Policy lessons from Nepal


Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal. 2017

This week completes over six months of formal engagement with Nepal’s development sector. On the sidelines of the second Nepal Investment Summit which is being held for the second time, after the first one in the 1990s, there seems to be a recognition of need for investment in economic growth of the country. There is also a pressure on the government to take faster decisions on proposed projects.

I first visited this country in 2008. Early observations were with an eye of a traveler from the neighbouring country. Last year, work led to understanding Nepal’s development context (and challenges) better. Here are a couple of policy lessons that emerge from this experience:

  1. Influence of geopolitics on public policy: This link is under appreciated  in policy literature, in my opinion. Domestic policies in Nepal’s case are significantly influenced by factors emerging outside the country. The choices for low income countries (LICs) in the current global context are by far limited. It is well acknowledged that infrastructure like roads, electricity, healthcare etc are vital for improvement in basic quality of life which then is likely to translate into economic growth. In low income countries like Neopal, most of this vital infrastructure is poor. To get this built should (and is) a national priority. This is where LICs have tough choices to make because their own investment and expertise potential is low. These must be supported by someone else. If these are aid agencies then they are driven by the aid providing country’s strategic agenda. If the support comes from multilateral agencies then these come with conditionalities (as Latin American and Asian countries very well know by now). If the support comes from regional powers (in Nepal’s case India and China) then the geopolitical considerations take the center-stage. Nepalese attempts at improving its economic growth are limited by the rate at which it builds highways, electricity generation and supply among other things. Japanese agencies have helped fund some of the highways over the last decade. One Belt One Road (OBOR) project proposed by China is another strategic project which awaits Nepalese government’s approval. On the southern side, India continues its support to build postal highways and other roads leading into Nepal from Indian border. The progress on all of these highways which are important for Nepal’s domestic trade are influenced by changing nature of relationship with its neighbours. A basic core of policies driven by domestic context and demands appears to be weak in Nepal. Our discussions with civil society groups reveals that the national policies on water and sanitation too are influenced by aid agencies and their financial support. This is what I mean by influence of geopolitics on public policy. 
  2. Governance capacity gaps are more debilitating than financial capacity in the long run : The common refrain for state of affairs – poor infrastructure, weak state capacity, governance issues etc, is that LICs lack financial resources to fix them. This need not be true. Answers to efficiency and service delivery do not emerge from national exchequer.
  3. Often times, strengthening democracy is a necessary condition in societies with diverse ethnic and social groups: At ATREE@20 conference last month in Bengaluru, Kamal Bawa sat listening to the presentations on conservation and development. The tension between development aspirations and conservation was a key theme. Towards the end, Bawa remarks that only an authoritarian regime can decisively and conclusvely act towards the environmental, conservation and development challenges. Democracies aren’t as capable. I could see that Bawa was acknowledging the strength of a democratic system and at the same time speaking of its strong limitation in being able to address the challenges in a short span of time. In its long drawn process of addressing societal and environmental challenges. However, what democracies come up with are equitable solutions, if not entirely sustainable.

Though on a tangential topic, this insight is useful as one sees Nepal struggling with laying a foundation for a strong democracy since the democratic Constitution of 1990. Until democratic form of governance finds its root, there might not be an end to the frequent clashes and shutdowns of various regions that are fighting for rights and representation.

Journalist Prashant Jha writes that “instability has remained the norm, with a government canging every nine months.Nepal democratic trajectory is framed succintly in his book “Battles of the New Republic” –

From war to peace, from monarchy to republicanism, from being a Hindu kingfom to secularism, from being unitary to a potentially federal state, and from a narrow hill-centric notion of nationalism to an inclusive sense of citizenship – Nepal’s transformation was, and is, among the most ambitious political experiments in recent years in South Asia.

4. Public policy in fragile states must engage with and respond to political reality:

While some debate whether there can be any semblance of policy in a fragile state (politically), I argue that if it engages with political reality and respond to it within the extremely short time that an incumbent government has, that can lead to a minimal core of polcies. Every incoming party tends to pick up reins from the past and improvise on it. If the template is engineered such that it formalises priorities, there might be hope for continuity. This is arguably difficult. For instance, labour policy in Nepal can benefit from this. Almost every government in the last decade has seen its youth migrate to Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia and to Europe for work, any kind of work. The country now earns substantially from remittances. A policy to regulate and channelize remittances and at the same time care for its migrating workers’ rights in distant lands, could have earned the government a major support group. As it now stands, the migration is largely driven by distress at home.

