Posts tagged ‘India’

Urban Air Pollution Is a Public Health Emergency

By , 22 January, 2016, No Comment

I’ve finally returned to Cambridge after spending the better part of 2015 conducting field research in India, South Africa and Kenya. With luck, I’ve now got all the data I need to finish my thesis, and I’m going to be chained to my desk from now until I finish writing it. Naturally, I am procrastinating by writing assorted other things instead, including my monthly blog at

My most recent piece covers the air quality crisis affecting the developing world’s major cities. India, where I spent much of the summer, is home to many of the worst offenders, and Delhi is the most polluted city of all. I have been visiting Delhi regularly for the past decade, and the change is visible. Many a rickshaw journey consists of wondering exactly how the driver knows to break before crashing into a car in front of him, when neither he nor I can see the road in front of us. The situation in African cities is not as bad, but Nairobi, where I spent the fall, is getting there. Yet despite traveling regularly in the developing world, often in the company of asthma sufferers in my family and household, statistics saying pollution kills more people than HIV and malaria combined, still shock.

We are making progress, and huge credit is owed here to my mother, the incredible Shazia Z. Rafi, who campaigned successfully to get air quality targets included in the new Sustainable Development Goals. This should put pressure on governments, but it is not just a government problem. Urban air pollution in the developing world is a direct product of economic growth, of the fuel consumed both by industrial operations and the transport workers use to reach those new factories. Businesses who are driving this wave of industrialized urbanization bear some responsibility here. My piece, which you can read here, lays out some steps companies can take to clean up their act.

Back to the thesis now, I swear…

Some Things I’ve Written, or I’m Still Alive

By , 29 September, 2015, No Comment

Though I’ve been very quiet on here since starting my PhD, I have actually been commenting quite a bit elsewhere on these here interwebs. For those who aren’t on Twitter (where I do extensive self-promotion in between posting pictures of my food), here are some things I’ve blogged.

I’ve been writing a regular monthly column for the website (who cover the intersection of science, technology and development) on the role of the private sector in development. I’ve covered:

Fairtrade and other attempts at ethical consumption will probably not work, even if they make us feel better about ourselves

Automation imperils employment in the developing world. Anthropologist James Ferguson’s has bold (but ultimately unworkable) vision for a society without jobs.

India’s new ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ law mandating firms donate to social projects is really an inefficient tax on corporate revenue, and a step backwards.

The best way to empower women in business might not be the C-suite, but the supply chain: hire women-owned businesses to source your parts or supply consulting services.

India exploits a loophole in international trade law to sell cheap drugs to sub-Saharan Africa. If they change their policies under US pressure, poor Africans will suffer.

In a world of finite resources, one-shop oil, gas and mining towns are planning for the day when the goods run out. Companies should help.

I’ve also blogged a little bit for the blog of my department’s policy journal, which I briefly edited last year. Recent pieces include:

How the Iranian government charmed the Western press, and thereby saved the peace process.

Foreign correspondents lie, or how news organizations conceal the work of local fixers they employ in conflict zones.

What is capital, and how did capitalism survive the financial crisis? An interview with economist Geoffrey Hodgson.

I’ll try to remember to cross-post all future blogging here going forward, and maybe even find time to write some original pieces for this site again soon*.

Finally, I’ve been interviewed about my research over on BBC Radio 3. It’s a special episode on Indian history, so I’m talking about the East India Company, who are one of several key historical predecessors for the kind of contemporary corporate politics I’m researching for my PhD.


*Don’t hold your breath.

China’s ‘String of Pearls’ – Real or Fake?

By , 2 February, 2013, No Comment

I’ve got a new post up looking at the Chinese investment strategy in South Asia, and in particular, the theory that China is acquiring a ‘string of pearls,’ a network of strategic assets in Pakistan, Burma, Nepal et al that will encircle and contain India. My post is a response to a post by Dan Drezner at Foreign Policy, in which he contends that the ‘string of pearls’ is something western journalists cooked up in our imaginations because it feeds into fears about Big Scary China. I disagree.

My post argues that the ‘string of pearls’ is a real strategy, an extension of longstanding Cold War alliances China had in the region, and that its primary function is economic, not military. But I concede that the strategy may be failing or weakening, in part because China is growing wary of Pakistan, in part because China is growing less wary of India, and in part because the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has altered regional dynamics.

