India is rapidly urbanizing but some cities are growing faster than others.

India is in a phase of rapid urbanization. The overall level of urbanization (percentage of population living in urban settlements) in India increased from 27. 8% in 2001 census to 31.2% in 2011 census. A big component of the growth in India’s urban population in 2001-2011 was due to what is known as in-situ urbanization where existing rural settlements are reclassified as ‘urban’ due to changes in the settlement’s employment structure (i.e., 75% or more of working age males in non-agricultural employment). But, on the other end of the spectrum, larger urban agglomerations are also growing. I share below some plots showing the growth trajectories of some of major urban agglomerations (UAs) between 1950 and 2010 based on data on UAs with population over 300,000 published by the United Nations Population Division.


We see that the lines representing the growth trajectories of different cities intersect at several points. Clearly some cities have grown faster than others in certain periods Lets have a closer look by making a more focused comparisons between the urban agglomerations with comparable population sizes.


In 1950, Delhi had a population very close to that of Madras (now Chennai). But the urban agglomeration of Delhi is now the largest urban agglomeration in India and is the second largest in the world (after Tokyo). Calcutta (now Kolkata) used to be the largest city in India in 1950 but its population growth rate has been in relative decline in recent decades.


Surat had a population of about 233,000 in 1950, only about a third of that of Kanpur. In 2010, Surat grew to be a city of 4.4 million compared to Kanpur’s 2.9 million. (The 1994 pneumonic plague epidemic in Surat did not affect its growth and the massive clean-up of the city perhaps contributed to its further acceleration of its growth.)


Bangalore, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad had been growing at similar rates till about 1980. After that, Bangalore and Hyderabad picked up pace leaving Ahmedabad somewhat behind.


Patna and Coimbatore have grown in fits and starts over the years. Raipur’s growth has picked up since becoming a state capital in 2000 but it still is a considerably smaller city compared to Bhopal, given that both Raipur and Bhopal had about similar population in 1950.

Below, I plot the 2010 population of all the million-plus cities in India.


The above graph has 49 cities. Now if we look at the top 49 cities based on population in 1980, you can see which cities moved up the population ranking and which ones dropped in the ranking.


It might look like the smaller cities are growing at a faster rate. Below is a scatter plot showing the relationship between population growth rate (2000-2010) and population in 2000. The blue line is the best fit linear model and the red line is best fit curved line.



We can see that the relationship between population size and population growth rate is not quite as simple as a linear relationship. For the sake of comparison, if we plot the same scatter plot for Chinese cities, we find a very similar pattern.


Economic growth rates at the state level seems to explain some of the differences in the population growth rates of these major urban centers. Surat, Pune and Ahmedabad are now the new manufacturing centers while the older manufacturing centers like Kanpur and Kolkata are in relative decline. Among the three largest metropolitan centers in India, only Delhi continues to see accelerated growth while Mumbai and Kolkata are already facing diseconomies of scale.



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The Future of Internationalization in Dutch Higher Education

Below is a guest column I wrote that appeared in the February 2013 issue of The International Correspondent, a journal published from the Netherlands. This draws from my experience working in two Dutch universities and a longer association with universities in the United States. Reader’s comments are welcome.

The Future of Internationalization in Dutch Higher Education

According to a report published by the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education (NUFFIC) last year, the number of international students studying at Dutch universities has grown steadily over the past five years. The number of German students, who make up nearly half of the 56,000 or so international students on Dutch campuses, are growing, as are those from other big-sending countries – China, Belgium, Bulgaria, Greece, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

But will the growing internationalization of the student body on Dutch campuses continue in the medium and longer term? Also, will they have the intended benefits for the universities or for the Dutch society and economy?

