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.

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!”

A Working Mystery

Unless you are a qualified professional or an IT person in India; chances are you can identify with what I am just about to say.

You begin job hunting —  you’ve spent a fair sum of money obtaining a higher education, a bunch of degrees, you’ve been a good and dedicated student and an active participant in extra-curricular activities. By no means are you a blithering idiot or a fool and therefore you feel entitled to a well paying job.

Now here’s the problem- every job you look for and feel qualified for will state minimum requirements along the lines of “5 to 8 years experience”.  If students are busy getting qualified how are they supposed to have that kind of full-time experience? Unless of course they are expected to also work while studying, which is against collegiate law in most full-time university courses.

Higher education is supposed to qualify you to handle jobs that simple graduates cannot- which I gather is why people spend time and money doing it. If you emerge from a higher degree and still find the job market biased towards a decade of experience how are you supposed to deal with it? Simply put, where do students get this decade of experience? If no one wants to pay or hire articulate, young and bright yet inexperienced people – how do they become the ‘experienced’ people these companies want?

One solution is the ‘internship’ idea which works remarkably well in some cultural and national contexts, for example, in America. The only reason it works is because potential employers are willing to consider internships in lieu of full-time working experience. Most times they do; they also carefully consider waitress experience, window-washer experience and even the experience of planning a wedding!

A career counselor in Washington asked me rather quizzically why the  ‘internships’ on my resume were simply not put-down as ‘work-experience’. I had a hard time explaining that in India internships are not generally acceptable as quasi work-experience qualifications; at least employers don’t see it that way. In my lifetime – I am yet to see an Indian company hire a data quality person who has McDonald’s on their resume.

So we have a problem. One plausible explanation is that Indian internships, except at premiere institutions, are simply not ‘good enough’. Employers demand such exorbitant years of experience because candidates with lesser experience are simply not good enough.

This however seems like a fairly poor explanation to me two counts; the first one is best explained by an analogy to Indian sports (think Beijing Olympics) — how is it that a billion people seem to be able to produce only three world-class sportsmen? In a similar vein, what is it about the Indian education system or the job market that makes the vast majority of college graduates unemployable? The second reason for my skepticism is simply that the explanation is not intuitive enough to be true.

The truth seems to be mid-way and is really an economic phenomenon. Increasing the ‘experience required’ section narrows the pool of applicants which makes an HR person’s job much simpler. Just as most of the hiring in any company is done first through network exploration and lastly through the Internet.

Understanding this simple truth is like crossing a huge ice filled river with deep dangerous crevices to arrive upon a gigantic smoking sausage and a cup of hot chocolate. Strangely enough most job seekers begin their job searches on the Internet and turn to their networks last. In my case which I suspect is rather ‘normal’ this has more to do with self-esteem than extreme stupidity.

In India reducing the HR executive’s load is a vital exercise mostly because we turn out a huge number of potential employees from educational institutions, who are at the very least ‘formally qualified’. Reducing the number of applicants is therefore one way of reducing huge transaction costs and makes things easier.

Unhappily for a job-seeker, the incentives too are designed to make this system work and sustain itself. Because people are seldom paid what they deserve and even less so in response to the amount they actually work; there is a fairly large pool of people with a decade plus of experience who will work for peanuts. My network mostly consists of such people, which, explains the bit about self-esteem.

There are other powerful incentive structures in place to skew the job market and the economics of hire-and-fire. One of the more apparent of these is the simple fact that by hiring people with ‘at least half a decade or more of experience’ companies bypass training costs for their employees. A new recruit is almost always more costly than a more experienced one, especially in a situation where jobs are fewer and farther in between than there are people to claim them. By increasing the amount of experience required of potential candidates employers offset training costs to themselves at the expense of a prior company who actually invested in the recruit when he/she was new.

This, of course, is of no consequence whatsoever to the average job-seeker who jumps at the opportunity of a marginal pay raise in a new company. There is nothing surprising about this sort of behavior. Indeed a systematic study of the resumes of people ‘forty and above’ versus ‘thirty or below’ will reveal similar truths.

