Monday, July 20, 2009

all roads lead to....

In a conversation with two musicians Bart and Sanne, of whom Bart was a fan of michael jackson, we debated what had 'made' the success and the failure that was michael jackson. Talking of idols, Bart said that Michael Jackson was an example of the human failure that was inherent in the moment of reaching for perfection...We watched videos of various performances, and the journey of a perfectionist who could not bear to disappoint his fans.
Talking of fans, Sanne said, dont forget that the idol and the fan make each other. There is no one without the other.

This turned my attention to the other duos that make each other...democracy and citizen; policy and representation; and development and as a broad supervisory guideline, one as an organic proces...
What happens when we use the same word to mean both? What slippages in understanding occur?Why does this happen?
More questions....

Friday, July 10, 2009

beginning the journey

Sequences in theory building and policymaking in development: Chicken and egg.

Good policy can come out of knowledge generated from careful research. But theory builders and policy makers define terms such as scale, sustainability, development etc differently; they understand different things about the same issues. The question of what does each know, and what don’t they know, and where they overlap, becomes important. Sometimes we make assumptions regarding causality between variables that may not be causal. There is always a need to make a case for different kinds and forms of knowing the ‘same’ thing. This helps these different set of people share knowledge, and actively understand processes of policymaking and theory building as dynamic and not static.

Some questions:

• Where is the global south?

We as theory builders or policy makers agree that there are vulnerable people who need support and help from the more privileged; but it has been traditionally a voluntary activity or a normative choice to provide such support. It is also true that through time some groups of people have been consistently marginalized, by others. When we seek to redress this balance in a more generic problem solving way, this is a question that is almost naïve. Who are these people, in this era of globalization? Can we even spot their vulnerability, or define the elusive location of the global south?

• Are the ‘poor’ a problem? If so, to who? How do we solve the problem? What are consequences of being ‘poor’? Who bears these consequences?

Sometimes, in articulating the problem the ‘poor’ are a problem more to the policy makers, who have to bear the moral responsibility of their poverty. But there are consequences to ‘being’ poor, that can be a lack of self reliance, short term thinking, constantly being under resourced in solving their own problems. The set of consequences of poverty, for a society, and for an individual are experienced differently, and by different people. Are we cognizant of this difference in consequence?

• How has the nature of under development changed over the last fifty years?

‘Development’ as defined by a nation state, and by the market seem to be converging. But we see that the role and perspective of each towards the ‘under developed’ is very different. What does that do to the definition of under developed? Is it possible to see how that has changed in the last fifty years? When we encounter multiple framings of ‘development’, it becomes imperative to specify which definition we use, and how that conceptual understanding of each changes. If on the one hand development is seen as technological advancement, by the nation state, and as capital optimizing by the market, the ‘poor’ feature only as passive receivers of charity or welfare benefits. The violence engendered by the exclusive nature of certain technologies and institutions in fact spawn other institutions that endeavor to counter these effects, through ‘inclusion’ in the benefits, either through citizenship, or social benefits. Do these really address the core of the inequity that exists in othering the vulnerable? Could we learn better about the benefits and returns on our investment as a society in science and technology and what has worked and what has not? How can countries or a people ‘catch up’? What are they catching up with, if not advances in technology as framed by ‘developed’ countries?

How do we ‘organise’ transformation? Should we organize it?

Transformation has a sense of scale of impact, which includes in it a sense of participation of the ‘transformed’; in contrast to ‘development’ which is more supervisory in its practice. Transformation speaks of a systemic change, rather than incremental improvements in a system or an institution. Can such a change be ‘organised’; even supposing that it can be ‘organised’, should it be? And if so, by who?

Are we monetizing the human condition by categorizing people as ‘poor’?

In the discussion around the selection and innovations around hybrid rice, we make a distinction between the scientific principle and its social context. The innovations studied have been categorized around economic adversity; and the scientific principle appears to travel in and out of those categories, independent of its social context. It is true that we build value for the knowledge and practices of the ‘poor’ farmer, which are born out of adversity. But where do we build value? Amongst scientists and policy makers? How will that lead to a ‘social’ movement, which includes the ‘poor’ farmer?
In recognizing the value of the knowledge of the ‘poor’, do we segregate knowledge further? Is the science of cross breeding in the lab really the same as the science of widows who ‘select’ cross breeding because of their poverty? How can ‘food security’ be an aspiration or a choice for people? Isn’t it a right, to be assured by the state, or of interest to policy makers who think solving it is their problem?

