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?


Snazz and Pretty(ness)…

Development intervention evaluations are lousy for a bunch of reasons.

Organizations tend to overestimate their ‘impact’ – because they forget that their results are valid only for the population they track across time. They forget that ‘impact’ is subject to particular geographies, economic conditions, culture, aspirations and the opportunity costs beneficiaries place on participating in the intervention.

But there isn’t anything unduly surprising about this situation. After all development runs on funds and funds go to those who have the best impact. Sorry – let me rephrase to those who demonstrate the best impact.

If validity of research and impact doesn’t concern you – you aren’t alone. So what if people massage the data a bit or design studies to show a particular effect? In the end, people are ’empowered’ with all sorts of things right?

Children are empowered to go to school, parents are empowered to have ‘safe sex’ and communities are empowered to drink freshwater…. NB: Just don’t ask by how much!

I’m now a development sector person – so here is what I sit and do all day at a premiere development sector organization; answer questions.

Sample this:

If I said 7.2% of all children in India in the age group of X & Y do this – it is the same thing as saying 7.2% of all TV watching children in the same age-group do this, right?

My job description says I should be available at all times to answer ad hoc data requests to support other staff. Data pornographer.

But wait there is more . The ever present request for snazzy graphs and pretty graphs. I have nothing against good looking graphs. In fact, data visualization is a lovely discipline.

Nevertheless – there is something particularly vile about a request for a pretty/snazzy graph in the absence of good data. A poorly coloured graph which has some half-way decent data to show can still make a tonne of sense. But when a picture of a graph is sent you and you are asked to recreate a pretty version in excel – you know it is a lost battle.


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!”


There was a point in my life when I was a fan of ’causes’. Not the Facebook app.

Friends would remember me as someone of strong opinions, strong ideals… as someone convinced of themselves. Wholly. Fully given to a set of beliefs and someone who always wore the same lens through which she saw the world.

Now I’m a different person – I ask why, how, do those numbers stack up?

A couple of years ago when an activist organization sent me an e-mail about the ‘evil’ of big corporations — I would do pass it around to everyone I knew and all those who happened to be on my contact list by accident.

Today I chanced upon another one of those e-mails (usually deleted these days without even a glance) and it caused me to ponder just how sensationalist and non-rigourous it was and consequently how sensationalist and non-rigourous by extension I must have been. 

There is nothing very surprising about this in itself. People grow up. Intelligence arrives as do wisdom teeth.

This particular mail I got had to do with the formerly christened Swine Flu now — now known by its more austere name the H1N1 virus.  This e-mail originated from a group of ‘concerned citizens’, whose sworn mission is to oppose large corporate entities they regularly blame for damaginf the environment, perpetuating hunger in the third world, sustaining child soldiers and now also causing Swine Flu. 

If you are like me, you already smell a rat, or a pig — as the case might be. To be anti-corporate entities for economic reasons, labour rights and so on is understandable. But to connect them to Swine Flue is an example of hijacking am event to strengthen the case of cause without any established causality.

Sample these statements from the e-mail I received – wait, forge the statements, here is the title “The Truth About Swine Flu”; did you know there was a lie involved? I didn’t. Insinuation number 1.                                                                    

Now to the statements — No-one yet knows whether swine flu will become a global pandemic, but it is becoming clear where it came from – most likely a giant pig factory farm run by an American multinational corporation in Veracruz, Mexico.” Notice, GIANT AMERICAN MULTINATIONAL CORPORATION —  advocacy communications at its best.

“These factory farms are disgusting and dangerous, and they’re rapidly multiplying.” – Incidentally, bolds are all as they are in the e-mail. Notice, DISGUSTING and DANGEROUS – also rapidly multiplying; here is my question – links, footnotes, data?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) must investigate and develop regulations for these farms to protect global health.” Global health of course, is merely a function of regulating pig farms. Snort. 

“Big agrobusiness will try to obstruct and scuttle any attempts at reform” , ahem, substantiate?! 

If we reach 200,000 signatures we will deliver it to the WHO in Geneva with a herd of cardboard pigs. For every 1000 petition signatures we will add a pig to the herd” (italics my own) – This is how seriosuly we want to take global health and swine flu – not policy, not a serious study of what ‘regulations’ might work – but cardboard pigs, sure. Bring ’em on!

“Smithfield itself has already been fined $12.6m and is currently under another federal investigation in the US for toxic environmental damage from pig excrement lakes.”…a combination of increased global meat consumption and a powerful industry motivated by profit…”, and yet because there is a market for pork apparently there isn’t enough regulation! Snort. 

Swine Flu, let me state, is something that calls for serious research and action. However, what it does not call for, is hijacking of its intrinsic importance by an anti-profit, anti-corporations bandwagon that does little else than hollar about regulations and practise strategic communication games to get ints finger on the world’s issues-pie. 


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…

The Business of Being Lonely

lonely-1I need a new place to go to and if people didn’t hire-by-the-blog I would say more. All through this trauma I’ve felt a cold updraft blowing up my neck.

