A Billion People Lifted Out Of Poverty: Govindraj Ethiraj

A billion people have been lifted out of poverty in recent decades. It’s so large a figure that it actually sounds ‘abstract’.

This abstraction and inability to weigh or gauge the impact of hard data is in itself a challenge, across the spectrum. And that perhaps is one of the big challenges facing policy planners today.

There have been definite improvements in other areas too, globally and in India. For example, in 2000, one in five children in India was not enrolled in a primary school. Two decades later, enrolment has touched 97 percent.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) on the other hand says that only 25 percent of third grade students can read and understand a short story with a few simple sentences or subtract one two-digit number from another.

The challenge of conveying both sets of numbers or data points to the larger masses not just in India but across the developing world falls upon planners like Mark Suzman, who is Chief Strategy Officer & President for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

A former senior advisor at the United Nations and a Financial Times correspondent, his job is to define public policy for the Foundation.

And also grapple with the big challenge of how to convert data into knowledge, understanding and policy response, from government and involved citizen alike.

Suzman, 50, spoke to IndiaSpend founder Govindraj Ethiraj as the annual Goalkeepers 2018 Report was unveiled by Bill Gates and Melinda Gates in New York last month.

Lots of interesting facts in this report, 50 million people saved in the last 18 years by advances in medical science, a billion pulled out of poverty and yet some concerns..

Even though we have a sort of sobering message about the potential future, the first and most important development in the report goes to a question about perception and how absolute poverty has come down tremendously and in a completely unprecedented fashion over the last 20 years.

A billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, and that’s one of the examples that are so large that it becomes abstract.

India’s fond of throwing around its ability of being one of the few nations that have been able to do that. Essentially, the population of India--or close to it--have been lifted out of extreme poverty but only 1 percent of the people on the planet know that.

In India, a slight majority believes that poverty has gone down but almost nobody understands that it actually has, in terms of extreme poverty. So, the paradox for us as a data-driven foundation is that there are all these facts that show significant improvement.

Poverty is one indicator that you see in child mortality, health indicators, school enrollment and a number of indicators but perception is not and you can speculate a number of reasons for that.

One is aspirations. People compare themselves to their neighbours. In an increasingly connected world, there are neighbours not just next door but also neighbours in other countries. So you are conscious of what you don’t have, rather than what you do have in terms of extreme poverty.

Second is, data becomes abstract. Numbers don’t connect and it is challenging for a foundation that is rooted in numbers. But I think all you need to do is look at the domestic politics in United States today or otherwise, and you see that these are not bad numbers, it’s about emotional connections. How can you connect factual numbers to issues that people do have an emotional connection to?

You said only 1 percent of the world’s population knows about the billions that have been lifted out of poverty but why is it important that more people know about this? Policy makers are a few and if they’re enlightened then hopefully they’ll do the right thing, won’t they?

The single most important reason is that when you’re trying to persuade people to make the kind of investments we’re talking about such as in human capital, in education, healthcare or if you’re in a rich country talking about why they should do foreign aid, the biggest scepticism is saying: Isn’t poverty always with us?

What is the point of making all these investments if the poor are always going to be there or if the money is going to get stolen or corrupted or has no impact?

So we believe that unless people are persuaded that there has already been success and progress, they are hugely sceptical about making the investments in the future. So that’s why it is so critical to get people to understand how successful we have been because then it makes them much more likely to say: If we have had those stories so then we should take those actions to allow for the the last remaining people living in extreme poverty to see that same benefit in their lives.

You’ve written that political leaders prefer physical capital investments because it helps them get shorter, quickers returns. How do you create incentive to do otherwise--how do you create incentive for political leaders or those in power to make those long-term investments?

I think there are two broad ways: One is--you know, I take a generous view towards most politicians because I think most politicians try and get the work done because they do want to do the right thing for their people and often they just are not aware of it.

I often speak to finance ministers who just haven’t seen data about what investments in health can provide over a long term and how the investment in human capital or developing a workforce--because if you have undernutrition as a kid you’re never going to become a fully abled adult or fully participate in the workforce, unless you present that data, that’s one part where people say, “okay, I understand the connection, I understand why investing in human capital can be as important as investing in something else”. But that’s just one part of it because that’s a long cycle.

If you invest in an infant now, you’re only going to get a return 20 years from now when they become a productive member of the economy. That’s a big time lag and politicians do have to think about the next electoral cycle. The other part is that voters do care about issues like health and education. They just often don’t think of it as voting issues, talking specifically in a democratic context.

Everywhere in India, parents are willing to invest and will spend out of pocket money to try to get their kids into a school that they think might have a marginal improvement in their lives because they see education as a route out. But they don’t vote on education as a primary issue because they often don’t see that connection. So I think part of the challenge is if we can show that these are salient issues in the political discourse--because they actually do matter to families.

The biggest single cause of falling into poverty that one may have come out of is health crisis owing to unexpected, out-of-pocket expenditure because of a hospital stay or something like that.

This actually is a discussion that’s happening in India right now. If you can provide the tools, then that becomes an important part of the discussions. So those are two ways: One you want to make it relevant because people do care about investing in their children but you also want the factual arguments to show that the right kind of investments actually do produce those significant returns.

You’ve pointed out how data can be used at different points. One is by the people who are the users of the capital and put it to good use, and the people who are givers of capital to know why that capital is working, so my question is: How do you create that internal cycle of using data on a more continuous basis, particularly by young people. What are the kind of incentives one could create or is it more of a design challenge?

