On romanticising "communities"

Where do we start in trying to understand our communities? This is particularly relevant when we have multiple identities and affiliations, being an insider to many communities and at the same time, an outsider to many more. To a personal reflection by a fellow blogger on how the sense of community is different in India from those in the US, what I have to say is that we need eyes that can look deep and a mind that’s ready to take complexity. In this blogpost, I use communities not in the sense of those that are made of ‘others’, those we work with. Rather, I am referring to the communities where we live, those around you and I, whom we interact with in our day-to-day lives – those around us giving us a sense of being in a community.

First of all, the India you see is hardly a microcosm of the rest of the country. But given that no one can really see a truly representative sample, perhaps we need to look deeper at the crowd we get to see. In the crowd that I get to see for instance, there is the neighbourhood vegetable seller who usually smiles at me and tens of others who look through me as I walk by. I too am usually not really processing anything other than what I need to while getting from Point A to B. So its mutual, I understand and that’s the way life is. That’s the way life is for many others on my route. 
I do also see many others who know many more people on their route as they walk along, exchanging nods and smiles. And there are times and places where I behave completely differently and get a wide variety of responses.

The couple of years I was in Ghana, people would often greet me on the streets. So would people at my workplace. The year I spent in the UK was probably when I would hear passersby wish me the most frequently; notwithstanding the tube rides where no one made eye contact, which I was actually perfectly fine with.
Communities are important and communities are diverse in nature. India has millions of variations of this community and so does the US, I am sure. And these differences will remain and are important, not so much between countries, but within the communities that make up these countries.

The danger of the ‘single story’ – great TED talk

“…the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete…”

‘Single Stories’ exist everywhere – about everyone.

via TED – I agree with almost everything in this great talk…Adichie does take her ‘room-mate’ to task though, giving us almost a ‘single story’ about her. I know she is using her as an example/symbol – but could that be how ‘single stories’ start?

Considering IRMA?

Its the season of MBA entrance exams in India once again. Hundreds of thousands of students vying for few thousand MBA seats in the belief that its going to secure their future. I graduated from the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA) in 2005. I loved my two years there and in this post, I am rehashing an older note I had written for IRMA aspirants. 

While IRMA was established in 1979 to supply trained managers to rural cooperatives and (later) NGOs in India in the 1980s, its graduates now work for a diverse universe of organisations. When I joined IRMA, it was only with the expectation that it would expose me to a sector that I would find interesting and meaningful to explore. I did not anticipate the daunting challenges the development sector throws up, nor did I assume that I would walk out of the campus and change the world. My naive reasoning was that selling soaps and shampoo was not something that could get me excited and keep me awake at night and I wanted to spend two years engaging with issues that were more interesting and most importantly, with people that shared this passion. 

However, soon enough, I learnt that depending on who was producing them, where they were being sold and who were sharing the proceeds, there is nothing less-meaningful about selling soaps or shampoo or cars, loans and insurance. So it doesnt matter whether we advertise IRMA as an institute that imparts education in rural management, rural development, social work or just management – if IRMA gives us a little of all of this or in varying degrees, we ought to be able to use the components as and when required – just like one uses multiple linguisitic and regional identities and affiliations with different institutions in our lives as and when applicable.

It goes without saying that every IRMAn is entitled to follow his or her chosen path, not only during the PRM, but also, obviously, after graduation. For sure, IRMAns are in anything and everything to do with rural areas and probably, not just there, but also in areas which have little direct links with rural areas. The IIMs dont say that none of their graduates can be NGO-wallahs, nor do the IITs. Today though, rural is big. Every marketer wants a piece of the pie. The possibilities are endless – in whichever sector one chooses.

Is IRMA then right to restrict placements? I think that as an institution, IRMA has the right to have a vision for itself and a direction it wanted to guide its programme participants towards. In the end, though, what IRMA does is to expect young aspirants to make a choice. Whenever anyone asks me about applying to IRMA or when they are considering their offer, I try to warn them that if they are not sure, they may get disillusioned. I am aware it may make it tough for the decision-maker, but I think it is important that people think through their choices at that stage (with whatever is the available information and whatever is the levels of conviction they can muster).  

This of course does not mean IRMA graduates and/or development workers should be placed on a pedestal. As I have said before, there is nothing intrinsically holier or self-sacrificing about working in the development sector. IRMA is not the only way in. And today, that’s not the only road out of IRMA either.

NREGS wages in focus once again

An article in India Together argues for a return to the old system of wage payment in cash in the NREGS with some heavy romance –

By transparent mechanisms like muster roll maintenance and cash disbursement in full public view, designs of community control like choosing work and conducting social audits by gram sabhas had discouraged corruption and also exposed embezzlement by the local elite who controlled local matters. The poorest lot — labourers, landless, and small and marginal farmers, the potential beneficiaries of MGNREGA — had even started challenging feudal domination. Maybe, had this trend continued, it could have possibly led to greater social transformation through gradual decimation of feudal dominance.