A number of factors will affect this trend.  For one, the number of students enrolling in massively open online courses (MOOCs) has grown very rapidly in the past year. Top research universities, primarily in the U.S., have joined one consortia or another in offering their courses to hundreds of thousands of students from around the world for free. Although the business models surrounding the current MOOCs initiatives remain undeveloped, the rising cost of higher education and cuts in public funding to universities worldwide  mean that innovations such as MOOCs are here to stay. Over the longer term, they will shake up the league tables in higher education – perhaps making a number of higher education institutions redundant. This could also trigger the collapse of the current model of university research being subsidized by student tuitions, and a possible disaggregation of the learning/teaching component from the credentialing of students for employment. Dutch universities will not remain unaffected by these changes.

Second, demographic shifts in other countries will affect international student numbers in the Netherlands. Europe, the source of 60% of the international students in the Netherlands, is aging. Chinese students make up nearly a quarter of the non-European international students at Dutch universities. But China’s one-child policy will also result in a sharp drop in the number of college-aged students in the coming years.

Moreover, the Netherlands does not systematically assess the academic quality of its international students. Rising international student enrolment does not necessarily enrich the campus learning environments or add to the talent pool feeding the local economy. With cuts in public funding, universities in the Netherlands will likely attract international students hoping to secure more tuition money, instead of their potential to excel. Such short-termism would greatly harm their future brand value.

These trends offer clues to the way forward for Dutch universities. Dutch universities will succeed if they adapt themselves to changes brought on by the proliferation of MOOCs instead of resisting or ignoring them. They can start by joining one of the global consortia offering MOOCs, innovating in the MOOCs credentialing, and somehow integrating MOOCs into their degree programs. They will also have to reduce dependency on tuition fees to meet their expenditure needs.

For Dutch universities, another key to sustaining future internationalisation and diversity is attracting students from regions of the world with more favourable demographic trends than Europe’s and China’s, including Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Exploring partnerships with universities in these regions would be a good place to start.

Last but certainly not least, Dutch universities must create admissions criteria based on a student’s intellectual contributions to the campus’ learning environment and its diversity–not merely on how much she/he can pay. International students and scholars should not be seen merely within a mercantilist context, one in which the Dutch export educational services, but rather in a context of global competition. The goal of the latter is to attract and retain top talent from around the world and requires focusing heavily on attracting international talent in research and knowledge creation instead of merely attracting self-paying international students looking for affordable higher education.


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Monitoring Security of Tenure in Cities

I was asked to review and comment on the recently published UN-Habitat report “Monitoring Security of Tenure in Cities: People, Land and Policies“. I wanted to share my unedited comments here in case the readers of this blog have suggestions of their own.


An underlying assumption of this publication (and of UN-Habitat in general)  is that more Security of Tenure (ST) is in itself a good thing. And that’s also the view of the Millenium Declaration/UN General Assembly. I am sure there is a strong argument for the normative position that UNHabitat/UN General Assembly takes on ST; I am just not fully aware of it. While I personally enjoy having tenure security for my own dwelling, I don’t think I fully understand the arguments that support the conclusion that greater tenure security is in the best interest of all or whether it leads to greater good for the society. My reasons for my doubt are as follows.

I have been following some of the political debates about education reform here in the US. Many are critiquing the idea of giving tenure to school teachers as some evidence seems to suggest that those states that have gotten rid of tenures for teachers have improved student performance in standardized tests. There are a growing number of nonprofit organizations in the US that are campaigning to put the interest of the students above the interest of the tenured teachers and their unions. While in the case of getting rid of job tenures for school teachers, there are clear winners (students, young teachers) and losers (tenured teachers), I have been thinking if there are groups who would be disadvantaged if security of tenure for dwellings in cities across the world are strengthened. For instance, what happens to the new-comers in the city? Does tenure security unfairly privilege existing city dwellers and property speculators, who have already occupied the best locations available in the city, at the expense of newcomers or future migrants? How is the idea of promotion of ST different from conventional ideas of rule of law and protection of private property rights? The idea of rights is encompassed within the broader idea of justice. Doesn’t focussing too much on rights ignore other aspects of justice that are equally important. Laws are not given by god. They are man-made laws and they serve the interest of some more than others. Also laws are applied differently to different people.

