New York — Idea: if Gandhi proved what a single leader can do to elevate thousands of the world's poorest villages, why not urge whole villages to generate their own Gandhi-like leadership from within and pull themselves up by the bootstraps?
Utopian? Harebrained? Actually, it couldn't be more practical - at least in the view of 31 third-world community development leaders now touring the United States.
Clad in the saris and sarongs of their native countries, such as India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and Upper Volta, they have been exchanging views with American development leaders in poor communities from Arkansas to Mississippi to New York City to Maine.
The reason is simple. In the face of the tenacious hunger and poverty that still besets a quarter of mankind, the search is on for vastly multiplied community leadership capable of meeting the challenges ahead. Though the 31 leaders had never met each other before coming to the US two weeks ago, they discovered they've reached parallel conclusions on the leadership question. Untapped leadership exists within even the poorest of villages, they say. In fact, efforts are under way on a mass scale to bring that leadership to the surface in the communities they serve around the world.
The idea to bring the leaders to the US was largely the brainchild of Nathan Gray, cofounder of the relief agency Oxfam-America. He calls the venture an experiment in ''South-to-North dialogue'' - an effort to bring third-world insight on leadership development to the attention of the industrial West.
By the time the experiment ended at the United Nations March 20, the leaders and their American counterparts had formed an international network for promoting grass-roots leadership. Plans were made to exchange young leaders for training and community development. One North American community leader, Anne Bishop of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, arranged to buy handmade fabrics from women's cooperatives in India for clothing manufacture in Canada.
From a broadcast studio in New York, the third-world leaders fielded questions from Americans in 12 cities across the continent through a live two-way teleconference.
''Not charismatic, but catalytic'' appears to be the new catch-phrase for development leadership. If these leaders are right, the era when development at the grass roots would be inspired primarily by great charismatic leaders ''from the top'' is over.
''We can only meet the rising poverty of the burgeoning poor if the poor themselves take the lead in making development work,'' says Alvero Villa, founder of the grass-roots development group Comunidad por los Ninos in Bogata, Colombia. ''In fact, we now know that our own leadership efforts prove effective only when we listen to how people themselves define their problems and the means to meet them.''
The days are over, he says, when he would enter impoverished villages thinking he could impose preconceived blueprints to improve crops and productivity. Entering one village near Bogata years ago, for instance, he found village leaders arguing for a totally different priority than his own: finish building ornamentation in front of the church. Though Mr. Villa was shocked that the plight of village children seemed ignored, the villagers' project got development going by teaching people the benefits of working together, and some of the newly built church structures were used to support vegetable-bearing vines.
Meanwhile, the ideas from the visiting third-world leaders appears to have been greeted with mixed reactions from American urban and rural leaders, and from the press.
''One skeptical reporter from Cincinnati asked me what I could possibly learn from people in these poor countries,'' says American Leslie Lilly, who directs a coalition of women's groups seeking better training and employment for rural women in the Southeast US.
''If he only knew!'' she says. ''These people work in communities with poverty that makes ours pale by comparison, and with far fewer resources. Yet they've done more with less. Instead of waiting for material resources to come in from the outside or for roads to be built, they've realized that fabulous resources of leadership and wisdom already exist wthin poor communities - if only they can be catalyzed into action.''
At the core of the new leadership thrust abroad is a determination to reverse expectations among poor people that services must always come from government, says A.P. Ariyaratne, the man known these days as ''the little Gandhi of Sri Lanka.'' His Farvodaya Shramadana movement has motivated many Sri Lankan villagers to improve their living standard through voluntary labor to cut roads, build schools, and provide services.
''The task now for grass-roots leaders is to prove they can provide better those services normally provided by the state,'' he says. ''Ironically, governments then start to take you more seriously, and you can work more effectively with them.''
The visiting leaders do not deny the importance of leadership, knowledge, and example provided by competent, trained individuals like themselves.
''But we have come to see that the measure of our success is really whether villagers come to realize their power to control their own destinies,'' says Jaya Arunachalam of Madras, India. (She has mobilized 10,000 poor rural women in Madras to set up a flourishing credit union, family services, and small-scale industries.)
''Perhaps the most difficult test will be whether leaders who have succeeded in catalyzing village self-help can now withdraw their own personal involvement and let leadership in the villages take over.''
Meanwhile, if Dominique Kabore is any indication, the leaders will go home with encouragement. Mrs. Kabore, who has set up a self-help center for widows in Upper Volta, had no idea her own effort to mobilize grass-roots leadership was such a univeral affair. ''It was hard for me to get across to Americans what it means to live with the severe water shortages we face, and the difficulties of widows who lose all their property in my country when their husbands die. But from what I have learned from rural development leaders in Arkansas and from women's cooperatives in Maine and Nova Scotia, I have many new tools to put to work back home.''