So long as the cash payment of wages was in place, despite its limitations, it was within the grasp of the common lot and hence, under their control. In such a system, the victims might have not had the courage to question the local elite like sarpanchs, contractors, or the panchayat staff. But in the long run, they could not have tolerated their hard-earned money being bungled up by others.

The author clearly is skeptical of making payments through banks. And I felt it is a touch arrogant to claim that people on the ground cannot comprehend the institutional wage payment system and therefore, wouldn’t be able to monitor the programme.

Aside from this, the article does make a final valid rant –

When certain shortcomings of this mode of payment came to the fore, a new system of mobile bank payment through biometric smart card is being experimented in some districts. Though initial observations show good results, only time can tell its real impact. The concern is: the more the system becomes complicated in vital components like wage payment, the more it drifts away from the common people’s understanding. In such cases, the government, social activists, and the media occupy the centre-stage and debate and discuss to sort out the issues. Ironically, the poor stand on the periphery as they have little say on matters that affect them the most.  

Dress to kill

Please do not embarrass us is basically what the Ministry of Health seems to be trying to convey through the Roving Bandit.

Those of us who work in the ‘sector’ are familiar with the liberties some people take in the name of being non-conformist or anti-establishment. In India, the ‘kurta and jhola’ are standard NGO-wallah symbols. Add to that a stubble and open sandals – and you are sure to be known as a left-leaning intellectual. Sure enough, I have played to the stereotype, but it also helped that I had been wearing kurtas from long before I started working for Gram Vikas in Orissa.

I do agree that some people literally dress to kill. But then, I am also as vehemently in disagreement with over-dressing. For instance, I see men wearing suits and ties in the hot and humid Ghana. Sure, if I walk into their offices here even wearing a loose shirt and jeans, I would feel terribly under-dressed. However, it is official etiquette…wonder if they will ever be relaxed.
But there is hope – whenever anyone wears any local fabric, the official dress code vanishes. From colourful prints to over-sized gown-like attire…it is seriously casual, but smart. Much like the kurta-jhola look back home…

The myth of microfinance: who is freaking out?

In recent months, ‘the myth of microfinance’ has become a catch-phrase. A 2-minute google search throws up at least 9 articles that have the terms ‘myth’ and ‘microfinance’ in their title. See here – one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine

In fact, it has sparked off a war of words between different camps of experts that work with the microfinance sector. All this, over a Boston Globe article that pokes a hole into the macro-romanticism of microfinance, quoting randomized experiments in India and Philippines. Amidst all this, I suspect all those who are actually in the market of microfinance have continued their busy lives giving out loans, collecting repayments and making their millions. And for that reason alone, I believe microfinance will continue to prosper. After all, what could be more attractive than a development project that created wealth at rates unheard of in the best financial markets and which promises empowerment, particularly that of women? With so much money being lent and repaid, heartwarming pictures of smiling women sitting in small groups, legendary stories of group discipline and peer pressure and the (reported) near-zero default rates (even before the specter of a global financial meltdown was upon us and Mohammad Yunus became the only banker that escaped unscathed), microfinance indeed is the star.

Sure, from the MIT and Yale studies, one could say that microfinance needs to go beyond just credit and include not just other financial services, but also complementary frameworks for developing livelihoods, improving access to essential public services etc – but in the absence of those services, we have microfinance and we can do what is possible to make sure it is well directed and regulated so clients dont get swamped by debt. Luckily, evidence from the studies suggests that clients are holding on just fine, at least for the moment. However, microfinance clients dont seem to have become any more empowered.

In spite of being a late arrival, this is an industry that has easily trumped conventional development sector programmes…mostly on the power of the profits it generates. Interestingly, this is highlighted by Banerjee (one of the lead researchers in the MIT study), in his Hindustan Times column where he points out the futility of expecting microfinance to work miracles and then lamenting its fallibility. I agree.

As long as microfinance continues to be a successful business proposition, I do not foresee its demise. I also do not expect MFIs to scale back on their work even if research proves that microfinance is not a miracle drug; and the development sector gives up its romantic dreams. Microfinance in its infancy was supported by huge volumes of soft money. Now, major players in the microfinance industry do not need any subsidies. They are willing and able to play the game on their own might and in the process, have reached out to millions of clients. In his column, Banerjee also takes us back to the basics – the importance of making financial services available to sections of the economy at rates that would have been unimaginable even a little more than a decade back and unless we have a better idea, we have to make our peace with it.

The problem with many ideas is the unrealistic promises they make. The problem with a lot of propaganda is that the risk of being exposed runs high. If microfinance can steer clear of inspiring romance, just reel in the drums and ensure that the business continues to prosper without hurting its clients, all would be well.