BlogField Focus Blog

Sep 23 2013

Fighting Poverty with Land

This post originally appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations Development Channel.

In 2005, our non-profit, Landesa, partnered with the government of West Bengal, a state in eastern India, to develop a micro-plot program. The goal was to provide hundreds of thousands of landless rural families with a plot of land about the size of a tennis court (one-tenth of an acre) – enough space to build a small hut and plant a kitchen garden. Our research and previous experience elsewhere led us to believe that this could help save families from extreme poverty and constant hunger.

We expected that after our government partners provided land, these families would soon build their homes, start planting crops, and begin their newly improved lives. Some did. But others did not.

After speaking with officials, farmers, beneficiaries, and those who had not yet benefited, we learned that obtaining land was an essential first step, but that some families needed more support in order to move forward. In particular, they needed help building hand pumps to obtain drinking water and toilets. That’s when we started working on what we now call our “convergence model.”

National and state government agencies in India spend billions of dollars every year helping the rural poor. In West Bengal, there are organizations that provide land, work, food, housing, drinking water, sanitation, electricity, livestock, farming supplies, and many other goods and services. A poor family may need all or some of these benefits. The challenge we faced in West Bengal was that these benefits often did not come together, in the right order, or at the right time. There was no coordination of projects.

After determining that a family needed to own land in order to qualify for most government benefits, we spoke with our government partners about better coordination with the micro-plot program. The program, we thought, could begin a cascade of support and services. In theory, the plan was simple. In reality, it was not; each government support program had its own guidelines, funding mechanisms, bureaucracy, quotas, target populations, and waiting list of candidates. Nevertheless, all of the implementing agencies eventually agreed to collaborate and formulated a new model: a location-based development plan, focused on land.

We tested out the new model in Bagda, a small village near the Bangladesh border where officials and local leaders agreed to coordinate aid to seventy-five families who had recently received land. These families previously lived on the margins, squatting on government land for years after losing their homes in a flood in 2000. First, our government partners provided each family with a small plot. Then the Total Sanitation Campaign Fund provided simple sanitation hookups, Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Mission provided water, and Rajiv Gandhi Rural Electrification Program provided electricity, the Indian government’s national rural housing program provided small grants to help the families to buy homemaking materials, and the Agriculture-Horticulture Department provided government-subsidized seeds and saplings. The total cost was about $1,000 per family. Over time, families invested $90-$300 of their own money in purchases such as livestock, animal sheds, and saplings. They finally had the security, opportunity, and incentive to climb out of extreme poverty.

Spurred by its success, governments in eleven districts across West Bengal began following this model. Today, more than 4,300 formerly landless families have started new and productive lives on their micro-plots. The cost is one that the government was already investing, but in a less coordinated and effective way.

We learned that once families have what they cannot provide themselves, they do the rest by the sweat of their brow. They invest in the land, become environmental stewards, provide their children with nutritious food, and pay school fees. More than 450,000 people in eleven Indian states have now received micro-plots. It seems all they needed to climb out of poverty were the right tools at the right time.

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