What I mean is this: Looking at security of tenure (ST) strictly from the “rights” perspective leads us to believe that a person should be protected against forced eviction only if she/he has a legal claim to the land. (The emphasis on availability of some kind of documentation to prove how one has acquired the land, in constructing a measure of ST, reflects this view. One obvious benefit of this emphasis on documentation is that it allows for a creation of a market for dwellings that can be traded and therefore encourage new housing development in the lower end of the housing market.) But looking at ST from the point of view of justice, a person might be viewed to have a certain claim on a piece of land irrespective of her legal use rights to that land, if she can prove that her very survival (e.g. pregnant women, families with infants, those depending for their livelihood on that land etc.) depends on access to that land and that she will not be threatening others’ survival by using that land. In some countries, courts will intervene if a landlord tries to evict a pregnant woman for defaulting on her monthly rent, for example. This view is based on principles that go beyond protection of private property rights.

Below are some more specific comments:

– Question about security of tenure for dwelling or for land (Box 3.1 Page 11)…there is significant difference between the two and using one as a proxy for other might be problematic. In the urban context, where most of the value of a housing unit is primarily attributable to the value of the land on which it sits, the issue of tenure is more important for land than for the dwelling. In a situation where the survey respondent is a tenant paying rent to a local slumlord who might have illegally occupied the land, the resident might report having a rental contract with the slumlord but that contract is not legally enforceable if the legal owner of the land chooses to evict the tenants and bulldoze any structure on it. In this case, will the respondent not be wrongly classified as having a relatively secure tenure when the question is framed in the context of dwelling instead of the land?

– The cost of collecting data on ST seems to be an important issue throughout the report. The reasons the report identifies for why the cost of collecting information on ST is so high are as follows:

1) requires special training for interviewers as the concept of ST is new and somewhat technical for both interviewers and respondents to understand.
The report already identifies the need for UN-Habitat to have a handbook or a manual that can be used to train interviewers. Perhaps UN-Habitat can think of developing short (half hour or so) online course (generic to all countries) and making it available for free to anyone. Country census bureaus or DHS or MICS country teams can then add a module to this generic version of the course to accommodate country-specific categories or definitions and use that to train themselves. The idea is to keep marginal cost of training one additional interviewer close to zero I guess.

2) there are less incentives for local levels to collect this type of info at their level and aggregate the numbers through each subsequent higher levels of government.
The mandate of the Millenium Declaration to monitor ST at the global level is one thing and the use of that information at the local level is quite another thing. It is very possible that there will be resistance from local elites to collecting information on land rights especially where land is concentrated in the hands of a few local elites. In such cases authorities may not want to know the extent of tenure insecurity as it can open a can of worms. Therefore putting this subject in the local political agenda is important. Are there ways to make it more attractive for the local communities / neighborhoods / townships / cities / districts / provinces / countries to assemble this information  on their own in a standardized internationally comparable way? What do they gain from sharing this information? Are there reasons to believe they would over- or under-report the extent of tenure insecurity in their jurisdiction? For example, what was the motivation of the mayor of Aleppo to negotiate with the National Statistical Office to add a module that got more information on security of tenure in the census questionnaire? Can that motivation be replicated elsewhere?

Instead of (or in addition to) lobbying the UN Working Group on Population Censuses, are there local advocacy groups/NGOS who can push this as part of their local or national agenda (perhaps NGO partners of COHRE, ACHR etc.)? How about crowdsourcing (modelled on Wikis) parts of LIFI or the settlement level assessments? UNHabitat can partner with Google Maps or – their philanthropic arm perhaps. They have done some work with WHO for monitoring spread of diseases etc. Google has partnered with UNHabitat before. Another option is to explore ways to tap into the IBM Smarter Cities expertise to see if they have something to offer. They are into use of big data in public decision-making at the city level.

