Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Hope Floats

By Akansha Yadav, State Programme Coordinator at Department of Rural Development, Government of Andhra Pradesh, M.A Development Studies 2012

Andhra Pradesh (India) coastal area belt is infamous for its trafficking and sex trade where a number of targeted interventions for HIV awareness and mitigating violence have been proposed by the Government. For the 12th Five Year Plan, the Planning Commission of India opened a window to the civil society whereby it can propose policy recommendations for social inclusion of various groups.  

For this purpose I went to the coastal area belt and facilitated discussions amongst community researchers with the purpose of mapping existing knowledge and practices pertaining to their access to social schemes. These community researchers come from the sex workers’ community itself and are trained by the NGOs.

I sat through a number of discussions, listened to their stories and went through case studies with them and the members of their community. Their experiences of violence and hurt will probably leave you numb for a long time, not only because it is difficult to imagine but because after a while, the comprehension of that violence and pain starts receding. Their profession, life-choices and livelihoods draw random opinion and reaction from the crowd and media, but what gets missed out is their persistence and resilience to mainstream themselves, and the continuous education they provide to themselves in order to achieve that.
We discussed about many government schemes like housing, pensions, health services, education and their relative access to those schemes:

‘Are you able to access these government schemes?’ I asked.

‘It is difficult to access’, they said.

‘Was it the paper work?’

‘Partly. It is difficult to arrange for all the documents. We have no proof of residence and bank accounts. They know it.’

‘Then, what is the reason?’

‘The officials don’t acknowledge us’.

‘How is that?’

‘They don’t even look at us in the eye. Sometimes, they abuse us and ask us to leave. Don’t know why they do that. We thought it is our right to access these services. We try our best to arrange all the documents. But these officials keep asking us to come on some other date.’

‘So then what do you do?’

‘We come everyday to their offices, wait and then go home. Often they ask us provide them services too…’

‘Have you ever complained or given a letter in the grievance cell?’

‘Where is the grievance cell?’

… and the discussion goes on.

What I was supposed to gaze was their access to these social schemes. As an analyst, I can determine the inadequacy of certain benchmarks and requirements. Especially for them, for example, the pension receiving age for sex workers cannot be 60 or 65 as it is for others. But then in the long run this takes a back-seat. What I could not stop gazing was their ability to deflect their pain, face the insensitivity everyday, brush themselves up the next day and try again, hoping someday the reaction will be different… and because access to those schemes is important to them.

My purpose here is not to narrate tales of suffering and violence. They get their occasional due mention in the media, except it is not ‘their’ voice nor it even remotely captures it. In the media, it is often their story narrated by someone else – the way their problems, issues, lives are understood and presented.

And I believe this is what the whole problem is. They don’t have a face – not when they are demanding their entitlements, not when they are being written about, and perhaps not when they are being spoken to….

I feel, this goes beyond the dimensions of social bias against a certain class (which is so pervasive in our Indian society). It is social bias with financial and emotional liability thriving in our social set up which conveniently hangs on a patriarchal framework. It is a space where every spectrum of life – body, emotions, thoughts, power, control- mix together to form a blur, and where the anger with the ‘system’ is not about corruption, service provisions etc but about insensitivity and non-acknowledgement for being another human being… and being labelled for what we know as the world’s oldest profession. We all feel vulnerable in our daily lives, but it comes and goes as we move from one circumstance to another, pushing the walls and shuffling the change. For them, the constant is the change.

How have they responded, you would ask. Some of them have mobilised themselves into Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and are learning to communicate with the government in their language – write letters to concerned officials, devise methods to get access to facilities such as Aadhar card, ration card and supporting documents to eventually get access to basic necessities such as pensions, scholarships and medicines etc. The CBOs also assist those in need. In one such case, they took  charge of a girl’s education whose father died of HIV, and also wrote a letter to the education officer, requesting for a cycle as her home was far away from the school. After a lot of paper work and attempts to meet with officials, they eventually managed to get her a cycle. There are cases of CBOs enlisting hidden sex workers identified as HIV+ which has made medicines and hospital accessible to them. CBOs’ attestation has facilitated opening of bank accounts by many members of the sex workers’ community. This is a critical step towards accessing services such as housing and Aadhar card.

The complexities involved in their cases are overbearing with deluge of questions to answer and the basis of this could probably be our societal non-acceptance to the reality of this livelihood. But I was humbled by their resilience to relentlessly pursue the ‘system’ to demand entitlements and their basic citizenship rights; rather than waiting for the ‘system’ to wake up. 

