Working Paper 89-15. September, 1989.

By Elizabeth W. Moen

Department of Sociology

University of Colorado, Boulder

This paper was written with a small grant from the Conflict Resolution Consortium, University of Colorado. Funding for the Consortium and its Small Grants Program was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The statements and ideas presented in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Conflict Resolution Consortium, the University of Colorado, or the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. For more information, contact the Conflict Resolution Consortium, Campus Box 327, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0327. Phone: (303) 492-1635, e-mail:

Copyright (C) 1989. Elizabeth W. Moen. Do not reprint without permission.

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After forty years of development efforts and incalculable costs, the majority of people in the lower income nations remain in dire need. Meanwhile, poverty and other symptoms of overand maldevelopment are increasing in the higher income nations. Disillusioned with welfare and topdown macro strategies, development theorists, strategists, policy makers, and donors are increasingly turning to international and local nongovernmental organizations which operate at the grass roots from bottom-up micro strategies. (Breslin, 1987; Ross and Usher, 1987; Drabek, 1987 provides the most comprehensive discussion) This `Barefoot radically changing the tenets of development that have prevailed until now, for it entails a complete overhaul of twenty years of economic strategy that has not fulfilled its promise (Schneider, 1988:xii). Yet we know very little about nongovernmental development organizations (NGDOs), especially the local ones. There are case studies, primarily of larger organizations such as SEWA in India and Sarvodaya Shramadana in Sri Lanka. Some comparative studies have been made, which also focus on the larger organizations and are often superficial.[1] But there are thousands of quite small NGDOs characterized by the officer/worker who designs and administers programs, seeks the funding, and is also a key worker (even the only one) of the organization. We know virtually nothing about these NGDOs and their truly grass roots development workers (GRDWs). Since there is no well developed grass roots development theory, strategy, or policy, if appropriate ones are to be devised, it is essential to learn about and from the GRDWs and their organizations.

This is the first of five reports based on data from thirtythree small NGDOs in seven districts of Tamil Nadu India. [2] Overall my goal is to contribute to our knowledge of NGDOs, GRDWs, and those they serve; to contribute to successful grass root development theory, strategy, and policy; and to apply what is learned from Indian GRDWs to issues of underand maldevelopment in higher income nations.[3] The second paper is concerned with GRDWs' orienting perspectives in relation to their definition, metatheory and strategy of development; the third, NGDOs' emphasis on women, and related contradictions; the fourth, the most popular income generating strategy, dairy animals; and the fifth, a theory of emancipatory development for the have-nots and also the haves of the world.

This paper has two main purposes: 1) To provide the methodological background and Indian context for this and subsequent papers and 2) To derive and systematize GRDWs' theory of poverty in India. Following a discussion of perspective, data, and method, I establish the context through a fairly detailed description of the NGDOs, GRDWs, and those they serve. I then present GRDWs' analyses of the causes and consequences of poverty which, when systematized becomes a partial theory of poverty and underdevelopment. I conclude with considerations of NGDO ideology, and the quality and generalizability of GRDWs' thought.



This work is guided by the "new paradigm" (Rowan and Reason, 1981) which emphasizes the healing of the subjective/objective, quantitative/ qualitative, theory/analysis/action splits; experiential knowledge and research involving "...the joint encounter of co-researchers"; reality and knowledge as process (neither subject nor object, but intersubjective consensus from multiple standpoints); emerging possibilities; self-awareness; and socially useful research [4]. This perspective is congenial to Indian philosophy in that it is integrative, nonreductionist, not dualistic, and acknowledges the social construction of social reality. It is also congenial to Indian sociology, e.g., Srinivas (1987) calls for a healing of the division between the theoritician-analyst and fact gatherer. Desai (1986) recommends that instead of compartmentalizing theory and practice, and seeking knowledge for its own sake, we seek knowledge to help solve social problems. Mukerji calls on sociology to `show the way out of the social system' (cited by Mukherjee, 1986:73).


Data are from three sources: the files of a small donor agency Right Sharing of World Resources (RSWR); fieldwork which involved interviews, discussions, observation, and raw experience; and correspondence .[5] RSWR is associated with NGDOs all over the world; over 50 are in India, and because of some good networking, thirtythree, which are the subject of this study, are in Tamil Nadu. RSWR grants no more than $5000 a year (an amount often exceeded by the contingency funds given by larger donor agencies), and generally will not fund a NGDO for more than five years. Only the barest of overhead funds are allowed. Thus, RSWR primarily attracts small NGDOs, and since it is known to fund programs that larger funding agencies may shun, creative NGDO's, of any size are also in the files, along with some larger ones that leave no stone unturned. The RSWR files contain proposals, progress reports, annual reports, and any other information a NGDO might wish to supply. Because these files are not consistent across cases, they are not suitable for statistical analysis, nor would such analysis be suitable for my goals.[6] Instead, they are a rich source of evidence of NGDOs' most salient concerns, ideas, methods, and understandings. From my perspective, the files could not be analysed without first knowing the place and the people. I have spent over seven months in India, including five in Tamil Nadu, first in 83-84 when I observed the work of a variety of NGDOs, including two funded by Rswr. I returned to India 1987-88 specifically to learn from NGDOs associated with RSWR, holding discussions with the officer/workers of eighteen of those in Tamil Nadu, going to observe the work of thirteen of these, and spending a week at the village home of an officer/worker. Field work enabled better understanding and interpretation of the data in the RSWR files, and also provided new information and insights. To prepare for and follow-up on the field work, I have corresponded with eight of the NGDOs


The research stems from an an orienting strategy (Whyte, 1984) based on experience and study. Instead of imposing preconceived categories on the material, my perspective calls for an intersubjective process, which here involves direct experience plus "hermeneutic content analysis" of the files, interview and other field notes, and letters.[7]

Content analysis is a very diverse set of methods used to draw inference from text.[8] This content analysis is ethnographic rather than quantitative, for the purpose of discovery rather than verification (Altheide (1987). Hermeneutics is explicitly interpretive content analysis which goes beyond Weber's Verstehen, or sympathetic reading. I follow Gadamer and Habermas.[9] My goal is to gain a clearer, deeper `binocular vision' from the juxtaposition ofinsider and outsider perceptions (Maruyama, 1981). My goal is not only to gain a better understanding of Tamil Nadu, but also of the U.S. because "It is precisely in and through an understanding of alien cultures that we can come to a more sensitive and critical understanding of our own culture and of those prejudices that may lie hidden from us (Bernstein, 1983:58; also see Srinivas, 1987). Essential for content analysis and hermeneutics is context sensitivity, that is, knowledge about the text and the situation from which it came, obtained from outside the text (Krippendorf, 1980). By limiting the analysis to one Indian state, context is simplified and held fairly constant, both of which, along with familiarity, enable clearer understanding, interpretation, and inference. To go beyond Tamil Nadu and place these findings in a broader context, I return to the development literature and my experiences in other parts of India and the world.