3) A big share of expense goes towards international consultants. (Even local consultants charge internationally fixed prices.)
The report already identified opportunities to partner with selected universities and research institutes. Wage arbitration opportunities exist in many countries where consultants earn a lot and university professors do not earn enough but are equally capable of undertaking high quality data collection (sometimes making use of their students as part of such projects). If the mode of selecting consultants/teams for data collection is altered to make it look more like a competitive research grant application, more bang for less buck can be achieved. Of course the review and scoring of such grant applications will cost some money but I would still think it would be more cost-effective. More broadly speaking, there is a need to think of innovations in the procurement process for data collection services to bring down some of the cost.

– IAEG’s advice ten years ago to limit the reporting of Target 11 to the first four parameters (i.e. excluding the Security of Tenure parameter) meant that there was a possibility of underestimating the number of slum dwellers in the world. Do we know what percentage of households surveyed in Sao Paulo UIS can be classified as a slum household due to falling short on only the Secure Tenure parameter (i.e., those households that otherwise have access to water, sanitation, sufficient living space and durable housing but only lacking secure tenure)? That would tell us the extent of underestimation of number of slum dwellers in Sao Paulo using our 2002-2003 method (i.e. without taking into account the ST parameter). This report mentions that many of those with insecure tenure in Sao Paulo actually live in non-slum areas, possibly in the tenements. Not clear to me if these tenements would be classified as slums based on the other four parameters in the definition of slums. If not, we might have significantly underestimated the number of slum dwellers (approx 900+ million worldwide based on the 2003 UNHabitat report).

– For any policy or institutional framework there are usually a group of winners and a group of losers. Usually there are ways to tax the winners and compensate the losers in such a way that Pareto optimality is achieved. It might be an idea to incorporate questions in LIFI that explicitly tries to identify possible “losers” in the policy towards promotion of ST and how they are being compensated. Some ideas that comes to mind are: How do new migrants / future generations of current residents access land/housing in the city? Is it through some form of land redistribution where older residents share their land with new arrivals? Or is new land brought into the city system through investments to extend public transportation and other infrastructure? Are there penalties for land speculators that prevent them from keeping their property unused or underutilized? If rent control is used to protect tenants from greedy landlords, do such controls make it harder to attract private investments in new housing needed to accommodate increasing population thereby pushing new arrivals to insecure tenures? Again, these are questions, I don’t yet have answers for but might be something to think about.

– Table 5.1, page 35: Not sure how rights to sell or inherit dwellings/land is related to the idea of Secure Tenure. If the rights to sell or inherit (or perceptions of such rights) mean a greater security of tenure, then renters with formal contracts would lack such rights and would therefore be considered insecure. No?

– Table 4.2, page 17: Indicator #1 deals with “documents as evidence of legality or legitimacy for access to land rights”. Is the idea of documentation strictly defined in terms of a piece of paper (a lease contract, a sales receipt, or a land title etc.)? Would verbal commitment or testimonies of neighbors count as documentation? In some societies, a paper document can be forged and might be considered a less reliable proof of a land rights claim when compared to verbal agreements. The local expert group making the classification between “secure” vs. “insecure” (table 4.3, page 18) must be mindful of this.

– Table 4.3, page 18: Among the possible documentation for owners, the ones that are listed in this table are issued by either a governmental agency (land registry, local property tax office etc.) or quasi-governmental agency (public utility companies etc.). The assumption is perhaps that an agent outside of the community is best positioned to confer rights to individual members of the community. But sometimes communities can grant permission to individual households who are members of that community to use a certain plot of land for certain purpose. And if the community is large and cohesive enough, such community-granted permissions can sometimes provides more security of tenure to individual households than any government issued certificate. (I am thinking of Elinor Ostrom’s community-managed common pool resources within an urban context.)