The vast majority of those who started working before higher-education exploded (which is vaguely linked to the arrival of the computer generation in India and the persistent presence of the government in higher education) have changed as few as three companies in their entire career spans, the more eccentric of these get to five. Contrast this with the BPO happy crowd and you will see a plethora of companies all over their resumes, a vast majority of these companies don’t even make it to the candidate’s CV thanks to space concerns and a ‘job-hippy’ tag.

Why does this happen? I reckon this has to do with the fact that job loyalty has hardly any benefits in India. This too is a consequence of the large pool of candidates companies can choose from. The costs of re-hiring, conventionally known as ‘menu-costs’ in economics, in the whole scheme of things are now negligible.

Little wonder then that more and more young people desperate to beat the ‘experience barrier’ fake everything from degree divisions to references and now increasingly ‘experience’ on their fancy templated resumes written on pirated versions of Microsoft Word. You have to admit the temptation to do so is strong – so strong in fact that there is unlikely to be a better man-made designed incentive structure to get people out of their beds and to work every single day of the week.

Companies are now moving towards investigative firms that do ‘background checks’ – which is all rather pointless given the incentives for these companies to ‘fake’ background reports themselves is astronomically high.  India will have yet another informal information market functioning in the blink of an eye and it will be perhaps be one of the most effecient prototypes the world has seen so far.


Washington Metro StationIts taken me almost ten days of travel on the Washington metro to realize that it is a public transportation system that actually uses peak-load pricing rather effectively. Traveling from Crystal City to Dupont Circle everyday at office hours (between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.)  in the morning, for example, costs $2.16. Coming back the same way not at office hours (sometime in the afternoon) costs $1.60.

The difference between prices seemed curious at first and I was baffled how someone would potentially calculate and plan their expenditure for the week on transportation if the prices changed so arbitrarily. For a while I even thought it was gas prices causing the price to go up till I discovered the lower price on a fine Thursday afternoon, only to feel stupid when I realized that these metro trains run on electricity not gas. That would be all too unreliable in India where electricity outages are an everyday phenomenon, not true here though.

Prices change depending on the time of the day you travel. Rush hour tickets are more expensive than taking an empty yellow line to Georgetown in the afternoon. Peak-load pricing is a great example of how economics uses incentives to better everyday existence. At office hours in the morning, a train on the metro line is a scarce commodity with a lot of people competing for space on it. Those who ‘really’ need to get to work on time pay the premium and access the metro, those who can wait- do, and get the benefit of lower price when the commodity is not so scarce and therefore not so fiercely competed for.

In some sense this is the market allocating a scarce resource efficiently through prices as the signaling system. Its also a great de-congestion method, providing a disincentive to travel on the metro on peak times- the higher costs mean that at least some people will look for alternate ways to travel- by road, bus or walk. I sometimes wonder why heavily congested roads in India aren’t just converted to toll roads with peak-load pricing. Electricity too is a commodity that responds well to the idea of peak-load pricing and actually encourages the conservation of electricity well.

In India peak-load pricing works beautifully for the Internet and Telecommunication- most Indians’ are familiar with free calls from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. schemes on cellular services and free night-time surfing from Internet Service Providers. Watching peak-load pricing work in a public transportation system that I use everyday is fascinating and makes me wonder why this powerful tool isn’t used more often in Indian infrastructure and public utility provision.

Why Ad Hominem is Bad Strategy…

It never is pleasant to wear your political stance on your sleeve. I started this morning with a diatribe from someone (not named for the sake of civility) who I am sure has not even an iota worth of political clarity.  What could possibly prompt this? Most likely the fact that I am spending the summer working for an organization that ostensibly ‘Mr. Diatribe’ disagrees with.

This is what I was told in response to my ‘libertarian leanings’:

just checked on xxxxx foundation. am amazed. people like you work for free market shit in and for america and still wanna call urself indians and pretend to be theatre lovers and major book readers and god knows what other. really sad. human rights activism? u must be joking. you shud be in irag then – or palestine. but then u need the american breast to suck. sorry for this.

Spellings retained as in original!