In this section I introduce the NGDOs, and provide an overview of the motivations and working conditions of the GRDWs. Most of the thirty-three NGDOs are young; ten began their work in 1984-87, 13 in 1980-83, 3 in the 70s, 3 in the 60s and one in 1958. (Data are missing for 2). Size has a number of dimensions: the number in the core group, the number of employees, material and financial assets, money on hand vs debts, income, expenditures, range of programs, area and population covered, actual participants. These NGDOs vary from one person with a bicycle to substantial operations, generally Gandhian ashrams, with permanent staff and farm lands or industry such as weaving, soap making, or printing for support. Most of the NGDOs have a small core of one to four active officer/workers and a larger board; some have members and small dues. They hire additional workers as funds come in. Annual monetary expenditures (from circa 1987, when the exchange rate was around 12.5 Rupees per U.S. dollar) ranged from $110,200 (this NGDO was in considerable debt) to $400 to nothing, centering around $3,000-6,000. The amount of work that is done--the variety of programs, the area and number of people covered--even by those with very small budgets and staffs, is often quite large.

One organization which rarely has more than five on its staff, runs a small hospital and a a clinic which serves about 250 people each day, and does follow-ups and health education in the surrounding area. Another, staffed by a family and a few hired workers oversees 30 adult literacy schools in 15 villages (and is aiming for 500), every aspect of dairy and poultry coops, the growth of over 150,000 tree seedlings to distribute to farmers, and a day care centre. The family also organizes discussions and debates for community consciousness raising, and does a wide variety general service such as taking people to the hospital, mediating disputes, and recommending people for social welfare benefits. In between they are constantly writing grant proposals and progress reports, and hosting visitors from funding agencies. NGDOs with land and facilities may do much of their work there; some are based in villages; however many of these workers, with programs in numerous villages, often very difficult to get to, travel many miles and hours each day. A few can occasionally hire cars but most ride busses, motor scooters, and bicycles or walk, often returning home well after midnight.

The personal situations of the GRDWs are quite varied. Some earn a middle-class income through family or Gandhian enterprises. The former may not devote full time to development work whereas the latter may mix personal and development work.[11]

Many of the GRDWs consider themselves servants of the poor. For some of these, this came as a natural extension of Gandhian education or activism such as the Bhoodan movement. Others, middle class and college educated, had conversion-like experiences during a class or church field trip to a village. Others, hoping for an easy, comfortable life, took jobs in NGDOs until something better came along, and then got hooked. One started as clerk for a health project and then moved to a remote, isolated area in the mountains where there were no health services. For over a year, until he got some funding, he worked alone, going from hut to hut doing simple diagnostic tests for anemia, TB, and leprosy; supplying medication; and checking to see that it is taken properly. At night he put on puppet shows for health education and motivation. Some of these GRDWs are single, living at home and under much pressure to get a proper job and marry.

There is a sense of desperation among these young people who fear if they cannot get grants and be able to minimally support themselves, they will have to quit the work they feel called to do. Others have convinced their parents or spouses to support them. One wife became a nurse; one husband moved to his wife's home town so she could continue her work. One couple rents out all of the rooms in their home except the one in which they, their two children, and her mother live. During the week he stays in a village and sleeps on the floor of his NGDO office. At least one family has gone without eating in order to continue their work or host project visitors.

Sometimes dedication is stretched too far. One NGDO was operating adult education centers in 30 villages with no funding. Thirty village women had been teaching without pay for a year, two hours a night, five nights a week, and they also provided the lamps and oil. They were ready to close the schools because the NGDO could not raise funds for their RS 100/month salaries.[12]


This section is about the people the NGDOs serve, their lives and how they have been affected by their situation. Thirty of the NGDOs operate primarily in rural areas, two in urban and suburban slums, and one in all areas.[13] They

risk failure by reaching out to the most exploited and most deprived--primarily landless day laborers, and also farmers with small bits of land, share croppers, outmoded artisans, and people enslaved in debt bondage. Most participants are in the lowest official categories: backward classes and

scheduled tribes and castes (the lowest ranked castes and outcastes, i.e., untouchables or, as Gandhi called them


Most of the GRDWs have deep respect and compassion for the participants, and place their hopes for India's future in their unrealized potential and underutilized skills.

`Release, not relief' is the theme of NGDO 14/F. However they do not romanticize the `starving, homeless, naked,

helpless, downtrodden', `marginalized, mute, milling, masses', who are `suffering untold grievances'(NGDO 14, 4,

19/F). Their participants are illiterate, malnourished, and diseased, with bodies, minds and spirits `weakened' and

`numbed' by hard work and too little food. Many are captive to alcohol and other drugs, superstition, gambling, fear, mistrust, tradition, religious/cultural beliefs that block even the thought of change, and oppression by employers,

money lenders, politicians, police, higher castes, and

higher classes. And if they are women, oppression by their own men.[15]

The GRDWs describe the participants as dependent on

landlords, money lenders, master weavers, labor contractors, and middlemen (sic); powerless because they do not have

access to means of production and they are not organized; unaware of their rights and responsibilities, as well of

opportunities that are available to them through government and NGDOs; debt ridden and therefore under the control of the money lender. Thus, NGDOs believe intervention is

needed so participants can live without `begging, slavery, and dependency'(NGDO 29/F).