– The Sao Paulo case study is very interesting. I am not sure why it was decided that the experts assigning scores for the LIFI indicators had to reach a consensus score. Why not let them individually come up with their own scoring which can then be aggregated (perhaps by way of reporting the mean or the median score for each indicator)? I think in the LIFI process in Sao Paulo, it would be good to see the distribution of scores for each indicator. (Same for Nairobi LIFI.) The LIFI indicators that received scores with widest spread should then be reviewed with the purpose of exploring why different experts gave scores so different from one another. It might have to do with the definition of the particular indicator but it might also have to do with different interests and roles of different stakeholders in the city to under- or over-report.

– Page 51: Why is the eviction anxiety of renters more than mortgage holders? If renters fear defaulting, why don’t mortgage holders fear defaulting? Are foreclosures not common based on their bankruptcy laws? Also, the distinction between “forced eviction” and a landlord’s demand that dwelling be evacuated is only in their legality and use of violence. In terms of their adverse effect on the household, both processes create similar insecurity due to the uncertainty of finding an alternate housing at a short notice (especially those with children or for elderly people).

– Page 54, last paragraph: Even in places where markets are well-developed, free-market system is usually coupled with protection against eviction due to market forces for vulnerable populations, e.g. pregnant women, single mothers, families with children, elderly and handicapped residents etc.

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Slum Children’s Capacity to Aspire – Policy Lessons

In my previous post, I presented my initial thoughts after reading Katherine Boo’s recent book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”. I have maintained an active academic and professional interest in public interventions related to urban poverty and slums in cities of the South ever since my undergraduate days in India. Katherine Boo’s book was therefore more than of mere sentimental value to me. I found it a rich source of information on a number of policy arenas – corruption, urban poverty, urban land and labor markets, electoral politics, education, public health, policing, slum resettlement, rural-to-urban migration – just to name a few. Let us take the issue of corruption as an example.

The book describes several instances of corruption in different forms. The most common forms are abuse of power (policemen, doctors in public hospitals, loan officers of banks etc. soliciting bribes in return for favors) or in misuse of public resources (government transfers for education, donations to orphanages etc.). The author describes public offices as markets where favors are sold for a price and to the highest bidder. But the book also describes some more nuanced forms of corruption – for instance, how a shrewd resident of Annawadi – Asha, without any official title, has made a career in mediating conflicts among her neighbors or mediating exchanges between the residents of Annawadi and the state apparatus (the police, banks, schools, elected politicians), all for a fee.

One blog post by Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations, for instance, draws policy lessons from the description of corruption in the book by suggesting removing the middlemen who are currently acting as gatekeepers of charity or subsidies for the poor and instead directly giving cash to the poor.

But singling out residents’ financial condition as THE cause of their misery misses the intricate web of causes that Katherine Boo so remarkably manages to document. If all else remains the same, direct cash transfers might not necessarily improve the lives of the residents but will increase the price of goods and services they consume (including bribes at public institutions such as the police or the public hospitals). Corruption will be shifted to those agencies who determine eligibility for recipients of such cash transfers. Moreover, cash transfers do not address within-household differences in opportunities – between men and women, between children and adults and between adults and elderly. People have different capabilities. Abdul was capable of making money despite police harassment, lack of education and religious and regional bigotry of the local politics because of his diligence, supportive family members and ability to stay out of trouble. The same was not possible for the family of the 15 year old girl, Meena who commits suicide by consuming rat poison in a state of hopelessness. So putting “x” amount of cash in the hands of Abdul is going to yield much more than giving the same amount of cash to Meena. The problems of injustice presented by the author need more profound norm shifts in the society in general, usually not achieved by mere charity (and in some cases aggravated by charity).

