Getting Serious About Development: The Need Is Now

Posted on September 28, 2012 in Specials

By Rahool Gadkari:

This past week, two different events happened to grab my attention. The first one grabbed headlines the world over — Apple launched the new version of its iPhone, amidst much fanfare, selling around 5 million units in a little over 3 days. The second one, I suspect not nearly as many people might have heard about; Planet Read — an Indian NGO and a pioneer of same language subtitling (SLS), was one of the awardees of an USAID grant, to help improve child literacy worldwide.

The former outshining the latter is hardly a surprise. After all, Apple is now the world’s biggest company in terms of revenue; with a second quarter 2012 profit ($11.6 billion) almost equalling Google’s revenue during the same ($12.21 billion). Nonetheless the disparity in the coverage of these two admittedly dissimilar events evoked in me an intangible feeling of discomfort. The message of literacy is obviously in much greater need of advocacy than the launch of the iPhone. In fact, the news was so hard to get across to the public that an acquaintance of mine struggled to court interest from many of the major publications. And while I am by no means critical of Apple and the interest their products generate, I was left wondering about the state of the society we live in; where tech evangelism outshines social evangelism. Pondering on it a little longer I was forced to ask myself — are we serious about our social development goals?

Consider the following — India has the 4th highest GDP at parity in the world, the 11th highest GDP at exchange rate, but in GDP per capita terms we are ranked a miserable 186th. Almost 32 % of our population lives below the poverty line (considering a minimum wage of $1.25/day). Assuming the Indian population to be around 1.23 billion that translates to a staggering 393 million living in poverty. Compare this to the American population of ~310 million, with a GDP over 10 times ours. The challenge is enormous. But, surprisingly little seems to be happening on the ground. The same pernicious mentality prevails when it comes to climate change. The government has rolled out the universal ID project (UIDAI), MNREGA, SGSY amongst others, but once again, save the UIDAI project (partly perhaps due to its pioneer chairman Nandan Nilekani), not many receive much attention. Given the systemic nature of corruption in India (underscored recently by the many high profile scandals), the checks and balances put in place to ensure the smooth implementation of such schemes aren’t enough to put one’s mind at ease. Our government talks about inclusive growth (from the aam-aadmi to the business owner), but that dream shall remain a dream unless it finds a way for the aam-aadmi to see some tangible improvement is his/her standard of living. With our elected representatives spending more time arguing than formulating policy, typified by parliament being adjourned for 13 consecutive days over the coal block allotment scandal, I don’t garner much hope for change from a government standpoint. It thus falls upon you and me, as conscientious citizens, to help this movement for development, gather momentum, and address these issues by bringing them into the national consciousness and encouraging healthy debate.

A recent study by the Bellagio Initiative (working on philanthropic and developmental pursuits), very trenchantly expatiates on the need for wellbeing to be the focus of development, as opposed to economic growth. Development, the report argues, can only happen if we are able to reach politically sustainable solutions, which in turn necessitates that not everyone’s interests will be catered to each time. This regulation unfortunately, needs to be handled by the government. In the capitalistic societies that we live in today, self-regulation, although ideal, is hardly a realistic expectation. The Guardian in a related article argues that there is a feeling globally, that the very agencies entrusted to undertake our developmental projects, are losing the people’s trust. Not only is this a worrisome thought, but also very detrimental to achieving our goals. Large institutions and agencies, carrying considerable diplomatic/political/monetary clout, are best equipped to channel resources quickly and efficiently. What the development sector needs is a trailblazer like Apple, with a clear sense of the problem and relentless in its pursuit of the answer(s). To make that happen, governments need to be able to sell the idea of social development. Microfinance is a striking example, with its low principle, high interest rate model – it is both a calling and a business. It is only a matter then, of reaching out to the right audience.

The United Nations enlisted eight millennium development goals, from eradication of poverty, improving maternal health, combating diseases to ensuring sustainable growth. The 2015 deadline to achieving these is fast approaching, despite several goals remaining unaccomplished. With 1 billion people worldwide still living in extreme poverty, several million without access to basic sanitation, healthcare and primary education, there is precious little time left to waste. So far, especially in India, we have seen some intent, but what we need is greater resolve. More visibility for each of these problems along with better incentivization, to encourage the best and the brightest of our country to work on humanity’s greatest challenges is needed. The time is ripe for us to leverage our new technologies, be it through RFID cards, smart phones or collaborative efforts like crowd sourcing. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I can find no better way to conclude than to say — united we stand, divided we fall. Unfortunately, with the stakes as high as these, falling is not an option.

[box bg=”#fdf78c” color=”#000″]About the author: Rahool is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities, and the University of Pune with degrees in electrical engineering. He writes part time and presently lives in the United States. To read his other posts,click here. Reach him on Twitter @RahoolGads[/box]