The participants' vulnerability and lack of resources is almost beyond comprehension, as I learned my first time in India. At a Harijan village, families in small huts,

nearly empty of all but people, slept in mud because the

floors were bare earth and the roofs leaked. I found myself growing impatient as one man went on and on about the inadequacies of his house, and how badly he needed at least a new roof. Finally in exasperation I asked the GRDW `Why doesn't he go get some palm leaves and fix his damn roof? He has plenty of time; his job takes only two hours a day.' Stunned by my ignorance, he said `Only thorns are free in Tamil

Nadu; a starving family cannot afford palm leaves'. A few days later all of these homes were washed away by a typhoon.

The next week I listened to a young man who had been a farm worker but was now wasted by TB, worry about how he

would survive. Since he lived near an ashram whose guests frequently went to town to buy fruit, I smartly insisted

that he set up a fruit stand at the ashram gate. Then I got my first lesson about money lenders to whom anyone without substantial collateral security must go. Typically the

interest rate for a larger, long term loan is 10% a month with the first installment taken off the top. That is,

someone who borrows Rs 1000 for a year will get 900 and have to return 2100-even if the principle is paid back in in-

stallments during the year. Those who purchase perishables borrow daily at 1% a day. `You've been here two months and still don't understand anything', sighed our mutual friend. `If he borrows Rs 100 to buy fruit, he will have to pay back RS 101 at the end of the day. If he doesn't sell enough

fruit, he will earn nothing for himself, and owe the money lender more the next day. The first fruit will go bad and he will have to borrow again to try to sell more to pay the interest. It could never end. It is too risky!'[16]

Nevertheless, few of the participants can escape borrowing. Most of them are landless agricultural laborers

whose seasonal work usually takes no more than 150 days a year (if the monsoon doesn't fail) and they do not make

enough to provide for themselves on workdays much less save for the `hard season'.[17] The rest are small farmers who can't afford irrigation and so `always lose', and the se-

verely under and unemployed. Once in debt they are under the control of the money lender who is usually their employer.

Those in debt bondage can be called upon for free labor any time, which may disrupt participation in NGDO programs. Children may be taken for many years; in fact people have children in order to give their labor to the money lender. There are money lenders who force whole families into slave labor. On the way to a NGDO project, we could see a stone quarry filled with debt-workers. The quarry owner also

owned over half the land in the area, and controlled much of the employment in the nearby town. The GRDWs were genuinely afraid to be seen, believing it would cause much trouble for the quarry workers and themselves.

Inflation is also a problem. In 1980 the poverty level for a household in Tamil Nadu was Rs 60/month (then about $72/year), and by 1987, RS 150/month (about $144/year).

Prices had gone up considerably, but wages had not. In 1987 the minimum wage in the state was Rs 9/day for women and Rs 12/day for men; an air mail stamp cost Rs 5. But agricultural laborers earned much less than minimum wage; women, Rs 4-5, and men, Rs. 8-10.[18]


`In India you either exploit or you are exploited' (a university professor)

`It's a culture of swindle, cheat and lie' (NGDO 5/N)

`To be honest, you must leave India; even if the gods are not there the bribes will be there' (a student)

`It's a government of corruption, inefficiency and indifference' (NGDO 20/F)

`Selfish business men, unfaithful government servants, and harmful politicians are all antisocial elements. The law giver and the law enforcer are not all thinking about the downtrodden, needy, and deserving people' (NGDO 8/F)

This section is concerned with the factors GRDWs most often mention in their analyses of poverty and development failure in India: social stratification, culture, govern-

ment, environment, and population dynamics. They evoke a complex system of interrelated causes, with the symptoms of poverty (discussed in the previous section) reinforcing the causes. While their understanding and weighting of these factors may vary, the GRDWs agree that underlying, inter-

twining, and magnifying all of India's problems are layer upon layer of oppression, super exploitation, corruption, violence, and fear.

Social Stratification

GRDWs describe a multidimensional hierarchy of power, privilege, prestige, and ritual purity. Class is described in the Marxian sense of control of the means of production, as well as in the Weberian sense of power associated with prestige, education, and wealth. According to the GRDWs, castes are ranked, and there are also `classes in castes'. Whereas, very poor members of high-ranked castes are considered high class and still have power, privilege and pres-

tige, members of low-ranked and scheduled castes who have acquired position and wealth may still be despised and

considered low class. Now, however, the traditional

caste/class distinctions are breaking down, especially in the cities, and reflecting India's growing `westernization and modernization', being replaced by socioeconomic status as reflected by education, income, and occupation.[19]

Unfortunately, as the GRDWs describe it, the new routes for social mobility offered by urban employment and affirmative action for backward classes and scheduled castes and tribes, are also contributing to the spread of dowry and dowryrelated violence. Among the urban proletariat, parents make

large investments to educate and if necessary procure (via bribes), the highest status jobs possible for their sons

(see Panini, 1986). In turn, the in-laws of of these sons must repay that investment with interest via dowry. There are now proscribed dowry values for each urban occupation, with which parents procure the highest status husband possible for their daughters.

The GRDW are glad that traditional caste/class distinctions are in decline, but distressed that they are being

replaced by this money/consumerism hierarchy which is in-

flaming the `dowry menace' and spreading to the villages. Now `you are what you possess,' rather than who your parents were. One hour with an Indian women's magazine or the TV will confirm this conclusion. Promoting consumption and

waste of fuel, electricity, water and other resources, along with machismo and housewifery, the ads are just like those in the U.S.

