Enlightened Development – Dr. Naresh Singh’s Talk

Dr. NARESH SINGH

Babaji, distinguished ladies and gentleman on the dias and all distinguished guests, especially our visiting friends and colleagues from Russia. What Ralph has just done of course is quite embarrassing. To say all these things about me in the presence of my revered spiritual teacher is of course difficult to listen to because what little I have learned along the way is that we become mere instruments for a higher energy that works through us to make change that we desire to have. I’ve learnt along the way that it is not I or we who are the agents of that change, but rather we are the vessels and the channels through which that change is made. That is why that introduction put me in a little spot, but I forgive Ralph because he is a brother and a close friend, and he had or would have had his reasons for so saying. I need to do two things, and not to keep you too long. The first thing, because Ralph set me up to do this and the story I am most frequently asked virtually everywhere I go is how could a guy who was born in a virtually unknown country called Guyana, a little country in South America with a population of less than 1 million people end up here in Gobind Sadan and end up here in this part of India and in a country with more than 1 billion people. I thought it was fascinating for people to hear that and I have had to explain it at least three times for the last two days, so maybe I should tell you a little bit of that story. With Babaji’s agreement I will tell you how it is that I arrived here and I will tell you a little bit of what my thoughts are on the way forward on poverty eradication. Well, the first thing I learned and the reason I’m going to do this, is that I was trained as a scientist as Ralph said. I have a PhD degree in environmental chemistry. So, one wonders what I am doing here working on poverty and sometimes I wonder myself.

The first thing that changed in me when I met Babaji was that although I was trained as a scientist and a very critical one and was trained to question everything that was told to me. I had learned that the way to transfer and communicate ideas was through power point presentations and through graphs and figures and I did not have much time for people who told stories. Then, the first thing I learned was that the most powerful way to convey knowledge and wisdom was through stories. In fact, wisdom can only be conveyed through stories. There is no other way. Knowledge can be conveyed much more efficiently through stories. Only data can be conveyed through power point presentations and figures and graphs. That is why I will tell you this story.When I was an environmental scientist working in the Caribbean, I had become quite senior in my work in that region. It was not because I was good or anything, it is just that in small regions you move up quickly. Then, I came to India to be a resource person at a national environmental engineering and research institute, which some of you may have heard of a prestigious institute here. I was going to speak here exactly 14 years after I had finished my masters degree here in New Delhi at the Pusa Institute. I will tell you why I say exactly 14 years or maybe you can guess. It is because this year it is also exactly 14 years since I met Babaji in 1993.I will have to have a personal discussion with him about these 14 year cycles that seem to go through my own life. Anyway, I was coming to India and I was in this airplane and for various reasons, which I will not go through because it will be too long of a story, I ended up sitting in a particular seat in which a very special lady who I don’t see in the audience yet. She might be busy or somewhere around. It was Mary Pat Fisher sitting next to me and asked me “What do you do?” You know you make small talk on an airplane and I said that I am an environmental scientist and I’m going to India to talk about environmental problems and psychology and problems of that kind. She said, “But wait a minute, did you say environmental scientist,” and I said “Yes.” She said well Babaji said 3 days ago that he would be meeting an environmental scientist whose life will change and who will work on something quite different. She said today is the third day and I haven’t met the scientist yet, although He had said so. Well, I was smiling because I had been to India before around 14 years ago and know all kinds of Babajis in India. So, I wasn’t too excited by that idea. But, she said you must come and meet this Babaji, and Babaji was in the first class of the plane and I was in some other part in the back of the plane with Mary Pat. So, because of that I thought what kind of a Babaji am I going to meet. Well, I fully realized that the reason for that was that the chief steward of the Indian plane was also a chela (disciple) of Babaji. All the stewardesses were sitting on the floor and it was a much more convenient place for Him to be talking. So, we met and He said that you have been thinking of changing your career, haven’t you. I said “Well yes, but how do you know that?” I hope you will forgive me for all these rude statements, I’m sure He will forgive me because I was quite a young and rude scientist at that time. So, we talked about what I was thinking about and He said well I know what you are thinking about. That was even more confounding for me. He said one of the things you are thinking about was to start working on poverty. I said, “Yes I am, but the problem is that I know nothing about poverty.” He said that is not a problem, because you will be able to bring your work on the environment and poverty together. So, you will not be losing anything. You will just be adding something to your work. Then, I went back after my visit to India and in two or three weeks I had several offers from universities and research institutes offering me to come and do some work. Six weeks after that I ended up becoming a program director for poverty and empowerment at one of the largest and most prestigious institutes in Canada called International Institute for Sustainable Development. The problem was that I knew nothing about poverty, but somehow these people decided to appoint me as the program director for this subject.

So, I started the work and it was not easy, so one of the things I have to share with you is that when Babaji takes you into His fold and decides to guide you while the work is joyful it is never easy. So, I presented my ideas to the board of this institute on three separate occasions and I was turned back and they said your ideas are not well developed, you are not original enough, and we will not give you any money to do work. So, finally I had decided to quit and I gave it one last shot. The only reason I succeeded is because a friend of mine on the board said to me is that the reason you are not doing anything sensible or original is because you are talking to experts on poverty. Those experts know nothing on poverty. Why don’t you go talk to poor people themselves? It is only after my first visit to Africa, when I spoke to the poor themselves that my ideas changed. I had no doubt how I was being guided to do that. Nevertheless, when I made that presentation finally the board said well now you are making sense, and this was way up north in Canada. So, that gave me the resources to do the work, which I worked on for three years and then helped to develop the ideas on what is now called the sustainable livelihood approach to poverty.

