Can A Cup Of Cappuccino Really Empower Indian Women?

So how much does it cost to strategically support long-term change in women’s economic empowerment per year per woman in India? According to UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), the amount is two British pounds.

What is the cost of a cappuccino in London? Two pounds! Is it a mere co-incidence? No. DFID has finally found the magic bullet that can remove mass-scale poverty and bring prosperity to the world. All it takes is British people skipping a cappuccino.

But does this sound impossible? The expectation that one cappuccino or a philanthropist simply pouring money will solve one of the most persistent problems of economic dis-empowerment of women or issues of hunger is part of a larger economic and social malaise in the global order. DFID is neither an outlier nor is it an agency without good intentions. But it is likely to fail at what it intends to do.

The Cappuccino Miracle

Let me unpack the ‘Cappuccino Miracle’ first.

DFID is a UK government department which delivers foreign aid to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty. The ‘Cappuccino Miracle’ is a flagship programme of the department and is actually called the Work and Opportunities for Women (WOW) programme.

The objective of this important program is that women have access to improved economic opportunities through business interventions in supply chains and economic development programmes. The thematic focus of WOW is:

• Recognising, reducing and redistributing unpaid care and domestic work

• Improving outcomes for women in informal work

• Enhancing women’s land tenure security

In short, this WOW will ensure economic empowerment of women and build a robust ecosystem for the participation of women in the global value system.

Some more magical numbers and figures follow. This program will empower a staggering 3,00,000 women in the course of three years at the cost of £ 1.8 million. Let me break this number for easy perusal. Cost per year for economic empowerment of 3,00,000 women = £ 0.6 million.

India is a priority country under this programme. It makes sense to convert the figures into rupees: Rs. 5,48,10,393 per year. If we further break the cost, the cost per woman per year comes to Rs. 183. This is about two pounds. Just enough to get you a cappuccino in London!

There is something more interesting going on in this so-called development ecosystem. Mathew Rycroft CBE, Permanent Secretary for DFID, earns £1,10,000-£1,14,999 per year. That will buy you more than 5,00,000 cappuccinos.

India’s Two Million Cappuccino Miracles

The Oxford dictionary defines a development agency as “any of various agencies that help support economic growth, social progress, etc., within a specified country or region, especially one currently underdeveloped”.

The bottom line is that development agencies work in areas of deprivation — be they in education, livelihood, sanitation or empowerment — to create a better world or society. They come in to fill the gap where the State has largely failed to deliver the goods. Any guesses about the result today of the failure of the Indian State in delivering what it is supposed to deliver?

According to the World Bank, over 270 million people (22% of population) are below the national poverty line in India, where the standard of measurement of poverty itself is pretty low. India houses around 50% of undernourished children of the world according to an Assocham and EY study, and at the end of 2015, 40% of the Indian children were undernourished. About 37% of children under-five are underweight, 39% are stunted (low height-for-age), 21% are wasted (low weight-for-height) and 8% are severely acutely malnourished, according to the same study.

Mass illiteracy, hygiene and sanitation, healthcare, gender inequality, pollution and bio-degradation are other issues that the country is grappling with. The State, both because of its inability to deliver, and in many instances just plain indifference, has not been able to adequately address this situation.

On the other hand, to its credit, the Indian State lifted 133 million people out of poverty between 1994 and 2012. The grave danger is that despite poverty alleviation programmes, the staggering amount of money and energy spent, every other Indian remains vulnerable to fall back into poverty.

So the challenges of development — particularly inclusive development — are monumental. And in this larger framework of poverty and deprivation, development agencies have spurt out to address the multitudinous and inter-connected instances of disempowerment of the Indian populace.

In fact, the Central Bureau of Investigation estimates that there are more than two million NGOs in India. Let that number sink in. One NGO for every 600 people in this country. Why does anybody have any problem at all in the country!

Re-Inventing the Wheel

India is home to a plethora of development agencies, be it international agencies like DFID or domestic and international NGOs. Apart from them, there are 26 United Nations organisations working in India..

