Thursday, November 25, 2010

Villgro Blog: Simply Fly Chapter 3

In my blog post on Chapter 2, I mentioned that Gopinath attributes his decision to leave the army to a spiritual-emotional crisis, but gives few details on what this crisis is. In this chapter, what spirituality means for Gopinath becomes clearer.

Throughout the book so far, the reader is aware of Gopinath’s love of nature. In Chapter 2, he narrates being awestruck at the mountains of the Indo-Tibetan border, that he saw on his long range patrols when in the army. He says that, “I saw the most spectacular scenes, of gushing waterfalls, snow-capped mountain peaks, and winding rivers. I was immersed in Tagore’s poetry at the time and the entire experience was deeply spiritual”. In Chapter 1 Gopinath describes the Western Ghats, and his village, with love, including the agriculture (coconut groves, areca plantations, betel-leaf creepers, paddy fields, mango orchards and coffee estates), and the dense, pristine rainforests. Yet, the bulk of his descriptions are reserved for the Hemavathy and Yagachi rivers, and in Chapter 3 he confirms that for him, rivers are sacred.

While by Chapter 2 the reader already suspects that there is a close tie between spirituality and nature for Gopinath, this is elaborated upon in Chapter 3. He states:

…My struggle with farming lent my life a spiritual dimension. I sensed within me a
sense of oneness with the environment. In one breath I took in the mystic aura of the
early morning sunrise; the sweet fragrance rising from freshly churned earth as I
walked across the fields. I was in search of a natural method of understanding the
crops, the seasons, and the soil.

For example, coconuts are central to Gopinath’s farm. Again drawing from a religious reference, he says that, “in the scriptures, the coconut tree is called kalpavriksha, the tree that lives a long, long time and grants all wishes”. Gopinath believes that if he nurses the saplings for seven or eight years they will keep him going for a hundred years, and therefore the success or failure of his farm will be decided in the time that it takes the coconut palms to grow.

Initially, when termites attack the coconut trees, he uses benzene hexachloride to get rid of them. When it rains this spray washes down into the soil and nearby stream, carrying the residual chemicals with it, and polluting the soil, the stream, the ponds, and the groundwater. Gopinath quickly realizes that by removing all the twigs, branches and dead organisms from the soil, the termites are left with no nourishment, and therefore attack the coconut trees. Once Gopinath instructs the workers not to remove anything from the coconut grove, the termites stop attacking the trees.

While the farm is the focus of Gopinath’s activities in this chapter, he also begins a silkworm business, stock-brokerage, a hotel business, a motor-cycle dealership, and an agricultural consultancy. The silkworm business is particularly worth mentioning, as Gopinath replaces bamboo stems and branches with paddy straw as the cocooning sites for silk worms. He does this to, “save millions of bamboos from felling, and simultaneously eliminate the repeated use of disinfectant on the generally reused bamboo montages”. In addition, he experiments with integrating rain-water harvesting and impounding in ponds, managing weeds, moisture retention in the soil, discreet ploughing, and selective biological pest control. Gopinath’s silkworm business wins the Rolex Award for Enterprise, which he sees as helping to spread environmental awareness and eco-friendly ways of farming.

However, in this chapter Gopinath also seems to be developing an interest in entrepreneurship for its own sake, regardless of the social benefits it does or does not bring. Some examples serve to illustrate this. In the first, Gopinath says that from farming he learnt that:

…If something is not ecologically sound, it is not economically viable. This is a
simple law that I think applies to every aspect of life. For a business to be viable,
entrepreneurs need to create the right ecology for business and for the interactions it
entails. That seed of my future low-cost airline and other businesses was sowed here.

However, in this quote, Gopinath is modifying the meaning of the world “ecology” drastically from its environmental context. In fact there is a contradiction between Gopinath’s love of nature and the environment, and his decision to start an airline business. Another example is of his future helicopter business that Gopinath also refers to in this chapter. While Gopinath refuses to accept dowry at his own wedding, again in a seeming contradiction, he acknowledges that it is dowry that enables his customers to hire helicopters for wedding celebrations.

At his motor-cycle leadership Gopinath decides to hire children, but here the issue is more complicated. He reasons that by hiring boys as young as 8-10 years old, he can train them to become mechanics and open their own garages. Gopinath also displays sensitivity in trying to ensure that the boys are not ill-treated.

One lesson from this chapter for entrepreneurs is that help can often come from unexpected sources, and therefore it is important not to alienate anyone, as far as possible. Even when his farm is ransacked by the previous farmers of the land allotted by the government to Gopinath, he offers to help them to receive title to the land remaining. It is perhaps due to this attitude that Manje Gowda, a neighboring farmer and friend, offers to guarantee Gopinath’s bank loan when none of his other friends and relatives would. Of course, Gopinath is at an advantage over other farmers in the first place because he was previously an army officer, and this seems to interest one bank manager, after several failed attempts, in his loan application.

Chapter 3 begins with the quote, “All that matters is Love and Work”, and ends with Gopinath lamenting that, “People do not love what they do, but do it nonetheless for the money it brings”. While it is clear that Gopinath has a love for agriculture, and perhaps a budding love for his other business interests, the reader hears little of his personal life in this autobiography so far. In this chapter he gets married, and some sections describe the marriage and his subsequent life with his wife. Gopinath’s wife evokes interest because she insists on marrying him although at the time he is a farmer in debt. However, in other respects the marriage seems quite traditional. Gopinath is attracted to her because she can sing, is pretty, and will cook for him, and after marriage she seems to unequivocally support him without voicing any opinions of her own. Gopinath also has two daughters, but they receive only passing mention in this chapter.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Villgro Blog: The Bad and Good News About Evaluation

In an earlier post, I had critiqued the research methodologies of 2 surveys of social entrepreneurs, by Ashoka and Intellecap. Most of my suggestions for improvement were directed towards helping Ashoka and Intellecap better answer the question, “How representative are my results of a larger community (the universe) of social entrepreneurs?” However, at the end of the post I had also mentioned the concept of causation. Causation is important when trying to answer a different question, which is, “How likely is it that my results were caused by a particular intervention, rather than by something else?”

From the 25th to the 28th of October I attended the Evaluation Conclave 2010 in Delhi, where I had the chance to explore these issues further. In an evaluation context, it’s often the word attribution, rather than causation, that is used. Attribution is an issue at many levels. I’ll try to illustrate this using a hypothetical example of a social enterprise.

This social enterprise produces insecticide-treated bed nets. Orders for the bed nets are placed through a microfinance institution, and the bed nets are delivered to customers through kirana stores (corner shops). The social enterprise requires funds for its social marketing campaigns, to cover costs until it reaches break-even, and to develop talent within the organization. It is able to find donors to meet each of these needs.

An evaluation is conducted of the social enterprise, and it is found that incidences of malaria have decreased in the households in which customers have bought bed nets. The donor that funded the talent development program wants to know how its money contributed to the reduction in malaria. However, it is not possible to isolate talent development from the rest of the organization, as the people developed through this program contribute to social marketing, production and all other aspects of the enterprise.

What all three donors can agree on is that they want to know to what extent the reduction in malaria can be attributed to the bed nets. While it’s easy to assume that bed nets resulted in a reduction in malaria, this may not be the case. For example, the government could have embarked on a mosquito eradication program, and sprayed the villages in which the bed nets were also sold.

How do we find out the extent to which the reduction in malaria can be attributed to the bed nets? The strongest evaluation designs that answer this question should have two characteristics. The first is that they should include both the project group, and comparison (non-equivalent control) group. The second is that both groups should be “observed” at both the start and end of the project. If time and budget permit, both groups can also be “observed” during implementation of the project and after it has been operating for some time.

What is it about these evaluation designs that make them appropriate for the social enterprise in the example?
• The project group is “observed” both at the start and at the end of the project. In our example, the project group is households that have bought bed nets. A figure for the incidence of malaria at the end of the project is meaningless if we do not know what the incidence of malaria was at the beginning. The only exception is if the incidence of malaria is 0. However, since this would require all the bed nets sold to be in perfect condition, to be used all the time, and by all members of the family, this is highly unlikely to be the case.
• There is a comparison (non-equivalent control) group, which is also “observed” at the start and end of the project. Even if the incidence of malaria has reduced in our project group, how do we know that this was due to the bed nets and not other factors? The answer is by selecting a comparison (non-equivalent control) group. This group should comprise of households that did not buy the bed nets, but are as similar as possible to the households which bought bed nets. This will enable the evaluator to compare whether malaria declined at a similar rate in the project group and comparison group. If it did, then it is likely that malaria declined due to factors other than the bed nets.

The bad news about evaluation is that it can be quite complicated to successfully meet the criteria for a strong evaluation design. The good news is that between strong and weak evaluation designs, there are a range of options that are frequently adequate. These options are summarized in this overview of Real World Evaluation, a book by Michael Bamberger, Jim Rugh and Linda Mabry. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop that spanned two days, and was facilitated by Jim Rugh, at the Conclave. Based on what I learnt at the workshop, I’m going to propose my own design to evaluate the social enterprise in my example above.

