Why you shouldn’t fall for ‘development’…

People are often, excited and tremendously, when they find out I work in what we like to call the ‘development sector’. Words like wow, passion, doing-your-bit and such get thrown about a lot. The more I hear stuff like this, the more disconcerted I feel.

The ‘development sector’ in India is one of the poorest performing sectors ever. I can make this statement because, the size of the development sector in India has never been accurately measured, there are no meta-analytical studies that estimate its size or ROI and there are only some arbitrary anecdotal pieces of evidence that constitute ‘impact’.

Most of these pieces of evidence aren’t based on a standard framework or analysis and so there is no meaningful way to measure improvement. I can also make this statement because – in all my years (which are not those many!) I have met very few people (none actually, but I keep hearing about such people) who are uniquely qualified to work with development.

The vast majority of non-profit CEOs are either MBAs or investment bankers. Most mid-management are either engineers, doctors, journalists who decided that it was now ‘time’ to work with development. I’m a staunch supporter of transferable skills. An MBA can bring valuable information about organisational effectiveness (in theory only :P) to an NGO, for example.

However, here is my problem. To practice medicine, you need to have had a degree in medicine, to become an advocate you need to demonstrate knowledge of the law. To become an educator or a non-profit professional; you only need to have ‘smarts’ and ‘passion’. Is this the best rigour we can bring to something we consider so important?

The point is, the ‘development’ sector is a myth. There really isn’t such a thing. If there were – it wouldn’t be so under-evolved. To see what I mean, consider project management. Project management is an IT curse. It’s a great tool that has been studied and dissected and forced-upon generations of coders for years. Its documented and you can even be a certified professional at it. Anything even remotely close or institutionalised for development? No.

Interestingly, nothing has ever been developed in-house. Instead, we know, that the social-sector side of the TATAs likes logic frameworks/models (borrowed from the military), DFID has its own propriety project framework and the rest of us try desperately to capture learning achievement and gender empowerment through PERT charts and Work Breakdown Structures.

The truth about the ‘development sector’ in India (and yes I work in it) is that none of us really know what we are doing. Nobody understands what ‘development’ means, what we should measure, how we should measure, what tools we should use and if there is any point at all to doing all that we – in a coherent clear-headed manner. The arrogance is sometimes astounding. And it kills the beauty of making an effort, the process of discovery and the opportunity that those of us who work in this sector have – which is to learn first.

Housing Husbands…

I want to buy a house. I’m a single, salaried (ahem well-salaried) woman. I need a home loan. I did some research. Turns out Indian banks will give me a loan that is roughly five times my annual income. Unfortunately for me, the value of the property I intend to buy, is more than five times my annual income.

In order to enhance my loan amount I can do three things: a) find a better paying job and then apply for a loan, b) get a better degree and c) find a husband. Let’s let point ‘a’ be for the moment. I always knew MBAs had a distinct advantage in the world, but having a husband? Oh how biased is the world against the single woman.

So now I want to buy a husband.

I can’t be the only single woman in the world who needs an enhanced house loan. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if there was an informal market for husbands. Imagine….

A market where one could pick a husband by his loan-enhancement capability. The MBA men will be the most pricey. The market would then be flooded with fake MBA types – enter rating agencies to certify the authenticity of house-loan-enhancing-would-be husbands. Such a rating agency would work exactly the way a credit rating agency does. When the size of the market grows and banks finally catch-on, the government will abolish the husband requirement.

Why then make husbands a housing-loan enhancement criteria in the first place?


Monopolizing TED

This post is an opinion. It is important that I state this upfront given the probability that its likely to be taken badly. This post is an opinion. Re-Stated. Opinion. Period.

Lately, I’ve become a big fan of saying things ‘upfront’ along with becoming a fan of ‘staying in the loop’, ‘re-defining impact’, ‘being on the same page’ and the like, but all that is a story for a different day.

TEDIndia is happening. TED has been ‘happening’, in a better way – for longer. Years ago, when TED found me – I spent several days downloading mp4 (s) to my Ipod. Qualitatively, what made the videos/talks different, was the fact that they celebrated the ‘small fry’, voices that haven’t been heard before.

Now take a look at the TEDIndia’s speakers list.

If you work with development in India – almost all those names are familiar to you. Where are the new ideas? Where is the innovation? A huge percentage of the potential speakers represent the ‘social enterprise’ space, there are also the ‘microfinance guys’, the ‘development economists’ and all then some more.

