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Reflections on a first visit to India

Blog Post4 min read

Editor's Note: Nicholas Lawson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Aix-Marseille School of Economics, and is the newest member of the r.i.c.e. extended family. Nicholas is a labour economist who has been studying the effect of early life health and disease on adult wages, and recently visited us in India to collaborate and present his work. Look for more blog posts from Nicholas to come!

When I arrived in India a few weeks ago for the first time – in fact, my first time in any developing country – my first impression was astonishment at contrasts on a level that one simply doesn't see in Europe or North America. Delhi is a bewildering mixture of poverty and plenty, with wealthy colonies and cramped poor neighbourhoods, mansions next to fields of trash, and chaotic and noisy streets above the quiet, clean, elegant Metro.

And I imagine that, for many tourists to India, that is extent of the poverty and inequality that they see in India; they stay in nice hotels, visit the many tourist attractions – temples, markets, palaces – and marvel at the unique culture and enticing (and cheap) food. And then they go home, and tell their friends what a fascinating place India is.

Of course, they're right about that; but the India that most people see is just a small fraction of the whole. In central and south Delhi, or in tourist towns like Udaipur, it's easy to see one side of India, the side that is growing fast and becoming a prosperous economic power, “India Shining” as one election slogan of the past decade puts it. But Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen called India “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa,” and accompanied by the incomparable Dean Spears, I had the opportunity to see just a bit of that sub-Saharan sea. The results were eye-opening and disturbing.

In several days spent visiting villages in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, I saw schools with no books and hospitals without soap, where rampant absenteeism makes it hard to predict if the teachers and doctors will even show up to work.

I saw villages without latrines, without any basic sanitation infrastructure, where “going to the toilet” means squatting down in a field; villages where the common cooking fuel is dung collected by young wives; and these villages might be considered lucky, as they at least seemed to be connected to electricity, unlike hundreds of millions of people in rural India.

I saw so many women whose first and only reaction to seeing us was to cover their face and turn away, women who are physically underdeveloped and whose children are stunted, signs of the village patriarchy that makes a woman subordinate to her husband and other males, and makes it shameful to interact with men who are not her husband.

I saw district government offices where, amidst typewriters and enormous piles of paper, much of the work seemed to be done by private contractors whose job it is to invent numbers about the painfully slow progress in infrastructure improvement.

In the end, I found the experience rather overwhelming and confusing. I could only find one question to ask: why does it have to be this way? Why do “we” in the West – people like myself and our governments – do so little to help our fellow human beings in places like these villages? It is widely known that people in the West, particularly the US, vastly overestimate the amount given in foreign aid: a poll at indicates that the median American believes that 25% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, a number that they would like reduced to 10%, even as the real amount is an order of magnitude smaller at just 1%. In other words, we think we are doing so much – and we might even be okay with that – but in reality we are doing nothing to help.

I'm not even talking about “handouts” of the sort that sometimes cause populist displeasure; I'm not talking about people who aren't working as hard as “us” in the West, or about giving them food or clothing or lump sums of cash (not that that would necessarily be a bad thing). I am talking about public investment in human development, and while money can't do everything, it can do a lot: we could put toilets in every village, and fund extensive public information programs to teach people about the benefits of using them. We could invest in technology and incentives to reduce absenteeism, and finance books in schools and sanitation in hospitals. We could build better roads, water supply, and other basic infrastructure. We can't solve every problem; as indicated by my comments about private contractors inventing numbers, India still faces large administrative capacity constraints which often prevent even good policies from having their desired impact, with resources often failing to make it from the government to the intended recipients. But we can solve a few of them, and we can give our fellow human beings a better chance to reach their full potential.

We owe it to our fellow human beings to do this, because we can; because by giving up so little, we can provide opportunities to live a more fulfilling life to so many. Not to mention that, in my opinion, we in the West have taken advantage of developing countries to a considerable extent, from the domination and resource theft of colonialism to the “structural adjustment” and unfair trade regimes of today. We have a choice, and not doing anything to help ordinary people in developing countries, indeed pretending our fellow human beings don't exist, is a deliberate choice no matter how easy it might feel to ignore them.

So why do we make that choice? Thinking about my own experiences, I think it comes down to seeing these villages, seeing these lives in person, recognizing that these are people just as much as I am, with just as many rights and as great a moral weight in humanity's social welfare function. I knew all of these things before, as I'm sure we all do, and morally whether we can see people shouldn't make a difference to the way we think about them, as long as we know they exist. But it does; for whatever reason, it alters the way that we think about such issues. I don't know yet where we go from here, how to make a difference, but I know that there is much to be done, and I hope that in my role as an economist I can play some small role in doing it.


r.i.c.e. is a non-profit research organization focused on health and well-being in India. Our core focus is on children in rural north India. Our research studies health care at the start of life, sanitation, air pollution, maternal health, social inequality, and other dimensions of population-level social wellbeing.

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