Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Value of Sustainable Leadership

In the months following our return from India, I often found myself reflecting on the trip and our sustainability projects started in Dahod. What good did we do? Does any of it really matter? Did two weeks in India change anything for me?

Now having time to look back on our travels, I realize that this experience has taught me some of the most valuable lessons in leadership to date.

According to, "sustainability" is defined as the capacity to endure. At the core of sustainability is commitment -- the willingness to pursue and follow through with a belief, project, or cause.

Like any typical college student, I have been a part of several student organizations, group projects, and extracurricular activities. Throughout my undergrad career, I have always marveled at how some projects seem to fall beyond the scope of college students yet are accomplished and yield incredible results while other goals appear to have huge potential yet fail to even become a reality.

Why do some groups succeed while others fail? I'm sure there are millions of theories on this topic, but the greatest lesson I have gained from my Indian experience is this:

Incredible goals can be reached when leaders are concerned for the sustainability of the group. Attainable goals can fail when individuals refuse to act as a team.

While in India, our group began several discussions on what we were hoping to achieve and how we were going to do it. Having some difficulty reconciling 18 different opinions, we eventually came to the conclusion that (a) two weeks is an incredibly short time to implement any large-scale construction project without appropriate equipment, (b) the needs of the region were not clearly defined, and (c) the fate of the project would ultimately be left in the hands of future travel groups. With these points in mind, we ultimately decided to focus on assessing water quality and local household situations while educating our host non-profit organization (Sadguru NGO) on benefits and techniques for water purification. Though many of us would have liked accomplish more for the citizens of Dahod, each of us was willing to put our own visions aside for the sustainability of the project by gathering useful information for future travel groups. With the data obtained on our trip, future groups are now able to further expand the project by making informed plans for improving water quality in Dahod.

Even after India, I've found that group sustainability is vital to the success of projects in other developing nations. Inspired by our work in India, I recently became involved with Cincinnati-led initiative known as the Village Life Outreach Project (VLOP). Focusing on engineering, health, and educational aspects of international poverty, VLOP travels to three villages in Tanzania twice every year to assess and implement poverty-fighting projects in these towns.

Interestingly, VLOP relies on the cooperation and teamwork of entire villages to make these projects succeed. Twice a year, VLOP brings hundreds of mosquito nets to the villages to prevent the deadly spread of malaria. Rather than distributing the nets for free as "charity hand-outs", VLOP volunteers charge a nominal fee per net (roughly 50 cents) that is much lower than the actual value of the net ($5). By requiring the nets to be purchased, villagers are more likely to use and maintain the nets in their homes. Because 4 weeks each year is not enough time to distribute mosquito nets and implement other projects, VLOP selects representatives from each village to voluntarily sell the nets to their neighbors. Each representative receives 4 nets, which they then sell to their neighbors at $0.50 per net. After selling all four nets, the representative brings the money to the VLOP headquarters and receives four more nets to sell.

"What prevents a villager from selling the first four nets and pocketing the money for themselves?" I asked at our last VLOP meeting.

"Two dollars of pocket change isn't worth the shame a villager would bring upon their household once it is discovered that they are stealing from their neighbors," another VLOP member explained. "By choosing to steal, they would earn $2 for years of harsh feelings from the other villagers."

By entrusting aspects of their projects to the recipients themselves, VLOP is systematically ensuring the sustainability of their work by encouraging villagers to take a personal stake in reducing their own poverty. By implementing projects that require the villagers to act as a team, the entire village benefits beyond the interests of only a few individuals.

Suprisingly, these lessons in sustainable leadership have helped me most in my personal and professional life after graduation. Upon finishing my undergraduate career, I made the bold decision to leave my year-long research position to pursue another job of similar caliber. Though there was no monetary benefit to changing jobs, I had begun to realize that my former employer lacked the qualities of sustainable leadership. Taking little interest in the needs of the employees, the office adopted a mantra of "anything for the sake of the project", which discouraged collaboration and left little room for the well-being of the team members. Consequently, even with expensive equipment and cutting-edge technology, hardly any progress was made by any employee throughout the year of my employment. Without sustainable leadership to encourage comraderie among team members, the work environment became increasingly hostile as funding began to dissipate.

Upon starting my new job, I truly began to appreciate the value of sustainable leadership in the workplace. By taking a supportive role in the lives and careers of his employees, my new employer subconsciously established a strong work ethic in his research team. Employees are encouraged to explore opporitunities for career growth, collaborate with other experts to improve subject knowledge, and work together to solve problems. By allowing employees to invest in themselves, individuals are always willing to work harder for the team. In short, a positive work environment has created a sustainable workplace.

Amazingly, merely two weeks in India has taught me the most valuable lesson of my life -- invest in others and they will invest in you.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

To India and Back

Below is an article that I wrote for the Putnam County Sentinel upon returning from our trip to India. For the most part, it sums up the highlights of my experience there. Enjoy!

To India and Back

Imagine the end of poverty.

Seriously, picture the day when you can’t guilt your kids into eating vegetables because “poor children are starving in Africa”. Contemplate a year when you can support local cancer research because developing nations are no longer asking for American funds to feed their own people. Think of the moment when all regions of the world not only have enough water to feed their crops but also water that is clean and safe to drink. Imagine a world without poverty.

“It’ll never happen,” a waitress once said to me as I settled into the corner of an airport coffee shop.

