Wednesday, April 30, 2008

An Image Makeover for Peace

Why Peace is not popular has to do with War.
I think we all know what is wrong with violence; we just can't seem to help ourselves.
I am reminded of this because today, April 30 is seminar titled "from a culture of violence to a culture of peace". Great. There are educational efforts to promote peace (Ahimsa Center and a class at Stanford are two I am involved with). But the fact remains that peace is not mainstream; it remains in the activist category. It is so because we make it abstract. The hard truth about peace is:

1. Lousy Economics: war is good business; peace is not a business - it is an NGO activity at best
2. Results Perception: violence is viewed as the weapon of the strong, peace of the weak, passive or otherwise uncool - any video games about peace out there?
3. Lacks Leadership: war is institutionalised so we know how to participate; peace is recognised as an absence of willingness to war. How to be proactive about peace? What image comes to mind? e.g. Churchill is seen as powerful, Mahatma Gandhi as saint - we can't all be saintly; it is easier to get fat and stick a cigar in your mouth.

I hope Social media will accelerate fixing the perception issue (item 2) - we can make it cool to have a culture of peace - just by hanging out together in cyberspace and sharing the sorts of content generated by events mentioned here. Re, Item 3 - I hope social entrepreneurs can begin to tackle. As for item 1 - any ideas?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Brand IIT: Quota Controversy and My Opinion

"Ending uncertainty over the controversial law providing for 27 per cent reservation for Other Backward Classes in central educational institutions including IITs and IIMs, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld its validity but ruled that the “creamy layer” among the backwards would not get reservation" reports the Hindustan Times on April 11 2008.

I agree its a risky move. I agree with everything that everybody- academics, students, administrators - is saying about why the move is flawed and won't work. Lets also take it as a given that same facilities, same resources (teachers, funds) and more students, some less qualified as measured by the tests will put a huge strain on the system.

What is at Stake? - Brand IIT
What is to be gained? - Brand India (wealth creation through social/education inclusion)

Taking the long term view: What choice does India have? Home to the world's richest AND the poorest, the most educated AND least literate, the best health care AND the worst, what is next?

Why it will work: It all really depends on IITians (students and alum) and they are a smart bunch. They have an opportunity to make lemonade from lemons - prove that they can not only create new wealth but they can create it in areas where it has not been done through normal capital channels.

Additionally - I offer two arguments:
1 - resource issue is a red herring - average spend per IIT student is a pittance compared, to lets say, an MIT student and IItians claim they are the best. Since adding 50% more students changes this ratio not a whit. - why should it matter?
2 - student quality degradation is a red herring - It has been proven in business that employee diversity is a business asset for the different kinds of thinking and viewpoints it brings. The superhuman IIT exam barrier has self selected a narrow slice of intelligentsia into IIT's - the new student pool will bring, at a minimum, - new market knowledge. Hopefully that translates into local markets and technology innovation, like alternative energy, for local consumption.

BTW - I am a proponent of a high tech version of a Peace Corp type program for India to bridge the urban rural divide. This could a stop-gap measure. After all the ruling will be under review in 5 years.

I post this knowing full well the battle that awaits at home ...

Monday, April 21, 2008

Vipani: Making Market Forces Work for the Poor

Farming is a tough business. Investment is up front, production is risky, goods are perishable, and market is uncertain. So it is not surprising that a vast majority of the world's poor are small farmers. George Thomas, founded Vipani (Sanskrit for marketplace) to make market forces work for the small farmer. "A farmer can produce tomatoes; but what good is it if he can't sell them when they are ready and ripe?" he says in Ode article. Vipani works by having staff members research community demand for crops and then recruiting farmer-agents to work with the organisation to create a network of farmers, buyers, suppliers and lenders. Micro loans, technology, education all improve/enable the farmers' lot. But if farmers cannot get fair prices for their crops these improvements make little difference.

Poverty is often seen as a failure of political policy or aid. But it is also a failure of market forces - in connecting the community. Vipani has demonstrated the validity of its approach in Kenya - where boosting income has also shown the ability to heal deep-seated ethnic conflicts.

As I was reading about Vipani, I was struck by the success of their social entrepreneurship approach. And it was a real plus to find that George is a fellow alum of the Digital Vision Program at Stanford and his acknowledgement that he researched the idea during his fellowship.

Vipani and George are demonstrating that market forces can be made to work for the poor; that even minor capital investments yield major social and economic returns; but it takes time and it takes dedicated leadership.

Tomatoes anyone?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Three things I learned from Amartya Sen

Economics Nobel laureate, Amartya Sen was in residence at Stanford this week. His upcoming book is - "The Idea of Justice" and after all his is the mind that provides the theoretical validation for socially motivated business creation. So I juggled my calendar and attended. The three lectures were called Indignation and Room for Reason, Impartiality: Contracts versus Voice and my favourite - Beyond Institutional Fundamentalism. I also attended his office hours - to know the man behind the words - a lot of words - a lot of really really really good words. His office hours were Q&A format - with 10-15 people. I was seeking to go beyond philosophy to actions that stem from conviction born of thoughtful argumentation (I like "The Argumentative Indian"). Here are the top three gems (using his words - from my notes) for me:

1- If you feel threatened it makes intelligent discourse impossible
2- For creating a just society: Empowerment is not enough. You must to ensure "enlightened empowerment" which can only come from public discussion and giving a political voice (to those who are not being heard)
3 - Recognition (or fame) can useful unless it becomes a substitute for doing anything useful

I noticed:
For every question, he acknowledged both sides of the argument and when he disagreed it was always with a smile.
He talks more about the voice of the poor (or minorities) because they have no/less voice - not that others don't deserve a voice.
Throughout my 3-5 day interaction I always saw him speaking from intellect and emotion - never from ego and recognition.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Market Light - Mobile Phones to Aid Farmers

It always feels good to follow up on a good plan- to see how it is doing. This one feels really good because I have seen it grow from seed to sapling. Project Market Light, originally developed at the Digital Vision Program has the full backing of Reuters and is now being scaled in India , starting in Maharashtra. "Standing in an onion field in a village outside Pune, Chandra Kant can check weather reports, get crop spraying information and find out how much onions are fetching at the local market, all on his mobile phone, for 175 rupees per quarter. Information put out on mobile phones could transform the fortunes of small farmers–(TimesOnline article here) - and farming is India's largest employer - and the one that could use technology innovation. The article also draws a parallel to Grameenphone (which brought banking to the poor) to illustrate that success in this field is absolutely possible. They say about mobile services aimed at the rural poor "by 2006 Grameenphone had more than 6m subscribers and held a 60% market share in Bangladesh. It is now among Bangladesh’s largest private taxpayers and has created more than 250,000 jobs. "