Its taken me a while to stop laughing at this, but I have succeeded. Tearing these arguments apart is not really the focus of this post- though I shall say this:

Working at an ‘American’ think-tank is not the same as working for America. In fact, I’m not even sure what someone ever means by the phrase  “working for America”. Is a country just one giant monolith? What was the allusion to? – All capitalists in general, the entire population of Americans (who I assure you, hold a wide variety of conflicting views on most subjects- just as entire populations do in any country), the government of America? Now this is what a political philosopher would describe as a classical example of the ‘methodological individualism’ fallacy. I, of course, do not  work for any of these groups- I work to advance the cause of liberty.

The next argument is the ‘free market’ problem. This is definitely the result of misguided thinking, a corporate monopoly is NOT an example of the free market! The free market is about choice, liberty and competition- it is not about one large corporation taking over! More importantly free markets are not the same thing as ‘privatization’ (which also gets unfairly abused by quasi-uninformed- fashionable-activist cum socialists) or even liberalization or globalization – its more like a blend of all three that works in the best interests of everyone. Its a commitment to freedom.

The next argument is my favorite argument; its called the ‘Let’s kill all the Non-Resident Indians’ argument. Of all Mr Diatribe’s arguments this is probably what disturbed me the most, and that is so not just because it is completely out of context or because as a tiny aside I am not an NRI. The problem is two-fold I think. Actually manifold – but i think I will stick to two.

My first response to this is that nation-state boundaries are human constructs and human society has spent  millennia in war trying to defend them. War is probably the most counter-productive phenomenon that has plagued human productivity. I’m not sure I appreciate a sense of ‘nationalism’ that arises out of being ‘Indian’ because I was born within the boundaries of a geographical territory I had no choice about. Also globalization and free trade is probably the surest path to peace, nothing is more obvious to people: “I am better off making money as opposed to killing you”.

At a lower level of argumentation; what does being ‘Indian’ mean, and what on Earth does my place of residence have to do with being ‘Indian’?! There is a more serious objection I have to this however- prosperity spreads through voluntary exchange and therefore trade. Anyone who has even in the passing read about comparative advantage knows that. One of the reasons why India, for example, prospered through the golden ages was because we have had a history of immigrations. Immigrants brought opportunities to trade, therefore immigration is a good thing for everybody.

Why can’t we understand the NRI phenomenon the same way? NRIs (though I do have a problem with this kind of classification of people) add value to the economic system, both the Indian system and the American system and doing so ensure that their existence is a positive sum game! NRIs are not an example of capital flight. Farmers in India will not be better off if NRIs did not do business abroad and farmed instead. Bastiat is far better at explaining the phenomenon of What is Seen and What is Unseen, than I am, and this is a classical example of how that effect works.

Productivity stems from being employed in or engaged at doing what an individual is best at doing- and if that is entrepreneurship so be it! This is probably why I am not in Iraq or Palestine (though I would love to be) yet! To illustrate Mr Diatribe’s line of argumentation a little better: If you love ice cream you better only be employed at Baskin & Robbins. Hell no! Just because I love ice cream it does not mean I should narrow down my options in terms of career choices to working with ice cream firms all my life.

Here is another argument that a uninformed quasi-socialist can throw at you.  They will yell at you saying thus “someone who believes in markets is necessarily anti-human rights”. Not true. This to me represents the pinnacle of ignorance. Markets are super-efficient mechanisms that work for everyone’s benefit, if and when, they exist for everyone! The problem, as most development economists know, is not that we have too much market- but far too little.

For example, in India the formal credit market is terribly under-developed. Witness the fact that women are not a part of the formal banking system, neither are several millions of the poor. These people are also incidentally thwarted by the government in every effort towards entrepreneurship through yards and yards of regulation. Also notice that these people are called ‘pre-bankable’ in micro finance parlance (which all the uninformed quasi-socialists love), they are ‘pre-bankable’ because they hope to build up a credit history through micro finance that allows them to get into the formal credit market. But why?, yells the uniformed quasi-socialist, because micro finance loans are costly, they have higher interest rates than regular credit markets that rely on markets! What is micro finance really achieving? Its creating a market where none existed earlier, and people want to move onto more developed markets.

