach the millennium development goals when it comes to poverty?
What we hear is that there is a very good chance of halving the proportion of poor people between 1990 and 2015. But one has to realize that that’s only half the problem. So 2015 is not the goal, it’s only a step. I am absolutely convinced that the world can eliminate poverty in one generation. We have the knowledge and the resources. What we need is political will and priority. And India can lead the way by aggressively attacking poverty.