Learning by doing

For several decades now, the Indian government and a variety of donor agencies have promoted and implemented "livelihoods projects". These projects depend upon women's self-help groups, or SHGs, to raise living standards particularly of the 25 crore rural poor. In 2011, the Indian government launched the Rs 38,000 crore National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), also known as Ajeevika (reportedly now being merged with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). It was expected to cover 7 crore BPL households in 600 districts. The scale of Ajeevika highlights a strong belief that it is an effective way to address persistent poverty and exclusion.

Such participatory interventions have seen a vast expansion around the world over the last decade. The World Bank alone has invested over $85 billion. Much of this focus has been driven by ideological commitment and gut feel, and less by scientific, independent evidence on their efficacy.

This lack of attention to data needs to be urgently rectified. Participatory interventions, especially livelihood projects, are complex interventions because they rely on unpredictable human interactions. The best rural livelihood projects must therefore innovate as they go along that is, constantly experiment and track success and failure with reliable evidence.

The social observatory approach to livelihoods projects is one way of addressing this issue. Drawing on a range of social science disciplines to create a culture of "learning by doing" within the project, it focuses on improved data collection, the involvement of independent outside researchers, a process monitoring system and an in-house capacity to conduct research with an openness to experimentation and learning. The aim is to balance long-term learning with quick turnaround studies that can inform everyday decision-making.

As things stand, there isn't one specific design for livelihood projects; they differ from state to state. At their core, however, they are based on the following idea: SHGs of 7-12 women are formed with an initial focus on savings and microcredit. Representatives from these SHGs are selected to form a village organisation to oversee SHG activities and, moving further up the hierarchy, into block and district level organisations. This federation of SHGs then becomes a highway upon which various "vertical" anti-poverty initiatives are rolled out.

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