Monday, May 31, 2010

What's So Special About Vegetables?

I recently attended a board meeting of the Covenant Centre for Development (CCD), a social enterprise based in the city of Madurai. CCD has promoted a company called Aharam, that is owned by the cultivators of traditional crops. Aharam procures and sells these crops. Millets loom large amongst these traditional crops, and have a higher nutritive value than the rice and wheat that have replaced them as the staples of most Indian families. CCD therefore saw an opportunity in the burgeoning market for health foods and drinks.

My first exposure to the food and agriculture sector was through 2 studies that I conducted in 2004. The first was on the procurement of supplies for, and management of, South Indian eating places in rural and urban areas, popularly known as "hotels". This study confirmed my suspicions that vegetables are difficult to find for sale in rural areas. The second study was on the cultivation of traditional crops.

During my Master's, I was hired to conduct historical research on the spread of rice, wheat and maize cultivation all over the world. Although my job was just to make maps, the subtext of my research was that these 3 crops had replaced the much greater agro-biodiversity that we had had earlier, and that this was a bad thing. So, the Aharam concept is one that I can agree with wholeheartedly.

In addition, what differentiates CCD from other similar initiatives is that they are not satisfied with just getting producers better prices for their crops. Their concern is that even with an increased income, farmers are often not able to purchase what they produce, and they are forced to make alternative, inferior choices. There are numerous examples of this. Potters use plastic buckets themselves, cotton farmers wear polyester saris...

Priti Ramamurthy writes about this cotton growing, polyester wearing phenomenon here. Unsurprisingly, the reasons that women wear polyester saris are complex, and it is not only because cotton saris are inaccessible to them. High amongst them are that polyester saris look "modern", and can withstand a hard day of farm labour without getting crumpled. Similarly, when it comes to food, not being able to afford fruits and vegetables (and increasingly, pulses), is certainly a cause of malnutrition. But malnutrition is also a result of poor food choices. I have seen poor women throw out the vegetables in their sambar (stew), or eat "mixture" for breakfast. An important element of Aharam, therefore, is the promotion and sale of millets for local consumption.

However, I now also know that while the Aharam company picks up the produce from the farmers' doorsteps, paying them instantly and saving them the costs of transportation, Aharam is not able to offer prices that are substantially higher than what producers get from the middlemen. This could be because there is insufficent demand for millets, whether for health foods and drinks, or local consumption. Aharam has recently ventured into the mango business, which looks like it might be more profitable. Yet, even when it comes to fruits, I know that banana farmers all over the world can hardly make ends meet on their earnings. Even with fair trade prices and premiums, there are questions now being asked as to whether farmers get enough to live on.

It was in the midst of all this gloom that I read Fisher's "Income Is Development" for the nth time. This is the article I mentioned in my last post, but for those of you who didn't read that one, you can find it here. I highly recommend not only Fisher's article, but also the case discussions that follow it.

I have a lot of respect for Fisher's organization, KickStart, because they seem to take their responsibility to monitor and evaluate their work very seriously, which not all social enterprises do. So when Fisher says that the average net income of farmers using their "Super-MoneyMaker" irrigation pump has increased from US$110 per year before buying it to US$1,100 per year after buying it, I believe him. Fisher claims that the pump enables farmers to grow fruits and vegetables. But what's so special about the fruits and vegetables that KickStart's farmers are growing?

I think there are 3 pieces to the answer. The first is that these are off-season fruits and vegetables. And the second is that they are grown for domestic markets.

In India we still eat seasonally, to a large extent. I live in Chennai, one of the country's five largest cities, and the cauliflowers that I get in the summer (when they're not in season) are among the sorriest-looking vegetables I have ever seen. We don't tend to import fruits and vegetables from around the world, and although this may change with the entry of Walmart and Carre Four, for now they seem focused on procuring domestically. So it makes sense that a farmer who's able to grow glowing, white cauliflowers in the middle of the summer (just as an example), could get pretty good prices for them. Perhaps Aharam should just switch to fruits and vegetables, and forget about millets.

But millets still consume very little water, and are better suited to farms that are only irrigated by rain. Therefore I think the third part of the answer to, "what makes vegetables so special?", is that it's not the vegetables alone. It's creating catchments to collect rainwater + using this rainwater for irrigation + growing fruits and vegetables. Although I have some exposure to watershed development projects, I'm not sure that I ever understood this link very clearly. And I'm wondering if that's because the link has not been made that explicit in development projects.

The question about nutrition still remains, however. Farmers can certainly benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables. But if a farmer grows mangoes alone, how many mangoes can he or she eat?