Knowledge hierarchies: Bill Gates doesn’t listen.

As a society, today we recognize that knowledge carries power. We as knowledge brokers therefore speak from a position of privilege. In choosing to create knowledge about and for the marginalized and vulnerable amongst us, we make a normative choice. But we need the kind of practices that make knowledge powerful and useful. Probably the normative values of development studies are important in this process, and the practices of STS, which are reflexive, are important too. The dialogue between practitioners of development, ‘beneficiaries’ and theory builders and researchers in development has to be strengthened; talking ‘about’ the ‘poor’ is not real; the ‘poor’ is a category that is not about people, but about how much money they have.

We know that poverty can create innovations. And that prosperity can create conditions for innovations too. But to students of science technology and society, economic categorization of conditions for innovation is only one aspect of the story. In the discussion around categorizing technology, it is then surprising that economic categories seemed to play an important role. Technologies of the rich, technologies for the ‘poor’, market technologies, which are evaluated based on productivity, efficiency and returns; and social technologies that deliver benefits. Using these categories to understand the problem is acceptable, but to define the problem within these boundaries forces us to find solutions within these categories. This is already the trap of Development studies; does Science studies want to fall into it?

Some questions:

But how can we define problems so that they are not limited by the solutions that we can offer?

In understanding a problem, there is a latent period where one understands the context, before thinking of ‘a’ solution; never mind a solution that can be offered by the person who studies the problem. When the problem is defined within a designated intervention framework,[DS] it is constrained by the pressures of having to solve it, locating the problem within what is in the knowledge of the framework, and can be controlled. When a theory builder is talking about the situation in the abstract, the knowledge that emerges may be absolutely not applicable.{STS} There are sets of skills of negotiation and learning, which become critical, if one is not to fall into one or the other of these traps.

What makes problems chronic?

From the discussion, we understood that one understanding of a problem is that ‘a’ solution is possible. But a ‘tinkering’ approach, which is more iterative may actually move us into a process of learning, rather than solving, which is more productive. But constant tinkering can produce chronic problems. Does the tinkering approach differentiate between stages of maturity, so that we don’t keep stirring the cooking pot, but invest in a solution that brews over time?

What kind of knowledge does each type of framework [DS/STS] generate?

I see the sts methodology as participative in its practice of research. The STS scholar generates knowledge, for better understanding, and becomes normative only in choosing the site of its investigation. In presenting the vulnerability not just of ‘a group’ but the vulnerability that exists in the system, the researcher points to interventions that can strengthen the system as a whole, rather than a single point intervention that may or not cause systemic change. But there is not a real mechanism for converting this understanding into an intervention, or knowledge that is applicable for the good of a particular group.

In contrast, the DS scholar, while very aware of the power hierarchies, and with a clear normative stand on what he or she serves, still takes an institutional ‘interventionist’ approach to the ‘problem’; in a sense taking agency away from the very people whose purpose they serve. These are not theoretical problems, but real contradictions in the practice of each. One talks about development in the active sense, in order to ‘develop’ someone else, for the other it is used in a more passive sense, to understand what it means to different actors, and maybe extend it in focus, on those who ‘develop’. For STS to lose reflexivity, and prescribe solutions may be fatal to its credibility as a mirror; for DS to endlessly present diverging viewpoints may lead to a lack of accountability to its constituency. In combining the two we have to ask ourselves, what constitutes theory and practice for each of these? Who are they accountable to? Who listens to them? Who do they talk to? Finally, what vocabulary exists, for them to talk to each other? What forums and bridges can be built for productive engagement between the two?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

four cornered triangle - naalugu kaalla be

Four sublists
Methodology....STS et al ''summarise before criticising or evaluating...''
STS and Wiebe- technology and construction of weaving, markets, handloom, development, plurality, identity
DS and Louk-Policy for scaling, segregation of technology, economic as social categories, development slippages
Textiles and Kulkarni/Shiv?-The semiotics of weaving

triangles all the way down

understanding; intervening; being
observing; prescribing; aspiring
technology; policy; identity
value; economics; market
learning; representing; making
knowledge; skills; semiotics
sts; ds; textiles

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

disappearing questions

As i listened to different people speak in the DS/STS seminar, some of the patterns and arguments were so familiar that i began to feel the question disappear. It is the tension between different positions that makes questions appear. But familiar and standard answers make them disappear.
I dont anymore feel like asking some questions.
But before i put them last attempt..

