03 October 2014

Right now, I am sitting in a poorly lit conference hall in the central African nation of Burundi. A midwife is giving a presentation about a province of the country situated in the far east, and has outlined the following challenges in maternal care in the country:
  • Trained medical personnel
  • Medical supplies and facilities
  • Cultural awareness
  • Electricity
  • Religious biases
  • Means of transport
  • General infrastructure
  • Literacy
  • Available funds

So basically everything is a challenge. Finding a medical facility with electricity is nearly impossible, as is finding an actual medical facility. If you find a medical facility with electricity and a competent medical worker, you probably aren’t actually in Burundi.

Over the past year, as family and friends have read various drafts of The Paths of Marriage, one of the questions I have most often been asked is,

“How did you know how to depict poverty in 1950s India?”

One of the main reasons is a lifetime of wisdom, anecdotes, and often random musings of my real-life maternal grandmother, who really did grow up in abject poverty in 1950s Chennai. Her bits of information, however, didn’t make a complete picture. What did fill in the gaps of my understanding of poverty are scenes such as this one; scenes such as this serve the bitter reminders that poverty is both relative and all-consuming.

Before joining UNICEF, I worked for the UN World Food Programme, which is an agency based in Rome, which is a capital city of a country with crippling rates of unemployment. Indeed, many Italians I have met over the years have not lived in Italy for years, but rather moved elsewhere in Europe or to the States to find a place with better job prospects.

When I worked in Senegal in West Africa, most people I met also wanted to move to find better opportunity. Because France and Germany have stricter immigration policies, guess where many Senegalese decided to move to make their better life? Italy. In Uganda, most people I met dreamed of using their native English skills in the UK, Canada, or States.

The first conversation I had when landing in Burundi a month ago was with my taxi driver. As The Paths of Marriage is constantly one of the prominent topics on my mind, when I began to talk to the driver about his life, what he said struck me particularly hard.

“I am sending my kids where they have can a better life. They are going to West Africa or Uganda. They can’t stay here,” he said.

Here in Burundi, the lands of (accessible) opportunity are the same countries whose citizens hope to escape elsewhere. The poverty in Burundi is so severe that fellow impoverished African neighbors hold the perceived key to success.

Having never actually lived in poverty myself, I cannot claim to understand poverty at a personal level. What I do know from my work across the African continent and from my grandmother’s insights, what I depicted in The Paths of Marriage was the destruction poverty delivers on the individual. As the midwife explained, even if one element for success is present, all of the other needed elements may be lacking. Understandably, a natural desire of those living in such a fragile society is to leave, to find a place better for oneself and one’s family.

In Lakshmi’s case, even though she was able to get an education, her education did not mitigate gender inequality, violent crime, or a lack of sustainable work. Instead, Lakshmi found her way to the American state of West Virginia. Although impoverished compared to the rest of the United States, West Virginia had much more relative to where Lakshmi grew up. The very notion of moving to West Virginia or Uganda or Senegal to find a better life is ridiculous to many of us. But as scenes such as the one unfolding before my eyes reminds, whether we talk about West Virginia, India or Africa, poverty is both relative and destructive.

The Paths of Marriage is now available everywhere books are sold.

24 September 2014

The Paths of Marriage - Thoughts Ahead of the Release

Note this is a repost from The Paths of Marriage website. The novel will be available for purchase everywhere books are sold in paperback and eBook on 1 October 2014.

The writing process is complex and multifaceted. The creation of my debut novel, The Paths of Marriage, was no exception. While some of my most intimate thoughts are reflected in this book, determining how to weave my life reflections into a story that I wanted to resonate far beyond my immediate circle required more thought than any other project I had ever undertaken. Over the past year, as The Paths of Marriage’s visibility steadily became more pronounced, my identity as a person took on another layer: writer. Becoming a voice for an intersection of minorities, for a community that is still finding its anchor was something I could have never foreseen, but I now embrace the idea as a core part of who I am.

Guiding The Paths of Marriage to the point where it is, both as a piece of literature and as a tool of positive change, has taken years of hard work, arguably delusional aspirations, and an increasingly intense support from friends and family. With the sheer grit it took to push this work to a public limelight, I had naturally envisioned a large gamut of grandiose celebrations to mark day the book finally goes on sale. After all, my identity as a writer surely warrants highlighting such an important occasion.

