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PIDA and Its Vision of Development

G V S DeSilva, 1986

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bulletPIDA’s Vision of Development
bulletBrief Overview of PIDA’s Work
bulletSome Results of PIDA’s Intervention
bulletIssues for the Future


In this classic piece of social change literature by the Sri Lankan social scientist GVS DeSilva (1928 – 1986) he outlines the idea of countervailing power and people’s self-development. This he called People’s Power. The piece was written towards the end of his working life during a period in which he devoted his time and energy to the task of setting in action processes of change to confront the social relations of production in the Sri Lankan countryside. His chosen instrument for this purpose was the Participatory Institute for Development Alternatives – PIDA – founded in August 1980 and in whose formation and early years he played a leading role. In this article he and his co-workers at PIDA reflect upon the early results of their countervailing power interventions in which the possibility of the poor and the deprived organising themselves in the societal space available to them to fight for their own interests is described.

"Power dominates. Countervailing power liberates."

PIDA’s Vision of Development

At PIDA we look at development in fundamental humanistic terms as a process of overall development of the people and their potential. Bringing out the creativity and the potential of the people is the means as well as the end of development. People are the subjects and not mere objects or targets of development.

There are several important aspects to such a humanistic view of development.

bulletDevelopment cannot be delivered to the people as a package from outside. It is essentially an endogenous process, which stems from the heart of each society.
bulletDevelopment can acquire its full meaning only if rooted at the local level and in the praxis of each primary community. Development is first and foremost lived by the people where they are, where they work and live, that is in the first instance at the local level.
bulletNo development model can be universal. In fact the richness of development consists in its variety and plurality of patterns deeply ingrained in the culture and tradition of each society. Attempts at uniformity and universalism are mechanistic and alienate people.
bulletSelf-reliance, participation and countervailing power are central components in the development process as conceived by PIDA social activists. The three concepts are a unity, an integrated whole. Self-reliance is not to be confused with the narrow concepts of autarchy and self-sufficiency. It is rather an autonomous capacity to take decisions affecting one’s livelihood and to choose one’s course of development uninhibited by external influences. It is a re-appropriation of man’s control over his livelihood and environment hitherto alienated to others. It is a process of self-assertion. It aims at breaking away from dominant–dependent relationships and forging relationships on an equal footing. Participation as a central democratic value is organically linked with the assertion of self-reliance, for it denotes that people acting through their own free-will take decisions pertaining to their lives. Participation requires organised efforts to increase control over resources and institutions on the part of people who have hitherto been excluded from such control. Liberation from domination and exploitation requires that people build up and exercise a measure of counter power to the dominant interests in the society. Power dominates. Countervailing power liberates.

A process of development as envisaged above, requires that people (the disadvantaged, oppressed and the poor) investigate, analyse and understand the socio-economic reality of their environment, in particular the forces, which create poverty and oppression and build up the confidence and capacity through organised efforts to contend with such forces. Conscientisation (critical awareness of the reality, perception of the possibility of changing the reality and building up the capacity for such change) assumes a central place in the development process. Conscientisation leads directly to organisation and action to break away from dependency links (dominant–dependent relationships). Each action is followed by reflection and analysis thereby improving the actions and moreover, creating space for further action. People’s praxis (a progressive action – reflection rhythm) is set in motion. Liberation from forces of domination releases creative energies of the people; the dormant productive forces are activated. A process of capital accumulation based initially on own resources, technological improvements, production and productivity improvements, enhanced resource utilisation is set in motion. People embark upon a self-reliant development process, which at each stage is determined by the people themselves through a progressive interplay of action and reflection and not defined for them from above.

PIDA works primarily with the rural poor in Sri Lanka. An important point of departure for PIDA’s work is that rural communities are not homogeneous entities. Existence of contradictions among different social groups having conflicting (rather than harmonious) interests is a fundamental fact of village life. In general, the basic social structure in a village is characterised by the existence of dominant interests (such as traders–cum–moneylenders, landowners, rural elite groups and even rural bureaucrats) who benefit from the status quo, and the majority consisting of the small and marginal farmers, other peasants, landless workers, and rural artisans who live in poverty. In this context most rural institutions and so called neutral interventions in rural areas by governments as well as voluntary agencies get adjusted to the dynamics of these contradictions and end up benefiting the dominant interests and perpetuating the status quo.

While there is a conflict of interest between different classes and groups in rural society, they are also mutually dependent on one another. These relationships are however asymmetrical in form and assume a dominant–dependent character and an unequal dependency relationship. The small commodity producers (whether small farmers or rural artisans), for example, lose a considerable portion of their income (economic surplus) to money lenders, traders, landowners, elite groups and the bureaucrats through exorbitant interest rates, a combination of low prices and high input prices (lower terms of trade), high land rents, corruption and other ways. The drain on economic surplus through dependency links (dominant–dependent relationship) creates a process of impoverishment, suppresses the rural productive forces, and keeps the productive forces, and the productivity of the rural economy at a low level of equilibrium.

