International Herald Tribune
Learning from what works
By Mort Rosenblum
Thursday, September 6, 2007

GALDER, India:

This tribal village lost in northern Rajasthan has a few things going for it. For one, no one here has heard of George W. Bush. The name came up as we talked about health, and one man asked: "Is that some kind of disease?"

For another, everyone knows about Madan Nagda and his hip-pocket aid agency, MKS.

Life is tough in Galder. A 16-year drought is getting steadily worse, drying yet more wells, and crops wither. That medical care we discussed is so precarious that the cure for anything serious is death.

Yet faraway experts with prescriptions to end poverty, which most define as living on less than a daily dollar, could learn a lot here. All of us could.

Per capita income among the 1,000 villagers is closer to five cents a day. Few families can scrape up five dollars in cash reserves. But Madan Nagda looks at an elusive measure that matters much more, which macro-theorists often overlook: Are people miserable?

Poverty is a relative concept applicable to money economies. Only major aid from rich nations, with an assault on corruption, inefficiency and unfair trade policies, can make a serious dent. Misery is what makes poor people give up hope and drink pesticide. This, Galder shows us, we can do something about at very little cost.

That is a simple enough concept, in the Asian subcontinent, in Africa and everywhere else where people struggle to help themselves. Yet few of us seem to get it.

People don't starve in Galder because they help one another. Their belief system gives order to their lives and hope for what comes later. No one, as best as I could determine, wants an iPhone or updates each time Paris Hilton unzips her dress.

If villagers pay no attention to an American president who means nothing to their lives, they vote without fail for their member of parliament and their local leaders. They know exactly what they need: simple pumps to tap a nearby river and check dams to catch rare rain; a ride to Udaipur so they can market vegetables and get a day-labor job when they need cash; a schoolteacher who shows up for work; help for women who organize community projects.

A few of them want more: a chance for sons or daughters to find their way out of Galder, if they choose, to catch a few rays from an "India Shining."

Nagda figured this out 20 years ago, fresh out of school with a borrowed little car and empty pockets. Today, still working on a shoe string, he helps 100,000 people in 70 villagers to make their own lives livable.

"We listen to what people want, and we stay with them to learn how they can get it," he told me, outlining the essence of Gandhi Manav Kalyan Society, or MKS. "That is the only way it can work."

A model farm shows people how to coax better yields out of dryer land. Ingenious hillside sculpting traps rainwater and channels it into depleted aquifers. Clinics teach simple hygiene and sanitation.

Nagda's little office up an alley in Udaipur now has a few computers on which he keeps track of every rupee spent. His funding is mostly from donors in Europe and India who don't need photos of their logos on jeep doors. He has gotten official Swiss and Nordic help, which is freer of the strings that tie U.S. aid in knots.

A driven man with hennaed hair and dour mien, Nagda recruits such believers as Sandhya Gupte, an American of Rajasthani roots who took time out from studies at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to live with villagers and listen. When she came back to show me around people whose lives she had changed wept with joy.

Galder is no more than a fragment of a complex mosaic. Billions of people are both poor and miserable. But if there are not enough Nagdas or Sandhyas to reverse a tragic trend, we can learn from them what really helps.

Rock musicians and film stars tug at our heart strings which galvanizes attention. But articulating a problem is different from solving it. We need to hear from firsthand sources to understand what works and what doesn't. And at a time when up-close reporting is being muscled aside by long-distance guesswork, we mostly do the wrong thing.

If we really want to help, we can. We can do it without delay, or condescension, at very little cost. Madan Nagda and plenty of others like him can tell us how. We only have to listen.

Mort Rosenblum is a former editor of the IHT. His latest book is "Escaping Plato's Cave: How America's Blindness to the Rest of the World Threatens Our Survival."