After three years the U.N. had recognized the work I had done and invited me to become their advisor on poverty and in two years I became the principal advisor on poverty on sustainable livelihoods at the United Nations Development Program in New York. Now for me something else had to be working here because that was in 1996 and it was only 3 years ago that I had known nothing about poverty. So, for me that was a major transformation. Well, I stayed at the U.N. for a little while and then I moved on.

Now, it is 2007 and last year I was invited back by the U.N. I had gone to the government of Canada and they had invited me to become the director of a High Level Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor. Now why am I telling you this long story, the story about my own life?

I am telling you this story because I came here today not to talk about me although I have done that. I have talked about me because I want in my way to celebrate Babaji’s birthday. I wanted to share with you how He works. I don’t spend enough time here in Gobind Sadan to be able to explain to you how He does His work. The best and simplest way for me to share with you was to show you how He has worked through me. The little that has been achieved through my life and how that has been influenced. There are many other things that I can tell you like when I needed to come and the first thing He said to me actually was, I hope I can say these things in public, and if I can’t He will forgive me I’m sure.

The first thing He said to me when I sat at His feet to learn was that your mind is like a racehorse without reigns. It is jumping around in all kinds of different directions. The first thing you have to do is to calm that. That is the first thing I learned. I still struggle with that process and it still races out of control from time to time. That is the first step and for me each one of us will be able to contribute to poverty eradication by transforming ourselves first and becoming that channel. But you cannot become that channel until the racehorse of the mind has been quite and the reigns are formally in place.

The next thing I learned and this was a big challenge for me was I asked Him can I become like you. Can I become a Saint? I am a scientist and are scientists allowed to become saints? He said to me that there is no difference between a saint and a scientist. If the scientist is focused on the same goals as the saint then only the pathways that they take are different. So, you don’t have to become a saint, you can be a saint and a scientist at the same time.

In my work on poverty, I have brought environment and poverty together. If you look at the UNDP website or the World Bank website for that matter you will see a lot of work now on poverty environment linkages. They were never there before 1993, but now the World Bank is on it, the UN DP is on it, and the United Nations Environment Program is on it and you can guess what is the source of that work.

I transformed that phrase “poverty environment”, because it was too long and I took another long phrase called sustainable livelihood. So, when we are talking about sustainable livelihood we are talking about how the poor can get out of poverty without damaging the environment or the ecosystems in which they live. Let me summarize what I want to say because others must speak now. I hope you have enjoyed that little story, but let me just share with you a few thoughts that I have been inspired to help develop over time.

The first point that I want to make to you is that if you want to work to help the world get rid of poverty, then we should not be focusing so much on the needs of the poor, because I believe that is a disempowering thing to do. I believe that we must begin with the assets around us. Again, if you look at Babaji’s work He looks at what assets are there and then He transforms those assets into people’s prosperity. That somehow became the cornerstone of my own work, that what you have to develop is the assets approach to poverty. You begin with what people have and what is around them rather than with what they need.

You might wonder why is this, this sounds rather crazy doesn’t it. Well, you will also find when you work close to Babaji that a lot of the things you appear to think might appear crazy to others. The issue is that when you begin on all development agencies and they begin to work with poverty and they start with the need what they are saying is, you do not have and I have and I will give to you. That creates a dependency syndrome where they pour much weight on someone else to give them. That doesn’t work. You must begin with what they have so they become partners in that process rather than they the dependant and you the donor. That is one of the things I have learned.

The other thing I have learned is that when you make policy, you must look at policy through the eyes of the poor. How do you make the link between the macro economy and the everyday life of the poor person? And the world has not yet learned how to do that. Too few of us are thinking about that. Those who make policy are on one area, and those who work with poor people in the community level are at the other.

The third thing I have learned is that the real problem of poverty is the problem of power. Economic and social deprivation merely result from skewed power relations where some have power and a very small proportion, and the large majority do not have any control over the forces of their lives, but nobody wants to talk about that.

Politicians prefer to put money at the problem and donors put money at the problem, but the problem is not money. The world is full of that. The problem is the political will to change the power relations between the poor, those who do not have and those who have. We are now working on this specific issue. How to use the power of the law, how to use the ideals of human rights and begin to think in concrete ways how the poor can use the law to get themselves out of poverty. You know when you look at the history of human civilization you will find that those who have power have never given power willingly to those who do not have. They always had to take that power. If it was a foreign domination by say a colonial power like the British Empire. This country knows only too well that you have to take control over your lives, led by of course Mahatma Gandhi. In the United States the blacks took that power, because nobody is about to give them power willingly. Martin Luther King adopting Gandhian principles had to fight for the blacks to take that power. That’s the only way they could get it. So, the world history is full of these and poverty is the same problem.

Either the poor will take power by violent revolution or we will have to find a peaceful way in which we will change those power relations. That is why I have accepted to work on this commission on the legal empowerment of the poor, although the word empowerment does not work in practice. So, I’m not preaching violent revolution and I’m not preaching any kind of revolution, but I’m preaching a transformation or I’m trying to teach that transformation if you like because who am I to preach. And I am using the guidance and the strength that Babaji directs my way.

What I have now just told you has been a little story of my life and also with a little of the opportunities and obstacles that I see in the fight against poverty. I want to leave it at that point and only to say how blessed I have been and how thankful I am to have been in His presence and to be able to do the little I have done. I look forward to be able to continue this very difficult but joyful work in the years ahead. Maybe in 14 years time I might come back to celebrate another birthday. Thank you very much.