Some of these guys have done great work in the past. They’ve shaped the development space into what it currently is. They’ve also run out of ideas. Not to mention the ‘legendary-ness” of Usha Uthup.

Clearly, many of these people are established ‘greats’ with good reason. They’re excellent speakers and ,yes, maybe those of in this niche ‘development’ sector do know them – but this is about Global Recognition (with G and R in CAPITALS).

I beg to differ – clearly this is about fund raising and hobnobbing. Nothing wrong with that, just state it upfront.

So here’s my quibble — the idea was for TED bring ‘inspired’ thinking to the rest of us. On this front, TEDIndia – well you’ve failed me.

PS: This post, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that boss(es) are also on the speakers list. 😛


A friend who works with ‘Education’ (as we in the third sector often like to put it) once told me ” In India its difficult enough to obtain an education without having to worry about its quality too”.

I like to believe in the potential of private enterprise to do do wonders for education, professor James Tooley’s new book – the beautiful tree, does a great job of pointing how this might be plausible with primary education.

I’m also a long seasoned advocate of the Friedman argument that the Government has no business being in business. In India there is no business quite as complicated (both on the regulatory scenario front and on the potential impact front) as the business of higher education.

The argument against the utility of certification and regulatory roadblocks to offering and receiving higher education more common sense than anything else.

Sadly though, when one takes sides one often (and I am guilty of this in more ways than one) — one forgets to account for the losers in the short-run. Take the ICFAI mess in the cities of Hyderabad and Jaipur for instance.

So what can you do, as a student – while the rest of us sit and pontificate about the merits and demerits of who should be in the business of education or who shouldn’t?

Take a look at this article which suggests that students’ check the following four things before committing a good year or more of their lives to an ‘institution’ –

a. Is the Institution awarding the degree, either a valid University or Deemed to be University? If yes, is it operating within its authorized jurisdiction?

b. Does the course/ programme have the approval of the relevant professional council?

c. Does the institution have valid accreditation?

d. Is the institution awarding the degree a member of the Association of Indian Universities?

I recommend everyone who is contemplating any sort of higher education (in India) read this piece thouroughly!

As the author points out towards the end:

“…it is important that students know the regulatory environment in the field of higher education in India. Knowing the legal requirements and taking reasonable care in these matters can help the youth of this country avoid losing money and precious years to well marketed, money-oriented educational business empires. It is certainly better to be careful than to be sorry!”

The 29C Effect

BusEveryday in the morning I wake up at 07:00 a.m to the constant beeping of my cellphone. I then press ‘snooze’ and get back under my sheet.

I do this at least three times on average and end up waking up at 07:30 a.m. I then rush through a bath, put on a thoroughly unmatched Kurta over ancient jeans and walk through a mini-swamp, a pile of stones, huge piles of cow-dung and some lousy construction to reach the famous ECR road.

By this time it is usually exactly 08:20 a.m.

At this point I slowly melt into the motley bunch of fisher women, harried mothers’ with school bags and children in tow, men looking for casual labour, the day-shift call center executive and the proverbial IT kid. We all then compete with each other to stuff ourselves into already over crowded share-autos.

Share autos are just larger three wheelers with open sides that make up for the fact that they are not quite large enough.

Once I succeed at getting into one of these I make my honking journey across ECR to Thiruvanmiyur bus stand. This entire painful routine usually ends up guaranteeing me a seat in my all-time favourite bus – the 29C AC special.

The AC specials are ultra-modern ‘low-floor, high-seat, music-blaring, air-conditioned, automated-swinging-door, uniformed conductor and polite driver’ specials. They are lovely.  They are also white with huge advertisements painted in bold colours across them. And there are just two leaving every hour.

I have a favourite seat, its in the back half of the bus. Second from the front, near the windows that the 29C occupants can see out of but that people on the road can’t see through. I wait to pay the conductor my 23 rupees and then listen to my iPod till I get to Sterling road.

The 29C community is a small bunch of people. A retired army officer who does strategic consulting at some shady Nungambakkam firm, a real well meaning middle-aged aunty who has a bad leg and requests an unscheduled stop at the Chola Sheraton, the three college girls who talk about the ‘worst lectures’ ever who get off at Stella and the quirky young chap with a stubble like Abhishek Bacchan — carrying a pink bag and reading a book on fashion design.