Why does development theory not talk more to its practice? Maybe because people engaged in both build theory, and build practice, in very different places, within very clear hierarchies. So we have development theory builders, critical development thinkers and academics, on the field we have development practitioners who 'implement' such theory and development practitioners who dissent through their practice....and the knowledge each has is important to the other three...and there is a constant circulation of this knowledge...

Why does policy prescribe short term solutions?By definition isnt state policy supposed to be aboutlong term investment? Maybe because policy makers are as susceptible to the environmental pressures as any one else. so we have politicians who worry about their four year terms, and policies that can be implemented within those time frames; policies that change, but processes that stay mired in undemocratic ground.

How can we get out of representational politics? is that really democray? is participation more or less than representation?
More questions that are disappearing.....

Monday, June 15, 2009

method and madness

Why do academics need to be objective? Or is it a matter of converting thought to text that does it? i begin to worry seriously that i will lose perspective? and maybe that is the beginning of this journey....

defining, understanding,knowing

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Scaling Microfinance: Profit

Microfinance is one of the most debated approaches to poverty alleviation in recent times. At one end, it is touted as a successful scaled intervention that has brought social change, and on the other being reviled as an exploiter of poor women’s social capital. Nothing new, possibly can be said about microfinance.

Organizational efficiencies, and womens’ social relationships form the core of this idea. There are social and financial norms which make this possible, and allow for the social relationships to transform into social ‘capital’.

The mechanism of the womens’ Self help Group, has reached epic scale. In Andhra Pradesh there is no village where women are not mobilized into self help groups. These groups are vocal; they have political and social agendas, and hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable. Mainstream banks now offer microfinance; Europe believes it to be a way forward out of poverty, the previous government in Andhra Pradesh was toppled by the women in these groups, when they felt the chief minister had not delivered on his promises to them. Women have joined hands in public private partnerships, in bottom of the pyramid enterprises, to generate incomes for themselves.

Women have become visible, and are seen as having a say on issues important to them. Their identity has changed, to a more pro-active one where they contribute to the finances of the family, through capitalizing their social relationships. The risk is borne in the social space, but the returns are financial. The scale is measured by the number of women recruited, the number and size of the loans given out, and efforts to turn it into livelihood impact are on, but limited by the fact that returns on capital are always more than return on labour.

Scaling Fair trade: People

Fair trade has come of age today, with every supermarket now having a section of produce that is fair trade. The customer pays no premium for being fair, it is now expected that traders and intermediaries will be fair to their producers. The brand successfully adds value to the customer and to the intermediary. Almost all coffee and tea in Europe is fair trade. This is being extended to other sectors using the mechanism of a value chain; locating a producer in a chain, and ensuring he or she gets fair wage.

There are norms, by which fair trade continuously defines itself. Today, having reached scale, the label cannot be monetized, the economics of scale ensure that returns to the producer are fair, but this fair wage is decided by the norm of the organization. Today in India, a domestic label on the same principles as fair trade is being envisioned and invested in, by funding agencies; in order to change the norms in the domestic market. Here, the label is called ‘shop for change’; and attempts to move from fair wage, to better conditions of work, and equal negotiation on terms. Organizations on the field, committed to fair wage to producers use this label to put out their products in the market place, and improve their reach to customers, over competitors who are not committed to the same process.

Producers and customers feel more in touch with each other, with customers feeling that the nature of transaction is more humane, and less consumptive; the customers make a choice on what kind of production they support, and producers get fair wage. Scale in this model, is about reaching more producers who earn fair wage, so the model is about profit and people.We are also trying to reach scale in the mind of the customer, but the model is limited by the number of people who stay in production systems that build value for producer skills.

Scaling Organic produce: Planet

There are thousands of farmers, in villages across Andhra Pradesh, using their traditional farming knowledge and practices, using it to fight the large agriculture machinery, which treats the land as an unending resource. Scale is an issue of geography, farming lands that are continuous in organic practice become more effective; over time. A sustained interest in keeping this process in the customer eye, along with the concern for the resources on our planet, has led to a huge change in the construct of cost of produce. Local, organic, less processed food is at a premium; quite different from a time when resources where seen as unending, and a lifestyle that aspired towards plenty for some; at the cost of less for others.

This idea now is moving towards other products, notably clothes. Starting with baby clothes, moving to young and trendy consumers, who wear their ideology on their purses. Recycling, using less plastic, an understanding of the global, on the local, seems to be part of caring for your planet. The scale is geographic; it includes profit, people and planet; but it is limited by the fact that land and oceans are not inexhaustible, and we are running on borrowed time.