If you remember, orders for the bed nets are placed through a microfinance institution (MFI). The social enterprise is still building its distribution network, and has only reached the kirana shops in one geographical area. However, it asks the MFI to aggregate orders from all of the geographical areas in which it has a presence. The customers who have ordered the bed nets, but whom the social enterprise’s distribution network has not reached as yet, will serve as the comparison group.

It is important for the evaluation design that the comparison group also comprises of clients of the MFI. This is because it is likely that MFI clients are more enterprising than other members of their communities. It is possible that even without bed nets, they have devised other solutions to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes. Therefore, in order to understand whether it is bed nets that have made the difference, the households where bed nets were bought must be compared to other enterprising households, and not to the average population.

The “observation” of the project and comparison groups at the start of the project can come in part from the MFI’s records, as they are likely to have already collected a lot of data on their clients. Any additional data that needs to be collected can be done at the time that orders for the bed nets are placed, before they have been bought and have had the chance to have an effect.

The Real World Evaluation book uses terms such as during, upon completion of, and after the project. In the case of a social enterprise, it is more likely that the evaluation will be of an ongoing business, than of a project that has a start, middle and end. However, as one of Paul Polak’s principles of Designing for the Other 90 Percent is that the design should pay for itself in the first year, one year may be a suitable duration to designate as the project period.

Of course, in this case I have chosen the business model of the social enterprise so that it lends itself to a strong evaluation design. Designing evaluations for actual social enterprises will be less easy. However, I hope my example demonstrates that while difficult, designing a strong, or at least adequate, evaluation is not impossible, and that practical solutions can be found to real world constraints.

Finally, there are some instances in which attribution may either not be possible or not necessary. As I discussed earlier, it may not be possible to attribute the effects of a talent development program within a social enterprise to a reduction in malaria. One example of where attribution may not be necessary is in the evaluation of a sector. Returning to our example, let us assume that an epidemic hits the Asian continent. The government is not prepared for this epidemic. Therefore, in the year the epidemic hits, while all of the government’s planned health programs are successful, the health of the population decreases overall.

In such an event, the overall trend in the health of the population may not be discovered through evaluations of individual interventions or organizations. In a sectoral review, positing an entire nation as a project group and another nation as a comparison group may not be meaningful.

While the example of the epidemic may seem dramatic and unlikely, at the Conclave there was an interesting exchange between a representative of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Asian Development Bank on whether donors should, in addition to evaluating the interventions that they fund, evaluate whole sectors as well. However, sectoral evaluations are likely to be quite expensive, complicated, and therefore rare. For the vast majority of evaluations, issues of attribution and comparison will remain important.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Villgro Blog: Simply Fly Chapter 2

In Chapter 2, Gopinath fights in the Bangladesh Liberation War, is posted on the Sino-Indian border and then in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, South India, and then leaves the army and decides to become a farmer. Gopinath says that he went through an emotional-spiritual crisis while on the Sino-Indian border, that triggered his desire to leave the army. However, the reader is given few details on what this emotional-spiritual crisis is.

For me, Gopinath’s decision to leave the army is related to his resentment and hatred of regimentation, which I mentioned in my last post on Simply Fly. In Chapter 1 Gopinath says that when he first enrolled in the Sainik School he lived in a tent, and that, “the tent became a recurring motif in my later life and I kept going back to tents”. The tent seems to be a symbol of the life free from regimentation that Gopinath desires. At the end of Chapter 2, he makes a decision to try to farm the largely barren land that his father receives from the government, in compensation for the farmland that they were going to lose for a dam. Gopinath says that:

…I unrolled a reed mat in front of the tent and then spread a cotton durree
(the thick, home-spun ethnic Indian mat) across it. I lay there in silence
that evening, observing the stars in the sky, satisfied that I had at last
found my true calling in life. I was exhausted from the travel and the toils
of the evening, but at peace with myself.

The second tension that I identified in the first chapter, between equality and hierarchy, is also present throughout Chapter 2. It is vividly described in an incident when a general attends an army dinner in Thiruvananthapuram. According to army tradition, the officers pay for the food and beverages bill of a general, even if they drink expensive liquor. However, Gopinath felt this practice was unfair and, in consultation with his Brigadier, decided that the general would be served Indian whisky and rum, rather than Scotch.

Once Gopinath decides to become a farmer, he again demonstrates his sensitivity to inequality. He makes an agreement with a Dalit boy, Raju, that they will take turns farming and cooking equally. Although Gopinath does not make this explicit, it seems that by doing so, he is freeing Raju from the bonded labor that he was trapped in, because his father had borrowed money from a few households in the village.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Revolution In The Kitchen

Every Saturday in The Hindu, there's a recipe from the New York Times News Service. These are the foods that I imagine you would make for a date you were trying to impress. Last week there was a bruschetta, with no ingredients likely to stain your date clothes, and light enough that you won't feel like a sloth afterwards. The week before there was raspberry cream. Of course, the eating of raspberries is suggestive in itself, but if that wasn't enough, the recipe hints at decadence, while being low calorie.

But I wouldn't know. I once had a boyfriend whose interest in me began when he was out of cash, and I gave him my potatoes and a kitchen to cook home fries in. He asked me out when I ate his fried chicken without shuddering at the grease, and our relationship progressed over chilli crabs that we fished out of buckets and pulled apart with our fingers. Once, when we tried to copy the recipe ourselves, our experiment with live crabs and hot oil went frightfully wrong. Our food adventures, while perhaps not romantic, seemed to me a lot more like love - messy, sometimes disastrous, but often delicious.

I've been counselled that if I have children, I'll want to make for them all the wonderful dishes that my mother made for me. I'll give my counsellors the benefit of the doubt, but for now no maternal or provider instincts have raised their heads in my kitchen. So it's neither romance nor a maternal instinct that motivates me to cook. For me, cooking is an act of revolution.

My best cooking days so far were at university. Every week or two, I would walk a short distance to the basement of a house, where I would pick up organic vegetables in a brown paper bag. These were vegetables that were in season in the surrounding New England farms, and if I hadn't encountered them before, one of my fellow co-op members would have often tacked a recipe to the basement door. We all took turns sorting the produce and cleaning up, and meals were often cooked and eaten communally. Gender was never an issue, with men and women cooking equally.

At university I lived in a large, shared house, and one of my housemates, Dan, was vegan. Refusing to eat animal products (including milk, cheese and eggs) because of the cruelty that this entails for animals, is obviously political. However, political movements such as veganism have been criticized for reducing all politics to personal, lifestyle choices. What was interesting about Dan was that he subverted these stereotypes. With the exception of our weekly house dinners I hardly saw him cook, and he seemed to subsist on highly processed foods. They were so processed that they didn't contain any animal products, but I'm not sure they contained much nutrition either. However, Dan was deeply committed to Food Not Bombs, an organization that turns donated food into cooked meals for homeless people.

A few years later I was in New York, subletting an apartment from my friend Nazli. Nazli worked part-time with me at the Social Science Research Council, and part-time as a caterer. Then 9/11 struck, and, realizing that it was her culinary skills that were most in need, she dove into cooking for victims and volunteers. She also decided then that for one month she wouldn't cook at home, and true to her word, during that time did not step into our kitchen once.

By now, you're probably wondering where all this self-indulgent reminiscing is going. There are several points I want to make here. The first is that food is political - whether it's the decision to choose organic produce over fertilizers and pesticides, local produce over food that's transported burning fossil fuels, or veganism over animal products. This point is hardly new. However, what seems to have received less attention is that food is political not just because of how it's grown, but because of how it's cooked - who makes it, for whom, and how it's eaten. Michael Pollan, in his beautiful book An Omnivore's Dilemma, touches on this when he compares a fast food meal, eaten alone in a car while driving, with meals of organic and wild foods, eaten with friends over a long dinner. But even here, how you eat your food is still about a lifestyle choice, it's not an act of solidarity.

Food as an act of solidarity is evident not only in the work that Dan and Nazli were doing, but also in situations where we choose not to eat, or restrict what we eat. The prime example of this is of the course the month of Ramzan or Ramadan, just passed, when Muslims fast to express solidarity with the poor. There are also charity benefits in which participants try to survive for a day on the restricted diets of those they are trying to help. I recently saw a program called, "Cooking In The Conflict Zone", in which the host is a participant-observer in meals prepared and eaten in places like refugee camps. These programs have to be made carefully in order to avoid trivializing conflict and hunger, but the idea is an interesting one.

One other dimension of cooking as a revolutionary act that seems to have been overlooked is that of gender. There have been articles written such as this one, that bemoan the fact that the more we turn chefs into celebrities and goggle their cooking on TV, the less we try out these recipes at home. But, what isn't mentioned is that cooking is one of the few professions that has seen the entry of women at the same time that it has become more glamorous, not less. And while some women like Padma Lakshmi and Nigella Lawson conform to images of beautiful women, they're not the only ones on air. There's Kylie Kwong, whom I love but, with her black-rimmed glasses and classy, Shanghai Tang black silk outfits, can hardly be accused of being a pin-up girl. And there are all the female competitors on Top Chef, who are a range of ages, ethnicities and looks.

As for me, these days I'm a little battle-weary from fighting the kitchen bugs in our tropical jungle called Chennai. Compared to the highs of university cooking, I've certainly hit the lows over the past two and a half years here. My vegetables, while probably locally grown, are not organic, and are bought in an ordinary shop. I'm scared of buying vegetables that are traditional here but that I don't know, because I'm worried that any recipe I find for them will take way too long in my small, sweltering kitchen.