The above are visceral responses to the state of public policy in Nepal. On a deeper engagement, it could be true that some or all of these are unfounded. However, it helps my learning that I put them here as they emerge in the head.

A way forward for aid agencies that work in Nepal could be to look at interventions that enhance governance and policy-making capacities of the government as a priority. This involves the danger of transplanting ideas from elsewhere into a different context and see things getting messed up, however, this is arguable. There still exists a core set of ideas that are useful and effective in helping an economy make best use of its resources and enhance living conditions of its people.

The cross seems heavy to bear


A hyper modern museum space (Astrup Fearnley) right on the old harbour in Oslo. The landscape continues to change with high intensity construction activity.

In Oct – Nov, 2016 I spent six weeks in Scandinavia (Norway mostly) and in countries of Western Europe. This was to be my roving introduction to the region. To a traveler, the time he visits always appear as an interesting time. Likewise with me! It was to do with Brexit, immigration crisis and the rise of nationalistic fervour above the super-nationalistic identity that EU tried to drive in all these decades.

In Norway, the human-nature relationship is said to be special (vs. other part of the world). The fact that Norwegians enjoy a very high standard of living and at the same time have managed to achieve a high degree of environmental conservation is always foregrounded in discussions. Norwegian values and its landscapes are also said to be a part of the inspiration that led Arne Naess to articulate his ideas in deep ecology. This meant that while I moved around Oslo and its suburbs, I was quite consciously looking for evidence of such a relationship. Oslo’s high number of electric cars and ubiquitous charging pods for these cars for sure was one. However, I wanted to know what kind of discourse on environment, nature and human relationship went on here. This is what I was after. And then perhaps, having identified it, contrast it with the Asian context. Is it some kind of enlightened thinking going on in other parts of the world that is amiss in the Asians or Indians in particular?

The intent is to talk of environmental thinking and the contemporary discourse on environment. Climate change negotiations at those high profile and widely televised COP meetings to me smack of a doublethink on the OECD nations’ part. It seems unfair ( coming from a region which loves ending its sentences with “… in all fairness.” & “To be fair…”) that the burden of environmental concern and therefore reduction in carbon footprint should fall on countries in Asia, primarily India and China.

To complete this twisted picture of an environmental values of the OECD countries, we have the activists in Indian metropolitan cities whose action and thought go as far as the city’s parks and town halls where they can either light candles or hold placards or arrange public talks against the latest proposed infrastructure ( a steel flyover lately, in Bengaluru). It appears incomplete – their variety of action.

The Cross Seems Heavy to Bear

There appears to be an undue burden placed on an average man on the streets of India, to think about environmental impact and the impending crises. What is she to do about it? Everyone seems to have a prescription. But is that practicable or should the action start with an individual first (followed by systemic measures) is a question which needs a thought. This has been a continuing frustration with the arguments and reasoning that the activists and some of the policy makers push forth.

An ecological consciousness which drives conduct from a mere instrumental relationship to a blend of altruistic and instrumental behaviour with nature has undergone a re-discovery in twenty-first century. India seemed to have locked up its ecological consciousness away in a chest which would later on be broken into by recurrent environmental crises – year on year drought, floods, loss of soil fertility etc. During the decades of Nehruvian push towards modernization of India through its modern ‘temples’ – industries, damns, power plants etc, ecology formed neither a consideration in public policy nor in scientific planning a worthy factor. Note that it was the modern Indian state making that decision. The citizenry followed along – some gained from the benefits that the projects had to offer, some who stood in the path of the big projects were relocated and some others found careers of a lifetime in those enterprises. What agency if any could have an individual exercised if she felt not in favour of these large projects of modernization?

Also, this was well within the paradigm of the times, wherein the countries of the West took the same path to development – by dispensing with considerations of ecological impact and pushing up the exploitation of natural resources to the advancement as well as fulfillment of human needs. Soon enough, the impacts of ecological recklessness were to be felt across countries, with each one facing consequences proportionate to their extent of exploitation. The cross of environmental degradation and resultant loss seems heavy to bear. What are the options then, that a way back to an ecologically sustainable way of life can be found? With whom and where must it start from?