“Excuse me?” I asked questioningly while sipping tea with my carry-on luggage and a small pile of books.

“The End of Poverty,” she said pointing to the title of a small paperback in my hand. “It’ll never happen.”

Glancing at the bestselling book by Jeffrey Sachs, I shrugged and thought to myself, “It’s already happening.”

In 2002, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan commissioned the “Millennium Project” to develop a plan of action to reverse extreme poverty, starvation, and disease affecting billions of people worldwide. Led by former Harvard professor Jeffrey Sachs, an independent team of international experts proposed a final plan to achieve the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals by the year 2015. Topics ranging from world hunger to universal education, the Millennium Development Goals define concrete and attainable steps to end the crippling poverty affecting third-world and developing countries. In particular, Millennium Development Goal 7 is where my story begins.

Target 3 of Millennium Development Goal 7 states: “Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.”

Currently, almost half of the world’s population faces a scarcity of water resources. Nearly one billion lack access to clean drinking water. In developing nations, one in four individuals use no form of sanitation or toilet facility. Due to poor sanitation and water treatment, roughly ten thousand people will die today from preventable water-borne diseases; half of these will be children.

As an engineering student planning to attend medical school next year, I began to recognize that disease prevention is sometimes more powerful than any cure. Joining an interdisciplinary team of business, design, biology, and other engineering majors, I decided to work with the “poorest of the poor” in rural India in hopes of assessing water quality, educating villagers on the importance of clean drinking water, and establishing a partnership between the University of Cincinnati and local Indian villages.

Spending nearly three months preparing ourselves for our trip halfway around the world, our team entered Thanksgiving break with high expectations for our travels ahead. Unfortunately, none of us were prepared for the chaos that ripped through India merely two weeks before our departure. On November 26th, ten terrorists attacked Mumbai, the financial capital of India, in a horrific four-day nightmare that left 173 dead and 308 wounded. They murdered without discrimination or warning – seeking only to kill as many as possible before taking their own lives. Five American travelers were among the large number found dead in Mumbai.

Though terrorist attacks are not new to India, this was the first time that my classmates and I were faced with a life-threatening decision: Should we continue our travels to India despite landing in Mumbai and working only 250 miles from the Pakistani border? Or should we cancel the trip, refund our flight tickets, and toss the entire project? Five students on our team felt that they could not risk putting their families through the worries of a potentially dangerous trip to a terrorist hotspot in Southern Asia and therefore chose the latter option. Though not faulting our five classmates, the remaining eleven of us ultimately decided that terrorism would not rule our decisions. Only a few weeks before Christmas, two professors, ten classmates, and myself energetically boarded a plane bound for Mumbai, India.

After a 15-hour flight from Atlanta to Mumbai, our first few days in India were spent traveling inland from the western coast to the Dahod region of Gujarat state. Traveling via train, we were able to catch glimpses of the Indian countryside before delving headfirst into tribal culture. Probably the most memorable sight on that train ride was the “toilet field” one of our professors spotted from his window. Without established toilet facilities, one particular village had designated an open field that villagers could use as a “public restroom”. Though it was a shock to our American eyes, we eventually realized that this was a common practice in rural villages where no latrine was available. Without a proper toilet facility, however, the villagers risk contaminating their drinking water supply with diseases such as E. coli and typhoid fever.

Upon arriving in Dahod late at night, we were greeted by representatives from the Sadguru Organization. Ushering us into dormitory-style rooms and urging us to sleep, the Sadguru representatives woke us early the next morning for a busy day of meetings and planning sessions.

“The purpose of Sadguru,” began one of the representatives, “is to bring water to the people.” As the morning progressed, we learned that Sadguru has previously focused their efforts on increasing the quantity of local water resources and is now interested in improving the quality of drinking water. Through an expansive system of dams and irrigation systems, Sadguru has provided Dahod farmers with adequate water resources to support multiple growing seasons. With several growing seasons, farmers have been able to not only to experience crop surplus but also avoid leaving their wives for seasonal work in distant cities – an aspect that has resulted in declining prevalence of AIDS and other STDs in the local area.

Wrapping up our meetings for the day, a handful of classmates and I decided to take a hike to the nearby village of Chosala to immerse ourselves a little deeper into Indian culture. Guided by a translator, we wandered throughout the village dodging endless herds of cows and discretely diverting our stares from the brightly-clad women finishing afternoon chores. Walking towards the back of our group, I heard a distinct catcall shouted behind my back. Turning around, I caught a glimpse of children frantically scrambling to hide from my view. Laughing at their shyness, I walked closer to their hiding place and tried to gesture for them to come out in the open. Eventually, one-by-one they stuck their heads out in curiosity only to laugh at my pale skin, blonde hair, and pink sunglasses.

Unable to speak a single word of the Hindi language, I thought desperately for some way to show them that I was friendly. Pulling a digital camera from my back pocket, I motioned for the children to come closer. Baffled by the small gadget in my hands, they leaned towards me as I snapped a picture of their confused faces. Quickly hitting the review button, I showed them their faces on the camera screen, which was met with squeals of delight as they urged me to take more pictures. Crouching on the ground as I showed them picture after picture on the tiny camera screen, I eventually rose to leave them and catch up with my classmates. Though I expected the children to run home to their mothers, they instead ran after me and shouted to their neighbor friends to join them. As we passed each house, our knee-high fan club grew until there was a parade of nearly twenty children following us throughout the streets of Chosala. Occasionally, mothers would stop their chores to bow their heads toward us in welcome. Since many of them had never met Americans before, it was certainly a memorable day for all of us in the village.