Alas, on the day of the book launch, I will find myself in a place that necessitates a quiet celebration. I have resumed another facet in my identity – an international development practitioner. While I am grateful to once again put my skills under the employ of the United Nations to innovatively address some of the toughest obstacles to economic empowerment and fulfillment of human rights, the decision to do so came at the hard cost of being away from the place and the people that enabled me to write the important story that I did on the day the story becomes available to the public.

At present, I sit in a country that still considers some of the issues addressed in The Paths of Marriage as taboo. The reason for needing a quiet celebration goes beyond concerns of safety and comfort, however. I am in a context where my progressive writer identity is of little value to those around me. While I internally celebrate The Paths of Marriage, I will spend the book launch day working with my colleagues on how we can better prevent millions of infants dying before they reach the age of six weeks, and millions of pregnant women dying of treatable complications when giving birth. So much of the population around me is simply trying to survive. Important as the issues that The Paths of Marriage addresses are, my writer identity is not what is most needed in my current environment. Unfortunately, my writer identity and my international development identity cannot exist in the same harmony here as it can back home.

All three of the main characters of The Paths of Marriage face contradictions of their multiple identities. How can one live up to typical American expectations under the pretext of immigrant parents? How can one reconcile a loving, open same-sex relationship while contending with a homophobic parent? How can one be the woman to change India when India does not allow women to change?

I have to admit that it pains me to be away from home, from New York City on this momentous day in my writer’s identity. However, I know that ultimately my absence is a perfect testament to The Paths of Marriage. Today will not be an external celebration to remember, but it will be an internal homage to the struggle that each of the main characters of The Paths of Marriage face. And for that deep connection to my own writing, I am grateful to live the life I do, struggles and challenges and all. I hope you will join The Paths of Marriage and me in this complex process of understanding our identity.

The Paths of Marriage will be available for purchase in paperback and eBook everywhere books are sold on 1 October 2014.

21 September 2014

The Value Add in ICT4D

I work at the intersection of information technology and international development, or how ICT platforms and technologies can better existing development solutions. Including the work I did for my Masters thesis, I have approached these questions in or about 10+ countries across Africa, and in India. Each of these countries has an ICT ecosystem comprised of individuals, for-profit companies, the UN, NGOs and governments. The pervasiveness and strength of these ecosystems varies widely throughout the African continent. (India is arguably one of the most advanced ICT ecosystems in the world, though the level of sophistication of the ICT industry within the country is also massive).

Technology in the African continent presents an interesting opportunity and an often frustrating paradox. Unlike the Global North, most of sub-Saharan Africa has not and probably never will go through an industrial revolution, at least not in the sense of building physical infrastructure for use by the common person. Mobile technologies and even some PC-based technologies are thus a huge economic and social opportunity, as they can potentially connect large segments of people to global opportunities with relatively minimal physical infrastructure. Yet, some physical infrastructure is still required to make these opportunities realized. In many countries that have large coastlines and/or a large population, the ICT ecosystem is growing and strengthening everyday. Large telecom companies, such as Orange, Vodacom, and MTN are investing heavily in the next generation of mobile users in Senegal, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, and still others.

This investment is not, however, universally pervasive across the continent. I currently sit in one such country example, where extreme poverty, landlocked (i.e. not on an ocean coast) borders, a poorly educated and small population, and little existing infrastructure create huge disincentives for private sector investment. Further, much of the population in countries that do have a strong ICT ecosystem are not reached through technology, and in fact are crowded or priced out as the upper echelons of technology wealth grow in a non-inclusive way.

How we approach and use technology in our day-to-day lives in the Global North does not exist in the psyche of most Africans. If the average sub-Saharan African (not including South Africans) wants to find a place to eat, they don't use Yelp. If they want to contact a friend, they don't email. Because of a lack of competition or lack of access in many African markets, this "plugging in" to the banal tech world is not happening at the same pace as it is outside of the continent. Africans aren't nearly as likely to (or be able to) to turn to technology to find solutions to their problems, no matter what the level of complexity.

That, in my opinion, is where my work currently adds the most value. I love technology, I find it interesting, and I find ICT-based development solutions to be some of the most sustainable in the field. But, as the ICT4D field now stands, I don't think the platforms we build, the projects we conceive, or the partnerships we launch is what is really adding the most value to the African continent. I find the work incredibly interesting, and I do think some of the projects I have done will contribute greatly to a very specific problem on the continent. I don't, however, think any of my projects will completely reface the course of a large development problem, such as food insecurity or high infant mortality.