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Strange Partners to Development: Culture

I'm going to make a presentation to my father's Rotary Club today on social enterprise. In it, I'm going to give them 3 examples of operational models of social enterprises. In the first model, the social enterprise sells goods or services to a target population, who are disadvantaged in some way. These goods or services in turn enable the target population to sell their goods or services in the market.

In the second model, the social enterprise buys goods from its target population, adds value to them, and sells them in the market. In the third model, the social enterprise sells its goods or services in the market, and uses the income to subsidize (either completely or partially) the goods or services it provides to its target population.

For an audience who is new to social enterprise, I expect them to question the first model the most. If your target population is the poor, aren't you exploiting them by asking them to pay for goods or services? My favorite article that addresses this question is Fisher's "Income Is Development", which was published in the special edition of innovations for the Skoll World Forum, and which you can find here. In his article, Fisher criticizes the Appropriate Technology (AT) movement, which lasted roughly from 1970 to 1985, for making the poor more dependent on aid by giving away technologies. Fisher also criticizes the AT movement for targeting groups and communities as technology owners, rather than individuals, saying that, "people in poor places are like people anywhere else: they will take care of their own families' needs before they will commit themselves to efforts to better their communities".

I'm willing to concede that poor people may take care of their own families' needs before they will commit themselves to efforts to better their communities. However, based on my observations, I would say that for many poor people, contributing to their communities comes at least a very close second to taking care of their own families' needs.

In my last post, I wrote about a study I conducted on sacred groves, where I found that the main threat to their biodiversity was the religious festivals that were held in them. The reason these festivals were such a threat was that they were an opportunity for village residents to host all their relatives from neighbouring villages, and therefore the bigger the festival, the higher the status of the hosting village and its residents. In another example, several women's development organizations have found that entrusting female survivors of disasters with both the money and the task of supervising reconstruction in their village, is the best way to make sure both that houses get rebuilt, and that psychological wounds heal, in record time. The desire to contribute is an universal human value, and where communities are more close-knit (whether by choice or by circumstance), that desire is even stronger.

Returning to Fisher's article, his emphasis on an individualistic approach is particularly surprising given that his organization, KickStart, designs and markets low-cost pumps, well drilling, water harvesting and storage technologies. Water is a common property resource, and it is here that KickStart could leverage the desire of their customers, whom their technologies have made prosperous, to contribute by recharging the ground water sources of their villages through infrastructure investments. While it will be important to ensure that these infrastructure investments don't share the same fate as the "give-aways" of the AT movement, there are cost-sharing models that could be worth exploring.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Strange Partners to Development: Writing

This is the second in a series of posts on my interests in the intersection of development with three areas that are often considered marginal to it.

As an undergraduate I majored in anthropology at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in the U.S. When I was applying to Wesleyan, my investigation of the term "liberal arts" told me that it referred to colleges that emphasized an all-round education, and teaching their students transferable skills rather than the absorption of facts. The term "transferable skills" would become all too familiar four years later, when I heard it repeatedly from career counsellors. "Transferable skills" are what enable you to apply for (and successfully get) jobs in fields completely unrelated to what you studied. They are what you should strive to build in your current job to prepare you for the next completely unrelated career move, and what will hold you in good stead when you've been out of the workforce for several years raising your children.

But, I digress. With the exception of a class I took called Making Anthropological Video, my choice of major meant that I was assessed solely on the basis of papers (essays) that I had written. And as Wesleyan, like most North American universities, follows a continuous assessment system, I was writing papers constantly. And yet I never felt at Wesleyan that writing was really a skill I possessed, and certainly not a transferable one.

I've wanted to "yite" since before I could pronounce the letter "r", and I practically haven't stopped since. But although I believe I enjoy writing, and even have a flair for it, neither of these are the same as a skill. A skill is something that can be applied for useful purposes. As undergraduates it was probably too early for us to even think that our papers had any purpose other than to get us grades. But because I had had an academic paper published in The Concord Review when I was in high school, if I stretched my imagination I could think about more such publications as a plausible goal. However at no point were we asked to write papers in anything other than an academic style, or for any audience other than our professors. I'll stop my discussion of anthropology and writing here, but if you want more see this piece by my friend Scott Carney.

My first job in the development sector was with a women's development organization that had been contracted by the state government to write a community manual for one of their projects. My boss's strategic use of our position to advocate for women within the project should have convinced me of the power of the pen. As the Manual was the policy document for communities participating in the project, we used our position to influence, and finally determine, what would become policy. In addition to our official responsibility for the Manual, we volunteered for every single writing job within the project, because nobody else wanted it. Meeting participants remembered what we wanted them to, because we took the minutes and we always made sure they went home with our handouts. The lessons learnt by the project were the ones that we wrote down.