Dowry is only one of the pressures felt by the rural and urban middle class which is expected to maintain standards, generally beyond their means, regarding food, dress, festivals, ceremonies, and gifts. Adherence to these standards is linked to the plight of the poor: `The elite suppress the middle, who support the elite so they can exploit the bottom'(NGDO 5/C).[20]

GRDWs themselves face this middle-class squeeze, for if they do not conform to class/caste standards, they may lose face. `If I walk to a village, they will not respect me; if I am driven in a car they will treat me like god'(NGDO

10/N). Ironically, but exactly according to Friere's (1974) analysis, the participant's find it easier to identify with those who exploit them than with those who come to serve

them. As GRDW 10/C put it:

When I dream about a new social order, I am very much worried about the present situation. Now every where in India the power of money is visible. Money is more powerful than anything here. Being most of the people under the jaws of poverty they salute the money baged people. Here the rich people are not coming forward to implement the programmes...On contrary the poor people are not coming forward to combat that rich society. Instead of trying and uniting to fight the evils of

richer people they believe much about the fate.

Gender is a fundamental aspect of discrimination and social control, and such distinctions are strictly enforced in Tamil Nadu where class rooms, public gatherings, and even busses have male and female sides. Here the ideal woman is a chaste, silent servant to her family; women in general are considered weak, their work is thought unimportant.[21] The GRDWs see things differently, and without using the terms `patriarchy' or `sexism', they describe and criticize these ideas.

The nation, India, is hailed as `Baratha Matha' i.e. Mother India, but the women are not properly given repsect and rights. Indian womenhood, in large numbers, but with marginal exception, is living behind feudal colonial chains, familial fetters and under legal, political, economic and social

discrimination.(NGDO 7/F).

Contrary to prevailing ideology, the GRDW have found women to be more responsible, hard working, innovative, and cooperative than men. Men, they say, fritter away their

wages on drink, cigarettes, fortune telling, and gambling, whereas women use their income to feed, clothe, and educate their children. (This is a common observation in India and around the world; see Agarwaal, 1988). Consequently, these NGDOs are increasingly directing their efforts towards

women, believing that not only the women, but also their

families and communities will benefit more than if development efforts were directed towards men. Knowing that RSWR will fund programs for women, twenty of these NGDOs' sent proposals for programs only for women; four, proposals that primarliy emphasized women; nine, proposals that focused

equally on men and women; and not one sent a proposal only for men.[22]


The GRDWs do not wish the participants to become

`modern individualistic, consumerist, Westerners'. They

want to retain Indian culture and yet, they acknowledge

there is much that is abhorrent in Indian culture that must go. For the GRDWs, culture and social stratification are intertwined; culture is ideological, and all the ways that people are categorized, ranked, discriminated against,

dominated, and controlled --class, caste, subcaste, patronclient faction, gender, religion, skin tone, language, birth place--are entrenched in the culture, and maintained and

justified by it. GRDWs believe cultural traditions such as astrology, soothsaying, rituals, and dogma have replaced

independent thinking. `Religion is a key to understanding. People believe current suffering is from past misdeeds and they have a moral obligation to live out the punishment. The Brahmins have it all rigged to keep the poor in their place--willingly' (NGDO 10/N). `People pray and pray, but don't do for themselves' (a labor organizer).[23] Some GRDWs believe, however, there is an inherently just Indian culture that has been denigrated and can be revitalized.[24] Some want to go further, e.g., mentioning Periyar Ramiswami who advocated abandoning Hinduism, the Tamil language, and the sari because they are all sexist.


Although the GRDW are proud of India's democracy, many are bitter because this democracy benefits only a few.

Reforms have not helped much: `All leadership used to be

inherited; now it is elected and the same high castes--the landlords and the money lenders--get it by election, even though most of the people are backward and scheduled castes' (NGDO 3/N). Commenting on the most recent U.S. presidential and Tamil Nadu state elections, GRDW 10/C wrote:

It is a very pity that to establish this Democratic

festival all contested candidates have spent 300 crores of Rupees. The Government has spent more thant 50 crores to organise this election from its exchequer. Elections are good in a democratic country. But what about the money

spent for that? What is the remedy for this? The candi-

dates not only work hard but also they must able to do many tricks to win in the elections. ...The election in Tamilnadu, the present successful party ... used both, capturing caste domination, uninterrupted flow of money and some

extent the rowdies. ... To route out these menaces the

voluntary agencies should work with a dynamic force and


The GRDWs point out the insincerity of the federal and state governments--the gap between what they say and what they do: corruption is endemic; village industry is neglected; policies favor capitalists, monopolies, and technology that

displaces labor and produces harmful wastes; land ceilings are not enforced; access to credit is too limited; officials are arrogant, inefficient, and dishonest. Education and

health care which are supposed to be free for the poor, do not get delivered; distances may be too far, government

health workers and school teachers don't come to work or are indifferent to all but the elite; many families cannot

afford to lose the labor of their children or purchase

school gear; and the curriculum is not suitable [25]

`Government clinics are supposed to be free but you must pay bribes to get anything done. Government doctors set up

private practice, squeeze all they can out of patients, and then send them here '(NGDO 15/N regarding its health


The State gives the most destitute people clothes and food which the GRDWs say breeds dependence, and more corruption. Federal and State social welfare programs that might generate independence often don't reach the poor; instead `...benefits and concessions are taken away by big landlords and intermediaries in the village' (NGDO 18/F).[26] Government officials also expect GRDWs to pay bribes. `If I had paid a bribe I would have gotten six sewing machines on loan in a few weeks. Without, it took 6 months to get four, and two were broken' (NGDO 5/N). Participants are also tempted. For example a government animal inspector was able to bribe participants in a dairy project with tiny sums of money to exchange their high yield for low yield animals with false ear markers.[27]

The Natural Environment

Since most employment in Tamil Nadu is connected with agriculture, rain and water storage are the most critical environmental issues for the GRDWs. Even in the best of

years much of the state is dry, with less than 20 inches of rain coming nearly all at once; the wetter areas also get theirs in several large batches. Often the monsoons fail, and when they are good they may bring disastrous floods

because the the traditional water control system of tanks and ponds has not been kept up and the newer systems, which generally serve the elite, are insufficient. Since only

those with larger landholdings can afford their own irrigation technology, even with a twelve month growing season

that could produce two or three crops, often only one crop is grown. Thus work opportunities are further reduced, and food costs made higher than might be necessary. Deforestation, desertification, toxic wastes, environmental damage from the Green Revolution, and public health (especially

safe, readily available drinking water) are also of concern to the GRDWs because they negatively affect the health and

purses of the participants.

