This post was written as part of a special series for the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship.
Despite an abundance of resources, dedicated efforts to alleviate poverty, generous donors, and committed development experts, we continue to live in a world where one billion of our fellow citizens live in dire poverty.
Many who are working to address this stubborn problem see governments as the biggest obstacle to their efforts. Sometimes they are. But governments can also be a substantial part of the solution.
Governments make law and policy. Creating an enabling environment through appropriate policies and laws can do more to address poverty than anything else.
Over the last 35 years in China, for example, policy reforms related to land and rural development sparked an economic revolution that pulled more than half a billion people out of poverty.
Yet, despite the power of legal reforms and policy changes, too few non-profits and social entrepreneurs pull on this lever to drive poverty reduction or other social change.
Leading entrepreneurs show the way
Fortunately, there are a few leading social entrepreneurs who are showing that this approach is not only possible but also extremely effective at engendering large-scale social impact.
Jeroo Billimoria, founder of Aflatoun, promotes child empowerment in partnership with government educational institutions, to create and implement in-school savings and financial education programs.
Martin von Hildebrand, who established Gaia Amazonas, worked to secure constitutional reforms and the ratification of international agreements on indigenous rights, to ensure that large areas of rainforest were legally placed into the hands of indigenous people.
Mabel Van Oranje, who established Girls Not Brides, is working with the UN and governments around the world to take steps to end child, early, and forced marriage.
The world’s biggest problems – like poverty, climate change, and inequality – are structural problems. That should push more of us to engage with governments and seek structural solutions.
When Landesa’s founder, Roy Prosterman, set his mind to reducing poverty and conflict more than four decades ago, he recognized that governments were uniquely positioned to address the most unfortunate conundrum in the developing world: that those who depend on the land for survival often have insecure rights to that land. What’s more, he saw that insecure rights to were directly tied to a lack of security, incentive, and opportunity to invest in the land to improve harvests and lives.
Government partnerships succeed in India
Partnering with governments may not be easy. But, despite frequent challenges, frustrations and yes – even failures – collaborating with governments can be extremely successful.
Landesa’s experience has been enlightening. Consider our partnerships in India.
No other country in the world has more landless families. An estimated 20 million rural poor have no place to call their own, and tens of millions of smallholder farmers have weak land rights.
We see two pathways to achieve scaled impact in partnership with government. We work with governments to devise and improve pro-poor laws and policies. We also work with them to strategically improve service delivery.
In India, we’ve partnered with government officials in states fromKarnataka to West Bengal, to help them create pro-poor land laws and programs that give poor rural families secure rights to the land they rely on.
And we have worked shoulder to shoulder with government functionaries to monitor and improve delivery of government services to the poorest of the poor.
We’ve found eager and committed government officials at all levels who, once they understand why land rights are important and are briefed on our research-based policy recommendations, are eager to partner and refine solutions that are workable, politically and economically feasible, and scalable.
Micro-plot program delivers land and services
The state government of West Bengal’s micro-plot program, implemented with support from Landesa, is a great example of both kinds of partnership.
The micro-plot program provides landless rural families with secure rights to a tennis-court sized plot of land on which they can build a small shelter for themselves and grow a kitchen garden to boost their nutrition.
With government officials we developed a “land-first” convergence model in which government departments coordinate their efforts to ensure that once families receive a micro-plot, other government services follow – such as electricity, sanitation, running water, and agricultural extension services. Sustainable delivery of these services without secure rights to land is difficult if not impossible.
Landesa also worked with government partners on policy changes to ensure that women’s names are included as equal owners on all land titles supplied to beneficiaries. There is a large body of research that shows the benefits of economically empowering rural women through the greatest asset in rural areas – land.
We monitor these partnerships closely, not to name and shame our partners should they stumble, but to provide helpful feedback to improve services, inform future legislation and policy, and reduce poverty.
In more than 10 years working in West Bengal, Landesa has identified and cultivated government champions at all levels. We’ve seen officials genuinely inspired when they see what government can accomplish for the most vulnerable.
Indeed, the micro-plot program is now the state government’s flagship poverty alleviation program. More than 265,000 West Bengal families have benefited.
Of course there are challenges. When political parties are voted out of power, we need to rebuild our relationships. Sometimes victors are tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater after wresting government away from a rival. In the run up to elections, people’s attentions are sometimes diverted. Governments often move at a frustratingly slow pace.
Despite all this, we do a disservice to ourselves, the poor, and future generations if we bypass or dismiss government and its powerful levers of law and policy, in our efforts to address poverty.