Yet every day at the office, lunch time would remind me that I'm still waging a small revolution. There are many great things about Indian office lunches. In the West, an office lunch is often a sandwich eaten alone, hunched over a computer. Even when, as at the Social Science Research Council, we all ate together, we rarely shared our lunches. In contrast, in India the office lunch is almost never eaten alone, nor mixed with work. And your colleagues are likely to be extremely generous in sharing their lunches with you.

But there are some unwritten rules of the Indian office lunch. If you are female, you are expected to bring lunch from home, either made by your mother or by you. If you are male and single, you're permitted to eat out. If you're male and married, your wife is supposed to cook your lunch for you. Of course, I'm exaggerating, and I have gone out to lunch with both my male and female colleagues. But my frequent ready-to-eat lunches were the cause of much concern, not only for my nutrition but for my husband's as well, who it was presumed that I refused to cook for.

It was at times like this that I thought most of Dan and Nazli, who reminded me that sometimes it's ok to not cook at home, and to eat processed food, when you're fighting larger battles outside your home. Older Indian men often tell me proudly that they have never eaten leftovers in their lives. I find it hard to understand what they have to be proud of, when their accomplishment is the result of a somewhat tyrannical insistence that every breakfast, lunch and dinner, the women of the house must be in the kitchen cooking fresh food.

Once in a while I did take food from home to the office. But once word got out that my husband also cooks, the assumption was that he did all the cooking. Whether I brought ready-to-eat lunches or food from home, the disapproval was clear, although delivered teasingly.

My husband and I share the cooking equally, more or less. Yet in the minds of my colleagues and relatives, there's no room for this inconvenient fact. If I don't do all the cooking then my husband must be hen-pecked, slaving away in the kitchen while I put my feet up.

So what would aid the revolution that I am waging in the kitchen? For starters, let's do away with the recipes from the New York Times News Service. Readers of The Hindu Weekend supplement may not be ready for recipes from refugee camps instead. But let's at least profile other couples like us who are attempting equity in the kitchen. How do they divide up the work? How do they reconcile their other responsibilities with cooking? Do they have quick recipes that lessen the burden for both of them? Long after the first date, how does it all work out?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Villgro Blog: Simply Fly Chapter 1

In July of this year, Monitor released “Building Houses, Financing Homes: A Study Report of India’s Rapidly Growing Housing and Housing Finance Markets for the Low-Income Customer”. In this report, Monitor defines the low-income customer as one with a monthly household income of between Rs.7,000 and Rs.15,000. In contrast, the BoP literature and books such as Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty talk of the dollar-a-day customer. A back-of-the-napkin calculation suggests that the monthly income of a dollar-a-day customer in India would be around Rs.1,200. Even if this dollar-a-day customer has other family members who are working, it is unlikely that their monthly household income would reach Rs.7,000. Therefore, the low-income customer of the Monitor study is clearly different from the dollar-a-day customer of the BoP literature and Out of Poverty.

Nevertheless, there may be lessons to be learned from Monitor’s business model and other innovative solutions to meet the need of low-income urban housing that can be applied to reaching the dollar-a-day customer. It was with a similar thought in mind that I started reading Captain Gopinath’s Simply Fly, published last year. Captain Gopinath founded Deccan Airlines, India’s first and largest low-cost carrier. While Deccan is exalted for enabling the “common man” to fly, this “common man” is again not the dollar-a-day customer. Nevertheless, I expected that elements of Deccan’s business model would be applicable to reaching the BoP. In addition, Simply Fly is the autobiography of an Indian entrepreneur, and therefore could be also be relevant to efforts to promote entrepreneurship, and incubate entrepreneurs, in India.

The first chapter of this book, the subject of this post, is on Gopinath’s life from childhood to the time he becomes an officer cadet in the Artillery School. The reader learns that Gopinath’s father is a role model for him during his childhood. Gopinath enters military training, enrolling in a boarding school called the Sainik School where he suffers from homesickness. It is then that Gopinath’s father advises him to be courageous, to take hold of his life and to make something of it. The reader assumes that it is these lessons, learnt from his father, that stand Gopinath in good stead later in his career as an entrepreneur.

However, there are some contradictions that emerge in the first chapter as well, both in the lessons that Gopinath’s father teaches him, and in comparison with the military training that the boy receives. Firstly, while Gopinath’s father is himself a schoolteacher, he likens school to a jail, saying that it is too regimented and that, “real education is in life’s experiences”. He therefore decides that Gopinath will be taught at home until the fifth standard or grade. Not unexpectedly, both the Sainik School and the National Defence Academy, in which Gopinath subsequently enrolls, are highly regimented in contrast, and Gopinath says that he “deeply resented” and “hated” this.

The second contradiction is between equality and hierarchy. Gopinath’s father imbues him with a sense of equality, disapproving of the superior status that the Brahmins (of which he was one) in their village held with respect to the artisan class and Dalits. The army is, in comparison, hierarchical, and on the last page of this chapter, Gopinath describes his discomfort in occupying a position of formal superiority over junior commissioned officers and jawans. I’m interested to see how these contradictions play out in Gopinath’s life, and whether they contribute to his later decisions to leave the army and start Deccan Airlines.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Long Live The Public Beach!

Public transportation and public space are two of my abiding passions, and I've been dying to write a post on them for a long time. In my last post, I was going to offer my alternative guide to starting a cause, but discarded it because it sounded too angry:

"Step 1: DON'T meet up with other people like you who are on Facebook. Step 2: DO meet people who don't share your socio-economic background. Step 3: If you think that volunteering will bring you too much discomfort, at least ride a bus!"

If you ignore the venom, the point that I was trying to make is that I think the real joy of giving comes not from writing a cheque or following a cause on Facebook, but from making a difference in peoples' lives. And the first step towards making a difference in peoples' lives is to understand their lives, and riding the bus is the first step towards doing that. Yes, buses can be extremely hot, extremely crowded, and for women dangerous because of all the groping that takes place. I'm certainly not condoning the groping. But buses are also one of the only places in the city where construction laborers, students, housewives and office-goers can sit, stand and travel as equals. Or so I thought.

I was just in Kerala, and found the bus system pretty difficult to navigate because almost all the signs are in Malayalam. I finally figured out where the buses to Kovalam stopped, and was waiting when an AC bus came along. I noticed that, unlike the matter-of-factly labelled "ordinary buses", the signs on the AC bus were in English alone. Inside, there was a high-tech display running instructions on how to behave in the bus, also in English alone. Clearly, there was an expectation that wealthier, English-speaking passengers would take the AC bus, while poorer, Malayalam-speaking passengers would take the ordinary bus. And they were probably right.

There is an environmental argument for AC buses, because they coax car-drivers to take the bus instead. But in the process, they segregate one of the few spaces in the city that was public. This is unfortunately true for most forms of public transportation. In inter-city trains, the better-off passengers are esconsced in the AC cars, where even the intrepid platform vendors fear to tread. In commuter trains there are still first and second classes, despite both being non-AC.

As I was thinking about this I finished Jeb Brugmann's Welcome To The Urban Revolution. There's a lot of material in this book on public space, but I'll just focus on his chapter on the Brazilian city of Curitiba (12). While Curitiba is known for its bus system, the city's mayor convinces Brugmann that the bus system is just one part of a larger strategy to draw people to a range of public spaces, that include open-air shopping plazas, parks and river basins. This got me thinking about whether there are other kinds of public spaces here that I've neglected to see.

In the Indian context, one such public space might be places of worship. Yet while churches and mosques might do a better job at this, in the main Hindu temples you again have a system where the more you pay, the less time you have to spend in line rubbing shoulders with - well, the public.

As I was beginning to lose all hope, I remembered the beach. Notwithstanding recent efforts, Chennai has very few parks, and the beach is one of the only open spaces in the city. And thankfully, these city beaches accomodate middle-class walkers, the ubiquitous vendors, fisher-folk, and a whole host of other characters without too much segregation.

Even attempts to escape these beaches for a more exclusive experience further down the East Coast Road are not entirely successful. The Ideal Beach Resort is a popular destination because tourists and brave Indians can sunbathe in relative privacy. Yet even here, like clockwork every evening, a local herder strides across the beach with his goats, confident that he has the right of way and the hotel staff won't try to stop him.

On our last day in Kovalam we decided to splurge on tea and cake at the five-star Taj resort. The Taj property goes right up to the beach, and occupies a vast expanse. As we walked down its length, we saw only a handful of people - a security guard, a waiter, a couple of guests, and two fishermen. Again, they strolled through the Taj, fish in hand, at ease knowing that at least for now, their claim on the beach as public space, and the source of their livelihoods, is secure. Samanth Subramaniam's Following Fish: Travels Around The Indian Coast is currently waiting on my bookshelf, and I'm eager to think more about this as I read the book.

But, it's quite likely that there are public spaces in which the poor and rich co-exist as equals, that I just haven't thought of. Brugmann's description of Curitiba made me stop to consider vegetable markets and other bazaars in India, and whether these might qualify. If there are public spaces that you know of that could be interesting to reflect on, please add them here.

