Archive for the ‘India’ Category

What “Slumdog Millionaire” Can and Cannot Teach Us About Slums

6 March, 2009

By David Lewis, Dennis Rodgers and Michael Woolcock

Earlier this week the film ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ won an extraordinary eight Academy Awards, including for best film and best director. Set in the teeming slums of Mumbai, India, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ provides a moving account of a poor orphaned teenager’s quest for recognition and dignity, overcoming numerous obstacles en route to winning the grand prize on a lucrative game show, and in the process the heart of his true love. It’s a well-made and uplifting film; we applaud its success, and extend our sincere congratulations to all those involved in its production. But to the extent the film draws its moral force and emotional energy from its context, what can ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ teach us about slums? More generally, what are the strengths and limitations of cinematography as a medium for conveying complex realities about the causes and experience of mass poverty?

As with most successful films, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ works to the extent it is able to tell a captivating story, in this case drawing on timeless themes of love and yearning, of taking great risks, and enduring injustice and overcoming discrimination, in order to realize one’s heart’s desire. For the central protagonist Jamal Malik, however, the stakes are raised even higher, given his lowly circumstances and lack of education, which make it not only highly unlikely that he will ever have the means or opportunity to extract himself from the squalor of the slum, but more importantly, that he is powerless to prevent his beloved Latika from being taken away, first by a slum pimp, and then by a crime lord. After years of searching fruitlessly for her, she is tantalisingly taken away from him again just as they are about to be reunited. Not knowing how to get back in touch with her, he tries out for the Indian equivalent of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’, which he knows she will be watching. In an improbable—but ‘bizarrely plausible’—manner, Jamal overcomes the odds and wins the show, thereby reconnecting with Latika.

In the end, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is of course just a film, and makes no claim to be a work of social science or a ‘representative’ account of the causes and consequences of living in a slum. But for most western cinema-goers, however, such films—like ‘City of Joy’ and ‘City of God’ before it—are a rare chance to see a portrayal of the circumstances encountered by tens of millions of poor people in developing countries every day. To this extent, even if such films are primarily concerned with entertainment and profit-making in less than a two-hour timeframe—and mainly follow a neat, conventional and arguably quite conservative narrative arc of struggle and ultimate redemption that inherently appeals to emotion (as opposed to ‘empirical evidence’) and often works via crude individualistic juxtapositions (good guys vs. bad) —they arguably nevertheless offer some insight into the lives of others living elsewhere, which can only be a good thing. The question, then, is whether they can be said to convey an accurate picture of slum life.

In this regard, although we are far from being film experts, we have collectively spent many years studying slum life up close in Latin America, South Asia, and—to a lesser extent—the Caribbean. In our view, films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’—perhaps more so than any other medium—give outsiders a rare sense of the vibrant energy, frenetic pace and ‘ordered chaos’ of life among the poor in urban settlements. Carefully done, such films can provide instructive insights on the precarious state of many slum dwellers’ lives (i.e., the constant threat of conflict, illness, the confiscation of precious assets), of the immense influence wielded by the powerful, of the paradoxical role played by the police (simultaneously part of the problem and solution), and yet also the full range of emotions that the inhabitants of slums endure like any human being—from abundant joy and hope to relentless grief and enduring sadness. If these features seem contradictory, then that is just another feature of slum life. Good novels, such as Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, stress precisely these issues, but rely on the power of imagination to concoct scenes that are far removed from most readers’ own direct experience; a good film—even when its screenplay is adapted from a novel, as is the case of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, based on Vikas Swarup’s Q & A—can convey that reality like none other.

Cinema-goers should not think, however, that films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ provide a full account of why poor people are poor (‘it is fated’) or a basis on which to respond to it (‘get motivated, take a chance’). Unlike the questions on game-shows such as ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’, the answers to questions pertaining to grinding urban poverty can’t sensibly be reduced to multiple choice options. The existence of slums is not merely the product of individual actions writ large, but large structural forces of industrialization, inequality, politics and migration writ small. How, why and the extent to which these forces play out in different regions, countries, and states is properly the subject of detailed historical and social scientific analysis. There is no single ‘answer’ as to what can be done to enhance the welfare of slum dwellers, but neither is social science mute or indifferent. Guaranteed work programmes, identity registration schemes, securing property rights, citizen report cards to enhance service delivery, micro-credit systems, innovative criminal justice facilities and the involvement of the poor in urban design are all responses that have made a constructive difference in the lives of slum dwellers, in part because they are more often than not context-specific responses to a deeply complex problem.

