Monday, June 27, 2011

What does Developmental Economics mean to India?

One of the things I find exciting about being in India is the vitality of the Indian economy.  It’s great to live and work in a country where people are optimistic about the future—and have good reason to be.  But although India is a middle income country experiencing rapid growth, there is no question that many Indians are still poor.  Policy-makers in India are very aware that they can’t just wait for growth to eliminate poverty all by itself—they know they need to take steps to ensure that growth is inclusive. One of the places policy-makers look for advice on how to design anti-poverty programs is to the field of development economics. Over the last few decades, though, the policy prescriptions of mainstream development economists have changed several times, reducing the credibility of its practitioners.

Although when I trained as an economist, I never studied development economics, my experience as a diplomat has been entirely in countries that were in lower or middle income categories: Mexico and Gabon are classified as upper middle-income, the Republic of Congo as lower middle income, and Guyana, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia and Zimbabwe as low income.  These countries are all sometimes referred to as “the developing world.”  (Of course, calling them “developing” is not accurate in every case—the economies of the DRC and Zimbabwe have generally moved in a negative direction over the last twenty years.)  In several countries, I’ve worked closely with colleagues from the U.S. Agency for International Development as they sought to use funds provided by U.S. taxpayers to fight poverty and bring about development.  While I might not have the classroom education, I now have both a strong interest and a great deal of direct experience of development, and underdevelopment, as both conditions and as processes. 

In the last decade, development economists have engaged in a vigorous debate about whether foreign aid is helpful for the elimination of poverty.  Jeffrey Sachs, Bill Easterly, and Paul Collier are the most prominent scholars who have debated each other in books and newspaper columns.  Among the people I’ve discussed this subject with, it seems that most gravitate to one school of thought or another based on their existing inclinations, or recent experience.  Pessimists agree with Easterly (who says large scale development programs funded by donors are generally futile), as do those whose recent experience has been with intractable problems.  Optimists agree with Sachs (who says we can eliminate poverty if we dedicate more resources to foreign aid), as do development workers.  Policy-makers have problems with both, since they don’t have the resources Sachs calls for, but they have a mandate to eliminate poverty, which Easterly says can’t be done by planning.  I’m also in between in many ways: it’s hard to leave Zimbabwe without becoming a pessimist, but I’m an optimist by inclination and India is a very hopeful place.

What works and what doesn’t work in the battle against poverty is something I’ve heard people talk about a lot in Hyderabad.  The pros and cons of micro-finance have been front page news in Andhra Pradesh.  (I discussed visits to women’s self help groups in an earlier blog.)  I’ve also heard discussions of whether NREGA hurts rural private sector employment by driving up wages, or acts as a safety net for the poor.  These are real questions without easy answers. 

I’ve just started reading a book that looks at these questions from a different perspective, and I find it quite exciting.  Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have written a book called “Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty” about their research in development economics and the lessons they’ve learned.  They approach development hypotheses scientifically, with randomized controlled trials, instead of relying on preconceptions. This is radical in a way; development professionals don’t want to withhold from a control group an intervention, like vaccinating children, that they believe saves lives.  But Banerjee and Duflo point out that even providing free vaccination doesn’t necessarily result in high rates of inoculation coverage.  That’s a strong argument for trying different approaches and comparing the results.  I haven’t gotten very far into the book yet, but I’m looking forward to learning more about what works.  I look forward to being able to be pragmatic and optimistic at the same time.  

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Where Does Our Food Come From?

Interacting with residents at a slum in Orissa
Elizabeth Jones is the Acting Public Affairs Officer.  Before joining the Foreign Service, she worked as an education consultant in Chengdu, China.  She has a degree in Chinese Language and Literature from Middlebury College.  In India, she enjoys shopping, traveling, and playing with her new Hyderabadi puppy.

One of my favorite parts about working in Public Affairs is meeting new people and organizing connections between Americans and Indians.  When James Godsil came from the U.S. to India to share his expertise on aquaculture, I got the opportunity to connect him with community leaders and farmers in Orissa. 