Give (Or Take) India

I was recently flipping channels, and uncharacteristically stopped at an episode of Tech Toys (August 13th), because they were interviewing Venkat Krishnan, Director of GiveIndia. Venkat is a friend of my cousin and I've met him once or twice, and knowing a little bit about his work, I was intrigued to find out what he was doing on Tech Toys. It turns out Venkat was there to introduce the Joy of Giving Week, conceptualized by GiveIndia. While giving money is of course one option, Venkat emphasized that habitual "givers" tend to increasingly give more of their time, to better understand the causes that they are giving to. To help them, GiveIndia has a strict set of criteria through which they have whittled down over 3,000 NGOs or non-profits to about 200 that are worthy, or credible enough, to give to.

Venkat's interview was spliced with a step-by-step guide to starting your own cause. It went something like this.

"Step 1: Buy your own domain name. Step 2: Create a Facebook page. Step 3: Make sure you keep your Facebook page updated regularly. And if you're going to be travelling, make sure you buy this laptop and the Tata Photon Plus data card to enable you to stay connected to your cause while travelling".

And then we reached the climax, the laptop and data card displayed on the TV screen with the price tag boldly beneath them. The format, and presenter, of this segment were clearly working off the Tech Toys template that they use for all their other episodes.

However, Step 4 provided me with a glimmer of hope because it was, "Make sure your cause doesn't just stay online".

"Aah," I thought, "now's where they're going to talk about what you can do to volunteer, whether it's travelling to rural communities, cleaning up city beaches or whatever".

But no. Step 4 was organizing a meet-up of the fans of your cause on Facebook, and then posting those photos online guessed it - the new camera that's a must-have for starting your cause.

There was an obvious contradiction between this segment and the interview with Venkat, where he emphasized giving. In contrast, for the folks at Tech Toys, any cause begins with buying, for yourself, a new laptop, data card and phone.

However, there was also a less obvious contradiction between the two segments. The "Start A Cause" segment suggested that any cause, if it has an up-to-date, photo rich Facebook page and is marketed right, is worthy of and will receive funding. While NGOs have long been criticized for being publicity-hungry, in India there is now increasing pressure for them to appear "professional". This can lead to a bloated marketing budget, and neglected work on the ground. In contrast, GiveIndia, through its due diligence process, emphasizes that it is credible NGOs that are worth donating to. Another element of credibility for NGOs is a robust impact assessment methodology, which I've been talking about in other posts.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Mystery of Cambodian Music Videos

On a recent trip to Cambodia I spent a lot of time in buses, travelling from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, and then from Phnom Penh to Kep and back. And these buses fed us with a constant stream of Cambodian (or Khmer) music videos. In many music videos, the theme was "cool guy has flashbacks of time spent on the farm with village girl, his one true love".

At one level, these videos didn't surprise me at all. In most private "travels" buses in Tamil Nadu, passengers are subjected to movies, and these also contain very similar music videos of lush, fertile fields and romances with village belles in traditional clothing.

And, the Cambodian countryside is beautiful. Relieved to be off the bus, my husband and I rented a motorbike and went exploring down some village roads. Winding past hillocks and across verdant rice fields, we were joined by several other bikes taking guests to a local wedding, that was advertised for miles around by more of the same, blaring, Khmer pop. Looking for a little more peace and quiet, we came across a Buddhist temple. Made new in the traditional style, it stood stiffly at odds with its surroundings. This severity was, however, broken up by a group of schoolgirls who had gathered lotuses on their way home, and were shyly burying their faces in them. Soon after we met a bunch of much less shy, younger kids, playing in the water from a punctured pipe. One of them was too small to stand properly, and he fell in the sand, grubby and bawling, but adorable anyway.

But at another level, the music videos took me completely by surprise, precisely because they were being made and played in Cambodia, not India. Modern research has estimated that approximately half of the people who died under the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia died from starvation and disease. This was as a result of the forced relocation of Phnom Penh residents into the countryside. They were expected to triple Cambodia's rice production, despite not having farmed before, and if they tried to feed themselves on wild berries, this was condemned as "private enterprise". The forced relocations began in 1975, a date that is still within living memory for many people, and even more recently thousands of mass graves have been found all over the countryside. Since the total death toll is most commonly pegged at between 1.4 and 2.2 million, this would mean that 0.7 to 1.1 million people died largely because of forced relocation to villages. Given this bloody history, how is it that Khmer music videos can still portray the village as the site of beauty, innocence and romance?

Perhaps the intended audience for these music videos are those who were already living in villages when the Khmer Rouge came to power (and were treated comparatively better), and who continue to live in villages today. Or perhaps the rural does have a pull on our imaginations, that defies even the harshest realities. But I didn't spend enough time in Cambodia and don't know enough (well, any) Khmer to be able to say this with any certainty. However, in the context of Tamil Nadu I've given this more thought.

Anyone who has compared Hindi and Tamil music videos will notice a marked urban-rural difference between the two. In Hindi music videos, everyone is rich, lives either in Bombay, the U.S. or Europe, and spends all their time in clubs either wearing, or looking at, short skirts. If there's a village scene, it's when the hero returns home for a holiday, and meets the simple village girl of his dreams.

In comparison, there seem to be many more Tamil films where most of the story takes place in the village, where you have both villains as well as romantic heros and heroines. My guess is that this is because Tamil movies still cater largely to the domestic Indian market, whereas Hindi movies have their eye on the diasporic market, which although smaller than the Indian one in terms of numbers, brings in the money.

Why is all this important? Because movies are key to shaping our aspirations, for all of us - but particularly in villages where fewer sources of information are available. I'm not against urbanization or migration per se, but it is worrying that Hindi movies present the West as a place where everyone gets rich immediately, a situation that is not likely to come true for many first-generation migrants. While Tamil films are completely unrealistic in terms of their fight scenes, song-and-dance sequences, and perhaps plot lines, the fact that they neither idolize nor completely ignore rural places could bring us gently down to earth.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Peepli [live]

5 days ago the Hindi movie Peepli [live] was released in theaters across India. Peepli [live] is the story of Natha, a farmer from the village of Peepli, who loses his land because he defaults on a loan. When Natha and his brother approach their local politican for help, they are told facetiously that if one of them commits suicide, perhaps the compensation that the government will give them will be enough to get their land back. Natha and his brother take the politician's words at face value, and Natha is hoodwinked by his brother into agreeing to commit suicide.

When Natha's decision gets out, the local politicans first threaten him. But then, realizing that it is election season and that they have to be seen to be doing something, they gift him a water pump and a color TV. There is a wonderful shot of the interior of Natha's hut, with him, his wife, brother and 3 children hovering around the pump and the TV, because they have neither the money to install the pump nor the electricity to watch the TV.

The Chief Minister of Natha's fictional state of Mukhya Pradesh is a political rival of the Minister of Agriculture in the Central government. To safeguard his reputation, the Minister announces the Natha Card (presumably a credit card for farmers), knowing full well that the Center has no funds for such a program, and that the costs will have to be borne by the States. Ironically, Natha's family themselves are ineligible for the card because to qualify they in turn must have the Below Poverty Line card, which they don't.

Yet the "live" in Peepli [live] is for the role that the media plays in this story. Natha makes headlines not only because it is election season but also because he is, as journalist Nandita oxymoronically describes him, a "live suicide". Natha's story becomes the means by which Nandita attempts to bolster her flagging ratings, with the hook, "Will Natha commit suicide or, won't he?" pulling viewers back to the TV again and again. In the media circus (literally) that ensues, the fundamental issues of Natha's land, and the much larger context of agrarian dispossession in the country, are completely ignored.

Peepli [live] is a farce, but what makes it so poignant is its ability to tell the truth. For anyone who has experienced or observed the Indian political system, Center-State conflicts, populist promises that deliver color TVs but little development, and the maze of bureaucracy that confronts any effort to claim benefits are all too familiar. Similarly, my husband and I often sum up the creed of India's 24-hour news channels as, "It's all happening now". No doubt this is a trend sweeping news channels across the world, but I wonder if they have taken it to the extremes that India has. NDTV, which continues to be a popular channel and, for many Indians was the first alternative they encountered to the government-sponsored Doordarshan, has 4 lines of scrolling and flashing text across its screen.

Although the movie ends on a sober note, I left it with a feeling of optimism. Peepli [live] joins another recent movie, Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, in using one form of visual media (film) to critique another. In Peepli [live] the critique is of course of 24-hour news, while in Love, Sex Aur Dhokha it is of the ubiquity of video in our lives, whether in home videos, Internet porn or camera surveillance.

While Love, Sex Aur Dhokha had at least one song-and-dance sequence, in Peepli [live] there are none of the formulaic elements that are common to Indian films. Yet despite its serious subject and treatment, Peepli [live] is a very well-made, entertaining film. If such a film can fill seats, it has the ability to tell an in-depth, nuanced story - exactly what is missing in our news channels today. And there may be opportunities for these competing visual media to infiltrate each other, as with NDTV airing documentaries on developmental and social issues. Of course, the subtitles on these documentaries are often completely hidden by all those lines of scrolling text.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Villgro Blog: ANDE Impact Report

In an earlier post I had pointed out some weaknesses in the research methodologies of the Ashoka and Beyond Profit surveys of social entrepreneurs. At around the same time that the results of these two surveys were published, ANDE also published its own impact report. ANDE is the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs. How does their report compare to the Ashoka and Beyond Profit surveys?