Population Dynamics

An ongoing argument among theoriticians and policy

makers, is whether people are poor because they have many children, or people have many children because they are

poor.[28] Birth rates are not a major issue for GRDWs;

however when they do speak of population dynamics, seeing the complexity of the issue, they take more of a both/and rather than either/or approach. In their view, as discussed above, the entire social system breeds and maintains poverty. Having many children may block a path out of poverty, but if, under the status quo, most participants and their children will remain destitute no matter what they do, does it really matter if they have two or four? (What do participants think about roadside signs, if they can read them, proclaiming `PLAN YOUR FAMILY FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE'.) The GRDWs also point out that since children may be a family's only resource and the parents' only ally in a cruel world, having more than two may be advantageous. Children are

needed as substitutes for technology (e.g. to carry water or collect dung and make cakes for fuel), to earn money, to

work off family debt, for child care, for emergencies, and for support in old age.[29]

Conversely, GRDWs acknowledge that while high fertility may benefit the family, such choices may be harmful for the children themselves, and in the aggregate, for society as a whole. They observe that under the status quo, a growing labor force leads to increased unemployment, rural-urban, and circulatory labor migration, reduced wages and bargaining power, and increased exploitation and debt bondage. It is a vicious circle; the worse things are, the more people need children.[30] Finally, GRDWs note that among the participants, fertility and especially the birth and survival of male children, has a powerful cultural component. To be respected as an adult; to fulfill one's earthly duty (Dharma) to marry, have children, and conduct their marriages; to be assured of a proper burial; and for some women, just to survive, requires having children, especially males. Thus, for better or worse, children are strongly desired and

loved. And to acquire the desired number of males, many

females may also be born.[31]


To summarize, this paper establishes the context of

grass roots development work in Tamil Nadu, and from this context and coresearch involving the NGDOs `text' and my

field work, a partial theory of poverty and underdevelopment has been derived.[32] Here lies the explanation of Kurien's (1986) `Paradoxes of Planned Development', in which India stands as a major industrial power with notable achievements in overall economic growth, and yet over 40 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line of less

than less than $6/capita/month.[33] This paradox is the

result of a dialectical process in which first social structure, culture, government, environment and population dynamics, interact to create, maintain, and justify a multidimensional stratification system. `Divide and conquer', the

GRDWs frequently explained. At the bottom of the resulting hierarchy is a very large powerless, dependent, unaware,

debt-ridden underclass whose illiteracy, poor health, traditions, addictions, superstitions, fear, passivity, and

internal divisions reinforce the dynamics of stratification. This feed-back of the consequences and symptoms of oppression and exploitation makes the powerful more so, and the powerless also more so, for according to the GRDWs, economic, political, and brute power go hand-in-hand.

Regarding their own work, GRDWs are not awed by the

West; they seek an Indian mode of development, but since

they are not ethnocentric or cultural relativists, they

acknowledge that if the stratification system is to change, the aspects of culture which maintain and justify oppression and exploitation by dividing the population, and deluding everybody (Maya), must go.

How solid is the GRDWs' analysis? It is confirmed by scholarly research in India and elsewhere, but it provides a richer and more complete picture.[34] Recognizing and ac-

cepting complexity, GRDWs do not reduce problems to simple either/or formulations; instead they think holistically and in terms of mutual influences. Unlike conventional sociologists in India or elsewhere, they do not separate class,

caste (race), gender, and other dimensions of stratification but, reflecting the cutting edge of social science, and

feminist scholarship's emphasis on `positionality', GRDWs see these factors as interrelated parts of a single multidimensional stratification system.[35]

GRDWs do not subscribe to the now-discredited, psychologically based `modernization' theory of development,

according to which the underclasses remain poor because they are traditional, unentrepreneurial, and unable to plan ahead or save, and whose proponents do not understood why the poor won't take risks when, after all, they have nothing to lose. GRDWs social structural analysis leads them to understand that participants have everything to lose: their freedom, their children, their lives. Cautious, fearful, and mis-

trustful, "They have living memory of development failures, domination and manipulation from the outside" (Nyoni,

1987:55). GRDWs find that participants will plan, save,

take risks, and do whatever they can to get ahead when they realize the opportunity is genuine and they have not been set up to lose once again.[36] Nor do GRDWs subscribe to the discredited `stages' theory of development (Hill 1986), for they do not blame the participant's condition on India's lack of resources, wealth, technology, or capability.

Instead, they describe India as rich and unjust.

GRDWs are not caught up in family planning ideology or `doomsday economics' (Hill, 1986), which preaches a simple Malthusian race between population growth and food production (more recently, economic growth). Their analysis of the causes and consequences of fertility is more complex, and because they are so close to the situation, GRDWs understand what birth control-first advocates and designers of economic-demographic models have not: a rationality derived from desperation, the power of culture, and the love of


The weaker aspects of GRDWs' analysis have to do with the world and the future. Although GRDWs refer to India's colonization as the source of many problems, their analysis is grounded in contemporary India. Consequently, they do not consider how India's international economic and political actions might affect the domestic situation.[37] Nor do

they look very far into the future, especially regarding

environmental issues which even now adversely affect the


Can these findings be generalized? According to Srinivas, the highly regarded Indian sociologist/anthropologist:

It is of course absurd to try and generalize on rural India from the study of a single village but if it is remembered that, in spite of its bewildering diversity, there are certain broad regional and even national

similarities in India, even that study can be produc tive of knowledge and insight which could be translated into hypotheses and leads to future research


Since the thirty-three NGDOs cover hundreds of villages in seven districts of Tamil Nadu, they may speak for much of India. Further the findings are supported by others' re-

search throughout India and elsewhere, as well as by my

discussions with scholars and GRDWs, and observation of

NGDOs' work in seven other states and territories in India, and in other countries.[39] More important, hypotheses can be derived from this grass roots theory of poverty and

underdevelopment, in order to test, modify, and further it, and and establish scope conditions for it.

