Ideas & Insights Seeing like a State or Seeing the State?

Seeing like a State or Seeing the State?

Working Paper

May 18th 2021

A link to the pdf of the full paper is here. Note that this is a draft working paper. 

Abstract: This paper explores the nature of interactions between the state and village society in rural India within a major community-based development program. We perform a qualitative exploration of multiple perspectives within an interacting system of institutions. We use guidelines of the state and transcripts of 90 interviews and focus groups amongst representatives of actors of all major groups in this system in one geographic area of the state of Madhya Pradesh. The program of focus is the National Rural Livelihoods Mission, which aims to expand the well-being and empowerment of poor, socially disadvantaged, rural women, through the formation of “self-help groups (SHGs)” that are linked to credit and market related services as well as support systems provided by the state.  It seeks to do this through a blend of state action and community involvement, including recruitment of “community resource persons (CRPs)” who both work for the state and “represent” the community. This is supported by the creation of federated clusters of SHGs which are supposed to take on support functions.

We argue that in design, and even more in implementation, the program exemplifies two substantive tensions: between a top-down, “engineering” approach to state delivery and a stated intention to mobilize community and create “institutions of the poor”; and between primary reliance on existing village hierarchies and the goal of empowering poor women from disadvantaged social groups.  Both tensions are intensified by the political and bureaucratic pressure to achieve measurable targets, such as the number of SHGs created. We argue that these tensions generate an internal logic to state functioning that leads the SHGs and their federations in our sample to not function in all of the ways laid out in the NRLM design.  Some policy implications are explored in a companion study; this paper is mainly concerned with presenting the empirical material within a theoretical frame appropriate to this complex system.