After our initial jaunt through Chosala, the rigorous work began. Each day for one week, my classmates and I would travel to nearby villages to interview local women from a range of financial and social backgrounds. Focusing our questions on domestic water use, health concerns, and education, we quickly noticed that very few households had access to latrines or other sanitation systems. In many cases, livestock slept in the home with the family at night to prevent animal theft. Food was usually cooked indoors over an open fire pit with no ventilation – often triggering respiratory diseases. We also recognized the common theme that women with higher levels of education were more aware of medical resources and often held leadership roles within the community.

While some of us started testing water samples from the villages, others began teaching villagers how to construct latrines to prevent human waste from leaching into the water supply. A few classmates showed village leaders how to build sand filters to remove bacteria and parasites from drinking water. One classmate even collected our clear plastic water bottles to demonstrate how radiation from sunlight can destroy disease-causing microbes in water sources. By the end of the week, we were able to test over twenty local wells for harmful contaminants, educate villagers on sanitation and water purification techniques, and sign an agreement partnering the University of Cincinnati with the Sadguru Organization for future work on clean water systems in Dahod, India.

The most rewarding aspect of our work in India was the persistent evidence that the people of this country are beginning to climb out of poverty. All children are now vaccinated against major infectious diseases. Parents seek to push their children through higher education. And several community organizations are empowering women through employment and community leadership roles.

In India, the end of poverty is near, and the poorest of the poor are beginning to thrive.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Clean Water for India: Where Do We Start?

Shedding some light on the water problems in India, the purpose of my last post was to identify why Gujarat lacks clean water. Now that we know the general problem and causing factors, where do we go from here?

As a small group of college kids with perhaps lofty idealistic goals, many of us have only glimpses of where to begin.

Thankfully, we're not in this alone...

With their practical foresight, Drs. Oerther and Maurer (the professors spearheading this class effort) teamed us up with a non-government organization, Sadguru, located in Gujarat. Sadguru headquarters are located in a region known as Dahod, which is the most impoverished district in Gujarat.

Dahod is home to 1.63 million people. Approximately half of these people are literate. The average household size is 6.7 people. A strong majority of the local population is Hindu (96%) followed by Islam (3%) and other religions (1%). Roughly three-quarters of the population belong to "scheduled tribes" or "scheduled castes" as described by the government.

The caste system in India is a tricky social infrastructure with several quirks concerning castes, tribes, and other "untouchables". Since I don't have sufficient knowledge on the facts of the caste system, please try a Google search on "caste system in India" and browse through the 96,000 results provided by the most powerful search engine on earth.

As I understand the system from my limited knowledge of Indian sociology, the caste system is a form of historic "social hierarchy" with very little room for mobility among the classes. In a nutshell, your status in society is determined by the family into which you are born. (Farmers marry farmers who later breed farmers. Nobles marry nobles who later breed nobles. Understand the idea?) The lowest rung on this social hierarchy is the "untouchables". Untouchables are typically forbidden to interact with those outside their own class. They are sometimes even barred from community gatherings, public water sources, and tribal councils. The children of untouchables are also deemed "untouchable"' by birth.

The good news is that the caste system is quickly deteriorating in large Indian cities. Since we will be working in rural Dahod, however, the castes and tribes are cultural issues that we may need to consider in the design process.

The majority of citizens in Dahod are farmers with the largest source of income coming from agriculture and agriculture-based products. In relation to water issues, irrigation and fecal contamination via animals are major concerns.

Established in 1974, Sadguru NGO has already accomplished much in its relatively short existence. With a strong focus on water supply, Sadguru has implemented many schemes to bring sufficient water supply into villages for irrigation, drinking, and domestic use. To increase the quantity of local water supply, Sadguru has primarily implemented check dams, wells, and lift irrigation schemes.

Check dams are barriers constructed to slow the water flow of natural rivulets and streams. By slowing flow, surface water is able to pool near the local area, thus creating a source that dries up less quickly during periods of drought. This increased supply of surface water allows farmers to irrigate their fields year-round, which leads to multiple harvest seasons and an increase in economic growth. Like most technologies, check dams come as a double-edged sword. By interrupting the flow of natural streams, villagers in Dahod are effectively halting water supply to downstream regions of India, thus causing droughts in other villages. By increasing the amount of surface water, animals often defecate near these sources, thus contaminating the supply with water-borne diseases. Though water is now readily available via check dams, the quality of the water is far from clean.

One direct positive result of check dams in Dahod is that they have decreased the villagers' dependence on ground water. By using less ground water for everyday use, previously dried-up wells have been given a chance to recharge with clean ground water. According to Sadguru's 2008 Annual Report, over 17,000 wells have been recharged by this organization to date. Recharging of wells allows the ground water tables to increase to sustainable levels and, as a result, the overall salinity and mineral content of the ground water is reduced to non-toxic levels.

Because surface water harvested via check dams cannot support domestic and drinking needs as well as irrigation demands, Sadguru has begun investigating lift irrigation schemes. Lift irrigation is a process in which water from a distant location (e.g. rivers, lakes, etc.) is pumped to a village many miles away. Last year, Sadguru implemented 23 lift irrigation schemes, which currently serve over 22,000 households. Though lift irrigation effectively aids drought-prone areas, the economic feasibility of lift irrigation is still under question. The process of pumping water several hundred miles is much less efficient than utilizing nearby water sources. Also, lift irrigation schemes begin to falter when the demand for water exceeds what the distant source can provide, thus causing these more abundant sources to dry up in the near future. Implementation, maintenance, and operational expenses for lift irrigation can also be costly in the long term.

