"The Indian Road" as a development model.

If you are a westerner who has traveled to India you might remember the roads. Here, unlike well ordered smoothly flowing roads in western countries, there are apparently no rules. Tata trucks lumber along with disconsolate cows, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, wobbling handcarts and a liberal sprinkling of  randomly ambling pedestrians plus a few stray dogs. No lane markings lights or signals. Lots of horns. Chaos! So inefficient! "The Indian Road" seems to encapsulate everything that is wrong with developing countries. 

Now watch these starlings flocking over a Swedish forest, their patterns weaving and reweaving as elegantly as the themes in the background music. Beautiful! The diametric opposite to an Indian road one might  say. 

Actually for me it is an exact corollary of an Indian road, except the Indian Road is more complex and beautiful. Why? Because starlings are all very similar,  on the Indian Road so many different types of vehicle of different sizes, speeds and ways of moving are integrated without top down rules. You won't even see road markings. Watch this video with complexity rather than western top-down, rule bound eyes. There are rules, just much more subtle than the  straight line, overt rules of the Western Road.  Look again. Look at what does happen, not what does not. 

I rest my case: more beautiful than flocking starlings! How does it happen? Biologists find that the complex emergent behaviour of starlings arises from a few simple rules: each bird tries to fly in roughly the same direction as its neighbours, tries not to be too close to its neighbour and avoids the edge of the group. Equally the Indian road is a complex emergent phenomenon. Automobiles were subsumed into an Indian transport system that already had pedestrians and cows and horses and carriages… and relationships.  Each driver expresses deeply learned interactive societal rules in a different way depending on what type of vehicle s/he (usually he) is driving. This is a relationship based transport system. A western rule oriented system cannot possibly cope with the different types of vehicle on Indian roads so simply makes rules to exclude them.  You don’t see handcarts and cycle rickshaws or pedestrians on New Zealand roads. Many places do not even allow bicycles. The Indian road is much more inclusive.

So what has all this to do with development. Lots. For me many situations we get to as development professionals have long evolved complex emergent behaviour driven by buried rules. The system works in ways and for reasons that might not be superficially apparent. These systems evolved to match people to resources in ways that a pre-defined system a development professional might come with may not be able to.  This is not to say that improvements cannot be made however our first responsibility is to try to understand the system, what it does and how.  Lots of time looking, listening, asking,  listening, and looking some more.. trying to understand. Look ing humbly for what does happen, not what does not. 

And as a cautionary tale have a look at this: traffic flowing and interdigitating beautifully on a Hanoi street- until the westerner dressed in red tries to cross the road. (37 seconds in, left corner of the intersection) Traffic screeches to a stop around her because she did not understand the system rules. I am sure she arrived in Vietnam thinking she knew how to cross a road.She probably returned to her country cursing Vietnamese drivers.  She could have spent time watching or walking with a local and learning how to cross Vietnamese roads from them. To show how it is done an old Vietnamese lady ambles nonchalantly across the street towards us just afterwards. 

Too often Development consultants,  NGOs and workers are like the woman in red- not comprehending and in fact impeding a system that was flowing fine previously. We come with pre-conceived ideas of what the right way for traffic to flow is, or people to plant crops or teachers to teach. Pre-armed with our own view of how the world should work we see what is not happening not what is.  We present, often impose, our system as universally right, unaware that our ideas evolved too,  in a different context. Our universal truths may be specific to our context.  Some of what we "know" is valid in other contexts, some is not. We act as if it all is. It’s a mistake we have all made.

Systems self organise. They do what they do for complexly evolved reasons and it is incumbent to first understand them- what they do well, what they capture. Then, maybe, we can offer alternatives and improvements. Those involved in the system can take what we offer,  modify it as they see fit and braid into their complex self-organisation. 

I think the best contribution will often not be 'helping' people to do things differently but rather helping to maximise the capacity of the system to self organise. If people embedded in a system can self organise, they have better ways of choosing between options than we do. Development could just focus on the ability to self organise.  

Some examples of ways to increase self-organising capacity are:

  1. Increasing inclusion. More voices means a society has more innovative options. Inclusion means voices of the poor, women, minorities etc. are heard
  2. Encouraging and supporting innovation. Every innovation is a ‘policy experiment for that society’. Most will not work but when one does it may contribute massively to the society’s ability to use resources. Encouraging innovation itself, rather than enforcing a single innovation from your own society is the key. Enforcing a particular system actually limits innovation.
  3. Offering more inclusive ways of governing (e.g. democracy rather than hierarchies). Similar to inclusion this increases the number of voices and options a society has to self organise itself around. 
  4. Increase the society’s ability to question itself. (this is different from questioning a society’s norms.) A self reflective society is much better at adapting. One NGO I worked with used ‘dialogue teams’ whose only role was to get the indigenous people to talk about and analyse the changes happening around them. The dialogue team did not offer any answers, just process.
  5. Simply building capacity and bringing in new ideas is a way of increasing options for people to choose between. 
  6. Exposure visits to other similar contexts and facilitating communication between them is an even better way to increase options. People embedded in a system often see things we do not.  Two villages, one in India one in Bolivia both adapting to climate change and communicating electronically is a beautiful example of using modern technology to increase self organising potential. 
  7. increasing resources. Often poor people have all the desperation to try new things (what they are doing is not working) but they do not  have the opportunity because of lack of resources. Simply adding some resources and letting people use them might be all that is required. This is the principle of the outstandingly successful Grameen Bank and other micro-finance systems. 
A group of indigenous Cambodians who now patrol their own forest, doing citizens arrests on illegal loggers. The NGO did not suggest this. They just worked on community processes for understanding changes happening around them and responding. ThIs is SELF organisation and, for me, beautiful development. 

A group of indigenous Cambodians who now patrol their own forest, doing citizens arrests on illegal loggers. The NGO did not suggest this. They just worked on community processes for understanding changes happening around them and responding. ThIs is SELF organisation and, for me, beautiful development. 

So there it is- my concept of what one does in development: understand what is happening and why,  accept that locals will have a better basis for choosing between options, maximise their options and their capacity to try them ... and leave them to it. I gave some ideas for maximising options and self organising capacity. There are innumerable others…. But that's a subject for another post. 

How is this as a development motto: "maximise self organising capacity"