This isn't as sinister as it all sounds. Feminists have often argued that when the world is seen and recorded by men, women are made invisible. What we saw and recorded, by and on behalf of women, was whether women were attending project meetings, whether when they attended they spoke up, and whether when they spoke up they did so on behalf of women's interests.

We worked on the Manual for more than a year, and during that time we spent days, nights, weekends and holidays figuring out what chapters it should have, how they would be ordered, and what information each would contain. Yet I still felt that these activities, which I now recognize as integral to any writing process, were not valued within the organization. There were several attempts to get our staff at the grassroots level to write the Manual, in the belief that their field experience could somehow directly become text that would flow across the page. I got the distinct feeling that it was field experience that was being viewed and valued as central to this endeavour, and not writing skill. I am not implying that writers cannot be found at the grassroots, but rather that they require training and practice, just like anyone else.

We also tried to get feedback on the Manual, as it was being drafted, from the community members participating in the project themselves. However, even where literacy did not seem to be the main problem, there was little interest in reading. We tried reading out portions of the Manual, but that wasn't successful either. Ultimately when I left the project, I felt dissatisfied with what my writing had achieved.

It was around this time that one of my acquaintances through the project asked me about my career plans. This conversation took place around six years ago so you'll forgive me for paraphrasing. I responded with, "I want to work with communities at the grassroots level". "But what will you contribute to them?" he asked. This question haunted me for a long time. As I mentioned, writing did not seem like a plausible answer, and so I set out to look for Master's programs that would give me practical skills. I chose environmental planning.

As I was filling out my applications, I was also working on a research project for another social enterprise. One of my assignments was to study sacred groves. The organization that I was working for wanted the study conducted as a prelude to setting up a nursery that sold plants that had religious value for the local communities. However my study found that the main threat to the groves was the religious festivals that were held there, and I didn't see how setting up a nursery would help. I chose not to make this recommendation.

My aunt thought that I should make a coffee table book on the groves, with large, glossy pictures. I chose instead to write my Master's thesis on the contradiction between groves that were protected for religious reasons, but at the same time being destroyed by religious practices, because I loved the complexity it offered me for analysis.

Probably the least popular, but most useful, class I took as a Master's student was one that taught me the craft of writing. In this class, we went through the painstaking differences between abstracts and executive summaries, and how to write policy recommendations so that they would be taken seriously.

Writing is certainly a craft in that it requires skill and training. But writing is also a craft for me in another sense. In my last job, I completed a lengthy funding proposal for a research project on innovation adoption. Because it was a research project, the proposal involved components like a literature review and theoretical framework that challenged my analytical abilities. When I finished the proposal, I felt a huge sense of satisfaction in (metaphorically speaking), holding the document in my hands, knowing that I had chosen each word in it with the utmost care, and that this was the fruit of my labour. It was then that I realized that I felt an intrinsic sense of satisfaction in writing, that was separate from its outcome (getting the funding - or not), and that this was quite different from most professional occupations that are focused on goals that are more intangible.

This is not to say that writers in the development sector should write for writing's sake alone. Researchers and writers often feel free with the time of their marginalized subjects, ask them intimate questions, and then write up their findings in journals that are only accessible to other academics. However, the question of how to "give back" to your research subjects is easier asked than answered. When asked by the potential funders of the innovation adoption project how we would give back to our research subjects, I hesitated to assume that they would be interested in our findings. When we struggled with the Manual, which was intended solely to be of practical use to rural communities, would they really be interested in the characteristics that make them adopt an innovation?

Perhaps when research discovers certain unknown facts, these can be easily "given back" to communities. Perhaps if I had produced a coffee table book, this would have been satisfying to my interviewees, who often spoke to me with pride at the thought that the places and rituals that were important to them, would be captured in print and pictures for the world to see. However, it was really the contradiction, and its analysis, that I wanted to convey to them, as it was these that I felt had the potential to remedy the environmental deterioration of the groves.

Analysis is much more difficult to convey, but here too, pictures may have a role to play. I've been really inspired by the work of The Honeybee Collective, that makes large, unbelievably complex posters of issues that affect the poor, based on travelling to these communities, and understanding their analysis of the problem. The posters are then taken back to the communities for further analysis and discussion.