Probably the biggest achievement of Sadguru NGO is their ability to revive local interest in sustainable water projects. By entrusting ownership of community check dams and wells to democratically-elected village councils, local villagers are forced to establish their own methods for facility maintenance and use. This is extremely important for ensuring that local water sources remain intact for decades to come. If these village councils did not exist, villagers would allow newly-built facilities to quickly depreciate. In a sense, we cannot simply give technology to impoverished regions without sufficient social infrastructure to maintain the donated facilities.

I'm sure you've heard the mantra, "Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime." This motto falls short in that you can teach people skills to increase their livelihood, but unless you give them proper tools (e.g. a fishing pole), they cannot put their skills to use. So one of the main goals of Sadguru is to provide tools (wells, check dams, lift irrigation schemes), and then teach villagers how to properly use and maintain these facilities.

With Sadguru providing villagers with adequate quantities of water, the next step is to focus on the quality of the water. Improving water quality is where our design class hopes to have an impact.

Have you ever been thirsty in a swimming pool? Ever consider drinking the pool water to quench your thirst? Probably not.

This analogy can be applied to the Dahod region in Gujarat. Sadguru has done an excellent job of increasing the water supply to villagers in Dahod, but the water is not often clean. With no other options, villagers drink contaminated water because dying from water-borne illnesses is a slower process than dying from thirst. Without water to drink, you will die. Without clean water to drink, you may die, but your chances of living are greater than without drinking water at all.

Sadguru has dabbled in a few projects to increase water quality (e.g. sanitation), but much work has yet to be done. Companies and organizations in the developed world have designed and implemented several possible solutions that could be adapted to our project in India. Before our upcoming travels, each of these solutions must be carefully examined for performance, economic feasibility, and sustainability. In short, we have a lot of work to do...

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Indian Water Problems: A Complicated Mess

After a quick blog post on my family ties to Gujarat, India and a few posts on world poverty, our original question still remains:

How did India get into this water quality mess in the first place?

The answer to this question is a somewhat long and convoluted discussion that merits an entire blog post. Though I'm not going to pretend to understand the entire situation, here is a summary of what I have found on the current water issue:

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, my cousin's father-in-law (who currently lives in Gujarat, India) emailed an article to me written by Indira Hirway for the World Health Organization. Translated into English, the article systematically outlines Gujarat's water decline from historically stable to currently "water-stressed" to "water scarce" by the year 2050. With this report as my main source, my interpretation of the problem is as explained below.

Historically, India has had very few documented water problems. Before 1960, there was enough ground water stored in the area to fulfill the basic drinking and farming needs of the people. Due to natural water filtration of the earth, this ground water was also of fairly good quality for drinking and domestic use.

In 1960-1961, a severe drought struck India, thus causing 16-17% of Gujarati villages to experience acute shortages in drinking water. To aid its people, India's national government recognized the water crisis and proceeded to take control of traditional local water management systems. The government's plan of action was to identify water-troubled villages and provide them with a reliable water source.

Though well-intentioned, the government's temporary policy to solve the water crisis had a few unforeseen consequences. First of all, the government's original plan was to harvest ground water by implementing additional wells in water-troubled villages. Unfortunately, this solution is merely temporary in that ground water supplies typically dry up during long periods of drought. So although this scheme worked in the short-term, the benefits were short-lived after ground water resources were used up, thus causing villagers to revert back to their original situation.

Secondly, it stripped authority from the local villages that traditionally managed their own water resources. Though several people were probably happy to be relieved of their water-finding duties, this power-shift caused local villagers to become apathetic towards water-related issues in general. Most Americans can relate to this unconcerned attitude. Take a moment to think about it... Do you honestly care how water travels to your faucet? Before this class, I can easily admit that I had no idea nor was really concerned how water arrived in my early-morning-three-dollar-Starbucks-cup-of-tea. In the States, however, it's not exactly a life-or-death situation if the average American understands the idiosyncrasies of modern water treatment. Thankfully, there are enough water experts in the US to spread across the local areas and monitor water quality for the average American. In Gujarat, authority from top-level government water programs has not yet filtered down to the village level.

In addition to issues with government water policies, cultural changes in India have also led to ground water depletion. As touched upon in my former blog post on world poverty, India is a developing nation that aspires to become an influential force in the world's economy. To increase their wealth, farmers have been encouraged to increase crop production for international export. An increase in crop output requires higher demands on irrigation, which currently derives its source from ground water supplies. Deforestation for farming has also caused streams to dry up due to a sudden lack of shade and natural habitat. The current depletion of ground water is so severe in Gujarat that the water tables recede 10 feet every year.

Industry has also found a presence in developing India as more manufacturing facilities are constructed each decade. Though industry is generally a positive sign of the rise out of poverty, it creates problems in that developing countries often fail to regulate pollution emitted from factories and manufacturing plants. While also using ground water for industrial processes, many industries in Gujarat decrease water quality by dumping pollutants into ground water supplies.

Though these are just a few major contributors to Gujarat's current water woes, you may be able to see two important aspects that need to be addressed: water quantity and quality.

