February 5, 2009

Question: Can Grass Roots efforts that are successful become scalable?


Jeffrey Sachs alludes to this in his book “The End of Poverty”. He talks about the key to succeeding on a large scale with grass roots solutions is to create a global network from the local level successes to the very centers of world power and wealth and back again. He talks about the starting point being the poor themselves because they have the solutions. I agree with him on that part, but not on the former point.


By the very fact the center of world power and wealth have money and power, I wonder where is their incentive to relinquish any of that power to the poor? For example, they will likely offer money to the poor so they can continue to carry out their plans, but with what conditions attached? Conditions enable those with the money to keep control or extend power over how it is used. Sachs writes of mutual accountability and how this must govern the relationship. But what leverage do the poor have to hold the centers of power and wealth accountable and indeed for what? It is by their own volition, born of policy, culture, religion or perhaps just plain old guilty conscience that the centers of power reach out to help the poor. But the poor need money to scale up what they do. They are motivated to maintain the relationships because it will help them to make their lives better. If they don’t hold up their end of the bargain and do not do what they are accountable for, who gets hurt? The poor. But if the centers of power do not do what they are accountable for, who will it hurt? The poor. Certainly some will argue that in the long run it will hurt the center of powers too because the poor will grow more and more angry and resentful and perhaps violent too – but that is the long term and history tells us that while we may discuss the long term implications of something, governments and institutions act in the short term.


If the grass roots efforts of the poor are to become scalable, they must do so on their own terms and while they may accept the offers of the center of power, they cannot possibly be dependent on them or they will not succeed. And that is the irony of Sach’s viewpoint.


So where is the solution to this? How do the poor make what they do scalable so that it will change and better the lives of hundreds of millions of urban poor around the world?


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