Sunday, May 15, 2016
Friday, February 11, 2011
Tuesday, January 04, 2011
There are clear benefits to blogging about events long after they occur. While I've love to claim this was deliberate strategy on my part to to offer some kind of meta-analysis, the truth is I was just a bit lazy with my posts. In any case, these were thoughts I shared with friends on email discussions, so I figured I might as well given them their due in this extended post.
And oh, Happy New Year!
Bihar Elections: Nitish Kumar led JD(U)-BJP coalition swept 206 out of 243 seats, the biggest margin of victory in a state often described as "lawless" and "ungovernable", but now basking in the glory of 11% economic growth.
1) As we all know, business likes certainty and hates risk. Such a decisive margin means that new entrants into the state know they don't have to funnel money towards political actors of different stripes to hedge against political risk. Make no mistake, there is still plenty of administrative red tape which kept 398 investment proposals from getting off the ground during the previous Nitish regime. Yet, this outcome, combined with the Nitish regime's strong record on law and order makes it more likely that new businesses will come into the state.
As an aside, the MoU of the year might be between Vijay Mallya owned United Breweries and Bihar, to produce wine from Muzaffarpur’s litchis. That is one wine I’m looking forward to!
2) On caste, I think this hails a second generation of caste-based politics, where it is not sufficient any longer to cobble together a caste coalition for the purpose of winning elections. The notion that Nitish had to resort to a broad development agenda because he hails from a demographically small caste does not have much evidence to back it up. As an old socialist, Nitish’s commitment to progressive policies predates the caste-driven electoral politics that started dominating Bihar in the late 1980s.
Even if his ideological leanings are discounted, it was sound politics, independent of caste calculations, for Nitish to emphasize development (building 6,800 km of roads, hiring teachers for rural schools, etc) simply to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Lalu, who while being one of the shrewdest political brains in India, presided over a destruction of the state infrastructure and government machinery.
Andhra Pradesh Microfinance Crisis: Responding to reports of microloan induced suicides, the AP government introduced an ordinance (now law) regulating interest rates on loans. Also, local politicians urged borrowers to stop making payments, nearly leading to a collapse of the microfinance industry in the state.
1) For a long time, light regulation has been necessary in the industry. While the AP regulations are pretty strange (no security be taken for loans…last I checked, no requirement of collateral was the USP of microfinance) and don’t achieve their rationale (interest capped at the size of principal amount…current interest rates are 20-30%, placing even atypical loans with 3 year repayment periods within the proposed cap), the need for an oversight body which enforces client protection, governance and portfolio management standards, cannot be denied.
2) India is not Andhra Pradesh. Even if the MFI industry is concentrated there. And even if the NYT calls the AP crisis a collapse of Indian microcredit. If anything, there is tremendous opportunity for growth in microfinance in other states but banks and MFIs have been geographically limited because of agglomeration effects and AP’s good governance. This crisis, and the resultant legislation, might have the unintended consequence of spreading MFIs to other states, a good outcome in the long run.
Where do I even begin with this one? I'll say this much - I think secrecy has its benefits in the short-term. I have sat in off-the-record meetings with Chatham House rules and they are useful in that they allow public figures to thrash out ideas (good and bad) without defending each of them publicly. Diplomacy or indeed any policymaking requires the sort of college dorm kind of freedom which generates a proper debate before a policy is agreed upon.
But I would distinguish this defense of secrecy from secrecy around events in a conflict/insurgency/war. Wikileaks’ exposes of American soldiers’ callousness during Iraq war, the Afghan war logs and human rights violations in Kashmir are acceptable, indeed necessary, because they (could) force course corrections and policy changes for states, which are particularly prone to excesses. Importantly, these excesses have real, tangible consequences on human lives – I’m not so sure about the diploleaks, which only serve to embarrass people for expressing views on record which have been accounted for in the policy making process anyway.
Monday, August 09, 2010
Its been a whirlwind two months in India and this is a post which has been in the pipeline for a while (hence the length). For those unaware of my current research project, I’m working on a study of Microfinance Self-Help Groups in villages near Sanchi, Madhya Pradesh. It is the first time that I have conducted a real survey. Needless to say, it has given me a deep appreciation of the process of data collection and work of the surveyor.
First, designing a questionnaire is not simply about putting questions on paper; Murphy’s Law rules big time. Framing of questions is key – anything remotely ambiguous WILL cause confusion. Leaving any decision making to your interviewer and interviewee WILL come back to haunt you. Less words, the better. More options, even better.