My trip to the sleepy town of Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh was rather sudden and unplanned but immensely enlightening. After spending time with them and listening to their experiences and testimonies, I can say that nothing could have ever prepared me for that experience.

This blog was originally published on Akansha's blog, Lives They Live

Thursday, 20 February 2014

IDS and its Alumni: Thoughts for the Near Future

By incoming IDS Director Melissa Leach

As I prepare to take over as Director of IDS on the 23rd April, alumni are much on my mind. 

Throughout my life as a Fellow here, I have always been aware that the Institute’s Sussex base – the community of researchers, teachers, learners and practitioners who are here at any given time – is only a tiny part of the far wider, global networks that actually constitute what we are and do. Our alumni network – thoroughly international, and spreading far and wide across the worlds of policy, practice, research and public life, is absolutely critical. 

Following our recent Graduation ceremony, we see it expand further, as a new set of cohorts from our MA and PhD programmes join the IDS global community. This is to be celebrated and valued, and for this reason I’m delighted that the Institute is already taking forward a new alumni strategy to strengthen relationships and networks in ways that work both for you, as alumni, and for IDS. 

But my broad vision for the Institute’s near future means our alumni network will be even more important than it has been so far. 

Although it is early days, there are several directions that I believe will be crucial if we are to continue to pursue our core values – working towards a world with no poverty, widespread social justice and economic growth focused on improving human wellbeing, and, I would add, environmental sustainability – in internationally turbulent times. 

Alumni are important to each:

1. To re-state our commitment to ‘engaged excellence’, ensuring that the research-based knowledge we offer is always rigorous and robust, yet engaged with those change agents positioned to act. This will involve combining academic credibility with impact-orientation; instrumental contributions with engaged critique of goals, values, power; independence with co-design and co-production; challenging orthodoxies with identifying alternatives. These are hard things to do, but IDS at its best already does them well. 

Are there alumni out there interested to work with us to build and take forward a vision of ‘engaged excellence’ as the fertile future of development studies? 

2. A second direction I’ve called ‘transformational alliances’: Transformational, because it is clear that ‘business-as-usual’ won’t be enough to deliver the needed step-change towards wellbeing and justice on a constrained planet. There’ll be a need to destabilise some dominant pathways and support imaginative alternatives. Alliances, because building these offers vital opportunities to bring about transformative change. 

The current IDS strategy already emphasises new alliances outside the ‘development industry’; co-constructing knowledge, and innovative influencing. But with an ever greater array of new actors becoming relevant to development, novel partnerships and hybrids emerging that challenge boundaries between public and private, state and NGO, and more than ever, resource flows conventionally associated with ‘aid’ being dwarfed by others, it may be time to become more ambitious and strategic. 

IDS alumni are working in diverse roles, organisations and settings; how might we build alliances together for the kinds of transformation we would like to see?

3. However the third area of vision is where our alumni networks could be most central: making IDS more global. I think we would all recognise the huge shifts that have made an ‘old style’ development, focused just on aid agendas to address poverty in the ‘global South’, so outdated. 

We are now in an emerging global landscape of new geopolitics associated with the rise of the BRICS and transnational movements; globalised movements of resources, ideas, technologies and people; changing patterns and geographies of poverty and inequality; and shared shocks and threats, whether involving finance or food, climate or political instability. 

Poverty, inequality and struggles around rights and identity are realities in all countries everywhere – in the UK too. I believe our development studies agenda must embrace this, tracking flows of power, people, resources and ideas in multiple directions, and addressing questions justice and injustice more centrally, wherever they may be found. This in turn will require a more globally-defined and positioned IDS: for reach, partnerships, credibility, and critical mass and voice. 

Would members of our incredibly international alumni network like to work with us to make a more global IDS a reality? For instance by collaborating to build global consortia around key themes and ideas, and taking forward opportunities for joint research, fundraising, fellowships, convening, teaching and learning, and more?

Looking forward

My understanding is that many of you are keen for closer engagement with IDS' ideas and strategies in ways that could enhance your own work and professional development. I think there are unrivalled opportunities to link these interests with the Institute’s strategic directions over the next few years. As we move towards a new IDS strategy post-2015 and as our 50th anniversary in 2016 approaches, I’d be delighted to work with as many of you as possible to build together a future development, and development studies, fit for current changing global times. 

Friday, 14 February 2014

Now that I have graduated

By Paola Velasco Herrejon, MA Gender and Development  2012-2013

I came to IDS looking for an answer to the following question: If 49% of the people of my country are in a situation of poverty and 67% (CONEVAL 2010 2010) are women, what is the situation of women in Mexico which is making them more vulnerable? 