The success of ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is a signature accomplishment for the British film industry, and should be recognized and celebrated as such. But it should also be encouraged and applauded as a form of artistic representation that raises peoples’ general awareness of how millions of poor people live. Such awareness is not only important in its own right but also because it is part of the process by which broad political constituencies for change are forged. The issue is thus not whether ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ has represented urban poverty ‘better’ than social scientific or policy-oriented analysis, but rather how different kinds of knowledge convey different kinds of issues for different kinds of audiences. A judicious integration of popular and formal representation can be the basis of both enlightening entertainment and solid public policy.


Around the World with Joseph Stiglitz

1 December, 2008

BWPI Chair and Nobel Laureate Joe Stiglitz has a new documentary just out. ‘Around the World with Joseph Stiglitz’ is a hard-hitting look at globalization. Joe takes two journeys. His own journey began in Gary, Indiana. The documentary returns to his hometown to see what shaped his thinking. It then heads across the world, taking in Botswana, Ecuador, India and China. It weaves together the social and economic effects of globalization, recommending ways to manage it for the good of all.

If you are in New York you can catch it at the Lincoln center this Wednesday (3 December).

In the meantime, check out Joe’s interview with Alex Jones on YouTube on his book The Three Trillion Dollar War: the True Cost of the Iraq War, with Linda Bilmes. And Joe on the sub prime crisis on CNBC.

Institutions for Pro-Poor Growth

12 October, 2008

How institutions do and do not work for development is intensely debated, especially the link to economic growth. And state-business relations are of immense importance. For the latest research check out the redesigned website of Institutions for Pro-Poor Growth (go here).

IPPG is running a panel session at the Development Studies Association Annual Conference in London on 8 November (go here), with Adrian Leftwich, Kunal Sen, and John Morton. And Kunal Sen is giving a lecture ‘What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Reflections on India’s Economic Growth in the Twentieth Century’ at the British Association of South Asian Studies in November (details here)

Other IPPG highlights include discussion papers on:

‘Land Tenure, Farm Investments and Food Production in Malawi’ by Ephraim Chirwa, Universty of Malawi

‘Exploring the Politics of Land Reforms in Malawi: A Case Study of the Community Based Rural Land Development Programme (CBRLDP)’ by Blessings Chisinga, University of Malawi

‘Informal Institutions in Transition: How Vietnam’s Private Sector Boomed without Legal Protection’ by Liesbet Steer (ODI) and Kunal Sen (University of Manchester)

Should Aid be Capped?

16 September, 2008

Aid is in the news at the moment. The Accra Aid forum took place last week in advance of the UN’s Financing for Development meeting in Doha later this year (on Accra see Simon Maxwell on ‘High Drama at the High Level Forum’ over on the ODI blog).

Meanwhile, in Martin Wolf’s Economists’ Forum at the FT Adrian Wood argues for capping aid. He writes:

“… one can have too much of a good thing. Some developing countries, most of them in Africa, have had high levels of aid dependence – in excess of 10 per cent of gross domestic product, or half of government spending – for decades. It is questionable whether this has been helpful”.

“I therefore propose that donors collectively set an upper limit on the amount of aid they give to any developing country. This limit should be 50 per cent of the amount of tax revenue that the aid-receiving government raises from its own citizens, by non-coercive means and excluding revenue from oil and minerals”.

This proposal has mileage. Countries certainly don’t benefit from excessive dependence on aid. But Adrian’s idea needs refinement to make it work, as I point out in a response posted on the FT blog. In particular, I worry that it increases the pro-cyclical nature of aid. That is, donors reward governments in good times (when they need aid least) and reduce aid in bad times (when they need it most). (On the evidence that aid is pro-cyclical see: John Thornton in the Journal of African Economies and the IMF on the macroeconomics of managing aid).

Capping aid at 50% of the country’s tax revenue, as Adrian suggests, could exacerbate the budgetary impact of negative shocks, either external (such as energy costs) or internal (such as drought). How? Shocks reduce GDP and therefore tax revenue. This is especially so for indirect taxes as market sales fall, and tariff revenues as import volumes decline (on which many low-income countries are still very dependent). As revenue falls, aid will be automatically reduced under Adrian’s proposal. The proposal would punish governments hit by shocks that are not of their making. In sum, this exacerbates an existing and undesirable bias in the timing of aid.

Here is my solution: governments and donors will need to agree a time frame (say 5 years) over which to monitor the aid/tax ratio (i.e. a period matching the country’s business cycle: different economies might need different time frames). Then agree a level of aid over the next five years, based on the outcome for the first five. And make sure that most of this extra tax revenue is spent wisely, for example on the “seekers” that Bill Easterly has written about (NGOs working to find better solutions to chronic poverty).

So, Adrian has an interesting idea, but it needs refinement.