A look at the current ecological discourse shows a resurgence of themes like ecological processes and their relationship with development. This was identified by thinkers like Arne Naess, Rachel Carson, E F Schumacher and within India, by Gandhi with his ideas of sustainability and self-reliance. Besides these, anthropologists have written about man and nature relationship in earlier societies which embodied this form of behaviour.[1] Among these, an idea which perhaps hold potential to provide a philosophical foundation to the thought on way ahead is Naess’ exhortation for an ‘enlargement of the ego-self to eco-self’. This, he argued, might result in environmentally responsible behaviour as a form of self-interest. While Naess’ gaze appears to be directed at the individual, I argue that the same thought must be first applied to nations and their governments. It is with the state’s apparatus which should move towards an eco-self – an ‘eco-self of the state’. A state’s eco-self is a better suited site of action than an individual who as a citizen may not have the same influence and power to negotiate with the state vis-à-vis other citizens. Partha Chatterjee’s distinction of the civil society and political society identifies this differential power equation and how the state deals with the two groups in accordance with their status.

The climate change negotiations at the Climate Change summits are unlikely to work with technological and monetary interventions which are forever sharpened as though someday it would reach a state of perfection where the inter-nation differences over environmental impact and conservation would suddenly cease to exist. It needs a combination of these approaches with a direction for governments which face the crisis of venturing forth into imagining an ecological-self that does not call upon them to sacrifice their lifestyles and neither impinges on their future desires of consumption, material comfort and aspiration. This is the real challenge that domestic as well as global public policy is set against. These might manifest as conflict of interests, however, the underlying cause is a deadlock in being able to think about how one might conceptualize a path which lessens the human impact on environment and at the same time makes the inevitable cross a bit easier to bear.

[1] See Martinez Alier on Environmentalism of the Poor, Jared Diamond on collapse of societies and Rev John Malthus on overpopulation.

On how not to help: Afghanistan

IMAGE: From boston.com 's The Big Picture feature. Photographer: Ahmad Masood/Reuters . I use this picture for the interesting caption that it appeared with on The Big Picture. These statements end up forming worldview on the country - Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place to be a woman," says Antonella Notari, head of Women Change Makers, a group that supports women social entrepreneurs around the world. A woman walks past riot police outside a gathering in Kabul's stadium, February 23, 2007.

IMAGE: From boston.com ‘s The Big Picture feature. Photographer: Ahmad Masood/Reuters . I use this picture for the interesting caption that it appeared with on The Big Picture. These statements end up forming worldview on the country – Continuing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combine to make Afghanistan a very dangerous place to be a woman,” says Antonella Notari, head of Women Change Makers, a group that supports women social entrepreneurs around the world. A woman walks past riot police outside a gathering in Kabul’s stadium, February 23, 2007.

The manner in which Afghanistan’s women empowerment projects have gone wrong makes an extremely useful study for development sector and workers therein. If development studies at universities followed the case study method, then this should have been one of the first ones to be discussed. Because so much is just so messed up about western development workers trying to help Afghani women.

In NYT this morning, Bina Shah has a telling piece on the gender based development dynamics unfolding in Afghanistan. The reason her account merits attention is because it includes the voices of people from that very society. The author of the piece at NYT, though, is Karachi based, but Pakistan’s proximity to Afghanistan and the cultural overlaps are certainly more significant than a development worker parachuting from the northern hemisphere.  It isn’t some professor of women studies from the west or a gender development expert with years of experience in the region making observations on the situation of women in Afghanistan and their relationship with the men. These are Afghani women.

And as I understand from their views, the development workers have got it badly wrong. That the women are severely oppressed and are helpless against the oppression and violence inflicted by the men is not quite in line with the voices from within Afghanistan. Shah writes –

…the self-image of a great many Afghan women doesn’t match the victimhood awarded them by Western aid workers. They see themselves instead as brave, capable and strong. Islam is important to them, as is their honor. They want more freedoms, of course, but they want to be active participants in their own liberation and set their own pace for the struggle.

A few weeks back, in a discussion on aid and the UN setup in India, I remember the frustration I had with expats who occupy all the tier-I and tier-II position in UN organizations in the country. For instance, an overwhelming majority of “WASH Specialists” in India are foreign nationals with PhDs from B-grade schools of the west. That creates an adverse effect that the capable and talented Indian individuals opt out of such organizations and work elsewhere, preferably abroad.

