In Summary

  • An analysis for The Conversation by Elizabeth Dori Tunstall, Swinburne University of Technology

Development Circle posted on their Facebook page the Boring Development Manifesto. Prepared by The Campaign for Boring Development, it argues that “the real work of development is not glamorous” but rather boring work that fights poverty by focusing on sustainably raising the income of the poorest. It defines work that does not do this as development bloat:

The imposition of first world ideological priorities on third world development agendas, programs and dreams. Development bloat is the exporting of first world ideological neuroses onto a territory where they are alien, ungrounded and a hindrance.

The article peaked my interest because it raised questions that I had been asking about development during my recent trip in India sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. There, I saw examples of development bloat as well as of what communities defined as good development projects.

TOMS shoes in India and development bloat

I was surprised to see the large display for TOMS shoes in the AlphaOne, the upscale mall in AhmedabadTOMS is an American company that started the Buy-One-Give-One model for shoes, then eyeglasses, now coffee. The concept is that for every person who buys a pair of TOMS shoes, the company would give a pair to a person in need. Yet, how does TOMS measure up against the Development Bloat Checklist

India has a very well established shoe production industry in leather, cloth, and even rubber. What TOMS provides is perhaps more “stylish” canvas shoes for warm climates and boots for cold climates. The Indian community would have shoes, but probably not the “stylish” shoes that TOMS offers. Thus, this one gets half a mark.

But the fact that India is already a shoes manufacturing country means that TOMS is competing against local industry. TOMS has established a manufacturing centre in India, but would it not compete for resources with local manufactures who serve the same market?

Because TOMS is a for-profit company, the project’s funding would run out if people stop buying TOMS shoes. This would force them to abandon the project. Watch this space as I expect TOMS to experience increasing competition from the Ethiopian company SoleRebel, which produces both locally artisan made, certified fair trade, and sustainable shoes for a global market. Check mark.

If the communities were given the money directly would they use them to buy $40 to $100 USD shoes? No, thus TOMS has to connect its shoe business to corporate social responsibility activities such as facilitating eye clinics and giving water. Check mark. Since the model of conscious consumerism + freebies is at the centre of the project, it gets another check mark.

The Stories section of the TOMS website is full of smiling African children as well as smiling children from other countries. Check mark.

The targets for TOMS are middle-income communities, because these are the ones who can afford to buy TOMS shoes. They are global middle-income communities as made evidence by the display in India. India has a large set of middle-income communities, estimated to reach over 267 million people by 2016. Check mark.

Because these middle-income communities require access to the Internet or to exclusive retail centres to purchase TOMS, they would most likely live in cities. Check mark.

With the exception of TOMS commitment to establishing manufacturing centres, the project does not target improving people’s incomes as all. The main goal of the program is get people to buy stylish shoes in order to give poor kids stylish shoes to wear. Thus, check mark as well.

Based on the number of checks, TOMS shoes is an example of development bloat. It does not mean that it is not necessarily doing good things. There are great self-esteem issues related to dress and class, which the project addresses. Yet, the wearing of stylish shoes by children in need may not be the top priority for those children nor their parents. Raising the incomes of those parents so that they can purchase TOMS shoes might seem a more appropriate developmental goal.

Kala Raksha and the real work of development

Of the many great Indian NGOs that I visited this trip, the one that has most impressed me is Kala Raksha. Its main activities consist of income generation projects (est. 1991), an on site and digital museum(est. in 1996); preventive health and basic education programs (est. in 1997), Kala Raksha Vidhyalaya, an institute of design for traditional artisans (est. in 2005); and a trademarked label for their designs called Artisan Design (est. in 2010).

Kala Raksha has had an Australian connection. In 2013, RMIT’s Dr Kevin Murray and my Swinburne colleague, Kate Bissett-Johnson used Kala Raksha’s digital museum collection for their undergraduate course, Social Responsibility Studio as part of the Sangam project.

Based in Gujarat State on the border with Pakistan, Kala Raksha is a prime example of what I call in my research cultures-based innovation. This is the use of old ways of knowing to drive innovation processes that directly benefit communities.

At Kala Raksha, the old ways of knowing are the crafts of Kutch embroidery, patchwork, weaving, and leather working. The innovation processes are contemporary designs based on local heritage. And finally, the project has benefited over 1,000 artisans from seven communities: Kachhi and Dhebaria Rabaris, Garasia Jats, Samejas and Mutavas, and Marvada Meghvals from Banni.

Artisans of Kala Raksha describe the benefits of the program

The distinction between the goals of Kala Raksha and TOMS is made clear in the organisation’s description of how their income generation projects work:

Above all, we are artisan centered and view income generation as a means to comprehensive development. We work to assist communities in achieving economic self-sufficiency, through facilitating innovation within tradition to transform traditional art into contemporary products…Artisans participate in all phases of production, from designing to sales.

Kala Raksha was originally co-founded by Prakash Bhanani, an educated member of a traditional Rabari embroidery family, and Judy Frater, an American anthropologist. It has grown to a:

Community of artisans, community members, and experts in the fields of art, design, rural management and museum.

Both of the co-founders are no longer with the organisation. Last year in 2014, Prakash Bhanani passed away and Judy Frater resigned. Kala Raksha is in the hands of a new generation: Prakesh Bhanani’s son, Vimal Bhanani, an MBA student, and nephew, Mukesh Bhanani, a former IT entrepreneur. They are bringing additional cultures-based innovations to the organisation.

One of the critiques that the Campaign for Boring Development levies against development bloat is that:

It is for people unwilling or unable to make the imaginative leap to picturing today’s poor as tomorrow’s up-and-coming middle class.

Kala Raksha has not made just the imaginative leap, but has actually helped move its poor communities of Kutch into the middle class, while still preserving their sense of cultural heritage. This is truly the real work of development.

Written by Elizabeth Dori Tunstall, Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.