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?

Hmmmmph!

Edutainment?


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!”

Because


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. 

Sheesh.

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.

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.

Two Spectacular Goof Ups


My friend pointed out here, that I haven’t been expressing too much of an opinion lately at Una Voce and he is right.

One plausible reason is that I have spent far too much time lately researching Indian agriculture for a presentation due sometime next week. The problems of Indian Agriculture are too numerous to summarize in a hour and so distilling and redefining the problems has lately become the centerpiece of my attention.

I spent my afternoon today working on Indigo plantations and what they have to do with colonial rule. I was surprised but not unduly so to re-discover how much nonsense I had unwittingly absorbed during high-school about ‘development’.

Let me step back and explain the context. One part of the project I am working on demands that we present a thorough history of Indian agriculture- at one of our group meetings I suggested a good place to begin might be to look at how widespread Indigo plantations had ‘hurt’ Indian agriculture in the past.

Little did I realize then that this was my brain-washed mind recalling an absurd little sentence I had been forced into reading and believing in high-school. The book was called the ‘Violence of The Green Revolution’ authored by a food fascist cum fake scientist cum feminazi who goes by name Vandana Shiva. Sitting at a ‘farm’ far away from the ‘evils’ of the developed world such as cellular phones, mp3 players, electricity, gas stoves and mattresses a small group of sixteen year olds were forced to read this violent, inaccurate and utterly despicable rendition of the state of Indian agriculture.

Somewhere hidden in those pages was the idea that ‘Indigo mono-culture(s)’ had destroyed Indian farm land and made them un-cultivatable. The stupider side of my mind for some reason accepted this suggestion and regurgitated it at the group meeting. My friend sent me a mail today asking me if I could find any sources online to check that claim because she couldn’t find any.

I consented to look and to dismay it turns out that Indigo is actually a legume- not only does it not rob soil of nutrients- it helps fix nitrogen and so by all conventional biology must have helped make soils more fertile and rich. The downside of Indigo planting was that it was out-competed by synthetic technology and Indian farmers launched a civil disobedience movement against the adoption of this newer technology- simply because it would take away work.

Being as this was, the one argument Vandana Shiva’s book got right was that Indigo was a mono culture, primarily because it was enormously profitable to grow Indigo. There was of course nothing remotely democratic about the way the British got Indians to grow Indigo on a wide scale- farmers were oppressed and cheated out of their profits, nevertheless the argument and the facts have nothing to do with the destruction of soil. The arguments are and were economic.  And so I had to eat my hat.

This is of course not the first set of incorrect facts (or lies – as I call them) that Vandana Shiva has resorted to. This is another example of how bogus her arguments are.

The second goof-up which has made me more than red in the face lately is a bizarre $2800 (and counting) telephone bill because my own inability to read and comprehend the fine print in contracts.

😦

A Librarian For Liberty


My sister sent me this link today.

Excerpts from the excellent post;

You suggested that the book could be “placed in an area designating the subject matter,” or “labeled for parental guidance” by stating that “some material may be inappropriate for young children.” I have two responses. First, we tried the “parenting collection” approach a couple of times in my history here. And here’s what we found: nobody uses them. They constitute a barrier to discovery and use. The books there – and some very fine ones — just got lost. In the second case, I believe that every book in the children’s area, particularly in the area where usually the parent is reading the book aloud, involves parental guidance. The labeling issue is tricky, too: is the topic just homosexuality? Where babies come from? Authority figures that can’t be trusted? Stepmothers who abandon their children to die?

Ultimately, such labels make up a governmental determination of the moral value of the story. It seems to me – as a father who has done a lot of reading to his kids over the years – that that kind of decision is up to the parents, not the library. Because here’s the truth of the matter: not every parent has the same value system.

Your third point, about the founders’ vision of America, is something that has been a matter of keen interest to me most of my adult life. In fact, I even wrote a book about it, where I went back and read the founders’ early writings about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What a fascinating time to be alive! What astonishing minds! Here’s what I learned: our whole system of government was based on the idea that the purpose of the state was to preserve individual liberties, not to dictate them. The founders uniformly despised many practices in England that compromised matters of individual conscience by restricting freedom of speech. Freedom of speech – the right to talk, write, publish, discuss – was so important to the founders that it was the first amendment to the Constitution – and without it, the Constitution never would have been ratified.

How then, can we claim that the founders would support the restriction of access to a book that really is just about an idea, to be accepted or rejected as you choose? What harm has this book done to anyone? Your seven year old told you, “Boys are not supposed to marry.” In other words, you have taught her your values, and those values have taken hold. That’s what parents are supposed to do, and clearly, exposure to this book, or several, doesn’t just overthrow that parental influence. It does, of course, provide evidence that not everybody agrees with each other; but that’s true, isn’t it?

Bravo, is all I have to say!

Bye Bye Doha


…acrimonious exchanges with the US accusing India and China of blocking progress.

The US says they are being overly protective towards their own farmers and are failing to do enough to open their markets.

India’s Commerce Minister Kamal Nath rejected the charge, saying: “The US is looking at enhancing its commercial interests whereas I am looking at protecting the livelihood of farmers.”

Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming echoed Mr Nath, saying the US was “asking a price as high as heaven”.

The main stumbling block was farm import rules, which allow countries to protect poor farmers by imposing a tariff on certain goods in the event of a drop in prices or a surge in imports.

India, China and the US could not agree on the tariff threshold for such an event.

Full story here.

People for The Eating of Tasty Animals!


Hypocrisy is the mother of all credibility problems, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has it in spades. While loudly complaining about the “unethical” treatment of animals by restaurant owners, grocers, farmers, scientists, anglers, and countless other Americans, the group has its own dirty little secret.

PETA kills animals. By the thousands.

From July 1998 through December 2007, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) killed over 19,200 dogs, cats, and other “companion animals.” That’s more than five defenseless creatures every day. PETA has a walk-in freezer to store the dead bodies, and contracts with a Virginia Beach company to cremate them.

Not counting the pets PETA spayed and neutered, the group put to death over 90 percent of the animals it took in during the last five years. And its angel-of-death pattern shows no sign of changing.

Click here for the full story, and then go figure!