But a bigger question is: how do you get donors to co-ordinate, so all their aid adds up to less than 50% of tax revenue? Getting donors to act together is like herding the proverbial cats: this is despite the 2005 Paris Declaration (as this FT report discusses). And that’s the OECD-DAC donors, who are supposed to coordinate. What about the aid donors who don’t participate in the DAC, most importantly China and India – the so-scalled ‘new donors’ (although China was giving substantial aid to Africa back in the 1970s). Can you design incentives to encourage their co-operation? (on the non-DAC donors see Peter Kragelund’s paper in the DPR here).

Adrian’s proposal has received a lot of comment (go to the CGD blog for a collection of these).

The Places We Live

5 August, 2008

More people now live in towns than in the countryside. And up to one-third of the world’s urban population is poor. That’s more than one billion people — and growing. Lacking adequate services and with poor health standards, the slums are home to many of the world’s chronically poor people. Often close to the water line (as in Dhaka) or on hillsides (as in Caracas), slums are vulnerable to natural disasters of all kinds.

The Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo is now running an exhibition by Magnum photographer Jonas Bendiksen.  “The Places We Live” presents 16 homes in four different slum areas: Kibera (Nairobi); Dharavi (Mumbai); Barrios (Caracas); and Kampongs (Jakarta). Nairobi’s Kibera is home to at least one million people, while Dharavi is close to Mumbai’s booming financial centre — a gross example of the rising inequality that takes the shine off India’s “economic miracle”.

You’ve Got to Serve Turkeys to The Poor Too

10 March, 2008

Celebs-in-philanthropy is the latest thing (see this NYT Sunday Magazine piece, featuring Natalie Portman). One disgruntled PR guy sums it up on Gawker: “You can’t just get $20 million a picture, you’ve got to serve turkeys to the poor too.” Hollywood is one tough scene.

Last month a different kind of celebrity died. No movie star but a friend to India’s lepers and harijans: Baba Amte. Born into a wealthy landowning family in Maharashtra, Baba Amte’s life changed when he stumbled across a leper dying in the gutter.

A moving tribute in The Economist describes his reaction thus: “He was outraged at the fear he felt: fear of touching, as if he shared the common belief that lepers were paying for their sins and would infect anybody who came close. Where there was fear, he told himself, there was no love; and when an action was not done in love, it had no value. Deliberately, he went back to the gutter to feed the leper and to learn his name, Tulshiram. He then carried him home to care for him until he died, and began—once he had had training in Calcutta—to work in leper clinics all around the town”.

Baba Amte hated the word charity (go to YouTube here). True he fed the poor, and got them back on their feet. But above all he wanted to give them the dignity of work. And that is what he did with the thousands who passed through his ashrams He would have hated being called a celebrity. But we should celebrate a life well-lived.

Nobody Dies of Hunger in Uttar Pradesh — It’s Official

6 March, 2008

“There is absolutely no case of hunger deaths anywhere in the state”. At least that’s what one of the top officials of the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh claims in a BBC report here.

Jatai, a resident of Ghoorpatti village, thinks otherwise. How does she know? Well, she’s lost five members of her family over the last 18 months — to hunger. But then, she’s not a wise state official. Just a mother trying to make ends meet while coping with her grief.

The state government has clearly stuck its collective head in the sand. “It is strange how the party which is in power denies there have been any starvation deaths, but as soon as they are in opposition, they start shouting about hunger deaths,” comments one human rights activist. It seems that India’s chronically poor are only worth noticing around election time.

What to do? Sort out the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme for a start — too few poor people know their rights or receive any kind of help. Back in 2006, Jean Drèze in The Hindu commented: “There has been plenty of drum-beating but relatively little by way of effective action…. Sometimes the situation reminds me of a notice I saw once in a shop window, advertising a second-hand television. It said, “Sound only.””

So where’s the picture? Under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA 2005) any adult willing to do casual labour at the minimum wage is entitled to employment on local public works within 15 days (limited to 100 days per household per year). The Right to Food Campaign tracks progress (and read the ODI briefing paper by Disa Sjoblom and John Farrington here). Not enough funds are reaching the poor. And the scheme has also seen corruption — at least, that’s what we hear. Let us know if you think different.

Still, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of pessimism. And at least some of the criticism of NREGA is malign and by people who don’t give a damn for the poor. We need to ignore the spiteful and focus on the legitimate and constructive investigations — for, as Jean Drèze emphasizes in a January 2008 piece in The Hindu: “The extension of the NREGA to the whole country, just three months from now, is one of the biggest organisational challenges any government has ever faced. It is also an unprecedented opportunity to build the foundations of a social security system in rural India, revive village economies, promote social equity, and empower rural labourers. As things stand, however, this bold initiative looks like a political stunt, shorn of the far-reaching preparations that are required to make it a success”.