Instead of trying to think of specific policy instruments, I want to highlight two very broad observations that can inform public interventions on urban poverty:

1) Things that seem to be working despite the bleak picture

Among the descriptions of hardships and vulnerabilities in Annawadi, I was struck by somewhat hopeful depiction of two government institutions that have potential to have a slow but positive effect on improving the lives of slum residents. First, the one institutional pillar that seems to still enjoy sufficient trust of the people of the undercity is the judiciary. The courts are presented in somewhat better light than the other public institutions – the police, public hospital, orphanages, schools, public works, electoral politics etc. Even though the judicial process in India is extremely slow, judges generally are perceived as honest. The book’s depiction of the courts suggest that the poor in India generally trust them to deliver justice (i.e., when you are able to afford a lawyer and not depend on the public defender or the public prosecutor).

And the second is the effectiveness of the Right to Information (RTI) Act that allowed the author to gather the information that was needed to make the book so compelling. The gap between the version of events that get recorded in official documents (testimonies recorded by the police, causes of death recorded by mortuaries etc.) and the version reported by the poor is where much of the policy challenges lie. Of course the RTI Act on its own is useless unless it is cleverly used by journalists and researchers to document this gap between the two versions. But before the RTI Act, this gap was conveniently hidden and there was no official recognition of the problem. The hope is that with more scrutiny (such as this book) public services like healthcare, education, public security etc. will eventually become more accountable and less corrupt in the future. This also has the potential to gradually force broader societal norm shifts to occur that are necessary for any meaningful change to happen.

2) Lack of collective action

The book does not dwell on the vast inequality in income among those in the overcity and those in the undercityas a primary cause of the miseries of Annawadi residents. In fact, in many instances in the book, those causing harm to these poor residents of Annawadi are their own neighbors. It describes an uncertain sense of community in Annawadi where people competed with one another more than they cooperated in finding solutions to their common problems. The author does describe the privatization of grievances and lack of collective action as follows.

Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else? Wealthy citizens accused the slumdwellers of making the city filthy and unlivable, even as an oversupply of human capital kept the wages of their maids and chauffeurs low. Slumdwellers complained about the obstacles the rich and powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbors. But in the twenty-first-century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity, and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatized, like so much else in Mumbai. This development increased the demand for canny mediators – human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world’s largest cities. (Page 20)

How do you deal with this? Is it the poverty that causes the vulnerability that in turn causes the cut-throat competition to survive? I am not very sure of this causal chain. But increasing trust among neighbors might allow for collective action among the residents to address some of their common challenges (negotiating better resettlement deal when Annawadi is bulldozed, for instance). Savings groups among women slumdwellers in other parts of Mumbai (organized under what is know as the Mumbai Alliance) have managed to build trust within small groups of neighbors using the savings as the glue that binds them. It is possible to improve collective efficacy in the slums if trust among people can be nurtured through innovations like these.

Policy interventions are often expected to yield results in a couple of years. But it needs to be realized that the norm shifts that are needed to ultimately absorb and integrate the undercity will take several decades. Absence of role models in the community also presents itself in the book. But not everyone in the slum has not lost hope and some are willing to commit to a set of rules that have longer term pay-offs. Abdul decides not to buy stolen goods for recycling and Manju runs her school in the slum with a greater sense of duty and purpose than her mother who receives government funds for the school but does not devote time to teach. Policies to recognize such individuals within the community and rewarding them can help create positive role models among the residents.

[On June 15 2012, Bill Gates posted Katherine Boo’s responses to his questions from on his site:   ]

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Slum Children’s Capacity to Aspire

I just finished reading Katherine Boo’s recent nonfiction “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” in three long sittings. I must say that the book deserves the hype that it has generated through some very good reviews. When I placed a hold request for the book through the local public library, I was number 121 in the list of people who had placed a hold on this book, an indication of the interest that the book has generated in Portland alone. I often order recent bestsellers through the library but had never encountered such long waiting list before.