That’s absolutely a design challenge and something we’re experimenting with in multiple models. In fact, what you do in IndiaSpend, over time, is experiment with that thing: How do you use data and can you put it graphically in interesting ways. The current goalkeeper’s report, if you go look at the online version of it, one of the things we’ve tried this year is to make it more interactive. So there’s a question set about child mortality and you are asked to track your idea of the progress.

Works well on mobile phones as well..?

Yes! We deliberately did that so that you can do it with your fingers on the mobile and we found that is exactly the way for people to engage. You get engaged around the fact and become part of the discussion rather than fact just being poured down to you--something that young people resist. It is also part of the general backlash we have from rich and poor alike against the perceived, elite, top-down information.

It’s fundamentally about agency. As a young person, you’d want to feel a sense of agency, so you’d want to have data that they can engage with directly, see the utility and hopefully then they can become activists and advocates themselves, for their own lives and maybe for others as well.

In your polls, it shows that young people are engaged with these subjects but perhaps they are not receiving the data points or the information as they should be.

Yes, that’s true for all people, not just young people, but yes. Some ask questions about access to the data and the tools and about finding the ways to do this in a more engaging manner and some just ask: What do you do with it?

There’s often this disaffection and you’d hear some say, “Well I do care about these issues but there’s no point in engaging with the political when nothing’s going to happen or change”--whether it is voter turnout in the United States or disengagement in Kenya or India.

On the flip side, as Melinda Gates has referenced, when you do the youth poll we did, you see that in developing countries, like India, there is actually huge optimism both about their personal future (over 90 percent in India feel optimistic about their future) and also about the country’s future in the world’s trajectory. So you want to tap that optimism and provide some concrete ways to engage.

Should one be fighting with news cycle then to get your message across or working with it?

Both--depends on which news cycle you’re talking about. There’s a certain element of the news cycle which is around--we know the tragedies and disasters. There’s also certain element of gossip but those are natural and I don’t think there’s any point in fighting that. But what you can do is to try and provide interventions and insights in ways of engaging, that sort of fit or go with the grain of it and goalkeepers is very much an attempt around that--about providing information in useful, usable ways.

Another thing we’ve tried to do this year is combine data with the stories and actually have the stories written by people from different communities and countries. We found that when you can connect data to stories, it becomes more likely for people to engage and remember the issue. To be honest, it’s all an experiment. We fundamentally know that most previous attempts have not worked very well and that’s why we’re constantly looking for newer ways to engage people.

What else are you looking at in your plans ahead--in say, technology interventions, engaging advocacy? Anything radically different that you might try?

I don’t think it’s radically different but I think it’s trying to build on those things. So certainly one of the bits is--can you work the whole social media revolution. The social media does give much more autonomy to different types of people who were able to tell stories and become individuals that they weren’t before.

We can try and provide training and support for how you use those platforms, how you become a better public speaker. We do make a series of investments in those--and lots of people are from the developing world around that.

We are actively trying better ways to make data more usable and interactive and those are not meant to be proprietal for us but are in public interest.

The example of Hans Rosling is important as he was one of the great people dealing with data. Sweden is actually an anomaly when it comes to looking at countries which understand global poverty. It is the one country where a majority of people do actually understand the story and it’s almost certainly because their one very great storyteller was able to communicate that.

Obviously, social media has grown considerably but traditionally India is one place where print readership is actually going up, old-fashioned, but it’s in local languages and we’ve over-weighed English as a global language. We help provide content which is more locally accessible, whether it be print or radio, so we’re constantly experimenting.

Under the umbrella of health & financial inclusion for women, are there any new areas, new geographies that you would be looking at or new ways of doing something?

I don’t think new geographies but certainly provide potential support to something that the World Bank has called the global Findex, which tracks access to financial services and also does gender disaggregation in access to financial services. You can see the gap between male and female access to bank accounts and that’s highly highlighted when you look at mobile money with access to cellphones. It’s interesting because you do find geographic variations.

Southern Africa actually doesn’t have a big variation, East Africa has significant variation, India has more and Pakistan has even more and you can picture certain cultural anatomies around that. We are making a series of investments which build upon the previous ones we’ve done. For example, self help groups in India as vehicles. Traditionally, transactions are not undertaken digitally, old-fashioned again, where people make joint investments.

Can digital tools actually provide better access and security? Can we use these things for better security?

It is less gender-specific, but I’ll give you an example. It’s something we did in Kenya in which they transact using digital money. They were selling a little solar power light fixture which was quite expensive. So, they wanted to pay for it in installments--the experiment is which we put in a guarantee for. This is what we did--our assumption was if people were regularly paying their cell phone bill, that would be a good proxy for when they would do it in credit for buying the solar lamp.

So, we provided the guarantee to the manufacturer that if for some reason they weren’t doing their payments, we would make them do it. But it turns out that it actually worked quite well and we didn’t have to exercise the payment. Now, manufacturers and banks are willing to use the cell phone data as a proxy and often women tend to disproportionately use that.

Kenya has shown significant progress in poverty reduction among women and you see statistically significant access to digital money. But again this is strictly correlation and we’re not exactly sure about all the reasons but it’s statistically significant and we could show you that study, it’s really interesting. So we’re really trying to build on that saying that the minimum we know is that providing access to digital money helps alleviate poverty among women and if we can do that using self-help groups and other tools. Plus, we’re also trying to understand why because that would allow more targeted investment.

(Ethiraj is the founder of IndiaSpend.)

(This was first published on IndiaSpend and has been republished with permission.)

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