When the North thinks of the South, the image is often one of hopelessness: drought and destruction, floods and debt. Weeping fathers and mothers in disaster-ridden countries burying their children wrapped in old rags. Malnourished children with distended bellies and faces covered with flies. Once proud and dignified men, women and children begging for food with cupped hands — these are all common images in television and newspaper articles.
However, in the North and the South, the causes of poverty which make people vulnerable to disasters receive scant attention. Despite some decades of “development”, most of the Southern nations are in desperate shape. Having pursued economic strategies largely modelled on Northern experience and inappropriate to local conditions, the countries find themselves deeply in debt and unable to extricate themselves from the quagmire of poverty.
The poor, who have been seldom more than mute actors in plays conjured up in the capital cities, becoming further alienated in their own societies.
It is easy to lament over the plight of the poor. But for the poor themselves, despair is a luxury which they can ill afford. And throughout the South, there are seeds of hope, sown by citizens’ groups. All over the world, and against all odds, tenacious people have started projects small and large. Out of bankruptcy and poverty of failed international and national development strategies, a new set of organisations has emerged among the poor.
Change and development are taking place at local levels. Individuals, families and communities are planning and organising to survive in difficult environments. Tens of thousands of such groups have been identified across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In scores of countries, women’s groups, peasant groups, religious organisations, consumer campaigners and environment protection societies are acting as important engines of change.
In Bombay, for example, an estimated 100,000 people sleep, wash and raise their families on the roadside. But over the last five years, groups of “pavement dwellers” have come together to form a group with the ungainly title of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC). Through the organisation, women have learnt to design and build their own shelters and to claim their rights. Anyone who visits the SPARC office cannot but be moved by the confidence with which the poorest of the poor now conduct themselves. It is a strong antidote to the popular belief that Indian women are spineless and submissive.
In Bangladesh, one small community organisation, called Proshika, has, by using the existing skills and labour of villagers, effectively and efficiently implemented over 600 small but crucially successful projects under 10 years. “The project has freed me from the chains of money lenders by enabling me to earn more,” says Rabindranath, a small-scale farmer.
In Kenya, the Undugu Society is assisting “parking boys,” Nairobi’s street children. The term derives from one of their popular activities, which is directing motorists to available parking spaces. They eke out a living doing anything that is likely to bring in a few shillings, such as rummaging through garbage for items that could conceivably be saleable and going to the wholesale market, the “marikiti”, where they pick up the odd tomato or potato left behind.
Undugu provides education and training for children. “I gathered scattered potatoes at the marikiti and sold them, I unscrewed the lamps on people’s cars and sold them,” says Muhoro, a former destitute Kenyan boy. He is now a successful carpenter.
These examples do not mean that things are getting better for the South – far from it. But they do demonstrate that when development programmes are designed and run with the participation of people, they work. If the tide is to be turned in the South, then efforts are needed on a vast scale to support the work of citizens’ groups. There should be greater collaboration between citizens’ groups and the voluntary agencies of the North and the South.
de Silva is a Sri Lankan journalist who has been covering development issues for over 20 years. He is Director of Regional Programmes with the Pangs Institute in London.