Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Beep! Beep! BEEEEEP!

that’s all i have to say. because that’s all i hear all day. out of every window of every building at every hour of the day or night: Beep!Beep!Beep!

traffic here is...how shall i say?...interesting. honking is a way of life and the only form of communication between members on a shared road - in fact, people insist you blow your horn at them:

lights are suggestions, lane lines are mere decoration and anything that has wheels and some form of horsepower (literally) is a valid vehicle.

you think your morning commute is bad? check this out:

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reservations on preservation

This past Sunday, I had the rare pleasure of traveling to Agra and viewing one of the 7 wonders of the world: the Taj Mahal. While it was a breathtaking experience (seriously, I had a rapid-fire gasp reaction upon first sight), the uncontrollable crowds, the random graffiti and the putrid smell of urine wafting from odd corners got me wondering about a conversation we recently had here in the Delhi office. Over a shared meal, a group of us (including myself, another white lady, and a handful of locals), waxed philosophical about the sad state of monument preservation in India. The gist, to boil it down, was that having so many historical sites, and so many other pressing needs (economic development, health, environment, etc), what is a country like India to do with its monuments?

- Do you (wealthier, so-called developed country group) just come in and preserve it yourself, having the time, the money and the know-how?

- Do you instead invest in “capacity-building” of local preservation groups at the risk of erosion in the mean time?

- OR, is there a third, perhaps controversial, option where you let nature take its course, for better or for worse? (Meaning, is there really a point to preserving something if it can’t be naturally be preserved in its home environment? Could erosion or historical sites just be part of the natural evolutionary process of societies?)

Now, I won’t expound too much on my thesis – to be honest, I’m not sure what I believe – but I did see an interesting parallel in this discussion and one which I often have with myself or colleagues regarding development work. What responsibility does a wealthier, more experienced group of people have to assist those in a less stable position? And does this assistance in some way hinder (or even harm) those on the receiving end?

When you’re talking about monuments, which occupy a clear physical space and can easily be categorized in terms of developmental stages (e.g., $1 million = power-wash of all pee-pee), the thinking is somewhat simpler. But when you start talking about “humanitarian” assistance (e.g., improved health and welfare of mothers and their children, improved service delivery to needy populations, “systems strengthening”, etc), the picture suddenly becomes a whole lot more fuzzy.

I know, I know I know – somehow I get to talking about this sort of thing, every single time. But I can’t help it – it’s important, particularly in my current moment. And if you take the example of the monument as a paradigm, perhaps we in the development world haven’t fleshed out our own options:

- Do we come in, heavy-handed and with guns blazing, and take over the whole damn show?

- Do we patiently hand-hold and provide technical assistance, all the while watching progress move at a snail’s pace?

- Or do we just let things evolve as they may, and trust that in the absence of interference, the natural course will right itself?

The first option was exercised through many of the early development years – by peace corps and USAID, through all their invasive early measures – resulting in total rejection by those waving the “cultural competence” and “sustainability” banners. Who do we think we are, landing in foreign countries and asserting our own ideas of health and welfare without so much as conferring with local authorities? (in a way, the legacy of those days remains)

The second option is the train we’re currently riding, on which, if this project is to be an example, it takes nearly half the project’s 5-year life span just to get programs up and running (and even then we don’t have nearly enough information to be able to tell if we did anything of use anyway). By now, we’ve spent millions and billions and dollars on “development”, yet we haven’t the systems in place to even tell us if what we contributed amounts to anything more than what would have happened in our absence. (despite this, even I get a warm fuzzy feeling when I think about all the “good” we’re doing)

And the third option, as ghastly as it may seem, has been implied by more than one development (so-called) expert/article, which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts. Maybe the best option really is to rip off the floaties, throw the baby in the end and let it struggle until it finds its way. (think of all the natural political movements that aren’t happening because the mother [development aid] keeps the hungry baby [recipients] placated with a pacifier that soothes but doesn’t rectify anything.)

So what’s the answer? I don’t know – but if you’ve read this far, I’ve given you enough to think about, so the least I can do is reward you with a few snaps from my trip to Agra :)

Thanks for letting me vent!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

it's the little things

if by now you haven't noticed: i'm an observer. and though i've been here less than a week, i've spent a lot of time processing the new sights/sounds (read: when i travel i'm kind of a creepy loner who lurks in the shadows and stares). as such, i've noticed that in delhi there are a lot of things that are familiar, but stare long enough and little differences start to emerge.

for example:

  • we have bronzer; they have skin lightener

  • they have campaigns that tell you to hurry up and get to it; we have campaigns that advise us to slow down and relax

  • at work (at least at mine) they eat lunch around the table together, sharing food and stories; we sit in our cubes, dribbling overheated lean cuisine on the keyboard as we try to squeeze in just one more task

  • they have more beautiful temples/historical sites than they know what to do with; we erect velvet ropes and overkill signage around any piece of rock some old white guy crapped near

  • they have sidewalks (optional); we have sidewalks (mandatory)

  • we have big macs made with 100%(*cough*) beef; they have "mc aloo tikki", made of potatoes and peas

  • aside from a select sliver of society (celebrities and skanks), our women do their best to cover their mid-sections; their women let any and all belly hang out, no matter the occasion

  • mustaches were hip here before hipsters were even a twinkle in our collective cultural eye

(i'm sure the list will expand as i skulk about the country some more)

and while we may have our differences, there are a few things that are universal: everybody loves coke more than pepsi, shiny hair is better than dull hair and no one can resist some good bollywood choreography (no. one.)

inside the sleeping tiger


here i am, on adventure again! this time, it's india - delhi to be exact. i'm here on a 2-week assignment with my company's "vistaar project" (a multi-faceted health and nutrition program that i'll have to explain in a later posting).

at first, i didn't think i'd have enough time/news to share during so short a period. but, true to mine self, i've already dreamed up a host of topics, so brace yourselves :)

back soon!