Decentralisation is key to unlocking resilient livelihoods

Table of Contents

COVID revealed deep fissures in India’s livelihood landscape. Over 121.5 million people lost their jobs, 91.2 million of which were in the informal sector. The pandemic affected many communities, especially the socio-economically vulnerable, disproportionately. From lack of access to healthcare, basic necessities and social security to a staggered informal economy and large-scale reverse migration – we saw society in flux. Many livelihood-focused civil society organisations too faced physical and financial barriers in working with users, especially first-mile. 

While the pandemic nudged practitioners, funders, policymakers and other ecosystem actors to rethink their current understanding of livelihoods, it also asked a big question: What will it take to build resilience through livelihoods? Of late, I have been reflecting on what robust livelihood systems look like. Is focusing on increasing income enough, if not what will ensure irreversible economic mobility for everyone? 

To bridge precisely this gap, Ashoka and Sattva decided to take stock of the post-pandemic livelihood landscape, map trends in sectors that showcased resilience, examine emerging business models and open up pathways for actors in the livelihood ecosystem to work towards reducing poverty, economic growth and social equity at scale. Drawing on insights of Ashoka fellows, experts and field staff, ‘Pathways to Resilient Livelihoods’ offers ways to rethink and redesign livelihood systems as inclusive, resilient and sustainable. The study delves into three kinds of interventions led by Ashoka Fellows, outlining models that were able to support the social and economic wellbeing of communities during the pandemic. These models focus on sustainable, environmentally sound and intersectional practices in farm-based value chain strengthening, skilling and micro-enterprise development. 

I was especially drawn to the way organisations moved to decentralised structures almost instinctively. I’ve been wondering what the world would look like without central institutions of authority – a thought echoed by Harish Hande, co-founder of SELCO, in the report, “Centralised supply chains are focused on scale and diversification. Centralised power systems, centralised decision systems etc. strive to lower transaction costs and make products cheaper. However, such scale up reduces the consumer’s buying power. For example, if centralised transportation collapses, what happens to the vegetables and the one who sells them? On one hand, you have rotting vegetables in the village and on the other hand, another village is not getting vegetables. COVID-19 actually showed how centralised systems have collapsed and one had to go back to decentralisation. In reality, decentralised systems actually became a key.” 

Here are a few ways in which the study suggests decentralised systems can unlock resilient livelihoods:

  • Harnessing local knowledge and expertise to make decisions, thus restoring the agency of those closest to the problem to see, sense and solve the problems they face in their unique context. 
  • Promoting participatory decision-making and co-ownership to safeguard the values with which decisions. This, in turn, increases accountability and transparency while making and implementing decisions to ensure local needs are addressed.
  • Improving service delivery by closing (or at least narrowing) the gap between decision-makers, implementers and users. 
  • Building the muscle to react to changing circumstances and adapt policies, programmes and solutions according to what is most urgent.
  • Making scarce resources abundant by reducing centralised bureaucratic, administrative costs and moving towards a public goods approach.

Livelihood organisations with decentralised ways of working with users were able to restore community agency and build resilience in the face of crises like COVID. My mind goes to what Sanjay Porohit, our Chief Curator, says, “We must distribute the ability to solve rather than build the capacity to adopt solutions.”

At the height of COVID-19, REVIVE Alliance took shape as a blended finance facility and livelihood accelerator to help informal workers and micro-entrepreneurs recover from financial loss. As the pandemic eased out, REVIVE came to a pivotal realisation: to ensure sustainable and resilient livelihoods, creating change at societal scale is necessary. At Societal Thinking, we are working deeply with REVIVE in Livelihood. Read more about us exploring economic resilience for 10 million, together.

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About the Author
Anjali Hans