Gujarat has two major water sources: ground water and surface water. Ground water is a natural resource that develops as precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) falls to the earth and filters into natural cavities underground. Ground water is relatively clean (via natural rock and gravel filtration) but can have traces of minerals and salts (nitrates, fluoride, sodium chloride, arsenic). Though most of these minerals and salts won't harm humans in small doses, high levels of these natural contaminants can cause chronic health effects (cancer, fluorosis, kidney failure, birth defects, etc.). When ground water supplies are sufficiently high, salts and minerals in the water are dilute enough to be safe for drinking, farming, and domestic use. As ground water supplies become overexerted, the salts and mineral levels become dangerously concentrated, which can alter the smell, appearance, and safety of drinking water. Because locals rely heavily on ground water supplies, high salinity and mineral content are the current major concerns for Gujaratis.

Surface water consists of water supplies found in streams, lakes, ponds, and rainwater captured by manmade basins. Though easier to access, surface water comes with its own list of problems. Approximately 75% of rural villages in India lack any form of toilet facility, which means that a large majority of villagers and livestock poop wherever a convenient location might be found (near streams, ponds, grazing areas, etc.). By allowing feces to be left in the open air or deposited near surface water sources, bacteria and other microorganisms from fecal matter are able to run into surface water supplies after each rain. If consumed, these microorganisms can cause typhoid, tuberculosis, and diarrhea -- diseases known to kill thousands of children and adults in developing countries. In addition to parasites and algae naturally found in streams and ponds, it is apparent that surface water must undergo several purification steps to ensure that the water is safe to drink. In Gujarat, however, sufficient water treatment facilities are simply not yet available.

So what's the overall water picture in Gujarat? Here's a simple breakdown:

(1) There is not enough ground water to safely support current levels of irrigation, industrial processes, and drinking & domestic uses.

(2) During water shortages, villagers may be forced to use surface water, which must be adequately treated to prevent water-borne illnesses.

(3) Currently, rural areas of Gujarat lack adequate resources of electricity, health care, and toilet facilities required to run wells, treat water-borne diseases, and prevent surface water contamination.

(4) Top-level government policies are inefficient in that local villagers remain uneducated on water quality issues that may adversely affect their health.

Though there are many interconnected factors contributing to water quality issues in Gujarat, the above points are four major topics that must firstly be considered in this project to develop a sustainable solution to this design problem.

Working with a non-government organization, Sadguru, it is our hope to design and implement some sort of technology that will positively impact the people of Gujarat.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Blog Post Feedback from Students

After publishing my last poverty essay on this blog, I encouraged friends and classmates to read it online and give some constructive feedback on the article. To be honest, I never really thought that anyone would actually read my last blog post and only remotely hoped that they would check out this blog site.

Surprisingly, a few actually did take time to read the essay and sent me their thoughts on the world poverty issues I addressed in the post. Spending a few days to respond to their messages, I thought that it might be useful to publish their constructive criticism and my responses to their concerns...

The first feedback discussion on the blog post entitled "Why the World has Poor..." took place between myself and a fellow engineering classmate, Matt.

Matt's Initial Message:

"It is certainly interesting... however part of India's problem in regards to poverty and social justice is the caste system. Do not get me wrong, I think it is good and noble to go and provide clean water to the people of India (or anywhere for that matter). At the end of this project and projects like it however there will continue to be classes of people who will remain poor, in all senses of the word.

Now, is this to say to not go, and that projects like this should not occur? Of course not, but the realization by us all must be made that until social reform occurs, the halt of the spread of disease and poverty will remain elusive. Will it help with disease? Most certainly, but unlike what your blog claims, providing clean water to your target group will not address the "big picture".

... I hope you don't take this as criticism... if you do, feel free to censor me.

My Response:

"Here's my rebuttal:

(1) True, the caste system is a problem. However, the poverty argument in the article is more general in that it addresses WORLD poverty and how this model fits to India. There are TONS of factors that work into this on a country-by-country basis. The main idea of the essay and Sach's book is how the poverty gap has widened over the last century. I probably generalized a lot in the blog post, but it would take me weeks to go into detail on specific poverty issues... and I'm sure everyone would still have more factors to add to the list.

(2) Yes, social reform is needed. I'm not arguing that it is or isn't important, or that clean water will fix all of India's problems. If you look at the UN's Millenium Goals, clean water is only one of 7 ways targeted to cut world poverty. India's "underlying problem" that I mentioned in the blog post is "poverty", not water issues. Water issues are a result of poverty.
Cleaning up the water primarily helps the health issues. I did not state in the post that it would end poverty... you may have taken that out of context.

(3) The main goal of my statements at the end of the post is that we cannot withhold knowledge from a country that is dying because of lack of appropriate technology.

I know you enjoy playing the devil's advocate on this one... I'm just pumped that someone actually read the article. :-)"

Matt's Follow-up Response:

"Good re-post. As to taking your statement out of context, I vary well may have, I am attempting to do the whole "multi-tasking" thing with varied success.

All in all, the book by Sach sounds very interesting. And as a general comment on your summary of the work, I think with the comparative lengths, you did a great job."

My Additional Response:

LOL... thanks for the constructive criticism... words are meant to be scrutinized. ;) I keep hoping that more people will visit my blog from time to time. The more discussion, the better..."