I am looking out for future projects in which I can explore these ideas of research and analysis using images with the poor.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Strange Partners To Development: Beauty

The first few posts of this blog should have already told you that the development sector is one that is very close to my heart. However, in some sense I have always felt like a misfit in this sector. Now that I am no longer employed in the sector, I have been able to take a step back and give this some more thought.

The idea that I am playing with is that I have always been at the margins of this sector because my main interests are those that are considered peripheral to it. As I love Venn diagrams, please visualize this idea with me as one of them. At the center of the diagram is a circle marked "development". Along its perimeter are three other circles, labeled "beauty", "culture" and "writing". My interests lie in the areas where these three circles overlap with the central one.

Saying that I am at the margins of development makes me feel empowered. My undergraduate training in anthropology made me sensitive to the fact that it is often those at the margins of a community who are best able to comment and reflect upon it. If the development sector is my community, then I like to think of myself as that marginal person. In the next three blog posts, I am going to talk about each one of my interests, respectively, and how they overlap with "development".

When development practitioners narrate their experiences, they often begin with how they came to the sector. I can think of a few examples of where these stories begin with encountering someone who is poor, and questioning how this person came to be in this situation. At the core of these stories is the experience of being troubled by inequality, or injustice. I suspect that there are many more stories like this.

My story was somewhat different. For all of my childhood I was an NRI (Non-Resident Indian). We visited India almost every year, but we only visited the cities, where most of my relatives lived. That was until I turned 14, when my mother decided that as most of India lives in the villages, I needed to see what that India was about.

We went to see the work of Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, a women's development organization in the state of Gujarat. Kutch is in the desert and little grows there, so it is really their livestock and their craft traditions that are central to the lives of people.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, that trip was an intellectual and emotional awakening for me. But if I leave aside the intellectual motivations that prodded me towards the development sector, there are a few, select images and emotions that are seared across my mind in memory of that trip. The first is the shock of arriving in a village after dark, glowing white and spotless in comparison with the rural towns we had left behind, which unfortunately seem defined in India by their dirtiness. Of drinking the sweet milk fresh from the guest cow, and of sleeping under stars that had nothing to outshine, but did so anyway. And the white of this village in contrast with the riot of colours of this region's craft tradition, the mirrors of the Jat women stitched so painstakingly close to one another, and yet allowing an exuberant orange to push through the cracks.

The next villages I visited, three years later, were in Andhra Pradesh's Mehbubnagar district, a world away from the desert of Kutch, yet still starved of that most precious element, water. While the dry earth told of suffering, there was also a beauty to it, at the places where the parched, zigzagging lines met the solid, red and white stripes of the temples dotting the countryside.

Lately I have spent less time in the field, but more time observing and thinking about how development issues are portrayed through images. I recently attended an exhibition called Poster Women II. The title of the exhibition, "Painting Our World: Women's Messages Through Art", encapsulated the sense of unease that it left me with. The second part of the title was straightforward - the exhibits were by rural women, largely using traditional art forms to convey messages related to development. However, if the first part of the title was to fulfill its promise, then surely developmental issues were only one (albeit important) part of women's worlds? Surely rural women suffer flights of imagination, and experience love and the pain of loss, just as others do? Where were these themes in the women's art?

Of course, there were some exceptions. The most memorable piece for me was one where the entire page was covered with women on bicycles. This piece, and one other that did not have a clear developmental message, can be seen here. The artist behind the women on bicycles is Teju ben.

Why is beauty important, not only to art, but to development? An article from the New York Times News Service, published on April 15th in The Hindu, reported 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 tried to pressure The Lancet, which published the findings, from releasing the information until certain meetings about maternal and child health take place in June and as late as December. The advocates were worried that they would not win support for more foreign aid for maternal health if the good news was made known.

Assuming a worst-case scenario, in which funding is denied for maternal health because deaths are in decline, then this might be the fallout of viewing recipients of aid solely as problems for development. Instead, if the goal of aid is to ensure that women are healthy, lead physically active lives, are mobile, independent and free, then reducing deaths is clearly not enough. Which vision of health does a page covered with women on bicycles convey?

Can beauty ever be detrimental to development? Absolutely. Images of women carrying water pitchers, and tribals wearing face paint and feathers, often grace ads for tourism to developing countries. These images, and the "attractions" associated with them, can ensure that women are not relieved of the drudgery of fetching water, and that tribal societies are forced to remain static against their will. So what I am advocating is not simply the production and circulation of "happy images" of rural life, but rather the use of art and beauty to paint a more holistic picture, of the recipients of development aid as people who experience joy and suffering, who live in places that are beautiful and harsh, and who have dreams and aspirations in their own right.