I’m surrounded by people who say they care. “Don’t worry”,  “come on, you know you’re talented”, “why should you have any trouble finding a job”, “its not your fault”, “don’t be silly girl, you are so bright” – the constant refrain.

It rings in my ears, swims around in my brain and I still can’t deal with it.

They call me and mail me because they’re concerned… “I can’t believe this has happened to you”, “there must be something wrong with people where you work”, “the organization must have a history”, “maybe you just don’t fit”, “this is how the sector works” and the king of all kind words is this one – “Its all for the larger good” ….. SIGH.

And I get tired. Writing the same old applications, back to square one from six months ago.

The trouble is this is not what I want to hear.

I don’t want to be told I am good, the hell with it – I know I am, or rather was, good at what I did. I certainly know I was better than most average people.

I know, for example, that I added value, made things efficient and I poured my heart into it just like Howard Schultz did. Maybe not at the same scale, but certainly I tried. He ended up with Star Bucks. Look at where I am… don’t even have enough of a bank balance for a blessed burnt coffee from a lousy Barista down the road.

Its not even that its recession, that my firm ran out of money or even that ‘losing the job’ perse that matters.

Some part of me felt (and knew, albeit wrongly) all through life  that anything I gave a fair shot to would end up being a success.

I’ve been schooled to believe that the bright come out first, and that in my case, in most instances — laziness got in between. So how am I here now? At this juncture – out without a job like so many others (but not quite like them), too late to go back to grad school, missed the bus on all scholarships and with little hope or faith that I will land another job anytime soon.

Welcome to the business of being lonely. This is how it feels to have landed a great job, worked hard and then be thrown out. This is what it feels like to be honest and put in effort and then become a pawn in an entirely new game you never knew the sophisticated souls around you were playing.

The business of being lonely is characterized by a strong sense of anger (mostly self-directed), a large dose of disappointment, a reality-check cum slap-in-face (choose what you prefer), a huge looming sense of disillusionment and the need to hear the right thing from people around and be totally disappointed on that front too.

People make it their business to sympathize – but its in the business of being lonely where the little things start to hurt. The fact that others around you earn, have busy lives which they expect you to understand because after all you were once there yourself, the fact that well meaning others will constantly tell you that its not a big deal – and just because you don’t mope decide that you are so strong that making jokes about it wont hurt either.

The business of being lonely is big business. Its so big it will swamp you in its enormity, it will dwarf all other concerns, zap your energy and make others impatient with you.

It is after all efficient, who has the time for emotions – the world is pragmatic and if I don’t pull up my non-existent socks someone else will walk away with the Gucci boots.

Where are we headed?

Its raining and it doesn’t stop.

I trudge and wade through streets flooded with brown water –  the television and newspapers are also flooded with news of Mumbai’s latest horror story, the burning domes of the Taj, lost lives at Leopold and the people whose lives were lost on a shooting spree in a police vehicle.

Seems almost surreal, like something out of a good new age cinema film – only we can’t just walk out of the cinema hall and applaud the good screenplay.

So, while I trudged out in the pouring rain two incidents came back to me in ‘TechniColour’.  a Diwali shopping venture at Sarojini Nagar and the bomb blast that followed – the panic, the flames and the desire to be extraordinarily cowardly and run.

Cut- to a different country – an upscale furnished apartment in Washington and the news of some six plus bombs in Ahmadabad. Me trying to figure out what was going wrong with India – desperately searching for Indian news channels on television, calling friends and reaching an annoying beeping sound every single time.

I didn’t lose anybody either time, and not this time either. But I do lose a little of myself every time. Why kill? Why bomb? Why derail an entire system, a city and an entire people?

A little bit of myself goes cold – with fear, with revulsion and with the thought that we all just took another giant step backwards – we went from civilized negotiation to fist fights, from speeches to squeezing life out of throats and perhaps just witnessed the start of yet another violent uprising against a particular people.

What is there to be said? Resilience only goes so far.

Persistent Questions

Some questions require critical thinking to answer. Such questions are by definition rigorous- a rigorous question requires answers that are beyond a hypothesis.

Then we have yet another class of questions- questions that are like nagging doubts – these cannot be answered fully and most likely suffer from having failed to become what is popularly known as a Fermi problem.

A Fermi problem is a question so designed that it generates a well judged proximate response. Elsewhere, in this blog – I have discussed how proximates are good enough to make decisions. Anyhow, what (Enrico) Fermi was good at and what Fermi problems are meant to do is to test how strong a set of assumptions are and how they bear out without the availability of much data.

I see this happening around me all the time, a good project manager has to in some sense answer Fermi problems everyday.

Why don’t people follow procedures when they have been explicitly laid out? Why don’t households opt for credit schemes which are to their obvious advantage? Why don’t risk-sharing designs work on the ground the way they do in development economic models? Is money supply endogenous? Will Lehman cause the next great depression? Why does income and saving vary across groups to which discrimination models don’t apply?

The great art to project management is unlearning the science of sufficient assumptions, it is to accept constant refinement and probably much more.

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.