Matt's Final Message:

"Your last comment is SO true. I am in an ethics class reading a piece of work by T. Beauchamp, and he comes to a similar conclusion in his section concerning health care coverage. He makes the claim that no matter how wrong ANY health care system is, with the public involved in the process through open and active communication, the system will eventually reach a point where 'everyone' is happy. Perhaps a little idealized, but nonetheless it reinforces what you say regarding discussion."

The next thread of discussion on the blog post came from a business student, Jason:

Jason's Initial Message:

Do you realize that by fixing the contamination problem of India's water will just help the earth to its carrying capacity even sooner? Don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but I'm just saying... Survival of the fittest?
(sarcasm was used...)"

My Reply:

"Interesting point... and I've actually heard the population argument used before, but let me counter-argue with this:

Family size is inversely proportional to a mother's level of education. So as women become more educated in developing nations, they choose to have less children. Providing poor areas with clean water is just one way to decrease poverty in 2nd and 3rd-world countries. A drop in poverty will lead to the women of these countries to seek additional schooling, which will cause the family size to decrease.

In the States, the average number of kids per mother is around 2-3. In India, the average number is around 6. In Africa, the number is huge (somewhere around 8-10). As you can imagine the population issue can be resolved just by getting people to go to school.

Thanks for reading my article. Woot! Now I'm up to 2 people who actually visited my site..."

The final set of feedback messages were sent by a biology graduate, Richard:

Richard's Initial Message:

I enjoyed reading your article, Julia. I agree with much of what you write, but I'm curious about your conclusion: "It is our social responsibility to share current knowledge of appropriate, sustainable technology in order to halt the spread of disease, poverty, and social injustice." Although most efforts would have the best of intentions and hopefully the best of results, could this statement not be viewed as a modern reinterpretation of "the white man's burden" if by "our" you mean the developed Western world and not just humankind as a whole? I see what you mean regarding social injustice, but I fear that with the current political climate in the world, the change to many parts of the world would come in a new form of imperialism."

My Response:

It's interesting that you bring up this point as we are constantly debating it in class...

So yeah, the social injustice part of my statement is a tricky one and we're running into problems with it in my design class. Our biggest debate is:

"Should we introduce new technology that might infringe on India's current culture and way of life? What makes our (the Western world) ideas better than theirs?"

To be honest, we haven't found a good answer to this question yet and I doubt anyone really has.

You make a good point and I can't really argue against it. For the purposes of this project, we're forced to look at the fact that people are dying due to water contamination. Solutions to this problem range from changing government policy to convincing people to use a toilet or latrine.

In a sense, we can't really introduce a new technology in the region without somehow affecting their culture, government, and society. Whether or not this fits under the "social injustice" category is a matter of labels.

It's a fine line between helping people and "imperializing" their way of life...

(btw, if you think of a good way to introduce technology without infringing on their core values, culture, and beliefs... please let me know. I am constantly looking for a good solution to this issue.)

Thanks for reading my article! (Woo-hoo! I am now up to 3 people who have looked at it...)"

Richard's Response:

Actually, I do not agree with the idea that all cultural values hold equal merit. While we can certainly try to be respectful, we also can recognize when something is unfairly harmful (of course the extreme cases such as honor killings are easier to spot out than more subtle practices).

For instance, I have met and made friends with many women who have adopted use of a headscarf while in public because of their Christian or Islamic beliefs. Unlike the stereotype, I find many of them to be just as strong-willed or even sassy as any other individual. However, when I see the wearing of full burqas in Iran and elsewhere, enforced through threats of violence and death, I find that crossing the line. Yet, should the UN or the US send troops in to liberate such women?

The problem besides needless aggression and bloodshed is that these practices are just one aspect of a much larger cultural difference. Such change cannot come easily (nor necessarily painlessly). That lack of understanding is a big part of why the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq has been so turbulent.

I don't think there is a straightforward answer of what to do. Probably the best option would be to introduce any new cultural intervention, whether it be technology or belief, to trusted cultural leaders of the population. Convince them of its value, and they can decide the best way to disseminate it to the public. This will not prevent all cries of imperialism, and certainly from an outside perspective, can seem just as perverse as any other subterfuge, but it seems at least more like a scalpel compared to the hatchet of old."

My Final Reply:

Several valid points, my friend..."

If you would like to leave comments or feedback on any of my blog posts feel free to leave a comment on this blog, email, or facebook me. I appreciate constructive criticism and try to encourage discussion on any of the issues addressed on this website.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Why the World has Poor...

Before I even begin this blog post, I must renege on my offer to explain the current water problems in Gujarat, India. Deepest apologies to those who were expecting a summary of our project's main design problem, but I assure you there is a reason for this delay.

As I was collecting my thoughts and findings from Indira Hirway's essay on the above topic (note: check my last post for more info on this essay), I found that my conclusions quickly spawned dozens of questions to which I knew no answer:

Why are people poor?
What causes poverty?
Have developing nations always been poor?
Why can't the United States just sent money to fix the water crisis in Gujarat, India?
If India had money, wouldn't they just be able to "buy" their way out of these ridiculous water problems?

As you can imagine, one single question quickly led to ten more questions, which grew into an entire grocery list of topics that encompass my complete naivety on the topic of world poverty. Though Indira Hirway nicely outlined the local factors leading up to the water problems in Gujarat, he did not examine the fundamental underlying issue: Why is India poor?

