Archive for the ‘India’Category

"The opening deal"

I liked this quote from economist Karthik Muralidharan, which is pulled from a conversation at Ideas for India with Kaushik Basu of the World Bank:

My own take on what is happening in economics as a profession, talking to people in other disciplines, is that our fundamental weakness at some level is that because the touchstone of policy evaluation is the idea of a Pareto improvement (is someone better off and no one worse off) – effectively, economists do not question the justice of the initial positions. You kind of take the initial position as granted and say that conditional on this, how do I improve things on the margin.

Given vast inequalities in the opening deal of cards, so to speak, there is obviously a deep political need to create the space for more pro-poor policy. I think because the professional economists have abdicated that space to saying that it is a philosophical debate and we have really nothing to say, the rights-based movement that has created the political space for pro-poor policy has also then occupied the space of how to design it because they are the people who have created the political movement.

My own view on this is that because economists have kind of been seen as apologists for the status quo in many settings, we have lost the credibility to say that we are as pro-poor as you are, but conditional on these objectives there are much better ways to design it.

Lots on poverty policy, inequality, etc at the link.

"The only thing worse than being a poverty reporter is if no one ever wrote about it at all."

From a Guernica interview with Katherine Boo, author of Behind The Beautiful Forevers, on life in a Mumbai slum:

Guernica: Was it important to you to stay in the vicinity of the community?

Katherine Boo: Quite the contrary. It was important to me, in the course of my reporting in Annawadi, day after day, night after night, to leave and get a sense of the city as a whole. It is a city that until eleven years ago was unknown to me, and is changing all of time, so I really had to explore it, learn about it. I certainly did a lot reporting around the five-star hotels as well as Annawadi. I did my whole anthropology of five-star bathrooms, each one more lavish than the next. (Laughs.)

Even if I were to stay in Annawadi or something like it, it wouldn’t be the same. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, I did stay in the shelter [when] I did reporting for The New Yorker. But me staying in a shelter is not the same as someone who’s been evacuated to that shelter. This whole thing of, “I’m walking a mile in their shoes by living this certain way.” Well, I’m not living that way. I can turn around and leave. We can do the best we can to get to the core of people’s circumstances, but it’s ludicrous to think that my being in Annawadi all of that time is walking in their shoes. It’s not.

The quote in the title of this post is from a section on the feelings of guilt that haunt Boo when she thinks about how her work exploits people, especially poor people. The interview’s a great read. (Found via LongForm.org, a great source for creative nonfiction / narrative journalism.)

06

09 2012

Where are the programs?

An excerpt from Bill Gates’ interview with Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers (about a slum in Mumbai):

Bill Gates: Your peek into the operations of some non-profits was concerning. Are there non-profits that have been doing work which actually contributes to the improvement of these environments?
Katherine Boo: There are many nonprofits doing work that betters lives and prospects in India, from SEWA to Deworm the World, but in the airport slums, the closer I looked at NGOs, the more disheartened I felt. WorldVision, the prominent Christian charity, had made major improvements to sanitation some years back, but mismanagement and petty corruption in the organization’s local office had hampered more recent efforts to distribute aid. Other NGOs were supposedly running infant-health programs and schools for child laborers, but that desperately needed aid existed only on paper. Microfinance groups were reconfigured to exploit the very poor. Annawadi residents dying of untreated TB, malaria and dengue fever were nominally served by many charitable organizations, but in reality encountered only a single strain of health advocate—from the polio mop-up campaign. (To Annawadians, the constant appearance of polio teams in slum lanes being eviscerated by other illnesses has  become a local joke.) I tend to be realistic about occasional failures and “leakages” in organizations that do ambitious work in difficult contexts, but the discrepancy between what many NGOs were claiming in fundraising materials and what they were actually doing was significant.

In general, I suspect that the reading public overestimates the penetration of effective NGOs in low-income communities–a misapprehension that we journalists help create. When writing about nonprofits, we tend to focus either on scandals or on thinly reported “success stories” that, en masse, create the impression that most of the world’s poor are being guided through life by nigh-heroic charitable assistance. It’d be cool to see that misperception become more of a reality in the lives of low-income families.