A similar effect seems to be happening in Afghanistan. Shah reports –

…an Afghan filmmaker named Sahraa Karimi spoke in Karachi. She said development workers grew rich on “women’s empowerment projects” and “minority interest projects” while many female Afghan intellectuals left the country in a debilitating brain drain. It is just too hard for them to endure the dangerous working conditions and suffocating social environments outside Afghanistan’s fortified Western compounds.

That talent drain is likely to have a severe impact on Afghanistan with a limited pool of well-trained individuals.

The point is a simple one – that development sector needs a very strong active role from the host country’s own society. It does not work without it. Lessons from Afghanistan points to the same direction. Back here in India too I can count over a dozen instances of how the development sector (and the ‘experts’) get it awfully wrong, an awful lot of times.



‘Property’ in its contemporary form


In an earlier post history of the idea of property was traced briefly. This one continues the exploration of normative and operational basis for the idea of property. The merit of this pursuit lies in the realm of grappling with several contestations that have emerged in the contemporary society. These contestations are between various classes, ethnic groups, castes (when one looks at India) and races (when one considers US) on the ownership, rights to use and share all conceivable types of resources that can be utilized and benefitted from  in the prevailing economic system. Such a blanket description of resources would then include the Marxist idea of ownership of means of production, ownership and use rights of natural resources and to the variety of ownership that has evolved in the knowledge industry.

An exploration as this, serves the wider purpose of opening up a discussion on how might one try to reconcile these wide ranging conceptions of the idea of property and the variety of normative and positivist ideas that come to bear upon the set of institutions that are then built upon such a conception.

Property rights have held an important status in the political agenda in several democratic countries worldwide. It has also come to be marked as an important feature of a capitalist economy. The modern views on property are as divergent as Monsieur Proudhon’s “all property is theft” to contemporary economist like Hernando DeSoto who sees property rights as (perhaps) the only available tool for raising capital stock for the poor to be able to raise enough financial resources in order to fund their development process. The transformation in the idea of property, thus, has been tremendous.

The operation typologies of property as forms of tangible and intangible thing; private property and common property; property as set of rules about ownership, rights and use etc is not dealt with here. This is because these typologies are based on the same foundational thoughts about conception of property that are discussed here.

The Liberal & Neo-Liberal Period

A discussion on the most recent interpretations i.e. in the liberal and neo-liberal idea of property merits significant attention because of its central position in capitalist economies as well as democracies worldwide.  While this period has come to be known for its exclusionary and restrictive property regime which is enforced through rule of law, it is also a period in which we see the sharpest description and understanding of property and property rights emerging.

In my assessment, this is also a period in which the gap between idea and practice (of the idea of property) is the smallest. This means that in its larger direction, it is the liberal and neo-liberal period where one can find the idea and practice in consonance. However, it might be good to also note that when in the history of idea of property a consonance between idea and practice is achieved, there also emerges one of the most inequitable societies in terms of income and ownership of resources.

For instance, an idea that held tremendous recognition in twentieth century was that property rights are a key for individuals to be able to make use of their labour and transform that property into productive asset which results in a livelihood. The Indian, Russian and Chinese experiments in land redistribution were attempts in line with that kind of idea. However, each of these countries has had different results in bringing about land redistribution. Its premise that ownership of means of production (land in this case) is a necessary condition for individuals to be able to earn a decent livelihood did not yield consistent results.

More recently, economist Hernando DeSoto’s call for enforceable property rights as a necessary instrument in a capitalist economy, in the hands of the poor also showed variable results. At one point, the large multilateral institutions like the World Bank also favoured DeSoto’s call for enforceable property rights as a tool for poverty alleviation. This was proposed to be done by giving property titles to the poor who own whatever little asset that can be titled. With these titles, it is assumed that they will be able to access capital markets and make use of their property as a hedge. In its implementation in Peru, studies suggest that there hasn’t been recognizable change in the poor  people’s economic situation.

Return to Locke

It is useful to see that the liberal period is also marked by a rather elegant theory of entitlements proposed by Robert Nozick. Robert Nozick (1974) argued that a theory of historical entitlement, along Lockean lines, provides both a complete justification of the institution and a set of strict criteria that govern its legitimate distribution. Property rights, according to Nozick, constrain the extent to which we are entitled to act on our intuitions and theories about distributive justice (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

It is a framework which emphasizes individual rights and the derivation of political obligation from consent. Nozick holds that the only legitimate state is the minimal state, whose activities are confined to the protection of individuals and their property and to the enforcement of contracts (Scanlon, 1976).