At IDS I didn't find an answer, but multiple responses. 

To begin with, I learned to look at myself first and see the ways in which I am poor and 
dis-empowered. Then, I learned to identify situations in which I am in a position of power, and therefore reinforcing other´s condition of disadvantage. Later in the year, I started to understand that there is no black and white, good and bad, women and men, businesses and governments, but multiple grays, and encouraged myself to learn where those grays come from, why they have acquired that colour, and how their shade its constantly changing. 

Lastly, I understood that I cannot become a poverty fighter, we all have the power to empower ourselves and emancipate. Yet, I have the responsibility of understanding my own power and my pathways of empowerment so I don´t harm others in the way. Therefore, after being at IDS, and now that I have graduated, I choose my life to be an ongoing collective reflection about how not to judge, but listen, of how not to talk, but do. 

I am currently employed as the CSR area coordinator of a 74MW wind farm in Juchitán, México. I am now part of that world which I once despised because of being so unequal, but now I know that I was not only part of the problem, but that it is actually a excessively diverse and complex world which can be seen in various perspectives, and that I can largely decide where I am positioned. 

Friday, 7 February 2014

The Global Open Knowledge Hub: building a dream machine-readable world

by Radhika Menon

The word ‘open’ has long been bandied about in development circles. We have benefited in recent years from advocacy to increase open access to research articles, and open data shared by researchers or organisations. But open systems that enable websites to talk to each other (e.g. open application programming interface) have been a little harder to advance into greater use, simply because they are not built for non-technical users. 

The International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie)  recently joined eight other partners that are part of the new, DFID-funded and Institute of Development Studies led Global Open Knowledge Hub project to discuss several issues related to open systems. It was no surprise that all the partners spent quite a bit of time coming to their own understanding of an ‘open system’ and an ‘open hub’.

Put simply, the Global Open Knowledge Hub project will build an open system for sharing data between participating partners and with the wider world. As each of the participating partners offers knowledge services, there are thousands of research documents, articles and abstracts that are on our websites. To facilitate the sharing of these knowledge products, an open, web-based architecture will be built so that we can all just go to one place, i.e. the hub, and find high quality, diverse and relevant content on any chosen topic that is available from the partners.

To understand how the sharing works, step out of the human-readable world and step into the machine-readable world. If a machine can be programmed to search and read through the data, then the amount of data that can be processed starts to boggle the mind. The hub is a place where huge amounts of data in machine readable formats can be queried, accessed, used and combined with other data. If you are interested in climate change, one of the topics on which the hub project will focus, a huge amount of the research that exists on climate change, spread across continents, disciplines and sectors can be accessed in a matter of a few seconds. The sheer scale of it is awe inspiring. Think tons and tons of data, woven together in a kind of semantic web. This is what the web 3.0 world will look like.

All of this might sound like a grand vision. And as partners involved in pioneering work, we are aware that we need to get several things right for this vision to be realised:

Understand demand

As Edwards and Davies say in this paper, the current understanding of open data is primarily from the supply-side perspective. It’s not enough to just put out large quantities of data; we also need to get a better sense of the demand for the data. Who are our potential users? What kind of data would they need? What will they use it for? These are questions that need some serious investigation.

The IDS Knowledge Services Open Application Programming Interface is an example of a successful open system in the development sector. The Open Application Programming Interface (API) provides open access to tens of thousands of development research documents in its repository. According to Duncan Edwards, IT Innovations Manager at IDS, there is good demand for the IDS open API from both Northern and Southern development organisations.

But data has been accessed primarily via several applications - a mobile web application, regional document visualization application and a tag cloud generator. And these have been built to make the data accessible to non-technical users. So, we need more of this to happen to make the data in the hub more user-friendly and spur demand.

Get IT and content providers to work together 

These open systems are not made for the ‘non-techie’, average user. When I first looked at the Open API of a website, the programming language that came up on the screen did not make any sense to me. But there is clearly a lot that the system can throw up for generating useful content for those with the technical skills to use it. For this to happen, researchers and communicators would have to work alongside a technical team and play a more active role in the curation of data. This is the only way the potential of the system can be fully explored.

Map taxonomies

Research is often labeled according to the needs and interests of its user. So the same piece of research may be tagged as agriculture development, rural development or farmers.  In the machine-readable world, this becomes a crucial difference that prevents data on the same themes from linking to each other. The taxonomies we use to describe information change depending on the organisation, sector and country. 

