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The Forum Launches India Bureau

January 31, 2010

Kevin Burke
The Forum Launches India Bureau

I'm way ahead on credits, so I'm taking this semester off and working for a nonprofit in India. Why India? It's cheap, the people there speak English, and the food's good. As a parting gift, my editor gave me a jar of corn whiskey and told me to write once a week. If you had any doubts about whether writers at the Forum are well-compensated, put them to rest. Maybe if I work hard on my posts, she'll spring for a handle of Popov when I get back. Like most young people, I'm full of good intentions about helping to lift people out of poverty and put them on the path to economic prosperity. Unlike most young people, I'm cynical about the ability of foreign aid to help poor people; while charities have the best intentions in the world, many of them don't actually measure whether the money they spend is making a meaningful difference. Furthermore, if aid groups work through the local government and aid makes up a significant percentage of GDP, aid may actively harm countries, by providing an incentive for local government officials to stay in power, to keep the faucet of aid flowing into their pockets. Many people are trying to fundraise to give money to Haitians, but the best thing we can do for Haitians right now has nothing to do with giving them money.

Figuring out what works in foreign aid and what doesn’t was named by a group of economists as the most exciting thing going in economics these days. The NGO I’m working for, Seva Mandir, conducts randomized experiments in northwest India to figure out what’s working in external aid, and what isn’t. They work with a whole bunch of cool economists all around the world, including Esther Duflo, who recently won a MacArthur Genius grant.

I have three goals for the trip. The first is to be more useful to Seva Mandir than the cash value of my plane ticket to and from India. The second is to say “I’m game” for any proposed activity, spicy dish or 3AM jaunt. This rule is extremely useful as it makes decision making very easy; just say yes to everything. The third is to learn how to cook. I will be able to make a mean curry by the time I fly home. I am also being very careful to avoid dog bites and to avoid making any judgments about the people I meet, for example, for going to a traditional healer to cure a disease rather than seeking modern medical treatment.

Right now I am in the New Delhi airport and visibility is about 20 feet. That didn’t stop the cab driver from speeding along at about 40 miles per hour. My cab driver was using the other cars' horns like sonar, so he could tell where they were without having to look over his shoulder. I’m on my way to Udaipur, which was the location for the James Bond movie Octopussy. I am excited to meet the staff and begin work.

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