In these times of neo-liberal hegemony , it is imperative that reconciliation between idea and practice is attempted by the institutions which have come to determine every aspect of social, economic and political life of individuals in the society. While it does seem to appear that the idea and practice of property in the neo-liberal period seems in line, however, this has led to highly contestable and inequitable outcomes. This does not seem to be a constructive basis for the future of civilizational progress. Hence, sounding the opening note again, the pursuit of philosophical basis of the idea of property is necessary, especially since the consequences of the neo-liberal interpretation of property is known and felt by most countries worldwide.

On the idea of ‘property’

From a few earlier projects that our firm has handled (in FRA, land acquisition and coastal regulation) and a couple of academic exercises, I began exploring the idea of property and how it has come to be its contemporary understanding. This meant that I begin with earliest conceptions or references to the word property and further interpretations over time.

The point of this post is to share a brief table which attempts to periodise the property discourse and flags thinkers of the respective period. And then highlight fundamental ideas of the early period.

Periods (of the idea of Property)
I: The Greek Period
Property as virtue
Property as common owned
II: The Modern Period
 Property as individual right
Property ownership and rules of ownership as an instrument to resolve conflicts in society
Property as creation of sovereign state
Hume (that there is nothing ‘natural’ about private property)
III: The Marxist Idea
 Ownership of labour
Ownership of means of production
Karl Marx
IV: The Liberal & Neo-Liberal Period
 Property as enforceable right
Economic rationale for property rights
Rule of Law
Entitlement Theory
Erosion of social basis of property
Rawls (asking if property is a philosophical question at all)
Table: Periods in progression of the idea of property

In line with Aristotelian thought, John Locke follows makes a significant contribution to the idea of property with his labour theory of property. At this juncture, there is a departure from what constitutes property to an inquiry into how is property created. In a sense, ownership becomes a secondary thought, while the primary goal becomes articulation of what might be called property. Is it something already present and that a person just lays his claim over it or is property a process of creation and consequently the creator holds the right to claim it as his?The idea of property has undergone this clash of idea and practice just the same. Some of the widely noted ideas include Plato’s argument that common ownership was necessary to promote common pursuit of the common interest, and to avoid the social divisiveness that would occur ‘when some grieve exceedingly and others rejoice at the same happenings’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).  Whereas, Aristotle argues for private ownership of property justifying that this condition is a necessity for a man to act in the interest of prudence and responsibility. Further, he links the idea of property and its practice to the virtue of man. This is a radical departure from Plato’s articulation and perhaps it can be said that the Greek society’s practice of property ownership and its use as an instrument looked closer to Aristotle’s idea of it.

The resolution of the idea of property in this manner continues into the contemporary times, where this line of enquiry is instrumental in deciding upon rights and ownership issues of newer forms of knowledge products and creation that have emerged. In areas like intellectual property, such debates are instrumental because they offer a method of thought as well as a historical reference point as to how questions of ownership, rights and use evolved over time.

Locke’s original position of natural law to think about property as a creation which comes about when labour is applied to natural resources remains pivotal in understanding property as well as labour. An instance of the chasm between idea and practice that the paper argues for can be seen in case of the Lockean proviso (Waldron, 1979)[2].

This is where we see that the conditionality that one may appropriate a property of a person provided that “… there is enough, and as good, left in common for others” remains sidelined and not applied.  While on one hand there are attempts to understand and conceptualize what property might mean, there emerged thoughts on the applicability of such ideas of property. For instance, Hume argues that property relations only make sense under conditions of scarcity (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

It is useful to contrast Locke’s theorization of property with that of Hobbes and Hume who begin by looking at property from the sovereign state’s perspective. Hobbes and Hume, counter to Locke’s idea of property, argue that there is no natural ‘mine’ or ‘thine’, and that property must be understood as the creation of the sovereign state or at the very least the artificial product of a convention ‘entered into by all the members of the society to bestow stability on the possession of… external goods, and leave every one in the peaceable enjoyment of what he may acquire by his fortune and industry’ (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2004).

While I pursue the shifts in the later periods, it is quite intriguing that research in this area is not pursued by developing countries and particularly in India where property rights are contested and law suits filed in every single city, town and village in the country.