In each of these cases, what was scaled? What got capitalized? What did not? Where are the financial returns made and by whom?

What did not scale? What was unpaid work that the system put in? What norms changed? Did that lead to social change and social returns, and to whom?

What happens when ideas scale? What happens in practice? What happens to the people who participate in scaling? What policies work for scaling?

Is this plurality? How can we ensure self limiting ideas, rather than cancerous growths that lost potency?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Thursday, June 11, 2009

NGO speak

Sustaining handloom weaving for the future

Handloom weaving is the second largest employer of rural youth in India, with 200000 weaving families in Andhra Pradesh alone. Yet 90% of weavers are below the poverty line, and migrate out of weaving and into the cities as unskilled labour. Weavers see themselves as outdated, and weaving as a skill of no market value. This has consequences for the city as well as the village, rapid urbanization is not environmentally sustainable, and when we lose weavers we lose the knowledge of a centuries old technology, that produces cloth in a manner that is harmonious to nature.

We at Dastkar Andhra therefore work with the institutions that the weaver owns up to, his co-operative, starting with 25 of Andhra’s 600 weaver co-operatives. We aim to build the confidence of the weaver to make a livelihood that he can be proud of, while helping himself out of poverty.

Dastkar Andhra innovates products for contemporary customers, so that they sell at a premium cost, increasing the income of the weaver, and achieves scale through aggregating individual product across weavers to match larger market demands. We provide training and support in dyeing, designing and value addition, to the co-operatives. We ensure stable income to the three hundred weavers we work with, through pre-selling their production, increasing a monthly income which fluctuates between Rs 1500 to Rs. 2500; to a stable Rs. 4000 a month. Over three years, the co-operatives move out of debt, and become sustainable, starting with onlyproviding work also for the other 60% of weaver members who do not weave for Dastkar Andhra.

The shop where we sell handloom straddles the young customer and the weaver in a different way. When a young girl asks the question ‘what will I wear today?’ it is not frivolous. It speaks of knowledge of the self, and the context in which her identity is rooted; a learning which is added to with time. Clothes are part of ritual, colour is symbolic, texture is emotion, and these are lessons passed down through generations much like the knowledge of weaving is passed down from one generation of weavers to the next.

The impoverishment when we lose handloom is therefore not just economic, though that is a big part of it. The weaver has the capability to be a technologist, a designer or even an entrepreneur. Our solution is to re-engage the weaver back to his loom, in a way that is productive for the society he lives in, and in a way that gives him his self esteem and sense of purpose back. In doing so, we hope to re-engage the young customer, to her sense of self, and awaken her ability to contribute to the planet she lives on.

starting with the weaver

What constitutes identity in todays’ world for a weaver? His caste, and his income; what ‘rakham’ he weaves, which village he comes from, does he weave silk or cotton? Does he weave for the co-operative or for the master weaver? Can he design or market his own product? Does he go to the masterweaver, or does the master weaver come to his house, to collect the sarees he weaves? Does he know his customers, has he seen his saree being worn? Padmasali? Netagani? In the village, or in the town? Handloom? Power loom? Or IT?

Each of these categories offer a different possibility, and locate the weaver in a different hierarchy with respect to his peers. From each of these identities he draws a different community, but at the same time they are continuous. These identities have to combine to sustain him, to build his self esteem, so that he can carry on from one day to the next, in a fast changing world.

If in the last hundred years, modes and technologies of production have changed beyond recognition; in the last fifty years, modes of transacting these products have moved beyond the horizon of understanding of the producer. He is now dependant on mechanisms that leave out the possibility of negotiation on a personal basis; the interaction is impersonal, as it would be with a machine that produced fabric. Where is the space where a weaver is respected for his skill, where is the acknowledgement of his capability which can sustain him. All that he is offered by society, is a financial transaction. It is not surprising that the weaver is bewildered, weaving an uncertain income, that tells him only that his financial needs will not be met. He translates it to mean that his skill and technology have no larger intrinsic value. What does this do to his identity? And is this perception true? Who will invest in the weavers’ self esteem? And what kind of investment can bring back his sense of self worth?

In defining sustainability as experienced by the weaver, we define unsustainable livelihoods; which are not just economically unsustainable, but are livelihoods that do not provide life sustanance to their practitioners.