Markets are good, being excluded from them is bad. Markets are not mean for fairness, justice and equity- that is for the uniformed quasi-socialists. Why? Because people who understand markets know that every policy helps one group at the expense of another- we know fairness is a subjective value. We also know that efficiency works, we know prices are great signaling devices unless distorted by taxes or subsidies, we know that there is no such thing as a free lunch because opportunity costs exist and we know incentives matter. We therefore believe that the only ideological position one can legitimately take is to not justify waste (read inefficiency, not consumption waste!), so why should an ‘Indian’ with so many starving hungry people work in America for free markets? Because such Indians care about poverty, they care about allowing people to empower themselves through new markets, better trading opportunities, lesser regulation to do trade!

This is a far cry from the uninformed quasi-socialist who believes that government failures for 60 years of independence is forgivable, but not market inefficiencies (which by the way are the result of too little market, not too much!), who sits and yells about the environment degradation and rising food prices in the same breath without understanding that underpricing natural capital might actually be the cause. It is also a far cry from the uninformed quasi-socialist who for the lack of brains resorts to rhetoric and more often to abuse. Free markets are for free people who believe in liberty, for everyone. Not forced equality or a subjective standard of equity- but the opportunity for everyone to be prosperous through free trade.

Finally, the jab about culture, theater and books. I suppose it might hurt Mr. Diatribe to look at history and tell me the why the most ‘bourgeois’ nations of Europe are home to some of the world’s greatest art? Hungry people do not really make good artists, do they?  Sub-altern art in communities even in Africa and India was the result of well-fed people.  There are similar trends in history for theater and literature.

Strangely enough, I am hard-pressed to find any member of the ‘uninformed quasi-socialists’ tribe who have actually read the Das Kapital in original! Activists like Mr Diatribe above, are the torch bearers of the new pretentious half-baked hand-me-down socialist tradition who base their perceptions on doctored summaries and the most horrifically prolific Vandana Shiva. Small wonder though, considering how disastrous state-monopolized education systems are.

All this brings me to the point of this post which is rather simple. Deciding to be nasty in conversation with someone especially about political issues is probably the most unhelpful thing to do. To begin with it prompts nastiness in response, or complete silence or in some cases– a patient detailed response, like this one, which is highly unlikely. Two it is extraordinarily presumptuous to assume that one knows everything, and far worse to assume that the other person is poorly-read, stupid or just plain wrong. In my experience, I find most people have very good reasons to believe what they do- its usually ‘us’ on the other side who decide to be aggressive and nasty that need to learn common courtesy and therefore need to attempt to figure out the rationale behind the other individual’s thought process.

The writer of the diatribe of course, would attribute ‘motive’ to such a suggestion and he would be absolutely right- after all I too get to do well in a nation, country and world where most people are prosperous!

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?

Bad Evenings and Worse Mornings!

Two days ago I was in Bangalore giving an interview. One of the many questions I was asked was about relocation , I was also asked if I liked my ‘hometown’ Chennai. I remember answering in the affirmative; sure Chennai has terribly hot climate and it could be a little boring at times, but on the whole its safe and has the sea and well I generally like it. After today I think I like Chennai much less.

This evening my mom and I went in search of the i-pill, of course had I been a little less ignorant I wouldn’t have tried despite the circumstances. So this is what we did; we called our regular medical store and were told the i-pill was unavailable, so we then enquired about Norlevo, Pill 72, Ovral G and several other varieties of the ‘morning-after’ pill and found they were unavailable too. About an hour later we had set out on a walk, enquired at six different medical stores and came to naught, so we unhappily drew the conclusion that the ‘morning after’ was simply unavailable.

This struck me as absurd, Chennai – touted as the ‘medical capital’ of India had no medicines of a particular variety?, that was not all nor the the scariest part. In attempt to fill the gap, qualified chemists kept trying to convince me that ‘Mifepristone‘ a MTP Pill available usually only on prescription was the same thing. The fact is, Mifepristone is used in conjunction with other abortive pills (an abortificant) to induce an abortion below five weeks of pregnancy and is positively dangerous if taken in the place of an emergency contraceptive pill, ‘Levonorgestrel’, on the other hand, is used as part of combination oral contraceptive pill and in high doses can be used to prevent pregnancy after unprotected intercourse. Unintended consequences in a situation of information asymmetry and really nasty plausible outcomes playing out.