[1] Roberto Unger speaks of Hegel’s idea and influence on his work in social theory in a documentary titled The Origins of Roberto Mangabeira Unger’s Philosophical Thought, 2013.

[2] Waldron asks a sharp question on this proviso which is instructive for the reading on property and Locke’s idea. He writes, in the same paper – “what if there is not enough and as good left in common for others? Does that mean nobody may appropriate anything from the state of nature and call it his private property? In other words, is the italicized clause (of necessary condition) intended as a necessary condition on private appropriation, restricting the appropriation of goods to circumstances in which there is plenty left for everybody else?”.

Grad Life Ends Here


This week, grad life comes to an end officially. With convocation it draws to a formal close. As I looked at the grade statements which have never been a happy sight for me, I realize that they do not reflect is the quality of time that I spent at the university and subtle transformations that came through along the course.   What they do reflect is a long trail of papers not submitted and assignments not done. Over the last two evenings I have been thinking about the ways grad life impacted my work and personal life.

It has been an enormously enriching two years, as I look back. The diversity of projects, internships and studies that I have packed in these two years would be hard for a work life to deliver even in four years. This has been the single most point of satisfaction for me personally, as I finish this program. A carefully chosen grad program I realize can be a great boost to professional growth as well as personal enrichment. On this point – about promises of a higher education, I am a recent convert! Two years back this would be hard to see.

Barely two months since the program finished, our business pipeline has grown steady and also higher in value. A part of it is a direct consequence of the time spent at the university. I also think that deliverance of higher education in terms of professional value is specific to chosen field. While a management degree may not seem to be a smart investment of money when compared to the experience gained in the same two years when spent at work, in some other fields it can work quite the reverse. For example, in journalism or in development sector. I see that it can improve the quality of work several notches up in development sector. The assessments and evaluation studies that our company now conducts are more comprehensive in the range of factors they consider and are more rooted into ground level action. Works earlier would often be weak on theory-practice-action connect.

My partners at the firm have been able to shape our company’s focus from a pure business orientation to a space which is sensitive to development challenges in countries and then bring in our business into addressing those challenges through our business. Here is an instance – in our scientific instruments business where we sell laboratory instruments for healthcare and lifescience research applications, my partners are looking at the role of these instruments in creating an impact on the healthcare situation (and in some cases science education in colleges) in the geography where we operate. This would have perhaps been hard for us to do if not for the learning in the past two years.

Personally, grad degree’s most significant impact has been on my outlook to life and its purpose. I am more likely to listen to folks who are contributing in their own small or big way to change social situations around them. There was a fair degree of indifference in how I looked at social issues earlier. Why did this change had to wait for the university and why did it happen only now, it fails me. But it did. I considered taking some time from a typical work week to do something self-serving.It was hard for me to imagine because near hundred percent of what I did was all for the self. This is when teaching happened. I considered being a teacher in a high school and teach a few days every week.

A direct consequence of grad program – that I teach two days a week in a high school and get to spend time with children. This is a complete turn around from the way I would do things earlier. Plus, a teacher’s hat I see is quite a responsible one to wear, which can bear heavy on the self-conscious individuals who think several times before committing themselves to tasks as these – which require disciplined and consistent efforts.

Looking back I see that University is a great place to experiment. Experiment with oneself and with ideas. This is what I did. If you also happen to run a small company, then be sure that the company too would reflect the changes that you go through, provided you have been inclusive enough to involve your colleagues in the range of crazy ideas that you tried at the university. In our case, it was the company that went for higher education. Not just one partner!




M & E Primer for Development Foot Soldiers

Development sector tends to be ‘expert’ driven. At least so it seems in our little experience consulting in this space. These experts carry out research, set processes in place, jump start initiatives or programs for organizations and other such things which are usually seen as jobs which require considerable expertise. As we have seen here in India, sometimes even seemingly routine activities like monitoring and evaluation (M & E) is done by people from outside the organization who are hired specially for the job. Except external evaluations which require the evaluating individual or team to be a third party, to prevent biases of any sort.

If organizations develop an in-house capability, within their teams to be able to conduct M & E of their own projects then this can have two major benefits – a) saving costs on hiring consultants/experts; b) improved quality of program implementation and outcome. What is being suggested here is that  if those who are implementing a program and also manage it over time are able to conduct small and specific M & E exercises on their own, it would yield significant benefits for the organization. It is these people that I call foot soldiers.