So for the hub, we need a system for classifying data, which maps these different languages to ensure that data on the same theme and topic can find each other and hang together.

Work out branding, attribution, licensing and copyright

How open can we be about sharing content? When our content gets used in some way e.g. featured on another website, will credit be given to the knowledge producer? If the knowledge service involves the production of summaries and abstracts of research articles, then it would be important to clarify with the original research producer on how they license others to re-use their content (e.g. creative commons). 

Since research producers, knowledge service providers and funders often use web analytics as a metric for measuring success, organisations are often concerned that if their content is ‘open’, users may not ever visit their website. Thus they would be denied access to these important metrics. We need to therefore explore new ways of tracking how ‘open’ content is used beyond our own websites. Or we need to agree to share enough data so that users are directed to the originator’s website for full information.

The partners contributing to the Global Open Knowledge Hub are working through these issues. All the partners believe that development research has a crucial contribution to make to poverty reduction, but only if it is easily available and quickly accessible to users. So, what we are building together needs to become the prototype of what open systems should look like.

Radhika Menon is Senior Communication Officer at 3ie.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Ordinary Love

By Akansha Yadav, MA Development Studies 2012.

Last year, I hopped across continents, travelled for miles into the hinterlands of India, and discovered life sans any pretension. 

I constantly shifted gears going from one extreme to another and I can say with certainty it has been an incredible experience! 

I walked through the corridors of five star hotels in the national capital where big decisions and the future of BRICS was being decided, and lived in wage-seekers’ huts in the remote Telengana tribal belt of Andhra Pradesh; of having choices of cuisines and mineral water to finding myself without any access to potable water and electricity for days; of meeting elites with significant power and listening to their take on development to understanding how it has completely failed for those towards whom it is directed; of listening about people who are quoted as numbers as part of India’s growth story to actually meeting them and realising how we have completely failed them. And, still how they have completely left me in awe with their resilience and enterprising spirit.

It was exasperating in the beginning. 
Things appear black and white to us when we debate them on social media, where everybody talks to nobody and everybody is a ring side critic. Random opinions float on theories and perceived notions of development policies and politics. Of course, we all are entitled to our opinions, except we are not entitled to choose for others and decide what is best for them or how they should or should not be! But, for the countless millions living in the hinterlands, that is the reality.
Choices are made, decisions are taken and solutions are provided for them. 
Did they have a say in them? I doubt it. Were these projected as seminal best practices in national and international conferences? Yes. Has anything changed for them? No. I was left bewildered.

I decided to dig deeper, share meals and their lives: 
  • I realised it is easy to have opinions, it is way too difficult and overwhelming when one experiences them. 
  • I celebrated feminism and gender empowerment with women of Jehanabad village in Bihar, who managed whole work-sites and money by themselves, ensuring their girl child goes to school. 
  • I applauded innovative methods of teaching primary school children in Kanker village of Chattisgarh where teachers devoted special time to give wings to children’s imagination. 
  • I congratulated bureaucrats who worked tirelessly to ensure scrupulous implementation of policies that affect millions in Bastar village of Chattisgarh. 
  • I was humbled by the resilience of sex workers in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh who relentlessly pursued the ‘system’ to demand accountability for their basic citizenship rights.
  • I learnt from enterprising and meticulous ladies of Lohardaga village of Jharkhand working round the clock to develop sustainable livelihoods for their fellow villagers. 
  • I worked with aspirational youth of Peddemul village in Andhra Pradesh who are raring to push limits and actually be part of India’s growth story. 
  • I experienced camaraderie of hindus-muslims in Ghanpur Village of Warangal sharing coffee and conversations in the evening in their courtyard. 

Most of these villages are part of India’s red corridor or Naxal belt, and I was quite circumspect to venture into those terrains. It did not take me time to learn their codes and navigate, but what amazed me more was the progressive outlook of indigenous people, their customs, colourful life and celebrations, much more than I have experienced in metros like Delhi.
I wonder, when we all find happiness and purpose in similar things in lives, how does it become about us and them and who is better and more equipped to choose for the others. I am yet to find the answer. I am yet to understand why the usual discussions miss out on the fine balance of life here – on their resilience, love, aspirations and spirit of enterprise that I have come across. I have received countless invitations to come back and share more meals, tea and coffees and their lives. Here, life is without pretension and love is ordinary and overpowering. Come to think of it, they never really lived far from me. I just had to find them…
This blog was originally posted on Lives Some Live, written by Akansha.