In brief, the ANDE report is more transparent about how it arrived at its results than the Ashoka and Beyond Profit surveys. However, there is some variability in the completeness and clarity with which the data is presented.

Although ANDE’s report describes itself as an “impact report”, it is really only two sections that are about ANDE’s work. In addition, there is no mention of the methodology used to collect the data in these two sections. Despite the strengths of the report, this is a major weakness.

The two sections that are on ANDE’s work are titled, “ANDE’s Role and the Impact of Our Members”, and “ANDE’s Efforts To Grow The Sector To Scale”. Of these, the latter section consists of straightforward reporting on ANDE’s activities over the year. Therefore I will focus only on the section titled, “ANDE’s Role and the Impact of Our Members”.

In this section, it is Figures 9-14 that I would like to comment on. All figures report results in terms of percentages. In my earlier post I had said that the problem with using percentages alone is that we have no way of knowing if these results are due to chance, because these results were not tested using a test like the chi-square or t-test. However, I realized that I need to explain this further.

Chi-squares or t-tests are needed if you are collecting data from a sample of respondents, and using your results to generalize about the larger population that they (supposedly) represent. Using percentages is not a problem if you have collected data on the entire universe that you are studying. Look at Figure 13 of the ANDE report, for example. The figure is titled, “How ANDE Members Fund SGBs’ Financial Needs”. We are told earlier in the text that ANDE members who invest in SGBs (Small and Growing Businesses) manage 51 funds (23/24). The N=51 at the bottom of Figure 13 tells us that data from all 51 funds is represented in this figure.

Similarly, Figure 11 is also quite clear. It shows how many ANDE member funds have a target return range of 0-5%, 5-20% and above 20%. Here, as in Figure 13, the universe should be 51, as that is the number of funds that ANDE members investing in SGBs manage. However, it is explained that for this figure N=48, as three ANDE member funds did not provide their target IRR range. The only flaw in this figure is its titling. It is titled, “ANDE intermediary target benefit: Percent of ANDE member funds with target IRR range”. This suggests that respondents were asked a yes/no question, such as, “Do you have a target IRR range?” Instead, respondents were probably asked a question like, “What is your target IRR range?” and their responses indicate the spread of ranges. In addition, IRR is not defined in the figure, nor is there a glossary.

Other figures are more ambiguous. There is no N given for Figure 10. Since the title of the figure is, “ANDE intermediary target size: Percent of ANDE member funds with target average investment size”, should we assume that N=51? The title also suggests a yes/no question as with Figure 11. Figures 12 and 14 both say that N=70, and includes both funds and capacity building providers. Yet the term “capacity building providers” is not explained anywhere else in this section.

The text in this section is well-supported by footnotes, and doesn’t leave room for misinterpretation. Where the report says that, “ANDE members have made 2,499 investments in SGBs totaling $830 million (26/27)”, we can see from footnote 15 that this information was collected from all 51 ANDE member funds. Where it says that, “33 ANDE members spent $96.8 million on technical-assistance activities (26/27)”, footnote 17 tells us that data was not available for the remaining ANDE members. And the $1.7 billion in additional funding that ANDE portfolio companies have secured is, as footnote 19 tells us, based on reporting by 21 funds.

It is important to note that, as in some of the above examples, ANDE has most likely underreported their results rather than extrapolate where data is not available. This is to be appreciated. The one exception I found, where the footnote did not explain the text well, was 16. If you read the text and the footnote together, it says, “Among those funds that reported historical investment-size information for these past investments, 96 percent of the total number of investments made were investments under $2 million (26/27)”, excluding one ANDE member fund representing 450 investments that did not report quantity under $2 million. We don’t know what the total number of respondents was (those that reported historical investment-size information), and we also don’t know why one fund was excluded.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Praise Dancing

Because my favorite book has the word August in it, this month makes me stop and take note every year. This year, I think I'll remember August (or the first half of it at least) by two events.

The first event is Aadi. Aadi is the month in the Tamil calendar when I can forget about sleeping. The drumming on my street corner begins at 6 a.m., if not earlier, and goes on till later and later every night. It doesn't help that by August, my pride in my ability to brave the Chennai summer has worn thin. I know that there will be no release from the heat until November, and yet the tempo of the music mounts and mounts, culminating in a frenzy of drumming until the early hours of the morning. It's at about this time that the women start to go into a trance at the temple outside my gate.

I like the exoticism of being able to describe the scene to my friends in the West, but other than that I feel no connection to these women or this form of religion. For my birthday this year I went to the Ramakrishna Math, a temple (if it can be called that) where worship consists of sitting in a hall in silence. I've been brought up in a family that likes to keep rituals at arm's length, and prefers the philosophical side of religion. For me, religion has always been about finding peace, and I've always thought I disliked popular temples like Madurai Meenakshi, Tirupathi and Guruvayur for all the noise and chaos.

The second event of August for me will be the Salsa Congress in Bangalore, if I get my act together and register. I joined salsa class as a skeptic who wanted to believe. I was willing to forget some workshops I had taken many years ago in which I had disappointed myself, and put all my faith in one enthusiastic instructor.

After nine months, I am gradually falling more and more for salsa. Yet I must confess, it is not my first love.

There are some types of dances that I just get, intuitively. Jive, for example. I've never learnt it formally. And of course a good partner is essential. But if my partner lets go, my body naturally comes up with steps that seem to make sense. It's easy for me to enjoy myself.

The most intuitive type of dancing for me, though, is African. African dancing is one of the most difficult forms I have learnt, and I know I have lots of room for improvement. But even when I'm dancing on my own, to any vaguely rhythmic music, my steps unconsciously end up looking kind of African.

Salsa, on the other hand, for me is not intuitive. I know that some day, if I keep at it, the steps will become second nature to me. Nevertheless, it will always be second nature, and the fact remains that it's a learned dance for me.

The other thing I love about African dance is that there's a moment in the music, translated as "the break", where all of the dancers are supposed to lose control, and supposed to not do the steps. The idea is that this is the part of the song where you dance for God, and it's really only God who's in control. In salsa I haven't yet figured out whether it's ok for the woman to lose control or not, but either way, the man is always supposed to be in control. So for all these reasons, I've been trying to track down an African dance teacher who I heard is in Pondicherry, but to no avail.

This evening I've decided to accept defeat, and am escaping Aadi by closing all my doors and windows, and turning on the AC. The drumming is still audible through my walls, but I'm mentally distracting myself by thinking about salsa class tomorrow. As I lose myself in my thoughts, I slowly realize that I am imagining salsa to the beat of the drummers outside. I get up to try it, but after a few awkward steps slip quickly into African dancing.

The next season of So You Think You Can Dance has started, and this week I watched a boy audition whose mother is a drug addict, and for whom dance is his salvation. By the end of his piece his arms were up in supplication, his face was raised to the ceiling, and he was dancing directly to God. The judges referred to it as "praise dancing". It was a phrase I'd never heard before, but it struck me that that was exactly what I was doing, in my room. And that those women going into trance outside my gate might have a thing or two to teach me.

Friday, August 6, 2010

India's Big, Dirty Secret

Between 2001 and 2007, nearly 5% of female births in India did not occur because of pre-natal sex selection. It's tempting to draw attention to the magnitude of this tragedy by saying that it is equivalent to 600,000 girls going "missing" at birth every year. And that this is much higher than the number of people we lose to farmer suicides which, although a very important issue, receives much more media coverage than sex selection.

But I want to be careful here. From a pro-choice perspective, fetuses are not people. Nevertheless, the deliberate targeting of female fetuses is still horrifying.

Why is this happening? To put it crudely, for their parents, daughters are an economic/financial loss, not gain. They are a loss because of the dowries, or "gifts", that the bride's family have to buy for the groom's family at the time of the wedding, and because once married, even if the bride earns, her income goes to her husband's family. Traditionally dowry was only a practice in Hindu families, and in fact in Muslim families, the bride-price was paid by the groom's family to the bride's. However, this might have changed today.

In 2008, the Indian government launched a program that provides Rs.200,000 to the families (preferably mothers) of girl children. They will receive this amount spread out over 18 years, if certain conditions are met, such as making sure the child gets vaccinated, stays in school, and doesn't get married before 18. For 2008-2009, the government had set aside money for approximately 100,000 girls.

100,000 girls a year is a drop in the bucket, if 600,000 female fetuses are aborted in that same time period. The government's program is still significant and important, but it's not going to solve the problem. And while I don't know what an average family in India spends on a dowry today, the Rs.200,000 might just be enough to offset it. It might be a practical solution, but it doesn't help a girl feel that she is being chosen as a bride on her own merits, and not because of the dowry she brings.

Because dowry, and sex selection, are secretive issues that are negotiated within the family, it is girls themselves who can know what is going on when outsiders can't. But while girls must be our allies in this, they can't do it alone. School syllabuses, for boys and girls, must educate against dowry and sex selection, if they are not doing so already. And for those girls who are brave enough to speak out against dowry and sex selection, there must be a community justice system that they can turn to.

