Repost from Oct. 15, 2012: A Reflection on Life in Rural Bihar

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By Zubin: 

As I write this post, I am sitting in the village of Bishanpur in the Indian state of Bihar, having taken off a semester of my senior year to engage in hands-on learning and research with the educational NGO Pratham in Bishanpur.  One dim light, powered by an inverter, is on above me, as the power is out, which it is more often than not.  My coworkers have teamed up to make rotis; one is kneading the dough and rolling it into perfect, flat circles, while the other is cooking them on a griddle over a two-foot transportable kerosene burner.  In the corner, I see two rats flirting, chasing one another back and forth.  Once the rotis are finished, we will put the vegetable curry back on the burner to warm it up; we cannot cook both simultaneously, as this is the only cooking apparatus in the house.  We will eat dinner sitting on the floor, using only our right (pure) hand. In the failing light, we will go to bed after dinner, around 9:15 PM - I will climb onto my half of the wooden bed, while my bedmate takes the other half and our other two roommates sink to their tarp on the floor.  Between the heat and the mosquitoes, I will probably wake up four or five times tonight, and will be awoken for good at 4:30 am by the words “Allah hu akbar” blaring from the loudspeaker of the mosque adjacent to our room. 

These material conditions—four people sleeping in a tiny room, with two on the floor, a dirty squat toilet, contaminated water, and irregular electricity—are often cited as signs of destitution.  I do not mean to trivialize the complex causes, marginalization, and emotional distress of those living in poverty, as I am an observer who is not subject to their conditions and experiences.  At the same time, I cannot help but think that definitions of well being that I have learned in my international development and economics courses might overemphasize material conditions; when I think of my own well-being in Bishanpur, I think of the friends I’ve made, the tasty food I have eaten, and the children I have taught, not my utility as defined by my consumption or the money I have. 

To achieve objectivity and comparability, these definitions place little emphasis on the subjective, difficult to measure factors of well being, such as quality of relationships, confidence, or dignity.  We speak, instead, of per capita income, the Human Development Index, electrification, and utility.  The opposing community-driven development model—which portrays poor, rural communities as having perfect information and as ingenious entrepreneurs—advocated by many sociologists and anthropologists, can also be overly simplified; communities with no knowledge of modern medicine, for example, will suffer needlessly from disease without help from those from outside of the community.  Additionally, although the makeshift engine-powered bicycle-wagons that are common here are a powerful example of human resourcefulness, I have spoken with the bootstrapping entrepreneurs who produce them, and they would prefer more reliable machines.  Thus, while the focus may be on including the different voices of the community in the process, large institutions and organizations also need to play a role.  What is needed are small-to-mid sized organizations, who have social capital in the community, but who also speak the language of large development organizations.  These intermediaries can allow the best of each approach to flourish.