Apparently sometime in 2006, Tamil Nadu’s state Directorate of Drug Control (DDC) decided to take all ‘pills’ of the ‘morning after’ variety of the shelves. The provocation? Apparently the Chennai-based ‘Responsible Parents Forum’ and ‘Satvika Samuga Sevakar Sangam’ felt that the drug induces abortion (and is not a contraceptive); therefore its sale without prescription is illegal, additionally the two protesting groups claimed that there was no public debate before it was included in the Schedule M of the Drugs and Cosmetics Act (DCA), 1940 which makes the drug available over the counter.

I’m not sure whether I should be shocked about how regressive people can be or stand in awe of the stupidity involved. To begin with ’emergency contraceptive pills’ are not the same thing as abortive pills, the text of any ‘morning after pill’ explains that they are ineffective once ‘implantation’ has taken place in the womb or in other words once fertilization has happened, which is why they are termed levonorgestrel-based ECs! Abortive pills on the other hand are designed to work after this fertilization has taken place, the methods then are very different.

Chemical analysis and indeed any minimum degree of bio-chemistry knowledge easily proves that any ‘morning after’ pill contains Levonorgestrel and not Mifepristone (which is what is being sold as replacement, GASP!) as suggested by the hair-brained protesters. What is interesting is that the TN DDC has the right to seize ‘drugs; of a particular kind only if they do not adhere to prescribed standards, or are mis-branded, adulterated or spurious, I really wonder which one of these conditions apply to the ‘mornign after’? As far as is known, in the case of emergency contraceptives such as the ‘morning after’ the dosage is 0.75 mg (recommended by the Drug Controller of India) and sold as a Schedule M drug under a ready licence!

Even more absurd is this quotation from one of the women by name of Ajeetha (sigh!) who was at the forefront of the protests, she says: “the text is objectionable and promotes ‘free sex’. Words such as ‘..when one becomes careless, or things get out of control‘, It takes away responsibility from the act of sexual intercourse. And the branding (Mis-take) is also not so subtle insinuation that pre-marital sex is alright…”.

One of the biggest things to learn about patriarchy is that women themselves are the biggest perpetrators of it! Its been a long time since I have seen or heard of a more vivid example than this. Its fascinating how regressive laws can become in a country that is supposed to be swaggering down the road to development.

Consider capital punishment for rape, in India capital punishment is given in the ‘rarest of rare instances’ for the ‘most heinous of crimes’ which are often such crimes that render their victims in some sense ‘irreparable’. For a moment lets forget the argument that most people who have studied ‘law and economics’ draw – which suggests that at the margin the cost of committing rape+murder for a rapist becomes zero if capital punishment is announced for rapists thereby creating an incentive to additionally rape and kill their victims in fear of evidence coming out for a harsher punishment and so…

But consider this, is this the message we want to give out in society about our women? Ought rape to be a crime that makes no women live a normal life again? Ought we to attach such stigma to a woman who has been ‘raped’ to make her feel that the most ‘heinous and irrepairable’ damage has been done to her? Is chastity all there is to woman? Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying rape is OK, I’m asking if we really want to make women believe that their chastity being lost is something that should make them feel guilty life-long? But I digress.

One thing that is obvious is this, the SS Co. (which sounds dangerously RSS like) and the ‘Responsible Parents Forum’ probably consists of the most irresponsible bunch of people ever known- people who oppose freedom of choice, liberty in action and the access to technology all together. A formidable coalition of fools who believe that Chennai streets are better overrun with teenage mothers and scared teenage fathers, with dustbins littered with unwanted infants and people with closeted minds who will silently engage in marital rape while the law turns a blind eye and proclaims all is fine.