This is a difficult time to talk about community justice systems, given the recent uproar over khap panchayats and their draconian rulings on couples marrying within the same sub-caste. (This article defines khap panchayats as community groups - usually comprising elderly men from the Jat community - that set the rules in an area comprising one or more villages).

The challenge before us is to promote community justice systems that include women's groups as representatives, and that rule in a gender-just manner on issues such as dowry, sex selection and domestic violence.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

How To Spend $7.3 Billion

On a recent trip to I finally got around to reading P. Sainath's Everybody Loves A Good Drought, considered somewhat of a classic in the development sector. Between 1993 and 1995, Sainath spent months in India's poorest districts researching this book. In one of the few optimistic articles in the book, Sainath celebrates a social movement in Pudukottai district, Tamil Nadu state, that in 18 months saw over one-fourth of the rural women in the district learning to cycle.

In contrast, in his section on health Sainath describes a government system that is corrupt, lacks resources, and, in many cases, just does not function. Doctors take bribes from patients, or withhold services in the government clinics, to usher patients into their private practices. Medicine is either not available in government clinics at all, or it has been diverted to private pharmacies, again often owned by or linked to the government doctors. Doctors aside, Sainath documents a severe shortage of nurses and health workers. And in the worst cases, Primary Health Centers have been turned into cowsheds, private residences, or have just been looted for every door, frame and fitting.

The alternatives to the government system that Sainath encounters range from quacks to dissaris. At one end, many quacks have few qualifications other than a board saying 'doctor,' and are accountable to no-one. At the other end are dissaris, hereditary practitioners of traditional systems of medicine in the state of Orissa, who are a mine of knowledge on the use of local herbs and roots for some ailments, but do not have cures for others.

Reading Sainath's book reminded me of a post I had written earlier, in which I had talked about a study published in the Lancet, that found that there has been a significant drop worldwide in the number of women dying each year from pregnancy and childbirth. However, some advocates for women's health were reluctant to have the study released for fear it would reduce foreign aid for maternal health at meetings to be held in June and December. In my post I used a painting of women on bicycles by Tejuben to argue for an approach to development that does not treat women as patients or problems, but rather empowers them to lead lives that are physically active, independent and free. While an empowerment approach to development is applicable to poor men as well, I'll stick to women here.

The meeting referred to in June was most likely the G8 Summit held in Muskoka, Canada. Its Muskoka Initiative for Maternal and Child Health is a $7.3 billion package that can fund a laundry list of programs: pre-natal care; attended childbirth; postpartum care; sexual and reproductive health care and services; health education; treatment and prevention of diseases; prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV; immunizations; basic nutrition and relevant actions in the field of safe drinking water and sanitation. While the $7.3 billion fell short of what aid experts and NGOs were calling for, it seems that the global recession was a bigger consideration for donors than the positive news in the Lancet study. As of now, it looks like each contributing country will be able to decide on how it wants to spend its funds and there will be no coordination between them.

While a painting of women riding on bicycles can be symbolic of an empowerment approach to development, what does this mean in practice? If the $7.3 billion was to be spent using an empowerment approach, how would it be spent?

I was stimulated in my thinking by this article in Canada's Globe and Mail. The article is on a drug called misoprostol. With the exception of its use as an ulcer medicine, misoprostol is highly controversial.

When a woman delivers, if all goes well her uterus will naturally contract to close around her blood vessels. But in up to 15% of cases, the uterus can fail to contract and the woman can bleed to death within an hour. In the industrialized world, the drug oxytocin is considered the best to stop postpartum bleeding, but crucially it requires refrigeration and injection. In the developing world women have a one-in-100 chance of dying in childbirth because of postpartum bleeding.

Misoprostol can stop postpartum bleeding, and needs no cold storage or special services to deliver. Misoprostol can also be used for abortion and to induce labor. However, if misused, misoprostol can rupture the uterus, killing mother and baby.

The WHO (World Health Organization)'s position is that misoprostol can be administered by properly trained health workers, but cannot be administered locally. Yet the matter does not end there. There is a debate over who qualifies as a trained health worker, when birth attendants in poor settings tend to be relatives and neighbors of the pregnant woman. And several aid organizations have disregarded the WHO's recommendations altogether, and distribute misoprostol to women delivering.

Venture Strategies for Health and Development, founded by two physicians at the University of California at Berkeley and a health policy specialist, is one such aid organization. Dr. Potts of Venture Strategies calls the WHO's goals, of training health workers and getting more women to go to hospitals, unachievable because doctors don't want to work in rural areas. Instead, his organization gives misoprostol, with instructions, to pregnant women directly at their eight-month checkup.

Does giving misoprostol directly to pregnant women empower them? Dr. Potts seems to think so. He suggests that doctors are reluctant to have women medicate themselves because they are threatened by the notion that people can do for themselves things only doctors have done. Reading between the lines, doctors fear the loss of power in allowing women to medicate themselves. So by administering misoprostol themselves, women should gain power, which is really the meaning of empower.

However, I'm not so sure. According to this article on the Lancet study, one of the main reasons that the number of women dying from pregnancy and childbirth per year has dropped significantly in developing countries is because women are giving birth in the presence of either a doctor or trained health worker (however that may be defined).

In Orissa, for example, the same state in which Sainath documented the poor condition of the government health system, women are now given a monetary incentive to deliver children in hospitals rather than in their villages. While delivering their children in the kinds of hospitals Sainath describes is not likely to improve their chances of survival, this push by the government is being accompanied by funds through the National Rural Health Mission. There has also been discussion in the news about launching a new category of medical degree that will only allow doctors to practice in rural areas. It is hoped that this will address the shortage of doctors.

In Tamil Nadu, the fact that women are choosing to give birth in government rather than private clinics is being trumpeted loudly. Why is this something we should all celebrate? Because government clinics are, at least in theory, accountable to the people they serve. In my first job in the development sector, I was lucky enough to be exposed to an initiative to empower rural women to hold government health clinics accountable to them. Women both led their village health committees, which monitored Primary Health Centers and their sub-centers, and gained entry into committees at higher levels that oversaw these facilities. An empowerment approach to preventing maternal and child mortality to me is one that enables women to both use and, crucially, hold accountable, the government health system.

I'll end by returning to the misoprostol debate. I don't doubt that, with proper counselling, pregnant women can be trusted to use the drug safely, as they have been doing. Yet the arguments that Dr. Potts and his colleague Dr. Prata put forward for giving misoprostol directly to pregnant women are dangerous ones. If Venture Strategies is able to reach pregnant women for an eighth-month checkup, might it be possible to reach them at the time of delivery as well? I think there are better solutions to the problems of access to health facilities, whether because the facilities are not there or the women reluctant to go, than abandoning the idea altogether.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Ails Tamil?

Some time back, I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues, one Peruvian, the other Indian (Tamil). The Peruvian colleague was lamenting that no-one speaks Quechua anymore. "Yes, yes," my Indian colleague said. "No-one speaks Tamil anymore either".

While there are widely varying estimates, it is likely that there are only 5 to 7 million Quechua speakers in the world, and there is a clear danger that the language will not survive. I found my colleague's comparison with Tamil amusing because, in contrast, there are 75 million Tamil speakers in the world. The Tamil film industry is the second largest film industry in India, and continuously provides enough content for a plethora of TV channels that broadcast Tamil music videos.

So, what did my Indian colleague mean?

My guess is that he meant that it's very rare that two ordinary people will have a conversation in Tamil today without using at least one English word. This is especially true in Chennai, but happens throughout the state. But why is this a problem? I feel it is important to probe this because the air is abuzz here with initiatives to promote Tamil, that are all predicated on the assumption that the language faces some kind of crisis today. Yet, I've seen very little discussion of what this crisis is, or what the specific dangers that Tamil faces are.

One danger that Tamil is perceived to face today is to its purity. People who believe this also often say that in its purer form, Tamil is a beautiful, poetic language. In contrast, the mix of Tamil and English that is spoken on the streets today has reduced the language to a sort of least common denominator. The language has become functional and in a sense rough, or coarse, and is less capable of conveying the nuances of depth and expression that it did in its purer form.

Another perceived danger to Tamil is to its very survival. People worry that if English continues to seep into Tamil, sooner or later everyone will speak English, and no-one will speak Tamil.

To play devil's advocate, I want to pose the question, "So what if no-one speaks Tamil?" Let's leave aside for a moment the claim that Tamil is somehow more beautiful, or more poetic, and therefore more worthy of preservation, than other languages. Almost every language in this world contains the unique knowledge of one or more communities, for example of biodiversity, or of cultural practices like how to prepare food or how to care for the sick. One of my favorite poems talks about the 60 names for snow that the Eskimos (Inuit?) have. It's clear that their close proximity to snow gives them a knowledge, captured in language, that is unmatched by any other group. The alarming rate at which languages are dying today means that there is so much knowledge that is going to be lost to us forever. This is one of the most understated tragedies of our time. So let me be clear - I think it is vital that Tamil continue to be spoken.

However, in our concern for the purity and survival of the language, I fear that we forget to be concerned about Tamil speakers. We forget that while many Tamil speakers may use some English words, the world of English is still inaccessible to those for whom Tamil is really the only language that they speak. The "world of English" in India includes government and legal documents and proceedings which, while often incredibly important to the poor, are largely in English. This issue of accessibility for Tamil speakers often seems subordinated to preoccupations with the purity and survival of Tamil.