James Godsil is one of the co-founders of Sweet Water Organics, an innovative project that raises fish and vegetables in the same system.  Godsil is passionate about sustainable organic food for everyone, and the Sweet Water project shows how good food can be produced effectively and efficiently even in the middle of a city!
Since he was here to talk about sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, we decided that Orissa was the perfect place to go to learn more about farming, fishing, and water issues.  (Also, I had never been to Orissa, and I was eager to see it!) Our first stop was an urban slum in Cuttack where an NGO was working with tribal women to grow their own produce in organic kitchen gardens.  The villagers were proud of their work, and they had every right to be. Although they were constrained by space and resources, they were able to grow their own organic food and feed their families. 
Next, we drove out of the city to lush rice paddies and sugarcane fields where the farmers had set up an irrigation system from the river that runs through the city of Bhubeneswar.  The farmers told us that the river water, pure enough to drink 15 years ago, was now polluted with raw sewage and heavy metals from industrial waste. The farmers did not know what kind of health implications this pollution would have on them or the people eating food produced in these fields, but they knew there was something wrong.  The farmers were frustrated, they told us, because they were farming the same way generations before them had with simple, effective techniques, but the quality of the water was deteriorating due to factors out of their control.  They are communicating with scientists who test the water and submit reports to the state government, but it will take a long time to clean up the river and develop an effective waste management system other than the river.
My favorite part of the trip was seeing Chilika Lake, one of the largest lakes in India.  It is technically a lagoon and it is filled with brackish water as the rivers flow into the ocean.  Early in the morning we took a boat ride out into the lake on the search for Irawaddy dolphins, natives of India's brackish water bodies.  We were lucky enough to spot a few dorsal fins!  Speaking of fish, I also got to eat some delicious Oriyan seafood!

The Chilika Lake
Chilika Lake is surrounded by fertile land as the rivers flow into the lagoon.  We drove inland past green fields and small rectangular pond plots to visit a village of local fishermen and farmers who were struggling to raise prawns.  Despite their best efforts, bacterial infections plagued their prawns, killing them off.  The farmers were disappointed by their past failures, but they still struggled to participate in the prawn trade in Orissa, and they were eager to learn more about innovative methods in producing seafood.

The people I met in Orissa are struggling with the same question many in the U.S. are also struggling with: What should we eat? The question of how to feed ourselves is one that seems simple but is actually growing more and more difficult.  As the world develops and modernizes, many of us do not even think about where our food comes from, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to make sure the food we eat is healthful and the way we grow it is sustainable.  This deceptively simple issue is also controversial as it brings up issues of competition between small farmers and large industrial farms and food companies, preserving clean water, and the use of pesticides and fertilizers (just to name a few).  James Godsil’s visit was an excellent reminder of the importance of issues such as food security and environmental protection, which have serious consequences for both the environment and the health of individuals.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Taste of Darkness: A Humbling Experience

After blogging about how much I’ve enjoyed recent photography exhibits, I had a couple of recent experiences bring home to me how fortunate I am to be able to enjoy visual art.

The first was a meal at Taste of Darkness, a very special restaurant at Inorbit Mall that is part of India’s first Dialogue in the Dark franchise.  Dialogue in the Dark is a social enterprise that seeks to broaden perspectives and build emotional intelligence while sensitizing visitors to the abilities of the blind.  At the Taste of Darkness, diners have to surrender anything that might provide illumination or enhance vision before entering the dining room.  This includes cell phones, watches, spectacles and lighters.  A blind employee then becomes their guide/waiter for the evening.  A four-course meal is served in a completely dark dining room.

I found the experience at Dining in the Dark humbling and enlightening.  Without any visual cues, I felt vulnerable, and I was very aware of how much I relied on my guide.  I learned that I rely on vision more than I realize when I eat.  Without it, I had difficulty identifying what I was eating, and I was not really sure how much I was eating.  I anticipated using other senses more when sight was taken away, but I was surprised that for me, my dining experience did not increase my attention to taste or smell, but instead made me pay more attention to touch.  I used my hands to explore my plate, and then paid close attention to the texture of my food on my tongue when I tried to figure out what I was eating.  I suspect this is because I was trying to visualize my meal, and touch, rather than taste or smell gives clues to appearance. 

The second experience was celebration of the 25th year of the LV Prasad Eye Institute.  LVPEI combines world class service standards with commitment to universal access to vision care.  I was extremely impressed to learn that over 50% of the Institute’s clients pay nothing for the services they receive, whether those amount simply to vision screening or to state-of-the-art surgical intervention.  LVPEI is also committed to rehabilitation for those with unavoidable vision loss.  The evening concluded with entertainment provided by visually challenged children who are part of LVPEI’s rehabilitation program. 

Both of these experiences reinforced my admiration and respect for the strength and adaptability of the visually challenged.  My guide at Taste of Darkness served my food and assisted me throughout the experience, a much more formidable challenge than just eating a meal as I did, but negotiating the completely blacked out dining room was undoubtedly a much simpler task than his daily routine of negotiating a blacked out world.  The young people at LVPEI were all successful students as well as musicians, and they radiated positive energy and enthusiasm.

If you’ve visited the U.S. you may have noticed some of the innovations that have been implemented to help the blind live independent lives without realizing what they were for.  Traffic lights have aural signals that coincide with their “Walk-Don’t Walk” visual messages.  Train platforms have bumps on the ground warning of proximity to the tracks.  And elevators routinely include Braille symbols for floors.  The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibits discrimination against the disabled, and requires that all new facilities for public use comply with accessibility standards.  I hope I never have to take advantage of these provisions, but I’m glad they are there to enhance the lives of all those who need them.