Never mind that Chennai has one of the highest incidence of AIDS in the country, never mind that domestic violence is spiralling in Tamil Nadu and never mind that the un-natural separation between growing girls and boys in this academic ‘temple’ of the south causes more and more roadblocks to conjugal bliss. After all who will ever find out?, we will keep sweeping it under the carpet as long the vermilion stays bright and the sacred threads sparkle along our broad backs!

The tragedy is that its been nearly two years since emergency contraception has been available freely in Chennai, and I am yet to hear of a protest! Tragically Chennai is the same place where the global campaign for microbicides (a form of contraception) began and is still head-quartered. What happened to science and reason or is it only prejudice that matters now?

I get paid to do ‘Development’.

I was looking for career principles online and I stumbled upon Ajit Chaudhuri’s post on irmans.org to freshers. Its brilliant and reproduced below for anyone who wants to work with/in development.


Welcome freshers !
Tue, 30/01/2007 – 01:03 — maverick
“S/he who follows another’s footsteps leaves no footprints”*

Despite not (yet) having achieved gurudom, I am occasionally asked for advice about joining the development sector. Most of those enquiring can be slotted into two categories. The first are well-spoken but mediocre people who are getting nowhere in their chosen professions and have (therefore?) developed a social conscience. Their impression of the sector is as a place where the effort to returns ratio is second only to the spirituality business. The second are those whose short-term career objective is to join Kofi Annan in New York, and their impression of the sector is as a place where one hops on to intercontinental flights with the same regularity that you and I used the local public transport system in our student days. But occasionally, very occasionally, some young person approaches me with intent in his or her eyes, not knowing what ‘development’ is, with this vague idea of working with people in some faraway place and dirtying their hands, firm only about using their good qualifications and skills to do something different. I never know what to tell the former types – whether to play up their fantasies or to give them a reality check. As to the latter, this is what I have to say.

First, to address the basic questions:
Is there scope for good people here? The development sector needs bright people coming in as much, if not more, than other sectors of the economy. The array of problems that the sector addresses is mind-boggling in its variety, intensity and complexity and, should you decide to make a career here, you will require all the skills and drive that you think you possess. The sector also offers the opportunity to make one’s mark, and leave one’s footprints, in ways that are not possible elsewhere. So please rid yourself of the notion that this is a sinecure for the mediocre, the retired, the idle rich and the infirm.

Is long-term financial survival possible here? All of us have nightmares about being middle-aged, washed out and broke. Whether this sector provides more scope for such a turn of events than others is debatable. Most people here, as elsewhere, manage to get by, build their houses, educate their children, etc., etc. It is possible, and quite easy if you are good, to move to more lucrative segments within the development sector at some stage in your career. But – you will have to deal with the ass kissing, red tape and white domination that often go with the money. Anyway, by that time you will be aware of the pros and cons of the decisions you take. If money is important in the short term, however, then forget about coming here – you will be better off peddling soap or consulting or doing whatever it is that you are alternatively qualified to do.

What to do? Where to go? You need to figure out some basic questions before you start looking, such as rural or urban setting, in which part of the country, in an activist or a welfarist set up, and how close to the community you want to work. Finding organizations to work in that suit these settings is fairly simple after that, and good organizations are always looking for good people. Donor organizations are good places to enquire about these matters.

And now for my personal advice on what you should do:
Start out doing a field job – one that involves living and working directly with a community. The community consists of a large number of people who don’t have to say yes sir or yes ma’am to you and don’t care which fancy institution you did your post-graduation from – you have to earn your spurs from scratch, throw management theory out of the window and prepare to be surprised and tested every single day. You will discover that the class 5 pass man working with you is much better at the job than you will ever be, or that the supposedly pathetic women your activities are directed towards have much more guts than the modern, educated babes back home. Doing something here involves stress, fun and serious learning, and it is this part of your life that will stay on with you wherever you go. Spend a good amount of time here, ensure that you are not stuck with the report and proposal writing jobs and ayah-duty (i.e. escorting funding agency wallahs into the field) that you will be passed on because of your English-speaking skills, and see that you leave something intangible behind when you go. Later in life, when you are dealing with NGOs from a funding or consulting perspective, you will have plenty of NGO-wallahs giving you the what-would-you-know-you-city-asshole vibes – watch their tunes change once you let slip that you were once in their position.