Read it all here.

Some Recent Things Wot I Wrote

By , 26 June, 2012, No Comment

I try to keep this blog up to date with what links to things I write elsewhere, but (as those who follow me on Twitter will know), this site’s been experiencing some downtime of late, and for much of the last week, I wasn’t even able to log in to it to post a status update. So, just in case you’ve missed these pieces, here’s what I’ve been up to during the hiatus:

1. Commenting on a slightly paradoxical hunger crisis in India: more agricultural output, but less food in the hands of the poor. Cause: Corrupt and inefficient government food subsidy program.

2. Examining the economic impact of Title IX, which is 40 years old this week. Short version: it made American women richer and more successful and helped narrow the gender achievement gap.

3. Taking the Atlantic to task for a cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” My take: neither can men (a fact the author overlooks) and who ever said ‘having it all’ was the goal? The piece is touching a nerve with a lot of readers, and I’m getting a lot of fascinating, often critical, feedback which I may revisit in a follow-up post.

I didn’t mention this in my Forbes piece, but the Atlantic does seem to have a penchant for personal essays in which individual writers frame regrets or frustrations about their experiences in critiques of feminism from within feminism. This piece reminded me quite a bit of last year’s ‘All the Single Ladies‘ and the previous year’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in that respect, even though those pieces were about romantic, rather than professional, struggles. There’s an awful lot that’s wrong with being a woman today, but feminism isn’t the root of it. It’s almost always our best shot at making things better. I’m so very tired of the Atlantic suggesting otherwise.

Economic Peace: Some Thoughts from Barcelona

By , 1 March, 2011, No Comment

Returning from a brief (9 days) blogging hiatus with a post at Foreign Exchange. The subject: a panel I was asked to speak on at IESE’s sustainable business conference in Barcelona this weekend. My topic was ‘economic peace and the private sector’s role in fostering political stability.’ An excerpt:

Specifically, the reductive tendency leads us to place emphasis on macroeconomic growth as a cure-all, when as we’ve seen in Obasanjo’s Nigeria or Ben Ali’s Tunisia or Musharraf’s Pakistan, growth can correlate quite easily with increasing political instability and conflict. For one thing, there’s the question of distribution, of how much growth is trickling down the bottom of the economic ladder to those most likely to be embroiled in crime or violence.

But even if ‘economic growth’ is replaced by a genuine focus on job creation and the building of a stable middle class, a critical challenge remains. In a society which has chosen—and this is an ideological choice—to invest its resources in militarism or theocracy but not in education or health care, an angry young man with a steady income still can’t spend it providing for his family: the services he needs aren’t there to be purchased.

Instead, they’re available to him for free from the same crowd of ‘non-state actors’ responsible for his country’s turmoil. In other words, those actors—be they mobsters or terrorists or warlords—aren’t grafting an abstract ideology onto his poverty and rage; they are producing an alternative society, complete with the services the state does not provide. It’s an ideological battle, not an economic one, to transfer a whole society’s focus and collective, public, wealth into building the social structures that make an income valuable. Without those, a little money’s not worth the paper it’s printed on.

You can read the rest here.

One postscript: left to my own devices, I’d probably have parachuted into Barcelona for a day; attended the conference and jetted out. With encouragement and company from qwghlm, I took four whole days off work. I didn’t check Twitter and Google Reader every 5 minutes; I missed thousands of tweets and hundreds of news stories; and when we got back and I caught up, I found that nothing had fundamentally changed on the big stories I’d been following. Gaddafi? Still in power. Raymond Davis? Still in legal limbo. Me? Recharged and ready to report on both.

Indo-Pak Peace Talks Resume

By , 11 February, 2011, No Comment

Big news out of the Subcontinent this week: India and Pakistan are resuming peace talks after almost two years’ stalemate. The talks, which Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao is calling the ‘comprehensive dialogue,’ will cover political, economic and security issues and will be structured not only around meetings between the two countries’ heads of state and foreign ministries, but also the ministries overseeing commerce, culture and natural resources. This structure will prevent, significantly, progress on any one area from being held hostage by stagnation on another.