Before I offer my own opinions about these three problems - of purity, survival, and accessibility - I want to tell you why I am both the right and wrong person to write this post. I'll start with the wrong.

Firstly, I'm the wrong person to write this post because having not grown up in Tamil Nadu (or India, for that matter), my knowledge of the education system that I'm about to write about is limited. If I make mistakes, please correct me.

Secondly, my own Tamil has been made fun of on numerous occasions. This could mean that my Tamil is not good enough for me to write a post on Tamil, or it could mean that I am biased against efforts to purify Tamil. Therefore, I'll take this opportunity to provide what I think is full disclosure on my Tamil language skills.

I tried catching some of the proceedings of the World Classical Tamil Conference, which was held in the city of Coimbatore earlier this year, and which has provided much of the impetus for recent initiatives to promote Tamil. I didn't understand a word. I can't hope to begin to understand Tamil poetry, so I have to take it on trust when people say that Tamil is an extremely poetic language.

When I speak Tamil I make lots of mistakes. However, the studies that I've mentioned in earlier posts - on traditional crops, hotels, etc. - were all conducted in Tamil, and I can understand and make myself understood. In fact, my comprehension skills are much better than my spoken Tamil. For example, I attend board meetings of the Covenant Centre for Development regularly, which are conducted almost completely in Tamil, and I can understand pretty much everything that's said.

Tamil was in fact the first language I spoke, but I lost a lot of it when I started going to school. However I think this is one of the experiences that makes me right to write this post, because I know that it is possible to lose a language, and that much depends on the delicate balance between the language you speak at home and the language you speak in school or in the workplace.

In addition to Tamil and English, I speak Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, and have lived and travelled in several countries where English is not the primary language. While I think that my perspective is therefore one that is not dominated by English, I do have an intimate relationship with the English language. In English I'm a writer and poet, and so although I don't know much about why specifically Tamil is poetic, I understand the importances of nuances and vocabulary in being able to express yourself fully in any language.

Words are to writers and poets what colors are to painters. Painters can go through phases of blue, grey, or any other color, or can decide to restrict themselves to a few colors. However, these colors only assume significance when a painter has chosen them from a much wider palette.

Similarly, in the short story "Jesus Is Indian," Agnes Sam writes about a girl growing up in an Indian Christian diasporic community where her schoolteacher, a nun, is constantly trying to erase the traces of her Indian heritage. The story works because Sam is able to contrast the patterns of speech of the protagonist and her mother, with that of the schoolteacher. On the other hand, the story would not have worked if Sam was unable to write in both the language of her protagonist and the schoolteacher.

Although I dream of a society that is trying to turn all its members into writers and poets, the truth is that we are likely to make up only a small percentage of any population. Yet the ability to move between different patterns of speech, and to choose the right words for the right situation, is an important life skill for everyone. In school we had an exercise where we had to create a book made up of pieces of writing in different styles - poetry, descriptive, discursive etc. Any society that can teach students the difference between the language you SMS your friends in and the language you write a business letter in, has done its job and should stop worrying about too much English in its Tamil.

To push my point even further, I think it is purity that is in fact more dangerous than the loss of purity. When we think of a country that has made a concerted effort to preserve and promote a language, it's difficult not to think of France, especially in India where Alliance Francais is a presence in every city. Yet I would argue that the danger of tying a national identity so closely to a language is that it's a slippery slope to believing that all citizens should share certain other racial and cultural characteristics, such as looking or dressing a certain way. This paves the way for discrimination against those who speak French with a funny accent, or whose skin is a darker color. Or, in its most recent manifestation, against those who wear veils.

If the survival of Tamil, in whatever hybrid form, and not its purity, is our concern, then I'd actually like to propose Sweden as the unlikely country that could provide us with some food for thought. What Swedish and Tamil, and many of the world's other languages, share, is that none of them can compete with English as the language of economic opportunity. And this fact isn't likely to change, not in this century at least.

My first encounters with Sweden led me to believe that English is not widely spoken. I couldn't book a plane ticket without help, because the SAS (Scandinavian Air System) website was all in Swedish. I couldn't buy cream on my own at the pharmacy, because the packaging was all in Swedish. Signs were all in Swedish, as were the conversations around me.

But I soon found that many Swedes speak English fluently. It is often the language of the workplace. And this despite the fact that school education at least, and perhaps university education as well, are all in Swedish.

In Tamil Nadu, the medium of instruction in government schools is Tamil, as it is Swedish in Sweden. However, we can assume that English, if it is taught in government schools, is taught poorly, and that is why private English-medium schools are in such high demand. In addition, I believe that university education is almost all in English.

If we want people to speak Tamil at home and on the street, but English in the workplace, then I'm going to suggest a couple of things that might seem paradoxical. The first is that we need to both offer more university courses in Tamil, and at the same time strengthen English language teaching, especially in government schools. The only way to keep students willingly in Tamil medium schools and universities is to ensure that they receive high quality English language training as well.

And for those who are still worried about too much English in everyday Tamil conversation, this probably happens because speaking English is seen to be a status symbol. And that, in turn, is both because English is the language of economic opportunity, and because for now, only those who can afford private schools can afford a good English language education. So paradoxically again, if the availability of good English training increases, it might become less cool to drop English words into Tamil conversation.

Yet for many Tamil speakers who have either dropped out or completed their education, the accessibility of government and legal documents and proceedings will still be an issue. To continue our comparisons with Europe, I have heard that the EU spends vast amounts of resources on translating everything that they say and write into all the languages of the European Union. The diversity of languages spoken in the EU and India are probably comparable, but the similarities stop there.

The costs and delays that translating every meeting and document into all the official Indian languages would incur in the already slow government and legal machinery makes it infeasible. In addition, if a poor person in India is trying to accesss government or legal information, it is not enough for the documents to be in his / her language. Even though the Right To Information (RTI) exists, understanding the process for filing an RTI request, knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it, and how to interpret the information once you get it, are Herculean tasks.

Members of the Indian legislature now have access to backgrounders on and summaries of the Bills they will be voting on, as well as knowledgeable staff to answer their questions, through PRS Legislative Research. Perhaps what we need are similar services available for the common man or woman, to help him / her with filing RTI requests, getting documents translated, and interpreting their contents.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dangers Of Poor Research

In the last year, Ashoka and Intellecap’s Beyond Profit have both conducted surveys of social entrepreneurs. Ashoka describes itself as the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, whom it elects as Fellows. The Ashoka survey was conducted to understand how their Fellows have changed systems. This phrasing already suggests a bias that Ashoka Fellows have changed systems, one that is carried through in the way the survey was designed and conducted.

Beyond Profit is the social enterprise magazine of Intellecap, a social investment advisory firm. Their survey was conducted to better understand social enterprises, and the people who lead them, in India. While India is described as having a high degree of social entrepreneurship, it lags behind in research in this field. Therefore, initiatives to conduct research on social entrepreneurship in India are much needed. However, this initiative by Beyond Profit, along with the survey by Ashoka, are marred by weak research methods.

The first limitation to both the Beyond Profit and Ashoka surveys is that neither of them go beyond percentages in reporting on the results. For example, the Beyond Profit survey reports on the percentage of respondents who are men (and women), who fall within a certain age group, and whose work falls within a certain sector. The Ashoka survey says of their Fellows that, “these people are incredibly focused on achieving their goals with 93% pursuing their original objective after 10 years. 80% of them are seen as leaders in their field and 90+% of their ideas are replicated by other groups” (4/6). The Ashoka survey also calculates the percentage of Fellows who have changed the system in one of five ways.

The problem is that we have no way of knowing if these results are due to chance. If the authors had conducted a chi square or t-test on their results, it would give us the probability that these results are due to chance. For example, a probability of 0.001 would mean that the results are highly significant in statistical terms, that is, the results are very probably true.

In addition, these tests only work if you have a random sample, and there is good reason to believe that in neither the Ashoka nor Beyond Profits surveys was this the case. Out of all the Ashoka Fellows elected in 1998,1999, 2003 and 2004, the total number of Fellows with current contact information from those years is 315. 172 of those Fellows returned surveys, and this was used to calculate a response rate of 55%. However, we don’t know how many Fellows current contact information is not available for. This is especially important because it is quite likely that the Fellows for whom current contact information is not available may be those whose social enterprises have closed down or are inactive.

The Beyond Profit survey was conducted using an online platform, and was distributed to Intellecap’s database of social entrepreneurs in India, as well as to the networks of Ashoka, Dasra and Unltd India. The sample size for this survey is 118, as that is the number of people who responded. However, as readers we do not know the universe from which this sample was selected. How many people was the survey distributed to? Do Intellecap’s database, as well as the networks of Ashoka, Dasra and Unltd India, cover all social entrepreneurs in India? Alternatively, was the survey only distributed to a sample of social entrepreneurs to begin with?

As it was up to these social entrepreneurs to respond to the survey, it is quite likely that all those who did are similar to one another in some way. For example, they might be all in a younger age group, and therefore more comfortable with using the Internet to respond to surveys. Therefore this sample is unlikely to be random, and most probably suffers from what is known as self-selection bias.