We see each other every day. Some of us smile, some of us even say good morning. Most of us know we are in this bus together sharing a journey. We wait together when our beloved bus is later and express surprise if even one us misses a day in the week. The 29C effect calmed me, prepared me for office and battles of the day, made me belong to a bunch of comfort-seeking yet poor members of the ‘middle-class’.

From 6th of March i will cease to be a part of these people’s lives and their stories. I will never know if the effeminate guy won his art competition, if the aunty managed to get her sons to fix the fuse, if the girls managed to bunk their classes or if the tired wage worker managed to save up to recharge his phone to tell his son in Perambur that he now uses an AC bus.

Another two days and the inexplicably comforting 29C effect will be history. No wait, it will go on to write histories that no one will ever read.  I will no longer be a character on its stage. Stop the bus, I want to get off…

Map Trap

I fail to understand why nobody has ever created a bus-route map of Chennai.

Creating a map should be a fairly straightforward business. Chennai buses do operate on time schedules — approximate time schedules yes, but still, time-schedules nevertheless.

Some 72% of Chennai’s population travels by bus thanks to obnoxiously high auto prices and yet first-time travelers or simply unseasoned bus users have no access to the simplest of all transportation information – which bus goes where and where does it stop.

Guaranteed, this is a difficult task and not one that can necessarily remain up to date, Chennai bus routes are plagued with way too many passengers and new diversions every now and then. Despite this, it ought not to be impossible to create a map with bus-stops and common bus numbers! Even if the effort turned out to be only an approximate representation of reality.

Common sense suggests that most rational people need a starting point, a reference or a flag-post of sorts from which they can extrapolate. This is how most decision making works. A proximate guide is as good an indicator as any in this case.

The lack of bus-route maps has nothing to do with the success of spontaneous order, it has to with a market failure of sorts; this is exactly what Hernando De Soto talked about- information is available and stored collectively (say in the minds of daily bus users) and yet for some odd reason there doesn’t seem to be any way to fix this information into a useful form; a map!

In the meantime, I appeared to have picked up one ‘American’ habit- listening to my i-pod on long lonely bus and train journeys to Kanchipuram and Nungambakkam occasionally amused by a cow, goat or a peculiar blade of grass.

PS: Here’s an excellent piece on Reason explaining the connection (actually, the lack of) between the bailout and free markets.

The Passport Chronicles

I now have a new shiny passport with a really strange picture.

Here’s what I learnt through the process:

1) Never ever lose your passport! Do not carry it with you for identification purposes, lest some evil soul steals your bag – ’cause the mountain of pain to follow is so excruciating that it might well be termed a ‘life changing’ process; you’ll be marred, scarred, irritable and exhausted beyond measure.

2) If you do end up having to apply for a new passport be prepared to encounter the holy trinity of Ps in the A ; the passport office, the police station and the post office.

3) Do not assume that there is anything such as a ‘Tatkal’ service, things are only relatively tatkal – meaning instead of one month, if you really really tried your passport might reach you in ten days time; but wait; the fee you paid was for ‘3’ days delivery – yes sir!  Well it did take three days – three days to make, another three days to dispatch, another three days to travel from post office A to post office B (four km apart!) and another three days to reach in all probability, except they forget that really ‘determined’ people have voices that can shout.

4) Be prepared to discover that the climate consistently conspires to make you perspire; also be prepared to discover that all vendors conveniently located near the passport office will only sell thirst enhancing fizzy drinks, not thirst-quenching water or juice.

5) Discover the joy of bribing police men to write down a complaint and blame the bribe on ‘the boys’ who will get the job done.

5) Learn how to keep your patience with impolite passport officials who express surprise at your ignorance about passport procedures that change once every ten-days without any public announcement.

6) Meet Mr. PIS-ON (yes, that is gross), the ‘Passport Information System On Net’ – which is accessible only to the holy passport officials. Further, discover how the inefficiency of the PISON can help you in unfathomable ways- for example, solve a complicated issue with a non-expired passport that is wrongly declared expired!

7) Discover how absurd regulations like a photo copy of a lost passport is required to apply for a fresh one, or how an under secretary is required to vouch for your character, or how affidavits are prepared with ruthless efficiency in the informal market or better still how you have to self-attest the authenticity of your own documents!

8) Be prepared for an unpleasant three days between which you will have no clue where your passport is – the undocumented journey of the local post across four kilometres.

9) Understand that applying for a passport is a valuable experience because its the closest you’ll ever get to living a cross between a Salvador Dali painting and a Kafkaesque nightmare.