Finally, following Habermas, but not forgetting Jagger (see FN 8), what about NGDO ideology? Is there reason to suspect their motives? Are they trying to fool us? More investigation is necessary, for if a valid theory of grass roots development to be generated, a theory of grass roots development ideology must also be worked out. Meanwhile

some questions can be addressed. First, are GRDWs all

motivated by altruism? Do they all practice what they

preach? No. Although there are indeed selfless servants among these GRDWs, but as a group, they should not be idealized; they are human, and they work under very adverse

conditions. Numerous NGDOs and GRDWs have bad reputations, and among the thirty-three at least one is a wealthy landlord, at least a few give or take bribes, some exploit their workers, three have been accused of misusing funds, some are condescending or paternalistic to participants, and several have slightly unsavory reputations [40] Are the NGDOs exaggerating the dire condition of the participants? Since most GRDWs make their living from this work, it is in their

interest to do so. On the other hand some GRDWs, by going into this work, have chosen less secure and remunerative

work than they could have had, and some deny themselves

money that is available for their own support in order to maximize resources for their work.[41] Further, GRDWs de-

scribe participants as powerless, not helpless, and state their intention to withdraw when participants have become empowered to do for themselves. Perhaps the best way to

answer this question is to spend some time among partici-

pants; for me, the answer is no, their dire condition is not being exaggerated. Are the GRDWs exaggerating the faults of the government, and the success of their own work so development resources will be diverted to them? Perhaps, but the government itself has acknowledged its inability to reduce poverty, and along with international donor agencies, is

turning to NGDOs, not so much because of their lobbying but because of rave reviews of their work. Nevertheless, since our knowledge of NGDOs is so limited, their ideology remains open to question, debate, and of course, more research.


1 Schneider (1988), in a study of 93 larger small-scale NGDOs provides a wide ranging review of such programs and their significance.

2 Allibard (1983) provides a general historical and

contemporary overview of Indian NGDOs, whom he calls `catalysts of development'. Reviews of India's devel opment and poverty reduction efforts since emancipation are found in Bjorkman (1979), Jain (1985), Neale

(1985), Guhan (1988). Kurien (1986) discusses the

failure of the target group appraoch (elsewhere known as basic needs) which has now been tied to the more recent turn toward NGDOs. Desai, (1986) concludes that poverty, unemployment, stratification, discontent,

repression, and curbs on civil liberties have all

increased in India.

3 I was led to this project by previous resarch on eco nomic development in the U.S, and grass roots community efforts to shape and manage subsequent growth and change (Moen, 1980; Moen, 1987). I began as Whyte (1984)

advises, by getting familiar with things, seeking

patterns and local theory, and developing orienting

strategy and theory. This process involved travel to 14 lower income nations; observing the work of NGDOs; holding discussions with GRDWs, scholars, and offi-

cials; and spending over seven months in India. Start ing December 1989 I will continue this work under an eight month research fellowship from the American

Institue of Indian Studies, focusing on obstacles and opportunites for grass roots development work.

4 Reason and Rowen (1981), also see Whyte (1984) re

science, action, and intervention; Griffen (1988) re constructive postmodernism; and Nielsen (1990) re

feminist methods. The quote is from Reason, 1981:242.

5 Right Sharing is a program of Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas.

6 The older NGDOs have more to tell about themselves;

some have applied to RSWR more than once, some only

once; some that have been funded have had time to make progress reports, others have not; some provide exactly the information requested, others, much more.

7 Quotations are referenced by NGDO number and source

where F=RSWR files; N=interview or other field notes; and C= correpsondence. Thus DNGO 4/F =the Light house file of DNGO #4. I always spoke with the key

officer/worker of the NGDO; unless otherwise noted,

that is the person cited. Unreferenced words or

phrases in quotes were commonly heard. Quotes from

files and correspondence are exact, whereas those taken from my notes are not exact and lack the local flavor.

8 For a sense of the diversity and disagreements in

content analysis see Krippendorf (1980), Lingquist,

(1981), Weber (1985),and Altheide (1987). Although

content analysis tends to be quantitative, and from a positivist perspective, all content analysis, all

research, involves interpretation at some point.

Moreover, according to Krippendorf (1980), content is never an objective quality because it is related to

sender and receiver, and therefore intersubjective.

9 Re sympathetic reading see Blee and Billings (1986). Hermeneutics attempts to bridge the gap between posi tivists, `who try to replace actors subjective concepts with social scientists' objective concepts', and human ists `who try to describe meaningful action strictly in the social actors' terms (Heckman, 1984). Hermeneu tics is concerned with the relationships among the

text, the reader, and the context of both. Although

mainly concerned with historical texts, the approach is important for any text or other conversation.

According to Gadamer, texts and readers are not ahis torical (or in this case, acultural), and therefore a reader cannot automatically understand a text as the author did. To enhance understanding, it is essential to consider the context and the author of the text, but also to recognize that this process involves self-

understanding and self-change. Consequently knowledge and verification are neither objective nor subjective but intersubjective, and therefore never fixed but

always in process. One comes to texts (situations)

with prejudgments; likewise authors (actors) bring

theirs. By developing an effective history (culture) through the interplay between one's own prejudgements and the others' history (culture), we develop, synthe size knowledge. Being open to prejudgemnts, always

checking and asking `How do I view the world; how do others?', moving between understanding the text (situa tion) and understanding oneself, one is transformed in a dialectical process leading to a "fusion of horizons" (Wolff, 1975; Bernstein, 1983; Gadamer, 1988; Nielsen, 1990).

The GRDWs have shown me their world, and these experi ences were so profound, I could not avoid this process of selfsearching and self-change. GRDWs are also my co-researchers; they have interviewed, surveyed, and held group discussions in villages, harijan colonies, and urban slums, and shared this knowledge with me. GRDWs also learned from me, and my comments, questions, shock, and disbelief have made them rethink things. Thus in this hermeneutic analysis, which goes beyond text, both sides are active participants in the crea tion of intersubjective knowledge, and both sides are changed in a mutual fusion of horizons.