The book provides what anthropologist Clifford Geertz would call a thick description of everyday life of a handful of residents in a slum community called Annawadi close to the international terminal of Mumbai airport. Some of the events in the book are depressing, sometimes shocking; those were the times I wished the book wasn’t a nonfiction. Children being bitten by rats while sleeping alongside garbage are common occurrences in this slum. It describes five unnatural deaths in a very short span of time, some of them young children. And these were not some anonymous statistics mentioned in passing, but they are people that the author had come to know fairly well during her time in the slum; she has described their life, their ambitions, their hopes in great detail. So I can imagine the emotional toll on the author in writing this book.

I can also appreciate the challenge for Katherine Boo to remain “invisible” while observing what she observes. As a foreigner, her presence would have invariably had an effect on the behavior of her subjects. For instance, as a foreign journalist, she would be perceived to have enormous power compared to her hapless subjects who would consider their association with her as a defense against police and other harassments. She would therefore had to take extra effort to triangulate different sources to arrive at a particular version of interpretation than had the researcher been someone who could blend in.  But I also think there are obvious advantages of being an outsider in conducting such a research – a clear untainted pair of eyes, not numbed by the sheer prevalence of injustice and deprivation that most Indians have come to assume as the norm rather than an abnormality.

The book does not present too many numbers in the form of summary statistics. But it does offer important insight into prices, incomes, bribes, life expectancy, family sizes, floor space, levels of security of land tenure etc. in Annawadi through some of the lived experiences of its residents. An example of the numbers that the book offers was that of Sunil, a 13-year old garbage scavenger living on fifteen rupees (about 30 cents)  a day and also supporting his younger sister. Compare that to thirty two rupees a day per person that the Indian Planning Commission intends to use as the official poverty line in urban India. The descriptions of the vulnerabilities, hopes, self-pride and the capacity to aspire (in Arjun Appadurai’s words) of people so far below even India’s ridiculously low poverty line should be an essential reading for those in policy circles interested in issues of poverty globally.

One concern I have about the book is with the issue of privacy and anonymity. The author uses real names throughout the book. The book greatly benefits from this making it a serious work of journalistic documentation. But concerns relating to privacy among researchers and ethnographers dealing with human subjects are real and pertinent. I wonder how she handled this delicate issue and whether her subjects fully understood the implications of sharing intimate details with her and if she asked for permission to be identified in the book when sensitive issues like theft, corruption and extramarital relations were discussed.

I intend to write a follow-up post with some lessons that can be drawn from the book for the policy types. Those interested should watch this space.

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A new book on Internet Governance

I just finished reading the book “Consent of the Networked” by Rebecca MacKinnon. I have followed Rebecca on Twitter for more than a year and find her extremely articulate about issues surrounding governance of the Internet including its openness, net neutrality, online privacy, and online censorship.

Below is what Wikipedia has to say about her:

Rebecca MacKinnon is a former CNN journalist who headed the CNN bureaus in Beijing and later in Tokyo, before leaving television to become a blogger and co-founder of Global Voices Online. She is on the Board of Directors of the Global Network Initiative and the Committee to Protect Journalists, and is currently with the New America Foundation as a Bernard L. Schwartz fellow.

I am not going to get into a lengthy review of this book. Much of the book highlights the growing danger of allowing nation states (not just authoritarian states but also Western liberal democratic states) and private corporations control the architecture and governance of the Internet on behalf of a transnational user-base who call themselves netizens. The book warns that a convergence of unchecked government actions and unaccountable company practices threatens the future of democracy and human rights around the world.

The recommendations in the book go beyond setting up alternate nonprofit networks, web services, and content to counter the control that private corporations currently exercise. It in fact very convincingly presents the limitations of setting up an alternate network with its own infrastructure and content. (Imagine setting up a Wikipedia-like not-for-profit social networking tool to counter corporate-controlled services like Facebook and Twitter.) The for-profit sector will continue to deliver useful goods and services that people will need and use and will boycotting of their products in number large enough to make a difference is neither feasible nor wise. It argues instead for greater netizen activism to pressure governments and private corporations to instill better behavior among them to ensure privacy, net neutrality and prevent arbitrary censorship not just in one country but throughout the world. The inspiration for many of these ideas seem to come from the civil society activism around corporate social responsibility.