Though I'm sure there are hundreds of theories answering this four-word question, I decided to check out our nation's top economist on world poverty, Jeffrey Sachs. A professor at Columbia University, Sachs is a Special Adviser to Kofi Annan (United Nations Secretary-General) and an author of the UN's Millennium Goals to end world poverty. Sach's book, The End of Poverty, not only explains why some countries are poor, but also outlines a practical and attainable plan to end world poverty.

On the first day of class, Dr. Oerther waved a copy of the book in front of my classmates and I as "suggested reading" for those of us who need a crash course on world economics. Though ignoring his recommendation at first, I eventually bought the book after realizing that I know absolutely nothing on poverty. To summarize my naivety, my main idea of poverty was:

"The poor are poor because they refuse to help themselves."

The scariness of this view, however, is that a large number of people in the upper- and middle-class United States think this statement is fundamentally correct. Unfortunately, this view couldn't be further from the truth. Rather, we should view world poverty as follows:

Some are poor because they are economically unable to rise above poverty. Others are poor because they seek to rise out of poverty in unsustainable ways.

I'd like to start off this discussion by answering the following question: Has the world always had poor?

Surprisingly, no. The concept of poverty is actually a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to 1820, all regions of the world were comparatively poor. The ratio of per capita income between the richest region (United Kingdom) and the poorest (subsaharan Africa) was only 4:1. True, the world had its share of wealthy nobles, but these lucky people were far and few between.

So what happened after 1820? Think back to your high school history classes, and you might recall one tiny earth-shattering era known as the Industrial Revolution. With the invention of the coal-powered steam engine, the United Kingdom single-handedly became the leader of economic growth and prosperity.

Why the U.K.? To be honest, England just had a stroke of pure luck. At this time, the United Kingdom was just coming off the Renaissance Era, which encouraged open thoughts and social reform. Soon before then, the British abolished serfdom, allowed free speech, cultivated new scientific ideas, and revolutionized property rights. Add in factors of climate, natural resources, and geography, and you might begin to realize that England was ripe for rapid economic growth. Luckily for us, the United States was able to piggyback on England's success mainly due to our colonial ties to Britain. In a sense, we were pretty lucky too.

As England's prosperity continued to climb, ideas of the Industrial Revolution began to spread to British colonies (U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) as well as other parts of Western Europe (Spain, Germany, France, etc.). In addition to technological advancement, these countries also began adopting British views on public policy (e.g. free speech, property rights, abolition of slavery, and so on).

This economic and technological development caused changes in urbanization, social mobility, gender roles, family structure, and division of labor. For example, people prior to the Industrial Revolution were middle-class farmers. Just to break even, these farmers needed to be a "jack-of-all-trades" in that a single person would be somewhat skilled in carpentry, metal-working, agriculture, animal husbandry, business practices, finance, and the list goes on and on. Though admirable, this system can be inefficient in that farmers were often required to work long hours just to complete this diverse array of tasks before dusk.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, job specialization began to occur with more people being trained on a single task and relying on others to meet their other needs. This job specialization encouraged more people to move to cities where their services were needed and their other needs could be met. By landing jobs in factories and shops, these "specialists" were now guaranteed hourly pay rather than gambling on a crop surplus. Guaranteed wages allowed for greater social mobility as people were now able to save and spend as desired. At this time, women also began working in factories and sweat shops, thus earning their own paycheck and changing their role in society. As more women sought work, the average family size decreased and women were decreasingly expected to stay at home to rear children.

Unfortunately, these drastic cultural changes caused upheavals and resistance in several areas of Asia and Africa. Asian culture has always viewed tradition as "vital" to society. Observing the changing gender roles and family structure, nations such as China, Japan, and India (to name a few) resisted economic development in order to maintain the delicate balance of their traditional culture. By contrast, most areas of Africa sought to blot out the "white man's influence" that had exploited them into slavery and adopting the typical European way of life. Viewing the recent economic development as another way that Europeans could continue to control and exploit their tribes, most Africans chose to close themselves off from any outside influence.

Thus, world poverty was born. From this point onward, Africa's historic choice to close itself off from the world (albeit encouraged by poor European and American exploitation) led to the gap between rich (USA) and poor (Africa). Today, this gap has widened to a 20:1 ratio of per capital income between the US and subsaharan Africa.

Continuing on with this historic timeline...

Cultural and economic upheaval eventually led to the outbreak of World War I, which essentially ended the era of European-led globalization. Also at this time, Russia chose to end centuries of monarchy and gravitate towards a Lenin & Stalin dictatorship.

After World War I, economic instability led to the Great Depression of the 1930s, which contributed to the rise of Hitler and consequent outbreak of World War II. Three main economic consequences arose as a result of World War II:

(1) National currencies became virtually non-convertible.
(2) European imperialism finally ends (i.e. basically, no more colonies).
(3) Russia officially distances itself from the world during the Cold War.

To fix the above problems created by World War II, the United States, Western Europe, and Japan reconstructed an international trading system, which lead to eventual conversion among currencies. However, other parts of the world chose not to join this trading scheme until decades later, thus widening the poverty gap once again. The USSR (i.e. Russia) and 3rd-world countries (Asia minus Japan; Africa) distrusted the global market and sought to be self-sufficient.

By resisting global influence, unfortunately, this isolating scheme ultimately failed because it limited the flow of ideas and technology into these countries. In addition, the high-cost local industries in the these countries could not compete internationally and the lack of competition in isolated industry fostered corruption.