Habermas takes hermeneutics another step. Arguing that social theory must have a hermeneutic dimension, he

calls for a `depth hermeneutics' which includes a

critical function and a focus on power. According to Habermass hermeneutics must consider motivation as well as meaning, falsehood as well as truth, and it must

supplement interpretation with a critique of ideology (Wolff, 1975; Bernstein, 1983; Habermas, 1988). This is good advice since the GRDWs are seeking money from Lighthouse. But Jagger's (1983) conclusion that those who lack a vested interest in the statu quo (i.e., the GRDWs) are able to understand the world and to communi cate that understanding honestly, takes the edge off suspicion. Still, the ideology of NGDOs needs uncover ing.

10 Although we know very little about local NGDOs, they and their activities are being classified and

codified--prematurely, I believe. Padron's (1987)

definition that indigenous NGDOs are private, nonprof it, and operate within a legal framework; accept for eign funds and pass them on to small grass roots organ izations; and have founders that are paid a salary,

does not fit the Tamil NGDOs. Most of the founders of these small indigenous NGDOs do not get a salary, and most of these NGDOs get their operating funds directly from foreign donors or the government. The few excep tions are Christian organizations which are funded by large indigenous Christiain NGDOs who have been funded by foreign Christian agencies. The Tamil NGDOs do not quite fit, and fall between Garilao's definiitons of `Grass Roots NGOs...established at the local level,

their benficiaries are at the same time members and

constituents', and `Professional NGOs..[which] often have a specific area of expertise [and] work for the communities but mark their effectiveness by their

ability to phase out' (1987:115). They come closer to Sen's (1987) `small dynamic NGO' with `intangible

social goals', but are more than this.

11 I encountered considerable criticism of Gandhian organ izations in general, and concern that some may be doing little more than training cheap labor for their enter prises. One of the Gandhian NGDOs associated with RSWR admitted paying its farm workers 2/3 the minimun wage, explaining, `Everybody does it'.

12 Salaries were to be RS 100/month, @ $90/year, half the usual wage for nonformal education teachers.

13 The population of Tamil Nadu is @ 48.4 million, with @ 33% in urban areas; 35% of females and 58% of males are literate; 40% of the population is officially recog-

nized as below poverty level. (Mani, 1988) It is

important to keep in mind that the poverty level is

very low, @$150/year/household according to the NGDOs. Those in absolute poverty are concentrated in rural

areas, but they do not have land to grow food for


Over 2/3 of India's population is engaged in agricul ture, about 1/4 of these are landless laborers;

`...fewer than 10 percent of the cultivators own more than 10 acres of land, but together they account for over 50% of all cultivated land, whereas [the] 40

percent of the cultivators with less than one acre

claim hardly two percent. Sixty to 80 percent of those not engaged in agriculture, are in informal activities `...using all their resources and ingenuity simply to eke out a living' (Kurien, 1986:186-7).

14 The term `participants' refers to both the actual

participants in the NGDOs' programs as well as those the GRDWs seek out. The terms `beneficiary' and `target population' are also used by the GRDWs, governemnt, and donor agencies, and while both of these relationships commonly occur, I prefer the term that conveys the

ideal of first participation in a partnership with the NGDO and then full participation in the shaping of

thier destiny.

See Srinivas (1986) re benefits that the backward and scheduled are supposed to get.

15 For instance, even after seeing successfully treated lepers, other lepers would not accept treatment because they believed their affliction must be endured as

punishment for past deeds (Karma). Participants would readliy answer my questions but never had questions for me (except always `Where is your husband?' and `How

many children do you have?') In frustration, I prodded a male literacy class and finally a member said,

"Sister, we have been told what to think for so long that we don't know how to ask questions."

16 Herring (1989) reports interest rates of 25% a week, i.e., 1,300% a year. An unpaid debt at 120% doubles

about every 212 days; at 365%, every 69 days, and at 1300%, every 18 days. (This assumes continuous com-

pounding of interest and so overestimates the doubling time somewhat)

17 In some areas work may be available for 200 days, and in others only 90; 150 was the number most often given.

18 These were the most commonly cited wages. In a few

areas wages may go up to 20-40 rupees a day at the

busiest times. At harvest time, the workers get part of the crop which many must sell at the lowest price of the year because they lack secure storage facilities or have insufficient cash savings; later they buy food at higher prices. Rice is the preferred food in Tamil

Nadu; in 1988 it cost around Rs 4/kilo, half what I pay in the U.S., a day's wage for Indian women, and

1/10 hour of minimum wage work in the U.S. `It is my dream to eat rice one of the rice-field workers told me. Agricultural laborers cook millet or whatever

grain is cheapest, drink the cooking water for one

meal, and eat the grain for another. Occassionally

they may have a few spices, lentils, or vegetables. Those with a bit of land around their houses might have a fruit tree, but the fruit is nearly always sold.

19 Panini (1986), Ramu (1986), and Caplan (1987) agree; Joshi (1988) does not.

20 Re this point, see Joshi (1986). Again, this situation is not unlike the U.S.

21 Most participant women weigh well under 100 pounds. The two jugs of life-sustaining water they typically carry, often for long distances, weigh over 100 pounds.

22 The GRDWs' understanding of gender stratification and the lives of women is analyzed in Moen....

23 GRDWs do not necessarily dispute the basic tenets of the Brahmanical, Christian, or Moslem faiths, but

instead oppose their distortion, misapplication, and abuse for the purpose of maintaining an unjust society. Sing (1986) discusses the Dalit movement which is

reinterpreting Hindu myths and scriptures in the manner of liberation theology (Guttierez, 1973; Caplan,

1987), .

24 From his anlysis of traditional Hindu and Buddhist

texts, Shrirama (1986) concludes that the Aryans creat ed the priestly elite and caste hierarchy based first on racial and then on ritual purity, which was overcome by Buddhism's egalitarianism, and then later revived and institutionalized. Jaganathan (1984) insists that sexism is not inherent in Hindu culture (especially the Dravidian culture of Tamil Nadu), untouchability was sanctioned and justified by insertions into the scrip tures, and caste was originally related to class and occupation, not racial or ritual purity.