These asymmetrical relationships also create dependency attitudes among the rural poor; mental attitudes and value systems are created to legitimise the dependency relationships and the existing social structure. Moreover, the poor themselves are not a homogeneous category, being divided on caste and many other issues. They also compete with each other for the limited economic opportunities in the village. These factors, namely dependency attitudes and disunity, inhibit the poor from taking initiatives to improve their lot, and tend to make them non-innovative, non-problem solving, and non-experimental and acquiesce to the status quo. This in turn reinforces and stabilises the asymmetrical dependency relationships, and a vicious circle of dependency and poverty is created. This explains why it is difficult if not impossible, for the process of self-reliant rural development to be a spontaneously generated process. A catalytic intervention is, more often than not, a necessary initial input in the mobilisation, and conscientisation of the rural poor for organised action to achieve self-reliant development.

Brief Overview of PIDA’s Work

PIDA’s role is essentially a catalytic one of intervening in rural communities to assist the rural poor to investigate, analyse, and understand the socio-economic reality of their environment, in particular, the poverty generating forces. The essential task of PIDA is to facilitate the mobilisation, conscientisation, and organisation of the rural poor. For this purpose, PIDA currently has a trained cadre of 15 action researchers, and a few more are undergoing training in the field. PIDA will remain essentially small, with a maximum of not more than about 20 action researchers, to facilitate its operation as a collective non-hierarchical group. All action researchers withdraw from the field for a period of about 3 to 4 days each month to meet together and reflect on their work and to expose the work of each to the group as a whole. In these monthly action-reflection exercises, actions are continually being reviewed, evaluated and improved upon. As a collective body, all decisions are taken by the group as a whole through consensus, and all operational/organisational work is carried out by the action researchers working in rotation. An atmosphere conducive to collective deliberation has been created, action researchers live together as a group to facilitate interaction and dialogue when they meet monthly for reflection sessions. The organisation is run with minimal overheads, without administrative staff or vehicles. PIDA does not maintain an office or any office staff; it has only a simple home to hold its meetings and where action researchers and any visitors could stay.

Currently PIDA workers are operating in a diversified range of rural communities, which include small farmers of different types (those with/without irrigation facilities, highland/paddy cultivators, cash crop producing/subsistence farmers, old/new settlers, and squatters or encroachers on state lands), marginal farmers (living partly by cultivation and partly by casual wage labour), landless labour, small fishermen, rural artisans, and women cottage industry workers.

The initial phase of PIDA’s intervention in a community is to stimulate the poor to get together and to inquire why they are poor. PIDA workers will investigate and analyse with the people the poverty generating forces operating in the immediate environment. In the case of the small commodity producers (small farmers or rural artisans), for example, these investigations and analysis have often focussed on the magnitude of the income (economic surplus) lost to moneylenders, traders, landowners, and others through dependency relations. The extent of the surplus drain is often quantified using simple arithmetic for each producer as well as for the producing community in the village. Such calculations often reveal that the small village producer does not even realise one half of the market value of the produce because of dependency relations. The village trader-cum-moneylender supplies credit to the small producer at exorbitant interest rates (generally in the range of 200 to 250 percent per annum), and with the credit supply there is often a commitment on the part of the producer to sell his produce to the same trader, buy his inputs and consumer goods from the same trader, thereby creating further avenues to extract surplus from the producer. Such pre-capitalist relations are a fetter on the development of rural productivity. Initially people will begin to relate their poverty to forces in the local space; gradually, however they would begin to relate their immediate experiences to the wider social structures to which they are less exposed.

In this way, the interaction between the PIDA worker and the community of rural poor sparks off a certain chemistry. The accumulated knowledge and experiences of the community is integrated with the analytical tools supplied by the PIDA worker, which generates a process of scientific enquiry among the poor. People move from a sensory perception of their poverty and fatalistic beliefs and attitudes about their abilities, to a conceptual and analytical framework in their deliberations on poverty, and to realise that it is within their power to change reality. People are now stimulated to explore what they could do to counter the impoverishment process. Small producers, for example, would begin to explore what means are available within their power to retain the economic surplus they are producing. A process of experimentation on alternative possibilities, a trail and error process, may be initiated. Often the first action is to build up a small savings fund and to achieve a measure of group strength and economic staying power. Each action is followed by reflection and analysis, so that the next step could be improved. With each action, people gain the confidence in their ability to change reality. Perception of the possibility of changing the immediate reality leads to the emergence of people’s organisations whose structure and operations are defined by the people themselves based on their own experiences and to suit their specific needs.

This process leads to the emergence of internal cadres and catalytic skills within the organised people’s groups. At this point, PIDA workers would gradually withdraw from the scene allowing the people to carry out their work on their own. This, however, is not a total withdrawal. The PIDA worker would begin to devote more of their time to the multiplication of the process in new villages and to arrange periodical interactions among different people’s groups within a given locality so that people could share their different experiences and learn from each other.

