International development?

It has now been almost 9 months since I spent a brief period in Mumbai, India, working with 3 exceptional social enterprises. I work with several social ventures that look to grow and scale; my role is to help them to do so, be that through articulating their value proposition, helping forecast their financial position or measuring the impact they are creating, or in any other way.

One thing that has stuck with me is the cultural differences and the meaning of ‘international development’ and ‘developing economies’ particularly in relation to Indian ventures. On my first evening in Mumbai, I remember vividly a conversation I had with an employee at Grassroutes in which we discussed a developing economy, and the western world’s role in this. He immediately drew attention to my use of the phrase developing economy and asked me what I meant by this. I was referring to the economic growth and GDP. He agreed with me in terms of financial and economic development, but he highlighted the fact that GDP didn’t account for happiness and wellbeing. Indeed the difference between the UK and India seemed vast. Having never been to India before, I saw the levels of poverty and deprivation in the media and wasn’t sure how I would react when confronted directly with this. I spent time with a venture based in slums, and what struck me was that on the whole people seemed content, even happy. What defines happiness? In the west, too often it seems that this is based on material possessions, with people feeling a sense of entitlement, something which isn’t present in the mentality in India from what I could see. Instead people were happy as they were together and had a sense of community. I mentioned this to one International Development Student who claimed that this was just because these people ‘didn’t know any better’ and that they didn’t have access to the same resources. Personally I felt that this was incredibly short sighted. Who are we to say what is ‘better’? And I remember visiting one slum, and although there was 1 toilet to hundreds of people, everyone had a smartphone – a very good indication as to why technology companies see such potential in India.

This ‘not knowing any better’ view was firmly disproved to me during this conversation with the Grassroutes employee. He recounted a story of a small village in India in which the women had to walk for 10 miles a day to find fresh water. Based on our conditions and standard of life in the west, we saw this as a terrible situation to be in (of course there are several problems with this from a hygiene perspective). Funds were raised and a fresh water well was built in this village. Women no longer had to walk 10 miles to fetch fresh water, instead they had it, literally, on tap. However, what wasn’t accounted for was the cultural effect this would have. The level of suicides among women increased in this village. Given the cultural situation in this particular village, women weren’t able to actively travel without purpose. This meant that they lost the 10 mile walk during which they would meet friends and speak. Instead they were now socially isolated within their homes for several hours a day, which was seen to be the reason for the increased suicides.

One venture I work with is run by someone of Indian decent. The concept was to get people to eat more healthy food as a family. Although after research and piloting, they found that there wasn’t a market due to pretty significant cultural differences – the UK has very different social eating habits. As a result they had to completely re-evaluate their proposition and pivot.

The purpose of this post isn’t to criticise behaviour or attitudes, but more to highlight differences and the need for an open mind. Simply because we live in the western world and see ourselves as more developed, doesn’t mean that we need to enforce that upon others.

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