The direct impact of technology on development solutions does have the potential to revolutionize these problems. To reach that point, what I think needs to happen is simply this - more investment. Technological innovation demands iterative processes, and continued development. Solutions by and for Africans are no exception, but with the harsh realities of poverty, political instability, and limited opportunity, the waiting period to realize a profit in technology is not possible for most people. Until the average African individual can invest in themselves through higher education or entrepreneurial risk, a huge and important opportunity exists for the rest of the ICT ecosystem.

Until more money, more time, and more skills are invested to migrate away from a very piecewise ICT4D project world, my main value add rests in introducing a new way of thinking. Hopefully I will soon find my way to a world where the technology itself creates the most value.

28 May 2014

Why Diversity Initiatives are Important

One late night in the New York City United Nations World Food Programme office, I looked out of my window and stared straight down the Manhattan skyline at the new World Trade Center building in the distance. I needed to rest my eyes from the French presentation I was preparing that I would help make in Senegal to a room of West African government representatives. The presentation required a lot of fine details, as it was on the mechanics of a macro insurance mechanism that has the potential to revolutionize how food insecurity due to drought is managed on the African continent.

Over the previous year, I had made the startling realization that I actually found the principles of insurance and risk financing interesting. The realization was startling considering how concerted my efforts were in the latter half of my undergrad to avoid the business school from which I graduated with my Bachelor’s. Now there I was, actually relishing the details of what the financial model predicted, and of why countries could only insure a certain layer of risk, of why we needed a particular amount of money to capitalize the risk pool for its lifetime. There I was, actually enjoying the practice of insurance principles I had learned nearly a decade prior.

Until that day, I had always told myself that the reason I hated the idea of going into any kind of finance profession was because it had little to no relevance to poverty reduction, economic empowerment, human rights, gender equality, or simply making the world a better place. And indeed, much of the world of finance, insurance, marketing or other general business is not in place to make the world a better place by any of those measures. Much of the business world will continue to serve an abysmally low percentage of the world population – the few people of the world who can actually afford and use such services. That day, however, I realized the reason I hadn’t enjoyed the actual disciplines of finance, insurance or marketing wasn’t because the practice doesn’t do much to make the world a better place. I realized that day the reason I hadn’t enjoyed the actual disciplines was because of the environment in which I had learned.

By any modern measurable account, I went to a conservative university for my Bachelors degree.[1] Much of the student body watched Fox News without any sense of irony or disbelief – they watched Fox News as an actual news source. It wasn’t uncommon to hear a homophobic slur slipped into casual conversations. It wasn’t uncommon to witness a racial, religious, or falsely patriotic gesture on a weekly basis. And those were just the overt comments. As I mentioned in a previous post on racism, often the worst forms of discrimination are not explicitly expressed.

Sitting in my midtown Manhattan office, that night I finally understood the impact such a negative environment had had on me – a brown woman who is smart, intellectually curious, socially progressive, and abhors bigoted environments. I thought back to the many efforts I had made my first two years in undergrad to integrate myself in the business school – my attempts at joining the business school’s organizations, hanging out with fellow business school classmates, seeking out advice from professors*, or trying to start projects that applied what we learned in the classroom to an international context. I thought about how each of those attempts had been a spectacular failure.

For a long time, I thought these attempts were entirely due to my own shortcomings. Surely, as a young kid with no real business background, part of the reason these attempts failed was indeed because of my own shortcomings. But looking back at how I ran students organizations that did become a resounding success, I saw how I applied what I had learned in my business classes to real life. In the year that I ran our International Relations Organization (IRO), I had an ROI of nearly 300 percent, hosted statewide conferences, and spearheaded a microfinance trip to Togo (West Africa) that helped land me a place in grad school. So why did IRO thrive while my attempts at the business school failed? My guess? The environment.

The comparison between the students who populated IRO and the students who roamed the business school was stark. Certainly not every student fell into one category simply because of their IRO or business school affiliation, though it was plainly apparent that by and large, the socially progressive and open-minded cared more about the state of the world’s poor than they did about the stock market. Unsurprisingly, the progressive people tended to be a part of an organization such as IRO, not the “Young Investors Club of America.” Naturally, I gravitated towards an organization such as IRO for this very reason. And with that gravitation, I brought my business acumen, ability to lead, and most importantly – undying passion and hard work. Less than six months after I took over the organization, I was regularly invited to participate in meetings with university deans, senior administrators, professors, and even the university president. I needed the right environment to thrive.