Some Results of PIDA’s Intervention

Organised people’s groups emerging out of PIDA’s intervention have achieved significant gains in improving their livelihood.

bulletOrganised small producer groups have successfully retrieved the economic surplus, which they have lost through dependency relations. Significant gains have been wrested from local level exploiters. As a result, substantial income improvements, in some cases as much as one-hundred percent increases, have been achieved by small producers.
bulletThe ability to retain the economic surplus has created a powerful incentive to increase production by greater utilisation of available resources, through productivity improvements, adoption of improved technologies, cultivation of new crops, and improved access to governmental delivery systems. The productive forces, hitherto suppressed by dependency relations, have been released.
bulletAll groups have set apart a portion of their enhanced incomes into a group fund. This collective fund has enhanced the staying power of the people to withstand crises and has provided funds to meet emergency family needs (such as illnesses and deaths). Moreover, an investment process has been set in motion using largely people’s own resources and supplemented by credit from outside sources.
bulletMany groups have diversified their group actions by taking initiatives to provide own health services (by the creation of health funds and obtaining training for a member of the group in primary health care – a kind of barefoot doctor), and to organise cultural and social activities.
bulletPeople have created their own organisations, which are non-hierarchical and informal in character. Almost all groups have preferred to remain small in size (generally not more than 25 neighbourhood families). Being small, they are able to operate as collective entities without creating formal offices and delegating the work to a group of office bearers. Self-management is a characteristic feature in all groups. Members form into small teams to undertake work in rotation. Groups meet regularly often on a definite day (evening) of the week, reflect on the actions initiated, undertake further social and economic investigations, and decide on new actions. Actions are being internally evaluated by the group itself. In this way, a process of people’s praxis, i.e. an action-reflection spiral has been set in motion.
bulletA measure of self-respect and self-confidence has been introduced into the people’s lives. By acquiring a measure of control over their immediate environment, people have been able to gain confidence in their ability to change the reality. People are no longer passive and non-experimental.
bulletOrganised groups have succeeded, in varying degrees, to operate as a countervailing power to the local power structures. They have improved their bargaining power vis--vis traders, input suppliers, elite groups, and the bureaucracy. Enhanced bargaining power coupled with greater receiving capacity have enabled the groups to improve their access to governmental services. The process has not been entirely conflict free. People’s groups have had to meet opposition and acts of sabotage emanating from the dominant interests. In most instances, these conflicts have been either effectively overcome or have only led to temporary set backs; they have not been effective in weakening the people’s initiatives.
bulletAfter a point, the organised groups have felt a need to spread the process to other villages thereby breaking the isolation of the original groups. When such new groups come up, interactions have taken place among the groups in the locality. Such inter-group interactions to share experience and to learn from each other’s actions have become regular features in some village clusters.

Issues for the Future

PIDA’s experience is that there is always some political and economic space to initiate a process of self-reliant development at the grassroots (village) level. Moreover, such space does not remain static but expands with each successful action. For one thing, people’s confidence in their ability to change the reality is enhanced, and for another, improvement in the economic status of the people and the creation of group funds enhances the people’s capacity to undertake further actions. Moreover, when a number of people’s groups emerge in a locality, the isolation is broken down, inter-group interaction takes place, and linkages are forged among groups providing a further source of encouragement and strength. PIDA’s experiences in working with a variety of poor groups reveal that a process of mobilisation, conscientisation, and organisation can be initiated under different economic and social conditions and the development process is replicable. These are very interesting and useful results in themselves; people’s initiatives have been liberated (within limits of course) and a degree of countervailing power to local power structures has been built up.

What are the prospects of such grassroots initiatives expanding beyond the local level to become a countervailing power at the national level? How far are grass root micro-processes capable of ultimately expanding into national macro-level movements? How far do grass root initiatives represent the first glimpse of a new liberated society? These questions take us to an arena where a single organisation such as PIDA acting alone can do little. There is a need to build a network of linkages within a country, among grass root organisations as well as with friendly organisations, institutions, and groups, so that a protective cover is available for a wider movement arising from grass root initiatives.

Grass root initiatives are still a very controversial animal in many countries. Often they have been looked upon with suspicion and sometimes they have been interpreted as subversive moves of some kind. They often run the risk of either co-option or repression. Hence grass root initiatives need legitimacy and recognition if they are to move away from the marginal place, which they currently occupy into the mainstream of social life. They have to be recognised as effective methods of reaching the poor and of fostering participation which is a basic human right. A government committed to another development and to participation as a basic human right, could go a long way in creating the necessary political climate for grass root initiatives to expand into wider social movements. But such political environments are getting increasingly scarce in the world.

"Participation requires organised efforts to increase control over resources and institutions on the part of people who have hitherto been excluded from such control.
Liberation from domination and exploitation requires that people build up and exercise a measure of counter power to the dominant interests in the society."


The Collected Writings of G V S De Silva: The Alternatives - Socialism or Barbarism, Edited by Charles Abeysekera, Social Scientists Association, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1988, pp289 - 300



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