Building a developmental ecosystem for rural empowerment

Developmental ecosystem: Theory and practice

The term “ecosystem” was first used in 1935 by a British ecologist, Arthur Tansley, who devised the concept to draw attention to the complex exchange of materials taking place between organisms and their environment (Tansley, 1935). Following Tansley’s theorization, an ecosystem therefore refers to a community of living beings (animals, plants and microbes), coupled with the non-living components of environment (air, water, soil, etc.), interacting as a system. It is this complex network or inter-connected system, enabling living beings to interact with each other and with their environment, which primarily paves the path for social functioning. The decentralized nature of an ecosystem considers each of its components to be indispensable to the whole, where the credentials of the whole exceed the summative valuation of individual components.

Instead of having a standardized and centralized institutionalized conceptualization of development, our mission to attain rural empowerment primarily gets inspiration from the inter-connected spirit that an ecosystem ensures, where each actor is considered indispensable to the process of social development. Moreover, a developmental model deriving ideological nourishment from the inter-connected system of an ecosystem will subsequently attempt to address social maladies by creating an inter-connected ecosystem, which, instead of externally imposing sporadic measures, attempts capacity building of local community by exploiting the potential of crowd. An interconnected developmental ecosystem will enable social actors to empower themselves by establishing connections with other social actors involved in the developmental process (Dehgan, 2012). This purposive exchange will enable rural mass to be true stakeholders in their developmental process, instead of being passive recipients of institutional change.

The idea of devising a developmental ecosystem in the context of rural empowerment rests in creating a new form of socio-economic setup, where development progresses based on collaborative production and consumption initiated by strangers. Such a developmental ecosystem has the potential to connect billions of people and transform them into true stakeholders in their developmental process by cultivating strategies of self-sustenance and self- development among target groups (Capgemini Consulting, 2018). Inter-connectedness among strangers facilitated by the ecosystem is infused with the prospect of reshaping socio-economic activities in innovative ways. Neglecting traditional hierarchy, a developmental ecosystem has the credential to establish purposive collaborations among different entities, belonging to diverse backgrounds, who are involved in the developmental process. Collaborative wealth creation and social development, accounting to be major premise of a developmental ecosystem, have positive effect in collective advancement of arts, culture, science, education, governing infrastructure, economy, etc. (Tapscott &C Williams, 2006; Horton & Chilton, 2010).

The inclusive potential of a developmental ecosystem has the capacity to transform crowd to be true stakeholders in the developmental process. By involving the mass in the decision-making process and making them active determinants of their own course of development, developmental ecosystems and their method of achieving social transformation contradict the centralized institution-driven conventional developmental models.

Collaborations facilitated by developmental ecosystem create an atmosphere of healthy dependence, which has redefined the way contemporary socio-economic activities are conducted in today’s connected age. The emergence and rapid proliferation of “sharing economy” is the living proof of how purposive collaborations have transformed industries globally and bears severe implications for social development (Sundararajan, 2016). Sharing economy is premised on peer- to-peer relationships, instead of relying on existing and defined market actors to mediate exchange. Such an economic structure is in stark contrast to mainstream economic frameworks reliant on structured economic institutions, with their standardized market principles. We can identify the collaborative premise of sharing economy as an attempt to create an ecosystem, infused with liberator)' potential, which can only get realized if the different actors involved in the transactions are accredited with adequate capabilities required to conduct profitable partnerships. Digital technologies, offering promising prospects of virtual linkage, have contributed in easing the process of collaborating by enhancing intra- and inter-communitarian linkage. This interconnected spirit of contemporary ICT has not only given impetus to sharing economy but has offered enticing prospects of creating developmental ecosystem by virtually linking different agents involved in the developmental process.

The notion that social developments cannot be influenced from outside and do not unfold in linear fashion is gaining importance in contemporary academia. The emerging concern increases the urgency to create a field of development cooperation by shifting implementing power from structured institutions to common mass. It is with this intention to create a developmental ecosystem that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and its partners crowd-sourced the world to apply science, technology and innovation against seemingly intractable barriers to solve the Grand Challenges for Development (GCDs) and to catalyse global action to achieve scale, sustainability and impact (Dehgan, 2012). Democratization of tools for self-expression using social technologies (for example, social media, where anyone can create and exchange content), availability of anytime-anywhere mobile connectivity using social technologies, and greater opportunity towards resource mobilization using the principles of sharing economy (e.g., mobilizing crowd resources using digital platforms) will facilitate a movement that will shift control front centralized development through a handful of traditional development agencies to decentralized development involving crowd capital — billions of development agents.