Do the above with a good NGO – be careful about this because, though there are many good NGOs, they are still a small proportion of the total number of NGOs around. Good NGOs, in my opinion, are honest, secular and transparent. They formulate their plans and activities on the basis of the needs of the community they work with and are answerable to them for this. So be careful about this – you would not want your CV littered with associations with family businesses, feudal empires, pimping and middlemen set-ups, money laundering operations, touts, donor puppets, crooks, etc., masquerading as NGOs.

Become an expert – by the time you have put in 2-3 years in the field, there should be some topic relating to your work that you know more about than anybody else in the world. This means relating what you do on the ground to the larger picture, to what is happening elsewhere in the world and to the latest academic debate on the subject. Keep up to date, keep writing, and write to publish. This is easier said than done, field people have an innate distaste and little time for serious writing, but it is this that will separate those who will later go on to effect policy from those who will remain community organizers all their lives.

Eschew jargon – people in the development sector, like the IT sector and several others, have a peculiar predilection towards using jargon. The problem with this is that it serves to exclude people whom you would wish to include and include people whom you would probably want to exclude. Words like participatory, empowerment and sustainable, which you will find bandied about like toffees on a domestic flight, actually mean different things to different people and very often don’t mean anything at all. And when an organization wants to recruit dedicated, motivated and committed people, it usually means that they want to pay less for more work and therefore only suckers need apply. So don’t get caught up in this bullshit, learn the art of communicating exactly what you mean in a simple and understandable way.

Be humble and be nice – nothing like these qualities, even if put on, to enable you to get along. Having said that, don’t put up with nonsense beyond a point that even fake humility and pleasantness can’t handle. People and organizations that cross the line should end up spitting out teeth with their blood, so to speak.

Watch your love life – you will find yourself working closely with members of the opposite sex, often in very intense situations, and you will find yourself liking some of them and vice versa. Have your fun! But, my advice is, don’t find yourself marrying and/or having children with anyone you would not have done so with had things been different. The fiery young activist can end up a leach of a middle-aged man, worrying more about what is happening in Red Square than in the well-being of his immediate family and quite happy to leave you with all the responsibilities while he gabs on about revolution. And the passionate free-spirited feminist is unlikely, later in life, to have a hot cup of tea ready for you when you come home after a hard day at the office. And you will be shocked at how easy it is to forget people once they are out of context.

Should you take the plunge into the sector, you will find yourself interacting with a wide variety of people. Watch out for the following types –

People with halos – you will find a number of people claiming to be doing a favour to humanity by working in this sector, especially at the higher echelons. Many of them have active PR machineries supporting their claims to sainthood, and some even believe in their own hype. You can be sure that, like everywhere else, being hardworking, intelligent and capable are not enough to reach and stay at the very top – you also have to be ruthless and slimy. There are no exceptions to this. So, whenever you hear or read the words ‘S/he/I could have been rolling in it in any other line but chose to sacrifice her/him/myself to the cause of the poor/destitute/vulnerable blah, blah, blah” be warned of the existence of yet another hypocrite in the world.

Emperors – they are the lords of all they survey, and don’t distinguish between their personal assets and their organization’s resources, and this usually includes its women employees. Yes, most, but not all, emperors are males.

Pompous employees of donor agencies – donors have an inexplicable penchant for recruiting morons. They do sometimes go wrong, and you find yourself dealing with someone who knows his or her job and who is able to have a positive effect on your and your organization’s work. But you do often have to deal with someone who thinks s/he has arrived because s/he represents the money, and/or someone to whom development is about budgets and utilizations more than people. While there is no known cure for stupidity, sometimes it helps to let the former type know that they have their nice air-conditioned offices and fancy credit cards because people like you are willing to slog in the sun for peanuts. Don’t take crap from them and, much more importantly, don’t become like them if and when you are in their position at some later stage in your life.