21

06 2012

Beyond economic growth

Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, writing in Outlook India (“Putting Growth In Its Place“) argue that India should see economic growth as a means to an end and not the end in and of itself. Whether you see GDP growth or human development as an end will shape whether India’s recent history is an extraordinary history or something much more grim:

So which of the two stories—unprecedented success or extraordinary failure—is correct? The answer is both, for they are both valid, and they are entirely compatible with each other… Indeed, economic growth is not constitutively the same thing as development, in the sense of a general improvement in living standards and enhancement of people’s well-being and freedom. Growth, of course, can be very helpful in achieving development, but this requires active public policies to ensure that the fruits of economic growth are widely shared, and also requires—and this is very important—making good use of the public revenue generated by fast economic growth for social services, especially for public healthcare and public education.

On a more specific social policy, they comment on how conditional cash transfers — the hot social policy of the moment (of the decade?) — worked in Latin America precisely because some level of public social services were already in place, and the condition of receiving the transfer was often utilizing those services. They argue that India can’t shortcut around investing in social services, skipping straight to the transfers and waiting for things to get better.

In Latin America, conditional cash transfers usually act as a complement, not a substitute, for public provision of health, education and other basic services. The incentives work for their supplementing purpose because the basic public services are there in the first place. In Brazil, for instance, basic health services such as immunisation, antenatal care and skilled attendance at birth are virtually universal. The state has done its homework—almost half of all health expenditure in Brazil is public expenditure, compared with barely one quarter (of a much lower total of health expenditure) in India. In this situation, providing incentives to complete the universalisation of healthcare may be quite sensible. In India, however, these basic services are still largely missing, and conditional cash transfers cannot fill the gap.

Cash transfers are increasingly seen as a potential cornerstone of social policy in India, often based on a distorted reading of the Latin American experience in this respect. There are, of course, strong arguments for cash transfers (conditional or unconditional) in some circumstances, just as there are good arguments for transfers in kind (such as midday meals for school children). What is remarkably dangerous, however, is the illusion that cash transfers (more precisely, “conditional cash transfers”) can replace public services by inducing recipients to buy health and education services from private providers. This is not only hard to substantiate on the basis of realistic empirical reading; it is, in fact, entirely contrary to the historical experience of Europe, America, Japan and East Asia in their respective transformation of living standards. Also, it is not how conditional cash transfers work in Brazil or Mexico or other successful cases today.

Here’s the rest of the article.

07

11 2011

Future poverty

I’m not usually a fan of institutional blogs. When a big NGO creates a blog it’s often for solely promotional purposes, and much of what I find interesting is criticism. Also, blogs are often written by younger, lower-level staff who don’t necessarily have the same freedom to innovate and must have their posts approved by higher-ups.

One of the few blogs associated with an NGO that does make it into my Google Reader is From Poverty to Power by Duncan Green at Oxfam. This post at the end of July caught my eye: “By 2015 Nigeria will have more poor people than India or China.”

This post highlights two ideas that I’ve come across again and again in the last year, which make me most optimistic and hesitant about the near future:

  1. A much, much smaller percentage of the world lives in extreme poverty today than 30-40 years ago.
  2. Most of that decline has been driven by reductions in India and especially in China. Thus, as those nations continue to see reductions and many countries in Africa lag behind, the largest countries in Africa with the youngest populations (ie, Nigeria) will soon outpace India and China in terms of absolute numbers living in the worst poverty. While some African countries — I’m thinking of Nigeria and South Africa in particular — have considerable resources to devote to poverty alleviation, when they choose to, those resources pale in comparison to those available to say, the Chinese state.

The commenters on the original post also highlight some important methodological limitations in the Brookings study that Green cited. Read it all here.

09

08 2011

Fact for the day

Astonishingly, a third of the wealthiest 20% of Indian children are malnourished, too, and they are neither poor nor excluded.

That’s from the Economist last Thursday.

Wonder what it says about India, but also what it says about our measures of wealth and malnutrition.

06

04 2011