Looking at the student profile of the university (at least while I was there), the average student was white, straight, Christian, didn’t travel abroad, and came from a middle class family. Those who were interested sought out different people, experiences and ideas. But the vast majority of the students either didn’t think to do so, didn’t know to do so, or didn’t care to do so. With few formal mechanisms to correct this imbalance in the business school, in the process, we were all cheated. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, being who I was effectively drove from participation with the business school because I never felt comfortable in that environment of relative close mindedness. And those in the business school were not exposed to even a sliver of what this incredibly diverse country and planet has to offer, and what that diversity means in more than a superficial context.[2]

The very principles of investing stress a diverse portfolio to achieve sustainability, robustness and growth. This very principle also applies to real life. This very principle is one of the main reasons why diversity initiatives are so important. The majority of the world is not white, Christian, and straight. When entire groups of people are cut out from a conversation, there is a lot of inherent value that is also cut out. It is illogical to create environments that are not welcoming to a diverse audience. In the long run, it is unproductive, inefficient, and detrimental.

When diversity is cut out from an environment, everyone is cheated. People like me take their ideas elsewhere and devote countless hours to another talent pool. Others are discouraged and never find a place for their talents. And those left behind are subject to a groupthink is laughable given the resources and demographics of the modern world. Diversity initiatives are important not only for those in the diversity categories, but for everyone. Diversity initiatives, by practice and definition, make for a stronger society.

[1] I knew this going in. I did everything I could to go to a progressive school elsewhere, though my parents would only pay for an in-state school, and the idea of leaving undergrad debt free was too good to pass up. Part of me constantly regrets the decision, though I fully acknowledge how lucky I am to have parents who were willing and able to pay for my education in the first place.

[2] One minority (in race, religion, or thought) casually placed throughout a pool of thousands of students is should not be relied upon as sufficient to change the environment. Minor attempts at diversity inclusion, one minority, should not be obligated to represent all minority thought.

17 February 2014

International Development - The Process versus the Theme

I'm very fortunate to have been born to parents that were both willing and able to pay for my education. However, as with most Indian parents, the payment of my undergraduate degree came with a few restrictions:

- It must be public and in-state (I'm from the US state of Virginia)
- You have to do science/pre-medicine or business

Growing up with many medical doctors in the family, I knew straightaway that I had neither the passion nor aptitude for many aspects of being a physician, so I chose business. The less-than-desirable atmosphere my university business school created for me as a minority woman* aside, I think I made the right choice. Business classes are about learning a process, and it was then that I realized the subjects that took the least effort on my part to do well (namely, math) was because I am a process-oriented person.

If one looks at any major UN agency, NGO or non-profit in international development, one can quickly see how jobs are organized - by theme. UNDP, for example, breaks their posts up in themes including democratic governance, poverty reduction, and environment and energy. The IRC, a major international NGO that supports refugees, has child protection, economic recovery and development, and governance and rights as a few of their themes. Within each theme, there are still further sub-divisions based on specific content. For example, the IRC includes livelihoods within economic recovery and development.

A Senior Technical Advisor for environmental policy within the UN could have a vastly varied skill set. As with one of my previous bosses, they could be an atmospheric physicist, or a lawyer, or a statistician, or simply a person with a lot of knowledge on environmental policy. Thus, without specializing in a specific theme, searching for international development jobs can be a nightmare, as the title of a post does not tell you much about the skills required.

Conversely, many private sectors jobs - especially in consulting - are much less theme focused. Certainly having a certain background or degree will play in to what clients a consultant secures; however, a strategy consultant can easily switch from advising a pharmaceutical company to an engineering firm, to a food and beverage conglomerate. These switches can easily happen every few years, because much of consulting is about the process, not being an expert in knowledge of a theme.

I knew by my senior year of university that my passion truly lied in international development; ironic to my process-orientation, I decided to make my career there. Having now narrowed my focus on ICT4D, which is the application of ICT-based solutions for international development, I swung back to a more process-oriented method. Technology development, deployment and implementation is very much about the process. In the past seven months, I have networked non-stop for my next long-term ICT4D job. I realize part of my lack of success is due to this process versus theme.

In international development, I have worked in disaster risk management; public health; nutrition; economic, social and cultural rights, and microfinance. Because I have not focused on one kind of theme, I appear as a generalist in international development. Because I have made my career in places that have not invested in me receiving specific certifications, such as PMP, Prince2, or Agile/Scrum, I appear under-certified to many private sector recruiters. I am caught in a limbo between the two worlds, despite having a wealth of experience and skill sets that easily demonstrate I can successfully take on a multitude of jobs.