It was a good read; highly recommended.

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Higher Education Trends – some quick thoughts.

The background of this post were three recent news items that points to a trend in higher education industry in particular, but that also applies to the entire education sector more broadly. The first was the announcement of a Stanford University professor starting a new company (Udacity) offering online courses for free. Another article, A Potential Academic Future, published by Inside Higher Ed paints a bleak picture of the effects of a potential bursting of the higher education bubble in about 15 years time; this in light of falling state subsidy and increasing tuition fees that is pricing out many potential students, and an over-supply of unemployed and underemployed but entrepreneurial PhDs willing to experiment with alternative models of teaching carreers. More recently, BBC reported MIT’s announcement of the launch of its first free “fully automated” course. (MIT Open Courseware has been offering some of its course materials online for free for many years but it did not previously offer an accredited certificate of completion to those following a course online.)

These are exciting developments that have the potential to radically alter the way the education industry operates. It promises to make high quality education accessible to anyone who is motivated to learn and has access to broadband Internet. At the same time, these changes can mean trouble for those in the education industry who do not recognize these medium and longer term trends. I am still trying to understand the implications but below are some of my quick thoughts. I hope the readers of this blog will join me in thinking on this subject.

1) These trends have the potential to challenge the way elite universities maintain their lead in the league table. When the best universities are moving towards offering their education freely more widely, they are sending a message that its not the value of tuition fee from students that will help them maintain their global rankings. What will keep them ahead of others are their continued ability to identify and attract the best minds. My guess is that by offering the highest quality of free (or near-free) education to people around the world, these elite institutions are increasing their catchment area from where they intend to identify and recruit graduate students, researchers and future academics.

2) These trends promise to increase vastly both the quality and efficiency of education for a vast number of students from around the world. Imagine, Amartya Sen or Stephen Hawking offering parts of their “codified” knowledge in the form of academic courses online to millions of interested students globally where repetitive tasks of instructions, feedback and evaluations are automated.

3) Credentialing and accreditation will have to change radically to accommodate these trends. The idea of “Badges” offer a lot of promise as suggested by the piece from Inside Higher Ed.

4) We can expect hyperspecialization in the education industry. (If you are interested in nanorobotics, go to university x.)

5) There will still be a need for geographically focused courses and institutions (i.e. those that will not be competing globally) that caters to the a specific geographic community sensitive to its specific local and regional issues.

6) Developments in online education so far only makes “codified” knowledge accessible to students. There is still significant “tacit” knowledge that students gain by interacting among themselves and with their instructors in and outside of their classrooms in conventional brick-and-mortar universities. Models are yet to emerge that would make at least part of this tacit knowledge available to a wider audience.

[Addition to this post on 03/05/12: Yesterday the New York Times published an article on the subject that suggests a new way to generate revenue for such online courses – charging employers for identifying talent.  “So if a recruiter is looking for the hundred best people in some geographic area that know about machine learning, that’s something we could provide, for a fee.” My observation #1 above is another way of looking at it. The more general view of this is that the competition and the challenge is no longer in innovating models of online teaching; the competition is now in fostering innovation in automated processes to best identify top talent from a very large pool of self-motivated learners from around the world. This is akin to what standardized tests such as SAT, GRE and GMAT have been doing for years on a general level (not at the level of specific skills).]

[Addition to this post on 04/25/12: I just read this article about yet another ambitious online education initiative to set up the Ivy League equivalent online university.]

[Addition to this post on 5/4/12: Now Harvard and MIT are teaming up to offer free online college level courses under the brand name edX.]

[Addition to this post on 07/02/12: Also see Bill Gates’ views on this and related topics.]

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