In a nutshell... whether we like it or not, we are all CONNECTED.

By the early 1990s, the USSR, most of Asia, and Africa desired to enter the global economy. By this time, the poverty gap was vast and very evident.

So where do we stand now?

Compared to pre-Industrial Revolution, we have a much higher standard of living (except in Africa where the standard of living has stagnated). However, huge gaps between the world's richest and poorest now exist. The richest nations have enjoyed ~200 years of steady economic growth while developing countries are behind the curve due to colonization, polices, resources, location, and several other factors.

The good news is that there are practical solutions to end poverty despite no one "magic" way of doing it. If you want to know more about some of these economic solutions, I encourage you to check out Sach's book, The End of Poverty (Penguin Books, 2005). Quite frankly, it would take me dozens of additional blog posts to summarize every piece of useful knowledge in this book... even though it is quite a good read.

How does India fit into this whole model of economic development?

Currently, India is grouped into a category known as the "BRIC" nations (acronym for Brazil, Russia, India, and China). These nations are presently on the climb to economic prosperity. Rather than the entire nation being poor, some cities have flourished while other areas are still trying to jump above the poverty line. The area in which we will be traveling, Gujarat, is one of the less affluent areas of India.

The BRIC nations desire to develop and catch up with the US, but they are unsure of how to do it. While the US has had two centuries of trial & error with respect to economic development, India has had mere decades of growth without the same learning process. Therefore, many areas of India build and develop unsustainably to rapidly increase their wealth and gross national product. This unrestrained growth depletes natural resources (i.e. ground water) and causes rural areas to experience severe poverty while some regions are moving upward. Rather than learning from past development mistakes in the US during the Industrialization Era, Indians are creating more problems by implementing unsuitable technology to encourage uncontrolled growth.

Since we can't simply wait around for a growth period of 200 years while India kills its citizens with unsustainable technology, it is our social responsibility to share current knowledge of appropriate, sustainable technology in order to halt the spread of disease, poverty, and social injustice.

Bold words? Perhaps, but the big picture is that we can't allow people to die simply because they don't have technology that keeps us alive.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Family Ties

After a few lectures introducing us to world water issues, our class squabbled a bit on where to start with India’s daunting water problem.

As an interdisciplinary Honors class, everyone had their own expertise by training. Business majors were more concerned with marketability of water technology, India’s current financial situation, and economic poverty. Designers and architects typically want to jumpstart the project by beginning the building process. Engineers consider only seemingly feasible technologies while the environmentalists would like to spend some extra time evaluating ecological impact of the project on the local area. Sprinkle in a few pre-medicine biology majors trying to grasp how everything relates to global health issues, and we’ve created a standstill on where to even begin.

After thirty minutes of voicing opinions on how to split into groups, it became apparent that there were two main options for tackling this project: divide into interdisciplinary teams with each group studying every aspect of the water project OR split into specialized teams with each group focusing on a single topic to be later shared with the class as a whole. Each scenario had its pros and cons, and as expected, the class vote turned into a deadlock. By this point, it seemed obvious that an executive decision would need to be made if we were ever going to move forward.

Thankfully, Dr. Oerther suggested that the class split into interdisciplinary teams with the option of changing the group dynamic at a later date if the project required such a move. Finally moving away from group logistics, we were free to start discussing how India’s water problem has spiraled into the crisis it is now today.

So what do we need to know? Posing this question to the class, we began brainstorming a list of background topics that need to be researched before clearly identifying the problem we wish to solve in India. Is the water situation caused by lack of education? Government policy? Scarcity of resources? Climate? Developing economy? Water contamination?

As you can probably imagine, the list goes on and on.

Feeling overwhelmed by the scope of research required to answer this grocery list of questions, I wasn’t quite sure where or how to begin.

Then I remembered a resource that I hadn’t yet considered… family.

About ten years ago, one of my cousins married a woman of Indian descent. The wedding itself was a cultural experience unlike any I’ve ever seen. Though a traditional American Christian, I was impressed by the elaborate Hindu wedding ritual even though I had no idea which god was receiving prayers or incense at any given point in the ceremony.

Though I had rarely seen my cousin’s wife (a.k.a. Tina) over several years, I decided to send a short email mentioning that I would be traveling to India to work on a water project in Gujarat. Surprisingly, her response was rapidly quick as she excitedly explained her immigration to the States from Gujarat during college. Interestingly, her parents recently retired to their hometown in Gujarat after Tina’s father spent many years working on water systems in Kenya. Thanks to amazing internet communication, Tina forwarded my email to her father (a.k.a. Dinesh) who thereafter sent dozens of articles on Indian water issues as well as information on local problems concerning the region where we will be traveling in December.

Clicking my heels at this sudden stroke of luck, I posted these articles online for my other group members to read before throwing together a five-minute presentation due by the end of the week.

Wading through piles of population statistics, census reports, and basic geographic information, I eventually came across a paper sponsored by the World Health Organization based in New Delhi. Written by Indira Hirway, the 46-page report carefully outlines the progress of Gujarat water resources from availability to depletion as well as the cultural, political, and industrial factors affecting this decline.

Well-written in an understandable manner, the content of this paper requires a separate conversation of its own. With that said, I’d like to give my deepest apologies for postponing these background findings until the next blog post… I tend to be slightly long-winded when setting up a particularly good story.

(Discussion to be continued…)