This post shares a simple (and of course limited) template of how project teams can begin to think about M & E in their own programs and offers steps to conduct an evaluation of their own. The concern was shared by the economics professor as well in a lecture on socio-economic analysis. We seemed to agree that this little gap in project teams’ skills can go a long way in driving high quality outcome and learning. He comes with a long experience in consulting aid agencies and large philanthropic foundations. The framework here was presented by him in a lecture this morning. I found it useful because it is application oriented approach.

The framework assumes monitoring and evaluation in a specific sense. Monitoring can be seen under following analytical categories –

  • Impact
  • Outcome
  • Output

Evaluation can have the following objectives –

  • Measure/assess effectiveness: this is to assess significance of the impact that the project set out to achieve
  • Measure/assess efficiency: this is a cost – benefit analysis of the resources used in the project

The framework in Table 1 considers a hypothetical program which aims to reduce Infant Mortality Rate (IMR) in an area (village, town etc). We carry out M&E of this project using the framework. It should be noted that the output-outcome-impact and the indicators are linked to each other. One flows from the other. So the project design team should have developed reasonably good explanations for selecting the set of indicators, outcome, output etc that are used in the framework. Indicators that should be a part of the design are considered based on information about the project area, demographics etc.



Until I figure out how to get a table inside wordpress, I will have to use inserted images.

The table is to be read with first row and first column in conjugation. We begin with listing down what is the intended output (or could be multiple), outcome and impact of the program. The next column will include what are the possible indicators to measure each of these row parameters. The next column indicates data sources used to measure the respective indicator. And finally, the last column lists the assumptions that have been made while developing the given indicator. The assumptions are an important aspect because it helps in gaining a clarity on what does the program assumes will work (or will be as given).  I found that when attempted for other programs, this approach helped me gain a sharper understanding of outcomes, indicators and how do measure the indicators.

Some might argue that this is an oversimplified approach to M & E. They would be correct in saying so. But what is suggested here is its use as a diagnostic tool. It is to be an exercise in gaining preliminary understanding and a sense of progress of your program. It sure cannot be a theoretically and academically correct M & E exercise involving recognized methods.


From APU Conference 2013 : On right to welfare

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

APU Conference 2013. Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work, Bangalore

This morning we are at APU’s Conference 2013 on Right to Welfare: Education, Food and Work. The focus seems firmly set on India and here is the list of papers. My colleague and I find the conference note to be high on theoretical quotient with respect to thinking on institutional and legal fronts – about what welfare means in India and its delivery. During the day we hear people working in social security, education, poverty, food, work and a variety of interdisciplinary areas in development like rights based approach to welfare, structural violence and welfare etc.

Besides the range being a little too expansive, we find that it might well be one of the few times in a year that we sit in conferences understanding, debating and learning about new ways of thinking and conceptualization of problems that we see in our work with non-profits and small businesses in the development sector. We experience the issues of equity, access and rights but seldom get to effect changes to remedy the imbalance. Or at times we have not even known how to approach serious issues such as these. The themes –

I. Law and development in India

II. Statutory rights-based approach to welfare

III. Rights and Obligations

Of these we look forward to interesting research on structural violence and welfare by Akhil Gupta, Social Citizenship in India by Niraja Jayal and on India’s new rights agenda by Sanjay Ruparelia.

The conference opened with two fairly accurate observations from Anurag of APU, who trawls the Indian hinterland looking at changes, emerging practices and learning from them to devise effective social action –

1. That there has been a retreat of welfare in India

2.  That there is a lack of engagement between the intellectuals and people on the ground. And  that this is beginning to be a problem .

For us as practitioners, this might yield interesting ways to look at the contests of rights, access and equity and associated problems that we see in out work. And how these could be addressed by businesses or perhaps by our work in data analysis and documentation. If it does yield interesting insights, be sure to find it here.


Understanding Public Policy Research – A schematic

By Keshav (Courtesy: The Hindu)

By Keshav (Courtesy: The Hindu)

Here is a ‘discipline neutral’ way of understanding policy research. This stuff comes out from a course on Introduction to Policy Research that I take this term. Interestingly enough this is the first time that we have a specific course titled as that – Public Policy, as a part of any graduate program in an Indian university. What follows is a way to simplify what policy research is for the uninitiated. It can possibly help in mapping the landscape of the several different kind of policy studies that exist.  This is closer to what we have often done – applied and functional to get going in a space. The policy professor here whose own work looks at Indian politics, policies and processes from an applied perspective, helped folks understand policy research area through the schematic that I’ve cleaned up and represented below.