10) Be prepared to let out delighted whoops of joy when you dash across dusty roads in a rickety vehicle (with a poised pen-tip) to reach home and sign for your passport finally, where an unwilling post man is held hostage by a family member dangling currency notes.

This is what hell must be like, no?


The web has had a lot of interesting stuff floating around this week- or maybe its just that I have had more time to sit up and take notice lately.

Web Worker daily has a fascinating post about a positive web presence and getting a good job. Green technology just got a thumbs up with Tesla Roadster, a 100-percent electric car inspired by PC technology that is clean, green and the ultra-cool machine.

More exciting stuff on the PC front- Yahoo is doling out unlimited e-mail storage to its mail users— one could now consider forgiving them for the awful YahooMail Beta interface. PC Mag has a nice article on Web 3.0 and an even nicer one on customizing Vista if you’ve made the Vista transition.

CSE (although I disagree with most of what it says most times) has some interesting analysis of social sector spending in the union budget. It is also offering an opportunity to work with NREGA evaluation, if anyone is looking for voluntary work in the summer. The CSE controversy on pesticides has also reached a resolution of sorts- read about it here.

Happy reading!


Sometime ago, I wrote a post entitled ‘Praying to Trees‘, the point I was trying to make then was about turning environmental protection into a religion. Environmental fanaticism is neither new nor pretty, in fact sometimes its clearly off-putting, even for those who are inherently sympathetic to the green cause. Take a look at PC Format’s report on Antony Lewis.

For those of you, who don’t know Antony Lewis is the architect of the rather brilliant and extraordinarily useful freeware utility- WordWeb.  I’ve used WordWeb for a long time and quite happily. Perhaps that is why the attempt to sing the green tune by its maker is painful.

Lewis in an interview says, “Climate change is an international crisis. By linking prices to customers’ carbon footprint we can provide an incentive for people to cut down. WordWeb is used worldwide, including in many countries such as India with rapidly expanding economies where awareness of climate change is growing only slowly. Software developers and Internet companies can reach an international audience consisting precisely of those people who are most likely to have unsustainable lifestyles. We hope the new licensing model will increase awareness of the high environmental cost of air travel and encourage people to fly less.”

Sigh. I have several questions, of which the pertinent ones are these: How on Earth are frequent fliers going to be told apart from other users? Unless of course you intend to illegally monitor surfing habits and draw correlation, in which case I would rather unhappily call WordWeb Spyware now. 

I’m all for green incentives, but this really is not one of them! Now if Microsoft were to do something about dirty manufacturing I would understand–but targeting Indian’s who have just about started off with low-cost airlines is a bit much! Here’s the problem, the idea of free software is a commitment to free as in freedom and not a space to push ideology that not all people necessarily buy!

More importantly, daft things like this takes away from the seriousness of environmental movements, that have in the third world much more to do with marginalised communities and subsistence livelihoods as opposed to over-consumption. Skewed incentives, is what it is. Sigh.

Laboured Children

Another day, another law. The UPA government has just passed legislation on child labour- banning it, as expected. There are several things to be said about this; the first being that this legislation is a huge victory for human rights. Secondly, much of its success depends upon implementation– which has in the past been far from perfect. The third and perhaps the most important aspect is that this bit of legislation is incomplete.

The new legislation creates lots of problems. To begin with– who or what will fill the domestic help gap for the middle class? What could be as efficient and yes as cheap as young domestic help? In India, banning is as good as offering the police the opportunity to slip in bribes and turn a blind eye yet again. The reason the legislation is incomplete is precisely this. Assume for a moment that implementation takes place. Scared middle class households and small shops throw out their young domestic labour, where do these children go? Where do they earn alternate employment? Who is to make them go to school? In effect, where Mr. Prime Minister is the back up plan?

The government estimates that, overall, India has 12.6 million child workers (unofficial estimates place the figures closer to 40 million), of whom somewhere around a million may be employed in homes and restaurants. It seems rather absurd to believe that India will manage to implement its new law for such large numbers when it is still struggling with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in about two-hundred districts.

As Harjot Kaur, director of child labour within the Ministry of Labor and Employment said, “Child labour is not a problem that you can resolve overnight. It is not that today you come up with an act and tomorrow it is eradicated. This is a gradual process.”. So now, child labour is illegal, but what about the roof and the bit of food that has been taken away too?