Of course, there are process oriented companies in international development - namely private sector development firms. Though without an MBA and former management or strategy consulting experience, my application quickly gets lost in pile. As much as my work, as much work in the UN can focus on a process, the processes are not as known or as emphasized either internally and externally.

While I still have hope that ICT4D will become a more commonly known and appreciated niche in international development, the waiting game to secure relevant jobs is a struggle in an already highly competitive field. My advice to those looking to get into the international development career path is this: focus on a theme, develop a highly technical skill set (preferably quantitative in nature), and network like crazy. Things will change, but as with all things international development, that will not happen quickly.

* I plan on elaborating this point in a future post about why diversity initiatives actually matter.


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04 February 2014

The Lack of Progress Since The Shooting, The Virginia Tech Massacre

Over the last two weeks, a good friend of mine was in town from France. As it often goes, over a year without seeing each other meant that the life reflections we had were much deeper than with what usually comes in more frequent catch-ups. Zooming the life lens out means only things that are truly important are discussed. Being in the midst of promoting my upcoming novel, The Paths of Marriage, which is on a completely different set of subjects, the one single most impactful event of my life has been phased out of nearly every important conversation in the past few months. It wasn't until last Thursday did it dawn on me why I have barely written about this event, this event being what the media dubbed as "The Virginia Tech Massacre." 

For those of us who were there, we simply call it "the shooting".

If the Virginia Tech Massacre had happened in nearly any of the United States' fellow economically developed countries, a reference as generic as "the shooting" would be enough to distinguished the event. It is deeply unfortunate that America cannot claim that same statement. In America, we so often have a mass shooting in which random civilians die en masse that we actually need to title each shooting with a proper noun for it to be identified. I realized last Thursday that this is at the core of why I have found it so hard to write about the subject:  
In the almost seven years since the shooting, I feel nearly no progress on the issue.
Before I go any further, I would like qualify the above. There are some absolutely fantastic initiatives out there to better gun control, increase dialogue, and fight against the extreme lobby interests of the NRA. To name a few, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Demand Action Against Gun Violence are doing great work.

Rather, what I mean by the above is that in contrast to some of the issues I address in my upcoming book, the progress seen on gun control is a fraction of what it needs to be to both make a difference and to allow those directly impacted by shootings to freely speak their mind. As a minority and as an ally to causes that have been severely demonized in the past, I know how critical this can be.

When I was doing my bachelors degree at Virginia Tech, the issue of LGBT rights was still a largely taboo subject for much of the student body. In order to have a discussion on what LGBT rights actually means - practically, emotionally, economically, historically - one would first have to thoroughly vet out whether the person sitting on the other side of the conversation was an extremist. Otherwise, what should be a civil argument could quickly dissolve into batting away ridiculous, offensive, completely illogical statements about incest, polygamy, abomination, the apocalypse, whatever. 

It is exhausting constantly having to argue points that should not be points; it is exhausting constantly having to argue against people who are uninformed and biased, yet unyielding in their views. Over time, it can be destructive, as nothing is ever achieved, nothing really progresses despite so much time, energy and effort. Over the past seven years, that is how I have felt about the issue of gun control, about preventing future events like the Virginia Tech Massacre, and therefore about publicly reflecting on what happened. Fortunately, I have spent the majority of the time since the shooting in places where I feel comfortable talking about what happened, though attempts to speak beyond those borders are exhausting given the potential backlash.

I could enumerate the many arguments to better gun control across the country. I could even take it a step further and argue why I think the Constitutional argument is flawed. But I'm not going to. I'm not going to because every time I try, points that should not be points are somehow still points. The conversation is still so polarized that nothing short of another shooting changes opinions. Worse, even when people do shift in their opinions in support of gun control, lobbying groups and Congress metaphorically, and sometimes literally, hold voters hostage.

There are a number of aspects of the Virginia Tech Massacre about which I can write without delving into the highly contentious political arena. Indeed, I suppose this is as good a place as any to announce the shooting is the subject of my next planned novel. Still, as a constant contextualizer, as an intellectually curious person, as simply me, it is both painful and heartbreaking to know how little has changed since I laid the first flower bouquet of many over the memorial stones of the three friends I lost on April 16, 2007.