25 All of which is confirmed by Rao's (1985) study of

education in another Indian state.

26 Similarly, Sing (1986) found in Utter Pradesh that

government development programs benefitted the higher castes and others already privileged, not the `weaker sections' of society, thereby further distorting income distribution. Guhan (1988), and Kurien (1986), among others reach the same conclusion about all of India's anti-poverty policies and programs.

27 In India, talk about bribery and corruption is wide-

spread and open. In the U.S, bribery and corruption are seen as isolated, unconnected events, but we are now beginning to get a sense of its extent in the

public and private sectors, e.g. recently pentagon

contractors and contractees, many politicians, the

stock exchange, futures market, HUD, and generic drugs.

28 For a sample, see Mamdani (1972), Nag and Kak (1984) who follow-up on Mamdani, D'Souza (1985), and Sections II and IV of Moen (1987). Because high fertility and population growth are of such concern among scholars and politicians, this discussion is longer than war-

ranted by the GRDWs concerns.

Regarding population dynamics in Tamil Nadu, according to the 1988 India Population Data Sheet (Mani, 1988), the period total fertility rate @1984 was 3.0 and 3.5 in urban and rural areas; the crude rate of natural

increase @1986 was 1.4%. Comparatively, these rates are not so high, tho a sustained 1.4% growth rate will

double the populations in 50 years. No doubt infant and child mortality must influence participants' family planning more than birth and growth rates do. Around 5.4% of urban and 9.8% of rural infants died before

their first birthday, and if 29% of all deaths are to children under five, the percentage among the partici pants must be much greater. Under these circumstances, observant and prudent parents who want living sons

might have several `insurance' children.

29 Guruswamy (1987) found that Tamil villagers expect

support from their children, but do not want to be

totally dependent on them. He condluded that elder

dependency alone cannot explain high fertility.

30 The argument that high fertility obstucts economic

growth by reducing savings, does not hold in India.

According to Kurien (1986), Indian saving have grown from 12%, a level considered high enough for sound

development, in the mid 60s to 25% in the late 70s, and is expected to hold at that high level.

31 See Mazumdar's (1978) analysis of fertility, the status of women, and population policy in India. More recent ly, there has been a growing, (and increasingly con-

demed) use of sex-selective abortion in India, by those who wish to limit their family size and still have the desired number of sons and by those who are not so

concerned about family size but just don't want daugh ters.

32 In other words, informal theory, theoretical framework or metatheory, ie that which must be studied further in order to generate and formalize a theory.

33 Since most of the participants do not have sufficient resources even for subsistence production or bartering; they are tied to the monetized economy as day laborers or cultivators with too little land.

34 GRDWs differences among each other are more in emphasis than substance, and are reflected in arguments in the development literature. Being guided by the `new

paradigm', taking an open approach, and using hermeneu tic content analysis were good choices: 1) because of the way GRDWs think, preconcieved mutually exclusive categories would not have worked; 2) my own experience in India and with the GRDW co-researchers was essential because an `objective', quantitative content analysis of the files would have given fairly superficial find ings, and because familiarity with context and the

assault on my prejudgments were necessary for the

qualitative hermeneutic content analysis; and 3) this method enabled the production of description, theory, and action. (Regarding further theory, see subsequent reports; regarding action, a resource center has been established to serve NGDOs.)

35 For instance, typical of mainstream Indian sociology, Sharma's Social Stratification in India (1986), deals with class and caste, but not gender stratification, whereas feminist scholars such as Jain and Banerjee

(1985), Kishwar and Vanita (1984), Mukhopdhyay (1984), Mies(1986) and Devendra (1986) are more inclusive.

Berreman (1972) makes important points about gender stratification, the similarity of caste and race dis crimination, and the fact that caste consciousness

overrides class consciousness in India, just as race consciousness overrides class consciounsess in the U.S. Shrirama and Deva (1986), and Mukerji (1986) also link caste and race.

36 This has been clearly demonstrated around the world by the Trickle-Up program. Whyte (1984, Ch. 13), once an advocate of modernization theory, reached the same

conclusions after working with Peruvian peasants.

37 This needs further investigation; perhaps they have

thought about it and dismissed it as relatively unim portant. GRDWs are angry about Rajiv Gandhi's sending troops to Sri Lanka, believing this action stems more from a concern about the Tamil separationist movement in India than for Tamil Sri Lankans or Tamils in Sri Lanka (who tend to be on opposing sides in the con-

flict). Some of ths NGDOs are working with refugees who have fled from Sri Lanka to Tami Nadu.

38 More investigation is needed here too. Perhaps concern about the long term consequences of deforestation,

toxic wastes, unsustainable farming practices, green house gases, and loss of the ozone layer is too luxuri ous when you are applying a tourniquet to a bleeding society.

39 Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharastra, Karnataka, Kerala, Delhi, and Pondicherry. In parts of India religion

would be more heavlily emphasised in the analysis.

Outside India details may vary; e.g., racial instead of caste discrimination, exploitation by an urban sweat shop instead of a rural landlord, economic conditions for fewer rather than more children. But the GRDWs

holistic, interactive approach is valuable and their general analysis may hold hold.

40 RSWR has been duped in several countries, e.g., by fake projects.

41 Others come to this work out of their own desperation. I was told that within three days of an announcement of funding for drought relief work, over 90 new NGDOs

sprung up in just one district of Tamil Nadu.


I am deeply indebted and thankful to members of the

Right Sharing committee and especially the staff per son, Johan Mauer, for their encouragement and help; to the grass roots development workers and participants for their patience, hospitality, and example; to Cedna Wineland, Glenda Sehested, and Abigail Fuller for their valuable research assistance; and to Mary Downton and Tom Moen for being friends in deed. Travel support

from the U.S. Information Agency and the University of Colorado, Boulder, College of Arts and Sciences enabled the field work. Data analysis and writing were sup-

ported by the Conflict Resolution Consortium and the Department of Sociology

Graphic images are not included in this file. For information on how to obtain graphics contact the CRC at the address below.