Second, Lost in Translation is not just the name of a sappy movie. It is a huge pitfall whenever you are relying on an interviewer to translate questions and record responses. While I hired a local person to accelerate the rate of data collection, the main challenge was to have him understand the entire survey and be able to code responses in Bundeli, the local Hindi dialect, onto the English questionnaire. Fortunately (and it is good fortune in a country where the dialect changes every 100 kilometers), I understood Bundeli well enough to oversee that process and ensure that erroneous recording of responses was minimized.
While questionnaire design is demanding, the actual interviews of people were the most fun and rewarding part of the survey. Their responses often threw all the planning of a first-time surveyor like me out of whack. Observing features of demography and village life which veteran surveyors (and astute casual observers) of rural India know very well, I would often have to retract, change my interview questions or simply remember to account for those features when interpreting my results. In any case, here they are - A Newbie Surveyor’s Guide to Rural India.
· aG Age: Women simply don’t know it. Tellingly, they don’t care enough to understate it. Women who are 30 think they are 40 and vice-versa. For all the influence of cable TV on rural women, propensity to understate age is not one of them. Caveat # 1: this might be a local phenomenon as renowned Indian demographer, Ashis Bose, claims otherwise. Caveat # 2: Women under 30, who tend to have attended school, do know their age, often reminding me of the 60s anti-establishment dictum, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” when asking the age question.
Education: Hardly any woman over the age of 30 had attended school. Almost every woman under 25 had some schooling. Clearly, some education policy began working in the area in the early 1990s. Two frequently cited reasons for dropping out of school were 1) corporal punishment, and 2) inability to pass the class V or class VIII exams, common dropout points.
Time: The Gregorian calendar has little to no meaning for the rural woman’s calendar. Time is marked by festivals, crop cycles and the Hindu calendar (Panchang), based on lunar movements. This meant that I finally put my mind to understanding how the months of the Hindu calendar map onto the Gregorian calendar!
Time II: The Pan-Indian problem of “Indian Stretchable Time” (IST) is amplified many times over in villages. Anyone who has lived in India/South Asia or has a brown friend knows what I mean. Trying to quantify distance between the houses of SHG members through time, which I had initially considered a great idea, flopped big time. It does not matter whether you ask if point A is 5 minutes, 10 minutes or 20 minutes away from point B – the answer remains the same! A better question is to simply ask if point A is close or far from point B.
Assets: Using household owned assets (bicycle, fan, almirah etc.) as a measure of poverty can be tricky if you take responses at face value. Assets which come into the household by way of dowry are often not considered ‘owned’ by the household and respondents need to be reminded about them (Dowry is not restricted to Hindu marriages – Muslim marriages are also characterized by it). Moreover, the high maintenance cost of assets means that many are in a state of permanent disrepair, creating another classification dilemma for researchers.
Financial Inclusion: Commercial banks (state-owned and private) have not reached the poor and ultra-poor in Madhya Pradesh. Very rarely in my sample would I come across someone who had even attempted borrowing from a bank, forget actually taking out a loan. Reasons varied but a common refrain was that a bank location was too far, in the city. This suggests that the financial inclusion gains made between 1977 and 1990, when national banks were mandated to open 4 rural branches for every branch opening in an already banked location, have been reversed. Check out the famous Pande-Burgess paper on Social Banking to know more about the positive poverty reduction impact of that policy.
W While there are plenty of non-survey related anecdotes to keep this post going, I’ll stop here and save them for some other time and place. Stay tuned for the startling revelations of my earth-shattering paper which will be written sometime this summer.
Saturday, May 08, 2010
For those who don't have the distinct pleasure of being my Facebook friend, you may not have noticed how I recently trumpeted my meeting with my intellectual hero, Amartya Sen. Some of you who do have the distinct pleasure (and have not been rude enough to suggest I merely posed with him!), have asked me what we spoke about. Well, wait no further.
The failed Times Square car bomb attempt which came to light this weekend is tough to analyze because the investigation is not yet complete and there is still uncertainty about the facts. Gen. Petraeus has recently ruled out Pakistani Taliban’s involvement, describing Faisal Shahzad, the individual arrested for attempting the attack, as a “lone wolf”. At the same time, Pakistani officials have hinted that Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a group with a Kashmir centered agenda, might have been responsible for his training. Meanwhile, Pakistani Taliban has denied any role as well, after initial YouTube videos which seemed to suggest otherwise.