Will these talks bear fruit? I’m skeptical, though not for the usual reasons. Read why here.

Thinking Long Term on India and Iran

By , 5 January, 2011, No Comment

New post at Foreign Exchange on the India-Iran oil deal and the challenges of securing funding for it amidst the US-led sanctions on Tehran. My take:

the U.S. position in recent years has been that India is most valuable as an ally when it is looking eastwards, and competing with China in the South China Sea or through trade relationships in South East Asia; that is the view favored too by a number of Indian policy wonks and popular in the Indian press.

But this banking move suggests that inside the halls of power, Indian leaders understand what I tried to argue in November: that India is most likely to challenge China, and thereby benefit other great powers, if it rectifies relations in South Asia and uses its relationship with Iran to build a trading zone to its west.

From Washington’s perspective, it’s a classic clash between short- and long- term policy objectives, between the nuclear issue and the need for an India that is strong in the region. There are no signs as yet that the U.S. government wants to shift its strategy towards the long-term and let this deal stand, but if it did, I for one would welcome it.

Read it all.

Don’t Dismiss New START

By , 24 December, 2010, No Comment

A Christmas Eve post at Foreign Exchange about the New START treaty and why it does actually matter:

New START is a disarmament treaty that is almost irrelevant as a step towards nonproliferation, because while the U.S. and Russia have 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons between them, their arsenals are reasonably secure. Reducing them is not going to end the Iranian nuclear program, stop the escalation on the Korean peninsula or prevent Pakistan from being overrun by the TTP.

What it is going to do, however, is create the basis for the next era in U.S.-Russia relations, burying the last hangovers of the Cold War (which is in many ways what the treaty is about) to acknowledge that as the competition for economic resources and influence in Central and South Asia heats up, Moscow and Washington will increasingly find themselves on the same side.

Go read it. And have a merry Christmas.

China’s New Pakistan Strategy

By , 21 December, 2010, No Comment

Post at Foreign Exchange today looks at the geostrategic significance of some new investment MOUs between China and Pakistan. The post is a follow-up to a story I wrote for Forbes in the spring about Chinese investment in Balochistan, where I highlighted a mining contract gone sour under Chinese pressure. That contract finally fell apart last week, and the lessons I learned reporting on it hang heavily over my analysis of the new deals:

Throughout my travels in South Asia, I’ve heard stories about what it means to do business with China. The running refrain has always been that Chinese investors are politically neutral, that they protect their own material interests while doing their best to appease local leaders with a cut of any deal, but with very little concern for the day-to-day running of local life. This is always subtly (or not so subtly) contrasted to an American approach of promoting foreign investment as a mechanism of societal makeover. In much of South Asia, Chinese investment has proven appealing to those who would rather not be re-made. That was very much the theme of my time in Balochistan. This weekend’s deals do not fit that mold…

Want to know why? Read it here.

In India, Size Does Matter

By , 11 December, 2010, No Comment

More ambiguous, waffly writing at Foreign Exchange. Promise to write something rich and conclusive this coming week. But for now, a slightly different take on the Indian microfinance mess:

First, a brief summary of the situation: In October, the government of Andhra Pradesh (AP), a state in the south of the country and home to A. all those call centers B. 30% of the country’s microloan industry, decided to blame microfinance institutions (MFIs) for a series of debtors’ suicides. [The relationship between poverty and suicide is not a new political subject in India: the left-wing newspaper The Hindu has made a business of chronicling in harrowing and tragic detail the suicides of bankrupt farmers in the last few years.] The suicides pointed to a growing trend, in AP and elsewhere, of over-indebted borrowers, many of whom had loans from multiple sources, a sign of the intense pressure that these mega-lenders put on loan officers to grow their portfolios. As others have noted, the ban also reflected the fact that the government oversees its own lending scheme, the Self-Help Groups (SHGs), and that the suicides presented a great opportunity to shut down competitors.

But the ‘pox on both their houses’ critique that has emerged from these facts is not helpful, not least because it doesn’t engage particular closely with what either MFIs or SHGs actually do.

Rather it seems to me that the whole sector got into trouble because it was insufficiently localized. As practiced in India, both the MFI and the SHG model have neglected the key piece that made microlending in Bangladesh work so well.

More here.