There is one section in the Beyond Profit survey in which it is acknowledged that those omitted from the survey are likely to have influenced its results. The report states that, “One element to keep in mind is what the data doesn’t tell us. Because we didn’t survey people who almost became entrepreneurs, but didn’t follow through because of negative reactions from family, it is difficult to judge just how prevalent family pressure is” (5/7). However, those omitted from the survey are likely to have influenced all of its results, and this is not acknowledged throughout most of the report.

As long as social enterprises in India do not have their own dedicated legal form(s), it may be difficult to know how many social entrepreneurs there actually are. In a context in which a comprehensive database of social entrepreneurs in India is not available, it makes sense for Intellecap to use their own database and other networks to contact potential respondents. In fact, this is a legitimate research method and is known as snowball sampling. Snowball sampling is suitable for qualitative research, where the main purpose is to gain a rich and complex understanding of a specific social context or phenomenon. The problem is that the Intellecap survey seems to use this method for quantitative research, where the emphasis is on eliciting data that can be generalized to other geographical areas or populations.

For example, the Intellecap survey says that “…there are actually more men than women in social enterprise today” (2/4). Similar statements, which generalize from the sample to the universe of Indian social entrepreneurs, are made throughout the report, including with regard to age, experience, motivation, revenue generation and sector. However, without a random sample, and without testing for the statistical significance of the findings, it is misleading to make these generalizations.

Another limitation that both the Ashoka and Beyond Profit surveys suffer from is the lack of triangulation. In the social sciences, triangulation refers to using more than two methods in a study to double (or triple) check the results. The Ashoka survey, in which Fellows were self-reporting on their achievements, could have certainly benefited from triangulation. In the Beyond Profit survey, triangulation could have been particularly useful in cross-checking certain pieces of information, such as on revenue generation.

A final area in which the Beyond Profit survey errs is in the statement:
…Not surprisingly, people from a for-profit background are more likely to choose a
for-profit structure for their own social enterprise. 63% of respondents who came
from a for-profit business background chose to work in a for-profit structure, while
only 17% of people with non-profit experience switched to a for-profit structure (3/5).
The claim that, “people from a for-profit background are more likely to choose a for-profit structure for their own social enterprise” leads us to believe that there is a correlation between the background of social entrepreneurs and the legal structure they choose for their social enterprises. However, establishing a correlation between these two phenomena requires regression analysis.

The simplest form of regression is linear. If you plot the data collected on a graph, regression analysis will create a single line that best summarizes the distribution of points. The typical distance between the line and all the points indicates whether the regression analysis has captured a relationship that is strong or weak. There is no evidence of regression analysis in the Beyond Profit report.

In addition, the statement discussed above begins with the words “not surprisingly”. This suggests that it is because a social entrepreneur used to work in a for-profit that he / she chose the same legal structure for his / her social enterprise. When one variable (in this case, legal structure of social enterprise) is inferred to be because of another variable (in this case, background of social entrepreneur), this is known as causation. Causation cannot be measured from this study because both the variables were measured together in a setting.

One of my former colleagues described the Ashoka report as impressive and inspiring, and I don’t mean to detract from the achievements of their Fellows by pointing out the weaknesses in the research. A strong research methodology would have made these achievements even more impressive, as they would have been supported by firm evidence.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I Am The Head Of My Household!

When I was living in Toronto with my landlady and good friend Elizabeth Chen, I would often pick up the home phone to find a Mandarin speaker on the other end. Since Elizabeth doesn't speak Mandarin, I soon learned that these calls were from banks trying to reach out to new immigrants. They identified their potential customers by scouring the phonebook for (in this case) Chinese names and calling them. I quite enjoyed taking these calls, as while fending off the eager bankers I could practice my Mandarin.

When I lived in the dorm/hostel, it was my turn to be targeted by these bankers, but this time in Tamil. The conversation (in Tamil) would go something like this.

"Hello, can I speak to Srinivasan?"

"This is Devyani Srinivasan speaking."

"Is he there?"

"Is who there?"


"I am Srinivasan - Devyani Srinivasan."

This conversation would repeat itself at least a few times on each occasion.

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that, like many South Indians, we don't really have a family name. Srinivasan is my father's first name, which has become my mother's and my family name. However, this is also common practice, and I'm sure the Tamil banker was aware of it. The bigger problem is that there's an underlying assumption that a woman cannot be living on her own, without a husband or a father. And of course, that banking matters must be discussed with the man of the household.

Fast forward to Chennai, 5 years later. The census ladies come to our house. They ask who the head of the household is and I say, "Devyani Srinivasan" because a) I don't see why a woman can't be the head of the house and b) I thought they wouldn't be interested in my husband because he's a foreigner. So under head of the house they put, "Srinivasan".

Then they ask who the parents of the head of the house are, so I say, "T.V. and Sujata Srinivasan". But we all realize that this isn't the right answer when we move to the next line, and they ask who my parents are. So since the only other Srinivasan I know is my father, in the first line I put down his parents.

By now I have managed to explain that there are only two of us living in this house, my husband and I, and my husband is a foreigner. The census ladies then decide that between the two, having a foreigner as the head of the household is a lesser evil than having a woman. So they put down Patrik Oskarsson as the head of the household. However by this time they are too exhausted to start writing down the names of the parents again, so they leave it as, "Head of the household: Patrik Oskarsson, Parents of head of the household: T.R.V. and Vembu Chari". So my father and husband are now brothers!

I have a friend who used to work for the census, and she claims that it is possible to have a woman as head of the household. But if it is only possible in cases where there is no trace of a man around, what about families where men migrate for wage labor, and women are de facto heads? If we don't even record this information, how can we begin to know what the issues and conditions are that these households face?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

In Search of the Serendipitous and the Obscure

When I was a child, my mother used to read me The Hobbit as a bedtime story. Bilbo Baggins and Belinda Took became oft-used metaphors in our family for our stability-loving and more adventurous sides. At that time, if you asked me which side I took after, I would have said Belinda Took's. I was always trying to get lost wherever I was, and rummaging through the sandbox for obscure "clues" in the form of found objects.

As I've grown older, for better or for worse I've become more of a Bilbo Baggins, although my research interests still veer dangerously towards the obscure. While I'm not advocating that all of you start researching "hotels", sacred groves and traditional crops, there are two areas of our lives in which we could all do with more serendipity and obscurity: in books and in love. And they're more similar than you think.

During a semester that I spent in London, there was a street near my university filled with bookshops, that I loved to wander down aimlessly. These tended to be specialty bookshops catering to different interests. So when I visited London again last November, that's the first place I wanted to go to. I was devastated to find that almost all the bookshops had disappeared, no doubt a casualty of Amazon.

I am a skeptical and cautious user of technology, and lest I be called a Luddite, let me say at the outset that most of the books that these stores contained might be available on Amazon. But Amazon caters to purposeful keyword searching, not aimless wandering. Even if I was to click on a category such as mystery, which one of the specialty bookstores would have catered to, once I started looking at a particular book, I would be gently prodded towards "other books customers like you liked".

I'm not under the illusion that bookstores don't keep track of their customers' preferences, and sell to them strategically. But one of the claims to fame of the Internet is that they can create a "personalized bookstore" for every customer. I'm sure I'm not the first to notice that this "personalization" actually discourages individuality, because my preferences are being matched to a vast database of "customers like me".

Thankfully, real bookstores, where they still exist, can't rearrange their shelves for every customer who walks through their doors. I can still tilt my head, scan the titles, and find that obscure book serendipitously next to something else that caught my eye.

So how are books like love, aside from the fantasy that many of my friends had about falling in love in a bookstore? Well you might think that most people would agree that serendipity is important in love, if not obscurity. But that might depend on where in the world you're from.

The arranged marriage is a highly purposeful endeavor that leaves little to serendipity. Single women and men, or their parents, decide that it is time for them to get married, and then set out on a very determined search for a bride or groom. Increasingly, this search makes use of websites like Tamil Matrimony.

A few days ago, using the ID and password of a friend, I logged on to Tamil Matrimony. I made it a project for myself to research the profiles of some women on that site, because I was interested in seeing how they represented themselves.

In most cases, the profiles were written by their parents. However, where the women had written their own profiles, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many had described their own interests, experiences and personality, and had written a few words on their views on what makes a good marriage, usually to the effect that it requires both partners to support and understand one another. Sometimes I think that this practical, planned approach to marriage, in which both partners discuss their goals and expectations beforehand, has much to recommend it. But mostly I think that marriage is about the chemistry and compatibility between two individuals, and fashioning and refashioning a relationship around that.

If you scroll a little further down the profile, you come to the "Partner Preferences" section. Not only can you specify the height, weight, caste, language, and occupation you prefer, but if you prefer a doctor, for example, you can also indicate whether by that you mean surgeon, dentist, or (soon to come) gastroenterologist.

My friend had already shortlisted a few candidates, and those were the only men's profiles we looked at. And there, at the bottom, was the piece-de-resistance - "customers who looked at this profile also looked at..." I may not be a die-hard romantic, and I can believe that there's more than one person who's right for each one of us, but the thought that our partner preferences can also be tabulated, analyzed and spit back at us left me speechless.