While it will take a while for the facts to emerge, let us assume that Shahzad did not belong to the rank and file of a terror group but simply acquired the training to make and detonate a bomb during a short stint in Pakistan (most likely scenario – check out Steve Coll’s post on how Pakistani terror groups treat US based volunteers as “freebies”). This is troubling in two respects:
1) It hints at possible radicalization of young Pakistani-Americans, a phenomenon previously seen in the UK (London Underground bombings being the most infamous attack by British-born Pakistanis trained in Pakistan), but not in the US. It is noteworthy that in early 2009, the CIA had advised President Obama that British Islamists were the biggest threat to the US. While one of the key reasons for radicalization of British-born Pakistanis was the UK’s involvement in Iraq, high joblessness and discrimination were other underlying factors as well. In comparison, the Pakistani-American community is more prosperous and socially integrated into the mainstream.
2) It emphasizes that while terrorist organizations mainly recruit from the poor and marginalized, their ability to attack the U.S. depends upon individuals who are often wealthy, educated and integrated in the West. Faisal Shahzad’s higher education was in Connecticut and his father was Air Vice-Marshal in the Pakistan Army. The underwear bomber studied in London and his father was the chairman of a Nigerian bank. This is significant because it indicates the limits to effectiveness of US aid to Pakistan, even if it successfully reduces poverty and promotes economic development in targeted regions of the country.
There are other things to look out for in the days to come. Pakistan’s arrests of Shahzad’s associates in Karachi is being touted as evidence of the ISI’s (Pakistan’s intelligence agency) increasing cooperation with the U.S., but such enthusiasm needs to be tempered given Pakistan’s spotty track record with keeping suspects under arrest. The real bone of contention between the U.S. and Pakistan is the Pakistani Army’s refusal to undertake a large-scale offensive in North Waziristan, the home of the Haqqani network (which targets US forces in Afghanistan) and Pakistani Taliban. There is little to suggest that the failed Times Square bomb plot will change that.
This post was first published at kevinslaten.blogspot.com on May 7, 2010.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
In statistics, you need at least three data points to find the line of best fit. At the risk of future ridicule, I proclaim that with my third blog entry in March, my output is once a month. Which is not prolific by any standards, but is at least a benchmark which creates expectations for you and me!
Friday, February 19, 2010
I write this post after 3 weeks of getting clobbered by midterms and shellacked by assignments. The experience was made worse, knowing fully well that my commitment to blogging was becoming less credible by the day. Anyhow, the only vent to my thoughts I managed last week was a response to my friend Dan Michaeli's post about Indian foreign policy. In it, Dan argues that India's domestic politics often prevent it from working closely with the U.S., thus leading to a situation where it often makes demands but rarely reciprocates in the India-U.S. relationship. Here's my response:
Dan, I disagree with the premise that only domestic politics prevents India from a closer relationship with the U.S.
On trade and climate, India’s interests are very much those of a developing country, with 60% of the population engaged in agriculture (explaining being at loggerheads with the US at Doha) and 45% extremely poor (making it hard to accept legally binding emission cuts).
On Iran, while India does not support sanctions against it, it did vote against it at three IAEA resolutions between 2005 and 2009. These were significant moves for India, which has had warm relations with Iran since the heydays of nonalignment. In fact, this vote was criticized in many quarters as a test set up by the US for India during the nuke deal negotiations.
Also, the unwillingness to have a closer relationship is reciprocated by the US on an issue like Afghanistan. Both countries have a convergence of interest there, with India even more leery of any reconciliation with the Taliban (it was the only country to express dissent against negotiation with the Taliban at the recent London Conference). While it is unlikely to send troops there, it could have contributed to US efforts by supplying military trainers. But the idea was shot down during the US strategy review because of Pakistan’s apprehensions.
Finally, I take the point that there is a reflexive distrust of US geopolitical motives in certain Indian political circles. It was a significant political cost during the nuke deal negotiations as well. But it does not explain the divergence between India and the US on many issues. Divergence of interests does.
On a related note, Dan's post reminded me of a beautiful review that George Perkovich had written for Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi in 2007. In it, he placed U.S. expectations of India into historical perspective:
"To comprehend India's achievement, imagine if Mexico became the 51st of the United States, followed by Brazil, Argentina and the rest of Central and South America. Add Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to give this union the Sunni-Shia mix of India. The population then represented in Congress would still be smaller and less diverse linguistically, religiously, culturally and economically than India's. If such a state could democratically manage the interests and conflicts swirling within it, and not threaten its neighbors, the world should ask little else from it. If we were such a state, we would feel that our humane progress contributes so much to global well-being that smaller, richer, easier-to-manage states should not presume to tell us what to do."