Development tourists – these people travel the world to conferences and seminars on money that is meant for the poor. They are the self-appointed spokespersons for India’s (and sometimes the entire third world’s) poor in Geneva, Stockholm and such places. Their slick presentations, that have audiences thanking God for having created them in this tumultuous world, invariably disguise the fact that they last did something on the ground about twenty years ago – they have since been too busy traveling. Don’t make the mistake of getting impressed by these parasites. And don’t join them expecting to see the world; you will be lucky to have more than a Bangladesh visa stamped on your passport.

If you are still planning to join the sector – a very hearty welcome to you!

By Ajit Chaudhuri (PRM 8)

* A Confucian saying after having undergone a gender audit


The original url is here.

Policy, Definitions and Discourse

On trains I have plenty of time. Cramped and cold on my top berth in a second class compartment I found myself musing over definitions in everyday discourse amongst other things. We free market types like viewing everything in terms of markets. More often than not this a convenient thing–mental profits, a marketplace of ideas…

I used to find it difficult to jump from the scale of governance to the scale of markets and I think I was right. How would you define a citizen for example? Is being a citizen equivalent to being a consumer in the marketplace? What role does duty have to play then? Its hard to deny that duty is a hugely motivating factor in society.

How does one know which problems are public problems to be solved by government and which are private problems to be solved by the market? Consider this situation: Industry A wants to use clean technology, it pays to adopt machinery– the clean air as a result is public and free. The cost is private the profit is public. What kind of a problem is this? What kind of incentive can make the industry do this if no direct benefit exists?

Another theme has to do with the quality of life. What do we mean by ‘quality of life’, and to what extent should we rely on government, as opposed to markets, to provide it? If we follow the classical libertarian argument the answer is close the zilch for the role of the government. That might be so. However, what if being an active civil society is not part of the culture of a people? Consider Peter Bauer’s observations on beggary in India. Bauer says that Indian religion (at least the vast majority practiced) encourages alms and hence begging is a culturally imbibed and culturally sanctioned phenomenon. This might be blasphemy, however, I have never, for example, seen a Sikh or a Parsi begger thus far.

Yet another theme that ought to interest and influence public policy has to do with two of the most controversial and important policy goals of equity and efficiency. Most people agree that equity concerns are at the heart of most distributive conflicts (who gets what). The real question is this: What sorts of issues involve distributive conflicts? When I say what sort of issues I mean that we must question the rationale between the choosing gender sensitive budgeting over a defense centric budget, for example. The reason this is important is because it answers two vital concerns of people in society; What things are like each other? and What does equal treatment consist of? Once these are clarified, policy becomes simpler to frame.

The last of my concerns is understanding whether there must necessarily be a tradeoff between equity and efficiency? The question of of defining ‘welfare’ is also vital. Is welfare something we expect governments to do? Or do and can citizens see a role for themselves in the process of welfare?

The trouble is the inherent conflict between pairs of goals. Take for example the case of security and liberty. Without a definition they sound ambiguous and antithetical. Are they? Not if we define liberty as the capacity to take care of ourselves and be secure in that.

To my mind the notion of absolute needs is a political one (like the need for security), the truth is that we relatively need security. What does this mean, and why is it relevant to politics and policy? It is relevant because it implies that you can use a range of options to satisfy this relative need– not just the government. Policy rests on future needs and risk protection. What if were able to take such policy into our hands? We already take care of our need for dignity, community and belonging. Much of policy is just an extension of this waiting to happen.

I will end with a couple of thoughts on liberty. That the State constricts individual liberty is a fact. To what extent is this ethical or good for people is a different question all together. Liberty too involves complicated questions.

For example: every decision to limit an individual’s or firm’s activity to protect others from harm involves a decision about equity: Whom will we protect? Who will bear the cost of that protection? Is this a public responsibility? What are the fall outs? Will it work?

In reality, we as a society limit individual’s liberty far more than any simple definition of liberty would suggest. We limit individual’s liberty to achieve things we think are good for society as a whole.

Is there a trade off between security and efficiency? Is there a trade off between liberty and security? Is there a liberty-equity trad eoff? Doesn’t it depend on how you define efficiency, security, equity and liberty?