Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Gates Foundation and Cautious Hope

A friend of mine who works in the non-profit sector once told me that she doesn't plan on having kids, because the world is such a messed up place that she couldn't bring a child into it. What surprised me is not that she doesn't plan on having kids, nor that she thinks the world is a messed up place, but that she can work in the non-profit sector while feeling this way.

I have always been hopeful about development, and believe that it is impossible to sustain yourself in this sector without hope. My experience in this sector has confirmed this for me. This hope has been evident in the people I have met in this sector, especially those who have started their own organizations.

But, hope comes in many forms. This is not the "wild hope" of revolutionaries. It is not the "false hope" that comes from refusing to acknowledge the situation as it exists. In contrast, it is "cautious hope" that I believe is required in this sector, and here are some of its key symptoms.

The first is a willingness to face, with our eyes wide open, our mixed record in addressing the basic problems of development. The second is an in-depth understanding of how who you are, and where you live, influences the ways in, and degrees to which you experience these problems. And the third is advocating a solution that is sensitive to these differences, and is based on this understanding.

Recently, 3 articles that I read in the paper spoke to me in this voice of "cautious hope". I will need at least two posts to do this subject justice, so be warned! The first installment is here.

In an interview in The Hindu on March 23rd, Melinda Gates describes the focus of the Gates Foundation simply as "keeping kids alive". Melinda goes on to say that while the Foundation believes in innovations in science, technology and biotechnology, they also believe in what she (exaggeratedly?) calls innovative practices. In its science, technology and biotechnology work, the Foundation has supported the NGO PATH in administering vaccines for cervical cancer to girls in Andhra Pradesh, which is currently generating a lot of controversy. However, this is not my concern in this post.

India's mixed record on child mortality is that while the South is somewhat better off, death rates in U.P. and Bihar are still unacceptably high. The Foundation's interventions are based on an understanding that this variation is due to two key differences. The first is public infrastructure. (In the Southern state of Tamil Nadu, for example, there are good reports of what primary health centres have done in bringing down child mortality rates). The second difference is that mothers in the South tend to have much greater negotiating power vis-a-vis their mothers-in-law than their counterparts in the North.

Hence, the Foundation's efforts to catalyze public infrastructure in U.P., both through funding and through engaging with Chief Minister Mayawati. And in its work with PATH on "innovative practices" in U.P., women in their child-bearing years are brought together with their mothers-in-law to talk about the crucial issues of breastfeeding and keeping newborns warm.

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