Duflo, Lynas highlight existential crisis of Indian activism

Mark Lynas is right. Completely divorced from research and data Indian activism today is a cesspool of myths and misconceptions


R Swaminathan | January 24, 2013

Economist Esther Duflo and environmental activist Mark Lynas
Economist Esther Duflo and environmental activist Mark Lynas

In the world of environmental activism Mark Lynas was god. When he said something it was heard with rapt attention for its sheer gravitas. An ardent and sometimes militant opponent of genetically modified crops, he literally nuked the movement he had once so carefully nurtured by doing a volte face at a farming conference in Oxford. “The GM debate is over… You are more likely to get hit by an asteroid than to get hurt by GM food. More to the point, people have died from choosing organic, but no one has died from eating GM,” proclaimed Lynas to a shocked world. “The real Frankenstein’s monster was not GM technology, but our reaction against it. I discovered that one by one my cherished beliefs about GM turned out to be little more than green urban myths.” Today Lynas is a heretic.

But lost in the global outrage and accusations of Lynas selling his soul and mind to the rich and powerful multinational corporations is an uncomfortable Indian truth that he let loose during his long speech at Oxford. In a scalding review of Indian environmental activism he said it was based on “widely believed myths, popular misconceptions and conspiracy theorists”. Though he painted his target on the back of activists like Vandana Shiva, who sharply retorted that she is a “PhD in Quantum Theory”, there were several others who were squirming in their seats. To be fair to the likes of Shiva, Sunita Narain, RK Pachauri and countless others, the environmental activism practised by this school is largely based on facts and research. Lynas’ real targets were unintended. He actually held a mirror to other sundry Indian activists, from those supposedly promoting something as amorphous as Indian cultural values to something as specific as pre-natal healthcare.

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His admission of being ‘wrong’ and the tendering of an ‘unconditional apology’ brought to the fore two aspects that Indian activists rarely acknowledge, let alone practise – research and the possibility that they might be, after all is said and done, horribly wrong. But in recent years there are quite a few insiders who are pulling the rug and revealing some deep cracks. If Lynas is pointing out the elephants in the room, economist Esther Duflo is the one clearly and loudly saying that there is no place for them in the field of development activism.

Duflo by her own admission is “short, French and not particularly entertaining”. Yet, it still doesn’t fully explain why she is making big names in activism worldwide and in India hot under the collar. A smaller part of the reason why she is making entrenched names in the development sector uncomfortable are her questions, but a greater part are her credentials – co-author of the ground-breaking Poor Economics, co-founder and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, professor of poverty alleviation and development economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and recipient of MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant, considered by many as a step towards the Nobel Prize.

Duflo is asking a simple question of all the activists after her 10 year research in Africa. The question is particularly relevant for all those Indians who don the mantle of activism, a lot quite flippantly. The economist found that after 40 years and over US$3.04 billion development aid in Africa, nobody knew what that huge amount of money had achieved for the poor people of the continent. While the amount of aid given to African countries in the last four decades exponentially shot up, the per capita GDP actually sunk way below the 1970 levels.

Duflo’s question strikes at the very heart of the current logic of development activism that advocates that pumping in more money will eventually empower the poor. Her answer is quite simple really. In hindsight it seems foolish not to have thought of it earlier. Duflo suggests that benefits of development must be evaluated by randomised impact evaluations. Pharmaceutical companies have been using such techniques for decades. In such an evaluation a large number of people are randomly divided into two groups – one gets the drug and the other does not. Such a random selection filters sub-conscious biases and statistical anomalies leading to a determination of correlation and the cause of an effect. Quite obviously, such an approach has the potential to unveil the cloak of non-accountability that has come to define development activism today.

As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding always lies in eating it. So it was with Duflo’s unique methodology. It helped two projects on education – one in Kenya and the other in India – unravel the real reasons behind the problems of lack of attendance of children and teachers. These two problems plague every single small or big education project. Activists have always pointed out different reasons, from lack of roads to too shiny blackboards, for these two problems. None of these reasons, one must admit in hindsight, were arrived at after some in-depth research. In Kenya, Duflo’s team through their intensive randomised impact evaluations found that children did not attend school regularly because they suffered from stomach worms. All it took was a round of de-worming medicines to increase attendance by over 25%. In India, the team figured the best way to make teachers attend was to give cheap cameras to the children. Only those teachers who could produce photographic evidence received salary.

Lyan and Duflo are both, in their own ways, questioning the comfortable existence of activists who are divorced from data and high-quality research. In fact a magazine report claims that Duflo’s fundamental approach was apparently so disconcerting for Jeffrey Sachs and his US$120 million Millennium Villages Project that despite approaching her for an evaluation he slowly stopped communicating with her when she started asking him for data. Duflo’s new approach is being closely watched by several private foundations. The usually reclusive Bill Gates, it seems, never fails to invite Duflo to his private dinners who, it is said in a magazine, gives him “unsparing and constructive evaluation of the aid business”.

If the likes of Lyan and Duflo can give well-established activists in the developed world, who are still steeped in the culture of research and data, sleepless nights, the Indian activists no doubt find them a threat to their very existence.

Lyan and Duflo are essentially saying the same thing. Thorough research and impeccable data should be the bedrock of all evaluations and decisions. By saying this, they are also exposing the feet of clay of the Indian activists. A majority of the Indian activists neither understand the research process, nor do they want to, and find data-driven approaches ‘tiresome and time-consuming’. To be fair, some are genuinely concerned about their areas and want to improve their ability to impact a particular situation. But they are not able to do so because of their lack of training in the right research tools, methodology and data interpretation. There are, however, countless others for whom activism has turned into an easy and comfortable relationship with the establishment, funding institutions and aid agencies.  It’s a cosy relationship that’s tailor-made for creating new ‘myths and misconceptions’ and for reinforcing existing ones. Research and data are, quite obviously, its enemies. So much so that some of the so-called field work done by these Indian activists, with obvious and not-so-obvious data gaps, is presented as ‘qualitative and narrative’ form of research. It might have all the bells and whistles of research – like footnotes, data tables, figures and graphs – but doesn’t have the layers of data required to arrive at conclusions, recommendations and decisions. As any practitioner of research would testify, qualitative research is actually tougher and requires far more time and fieldwork – some lasting up to a decade or more – than quantitative research.

As the development sector in India witnesses the entry of several large private foundations and institutions, the focus will invariably turn to evaluation and impact. Both require solid bedrock of research and data – not exactly the strong points of Indian activism. Just as liberalisation brought in a certain sense of professionalism in the Indian economy, the world of Indian activism requires something similar to ensure that the current cosy relationships are shattered and evaluation, impact and outcomes at the societal level are driven by research and data.



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