India can, and should, do better for Jatai.

Get Your Cheap Designer Handbags Here

26 January, 2008

Just joking, wanted to get your attention.☺ But if you do need a good bag then go to Hatti Trading, a social enterprise that supports survivors of human trafficking as well as disadvantaged and stigmatized women in Nepal.

Nepal’s poverty is among the world’s worst. A difficult terrain makes it hard to eke out a living, communications are limited to outlying areas, and infectious disease is rampant. Deforestation and now global climate change threaten the sustainability of many communities. And the on-off 11-year old conflict adds to the impoverishment. As a result about 7 million people (30% of the population) live below the poverty line. There are big caste-based differences in poverty incidence and human development outcomes, with many in the lower castes living in chronic poverty (see this ADB study).

One positive development is the flow of remittances from Nepalis abroad — which are especially important to impoverished rural areas. This has reduced poverty from 42% to 31% over the last 10 years — good progress, especially during conflict (see World Bank).

But despite this good news on the direction of poverty, many young girls are still sold into prostitution and bonded labour. Trafficking of girls to India is prevalent. Escape is difficult (and dangerous). And their communities may not take them back if the girls do get out — making it difficult to find any kind of livelihood. Unfortunately many then get sucked back into their former ‘life’ with all its attendant risks.

Hatti Trading helps these girls to make a new start. It works with local charities such as Maiti Nepal to rescue and rehabilitate victims, and to generate the kinds of livelihoods that end the poverty and misery driving girls into the hands of traffickers.

For us scholarly types Hatti bags are excellent for carting your books around. For techies there is a great laptop bag. And they might stay in fashion longer than any designer bag.

BRIC train keeps running — despite US economic woes

10 January, 2008

The World Bank’s annual Global Economic Prospects is now out. The prognosis for the developing world looks good: growth of 7% is forecast — only fractionally down from 2007 (global growth should be 3.3% overall — not so bad).

Emerging market economies are affected by the US slowdown (see our post earlier this week). But internal demand is an increasingly powerful growth engine according to the Bank. And so the emerging economies are increasingly less dependent on exports to the US. The big emerging markets (Brazil, Russia, India, and China = BRICs) are the leaders. Their need for primary commodities is benefiting Africa and Latin America especially. This is all for the good: when Uncle Sam caught a cold in the past everyone else went down with flu. Now global growth is much less unequal in its distribution across countries. This has to be good for the world’s poor.

Two risks remain, however. The US could fumble the policy response to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. The Bank is worried that the US monetary easing (to flush liquidity into the credit-market) could flow into more speculative bets on the BRICs — thereby generating financial bubbles there, which eventually go bang. And the dollar’s recent decline could become disorderly — generating a flight into hard assets such as gold (which is topping recent highs). This would create more investor uncertainty, and an eventual destabilizing rush out of emerging markets (both equity and debt).

Of course these aggregate numbers hide a wide dispersion: China’s locomotive is going at 10% or so (although the steadiness of that growth makes the number suspect). But Kenya will be lucky to see zero growth this year. And the crisis there, and the disruption to trade with landlocked Rwanda and Uganda, will reduce their growth as well. Its no good being able to sell your commodities to China if you can’t get them out of Mombasa.

Social Protection Can Raise Agricultural Growth

6 December, 2007

Social protection is now a fast-moving story (see our recent post on Brazil’s Bolsa Família). The rural poor are especially vulnerable to income-shortfalls — reflecting their shortage of assets, dependence on rain-fed agriculture, and a lack of insurance mechanisms. Farm workers with nothing but their wage (in cash and kind) are at high risk, making them often chronically poor (see the Chronic Poverty Report). By reducing risk, well-designed cash transfer programmes can encourage poor people to venture into new (and better) livelihoods. Injecting cash into the local economy also stimulates demand, much of which is spent on local goods and services. The multiplier effects then further encourage the growth of output and employment. A recent ODI briefing paper on ‘Linking Social Protection and the Productive Sectors’ from their social protection team argues that agricultural policy is in disarray in many countries and that a revitalized agriculture needs new approaches; social protection and its ability to reduce vulnerability and promote growth should be a major part of any new national policy. At the same time, some social protection programmes are better than others. The Chars Livelihoods Programme in Bangladesh gets high marks from the ODI briefing paper as does Mexico’s Oportunidades but India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) suffers from not providing enough skill enhancement (thereby diminishing its potential growth-enhancing effects) and some dishonest local practices.