Purposive knowledge exchange fostered via virtually connected developmental ecosystem subsequently paves the path for creating an ecosystem characterized by collaborative creation, assimilation and dissemination of knowledge (Frohardt & Jones, 2018). This developmental ecosystem considers every social actor to be a potential producer and consumer of information and knowledge. The symbiosis, facilitated via such an approach, is in stark contradiction to the linear informational dissemination mode followed worldwide by the “Rurban” missions. While the Rurban missions attempt to disseminate information following a one-way track from urban to rural communities, the premise of such measures are based on a compassion-driven ideology which conceptualizes rural community as “inferior” consumers, unsuitable for producing information. Consequently, the measures remain exogenous in nature, where external imposition of the schemes fails to create deeper impact.

It is undoubtedly true that the rural community, by virtue of their physical and informational isolation from mainstream transactional sites, shares knowledge asymmetry with urban agents. Lack of adequate knowledge on market operationalizations affecting the economic performance of rural community needs to be immediately addressed by facilitating effective collaboration among rural—urban entities. In this context, it needs to be remembered that the rural community’s lack of knowledge on market dynamics is not sufficient to justify any informational/knowledge dissemination model premised on a uni-directional mode. The indigenous knowledge resources possessed by rural members make them potential contributors to the knowledge pool, thereby ensuring a two-way symbiotic knowledge creation/dissemination mandatory to the process of rural empowerment. It is by proposing an idea of a developmental ecosystem facilitating two-way knowledge exchange between urban and rural communities that we have attempted to chalk out an endogenous developmental paradigm premised on effective collaboration.

The need for a developmental ecosystem for holistic rural empowerment

As we have already discussed in the book, rural sectors suffer from multi-faceted hindrances, which significantly hinder active participation of rural actors in mainstream discourse. If we are to initiate developmental attempts to empower rural community, then we need to realize that rural empowerment cannot happen overnight. Multi-faceted issues that have deprived the rural sector for generations must be tackled along diverse axes in order to have a holistic idea regarding the cause of rural marginalization. This will subsequently help in formulating contextual solutions to address the operative issues. And, throughout this process, mobilization of local community and securing their active involvement in the developmental journey serves to be a mandatory prerequisite in not just ushering in rural empowerment but also sustaining it.

Grove (2014) articulates empowerment as the act of freeing marginalized people through participatory programmes targeted at building resilience on a communitarian level. Optimally mobilizing local community and ensuring active communitarian engagement in rural context is a gradual process, which needs to be nurtured and cultivated over time to attain effective results. If developmental initiatives are thrust on rural community externally, without developing in them the potential required to avail the given opportunities, then the measures remain redundant and cannot create any sustainable impact. That is why, in our research initiatives, the proposed social knowledge management framework for rural empowerment is premised on securing active participation of rural members by connecting them with diverse social actors. In our framework we are not trying to directly ensure concrete socio-economic benefits for the rural community. Rather, by initiating a collaborative pathway for them, we are trying to enable them to enhance their own socio-economic prospects through voluntary participation. Our research initiatives, therefore, strive to achieve this active participation of rural members in an attempt to empower them.

Steiner and Farmer (2017) rightly identify empowerment as something more than participation, something which enhances the ability to participate in decision-making and accredits social actors with the power to undertake transformative actions. While securing the active participation of rural members accounts to be one aspect in the process of empowering them, the other one is cultivating a conducive environment, which will positively influence the ability of rural participants to sustain their participation. Achievement of this dual goal is only possible in the presence of synergistic union between exogenous and endogenous developmental attempts, which ensures creation of an effective developmental ecosystem.

Steiner and Farmer (2017) suggest an EPE model (Engage-Participate- Entpower) that highlights a process of community empowerment starting with engagement, followed by participation and subsequently facilitating community empowerment. Communities that have not previously engaged can benefit from external support. Hence exogenous initiatives can provide necessary guidance and support, which could be a pre-condition as well as facilitator of endogenous development of a weaker community. Steiner and Farmer (2017) argue that “to reach endogenous empowerment, exogenous empowerment practices are useful and effective for some communities. Capacity building might be emergent (in endogenous community development) but in some cases it may need to be nurtured via external sources (by exogenous development).” Thus successful implementation of a developmental ecosystem requires creation of appropriate support structures that enable the transfer of power from state to community. Exogenous agencies could add value by providing an enabling environment where endogenous development occurs.

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