On public policy, he argues that it is about creating change by making hard choices between competing values. It is about approaching problems and these approaches vary with different interest groups. I am attracted to this explanation because it is not theory heavy and emerge from a gaze set on real world and unlike other insular theories in public policy that I have come across.

The schematic came about from discussion on India’s transition in public policy space and various studies like Rob Jenkins’ on what made the 1991 reforms work in India, Achin Chakrabarty on reform debates and more importantly Pranab Bardhan who articulates the Indian state as “predatory” during the Indira Gandhi period.  The variety of public policy study and practice as seen in the West is relatively new in India and therefore the extra effort in explaining its direction, intention and methods. Public policy study is done in two ways –

1)      Policy Research – which is a post facto analysis of what happened with policy X in place and why.

2)      Public Policy Analysis – which is conducted before or towards developing and implementing a new policy.

And hence the following schematic to understand public policy research –

A schematic to understand policy research (Ref: Srikrishna Ayyangar)

Approaches in policy research (Ref: Srikrishna Ayyangar)

Paving the road to hell with agricultural productivity

Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh . This region in AP witnesses a bumper tomato produce in November, 2012 and effects the prices (adversely) in the nearby cities of Bangalore and Chennai. High volumes of production did not lead to commensurate rise in income of the farmers in this region, as we know.

Kuppam, Andhra Pradesh . This region in AP witnesses a bumper tomato produce in November, 2012 and effects the prices (adversely) in the nearby cities of Bangalore and Chennai. High volumes of production did not lead to commensurate rise in income of the farmers in this region, as we know.

Here is a brief of a new policy study that my colleague Praveena and I begin this month. We are excited about this idea as agriculture and development has been sectors of our interest since long and that a sector fatigue (from our work in water sector) is slowly kicking in. We would sharpen this as we get going on this, but sharing a rough cut of the idea is called for to invite inputs and criticism on this from folks we know and the readers of this blog. 

Paving the road to hell with agricultural productivity: Agri- commodities, International Trade and Development

Focus on increasing agriculture productivity as an intervention in alleviating poverty across the less developed and developing countries, particularly of Africa and Asia has had reverse effect of pushing people further down into economic crisis. We begin a small study this week where we explore the consequences of large agriculture programs which are focused on increasing agricultural productivity of farm sector, for a variety of staple crops, cash crops as well as horticultural crops. The increase in productivity is treated as end in itself. Whereas, in practice, the productivity rise is not realized as increased income for the farmers but works adversely works on pushing the prices of that crop further down. What is proposed is that increased agri productivity will lead to increase in income of the farmers. In practice, what happens is that the increased flow of agri-produce in the market pulls the price down and neutralized the gain of the producer.

There are two problems that we see –

1)      Development programs which focus on increasing agriculture productivity alone are not desirable as they do not alleviate poverty in long term, instead work adversely.

2)      Increased agri-productivity affects less developed and developing economies which earn by exporting these primary goods. When a higher volume of produce hit the international market they push the prices down and lead to lesser earnings by the producing country. This has an aggregate effect of leaving the economy as impoverished as it was earlier, if not worse.

These two problems could be addressed by thinking about development sector programs in agriculture as well as international agri-commodities trade from analyzing existing policies in agriculture and trade sectors.

Our argument is that development sector programs in agriculture, domestic as well as international agri-commodities trade and poverty are linked very closely and in a direct fashion. There is a ripple effect that travels right through this chain and leads to adverse effect on the producers if these programs focus only on productivity increase. This fixation without looking at the policy environment and prevalent trade practices will always lead to poor outcomes as seen in declining international agri-commodity prices by as much as 25% across the board – coffee, tea, cocoa and sugar, in the last decade. From 1980 to 2000, world prices for 18 major export commodities fell by 25% in real terms.  The decline was especially steep for cotton (47%), coffee (64%), rice (61%), cocoa (71%) and sugar (77%)  (World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization 2004: p83).[1]


[1] The commodities crisis and the global trade in agriculture: Problems and proposals, Martin Khor