Just like the ‘Cappuccino Miracle’, the other anticipated miracle is that the market and its many players will alleviate the problems that engulf the majority of Indians. The Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) rules under the Companies Act of 2013 have forced many corporates to do social work using their profits. They are required to work within the geographical proximity of their factories and offices.

Unfortunately for them and the anticipated development miracle, much of India’s poor population lives in far flung hinterland. This mandate also ends up in the reinvention of the wheel again and again and results in multiple similar kinds of interventions in villages around industrial areas by different corporate agencies. It comes as no surprise that many of these interventions just end up being photo-ops and an employee-engagement scheme and nothing else.

I recently visited the Bhiwadi industrial area in Alwar district of Rajasthan, not very far from Delhi, where one agency renovated a toilet in a school, and in two months’ time another agency renovated that again!

You are in for a rude wakeup call if you expect industries to drive the agenda of development. From the data I have at my disposal, there were 24,914 registered industrial units in Alwar employing more than 1,12,554 people up to the year 2010-11. Yet drop-out rate of girls in rural primary schools of the district was above 55% around the period. And although the district as a whole has literacy rate of 62.48%, the literacy rate of minorities is 30.10%.

One visit to villages around Bhiwadi even today re-affirms two things. Industrialisation of an area does not necessarily lead to trickle down of benefits and that CSR funds can push development only in a certain limited sphere.

If Development Agencies Don’t Develop Us, Who Should?

So the bigger question now is who should or who can drive development and alleviate poverty that mires millions of Indians if not NGOs, agencies like DFID, or CSR foundations? The answer lies in the same route taken by all developed nations in the past in their journey from underdevelopment to their present status: development driven by the State.

The State has always played an unfulfilling yet vital role in handling issues of entrenched poverty in India. In 1990, the HDI of India was a low 0.428. Today (2015), it stands at 0.624, which is a marked improvement but still behind even war-torn countries like Iraq.

Despite improvements, there has been consistent low investment in key areas of poverty reduction, education, and health care, and the institutional delivery by the State has been weak. Public spending on health was 0.22% of GDP in 1950-51, which today stands just above 1%, well below the world average of 5.99%. The average investment on human capital across the globe is more than 4.5% and India lags behind not just BRICS countries but also many poor countries.

No Cappuccinos In Real Life

For the success of any human experiment — be it nation building, successful market economy, politics or harmonious diversity — we need enough investment on human capital to take that agenda forward. There has to be an enabling condition which supports and nourishes the participation of the vast chunk of the Indian populace in all these human experiments.

Developmental agencies exist and will always exist in the context of the State and the society. But until and unless the State decides to pull its socks up to start working on issues that matter to the vast majority of people in this country, I am afraid that the biggest experiment in the history of mankind, of empowering and unifying 1.2 billion diverse people, is doomed to be a failure.

With the opening up of the India economy in the 90s, the starkness between India and Bharat has never been more prominent. India, today, is a country full of paradoxes: fastest growing economy housing the largest number of poor, one of the top markets for Amazon when 80% of the workforce is in the unorganised sector, and a country where economic empowerment of poor women is expected at the cost of a cappuccino even when two ministers in the Union Cabinet are women.

Striving for women’s economic empowerment, delivery of services to those who have missed out on them, relief, supporting implementation, innovation, etc. are all important functions that development agencies can carry out. For this to effectively pan out, there has to be focussed investment, both financial and HR-wise, in communities.

The other important role development agencies can play is support citizenship and inclusiveness, so the poor in India can find voice, since the people who have the voice in this country have bigger issues to handle: Pakistan, sowing religious divide, and beating their chest to announce their patriotism.

All this would entail much heavier and consistent investment in working with poor communities and engaging with the State so that basic infrastructure and systems are in place. But there are massive costs involved in bringing about these systemic changes.

Unfortunately, there are no ‘Cappuccino Miracles’ in real life.

Note: The title of this post was changed on May 5.

The author is a part of the Youth Ki Awaaz Writers’ Training Program.

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