viernes, 23 de octubre de 2009


am writing my thesis on service provision in slums in India.

I will post on my progress.

I'm excited!

Internet and cellphones

When I arrived in India I was surprised to see that this country with incredibly high growth rates was actually poorer and worse off in many respects than Mexico. But 2 things caught my attention as a major difference between the 2 countries: cell phones and local airlines. A widespread use of cell phones and internet at competitive rates and the surprising number of airlines and low cost flight to travel across the country help explain India's economic success and Mexico's stagnation. Connectivity and Information.

These days the Mexican Congress is debating the fiscal package for the upcoming year. Because of the financial crisis and persisting inefficiencies in tax collection, the government (that promised in the 2006 campaign to LOWER taxes) is proposing a tax increase for many articles.

One of the proposals is a 3% tax on internet connection and cell phone usage. The argument is that they are luxury goods, and that in fact only the top 20% of the income distribution consumes them. In addition, the demand for internet and cell phones of this group is highly inelastic. That is, no one will cancel their line or contract because of the tax. This argument makes economic sense if all you're trying to do is maximize revenue for the government at a particular point in time.

What the Mexican Government is failing to see are the positive externalities associated with the consumption of these two goods. Every day there are more development applications related to cell-phones having to do with governance, information, service provision, making markets more efficient; the list goes on. While in Brazil and Finland internet access is heavily subsidized by the government to the point of being defined as a Constitutional Right, in Mexico we think these goods are unnecessary. Something the rich consume. And in a country where inequality is large and the rich-poor discourse is rampant, what could be easier than taxing the rich?

Instead of going forward on how to reduce poverty and encourage growth, we will tax the rich and leave the poor as they are: hoping to get some scraps of the inefficient government subsidies. Way to go.

domingo, 16 de agosto de 2009


Now that I have finished my internship I will be traveling in northern India for 2 weeks. Our first stop is Ladakh, in the heart of the Himalayas.
We first took a bus to Manali (14 hrs from Delhi), and from there a jeep to Keylong (8 hrs), crossing some of the highest motorable passes in the world. On Saturday we continued towards Leh, surrounded by snow-capped mountains and ragged peaks. After 12 hrs we arrived in Leh. Tomorrow we are going to Pangong Lake, in the border with China.
Pictures will be posted later, with more details on these adventures.

viernes, 7 de agosto de 2009


Last week I went to the field to see how the health insurance project is going on the ground. Being on the field was one of my major motivations for choosing this internship, but sadly, because of my foot, I had not been able to go until now.

I spent four days in Gulbarga and Bidar, two districts in the state of Karnataka. Every day we visited a village in the area to talk to the people and get a sense of how the study is going. It gave me a much better understanding of who the people in the insurance scheme are, where and how they live. Most of the people are very poor and live very simple lives. Some of the villages are so small the arrival of anyone from outside is a major event, and if the outside person happens to be a woman, and white, it is a great novelty for them. I would have little kids following me around to see what I was doing (which was problematic when I needed to go to the bathroom, given that in some places there were no bathrooms or outhouses at all). All of them have very pressing needs and worry about their health and their families.

Gulbarga is the capital of the district of the same name, and even though it has been growing rapidly, it is still no more than a large town. People are very conservative and not used to seeing outsiders. It is not common for families or couples to eat out; it is still a widespread idea that why would you go out and eat something that you can make at home? So it is mostly men who go out to have a drink with their friends. On the first day we had dinner at one of these restaurants, a nice place on a rooftop overlooking the city. Since it was a bit late no more women were around, so they set a special table for us behind a little wall (and under a cell-phone antenna) so we'd be away from the men. Two thigns strike me: first, that women should not come in contact with ousiders, particularly men; and second, that it is assumed women don't drink.

The next morning we went to a nearby village on a jeep and then on a bus to see the new mother survey take place. It was pretty obvious I was not from around the area, which is nice because people are curious and like to engage in conversation. So few foreigners go to that place, some people actually asked me if I was from the Russian Circus that was in town (agreed, I was wearing the crazy pants, but still!).

The New Mother survey goes to houses where women have had a baby in the last 72 hours and takes measurements of the baby and the mom as well as asking her some questions. I got to see a very beautiful baby girl that was 2 days old. Her mother, grandmother and great aunt were taking care of her. It was amazing. It was interesting to know that since it was her first baby she had gone back to her parent's house to have it and her family would pay for everything, not her husband.

The next day we went to another village to observe an SKS center meeting where the clients repayed their loans and discussed the health insurance product. Once again, it was interesting to see these groups of women, the difference in ages and how they engage among themselves and with the loan officer. I'm also always surprised at how old they look even if they are still young and how serious they are most of the time.

On Saturday we went to Bidar, where the earth is very red and the road is surrounded by fields being plowed and you might see some running monkeys alongside the bus. We visited a very small village to see how the endline survey is going. Probably no more than 200 or 300 households live there. It is surrounded by fields, and oxen and cows roam the streets. It was interesting that in that very small place they have a temple, a mosque and a christian church. Even though it is close (10-15 km) to Bidar, the district capital, it feels like a very remote place. If I had only looked at the data for this village in the computer, I would have thought that since it was so close to the main city in the area it would be better off than it actually is.

That's why going to the field is important: to conceptualize and give dimension to the problems we are trying to solve, and also to better understand the data we so aptly analyze. By spending those four days outside the office, I was able to put a face on the people we want to help, and that gave a whole new dimension to the work I'm doing and want to do.

miércoles, 5 de agosto de 2009

Green Kerala: Backwaters

The main attraction of our trip to Kerala was to go to the backwaters. The backwaters are a chain of lagoons and lakes parallel to the Arabian Sea that extend over half the length of Kerala state. The lagoons and lakes are fed by 38 rivers and are connected by over 900 km of canals, both manmade and natural.

It is one of India's most important tourist destinations and was placed among the `50 destinations of a lifetime' by National Geographic. It's easy to see why. The mix of salt and fresh water gives place to a very unique ecosystem, with many birds and fish. The waterways are lined with rice paddies and palm trees and small fishing villages.

In the cocoon-houseboat you glide along the quiet waterways, eating delicious food and drinking coconut water; you can swim, read, have good conversations; watch the sunset; look at the stars and fireflies in the night. It is incredibly beautiful and just what I needed for a birthday celebration.

martes, 4 de agosto de 2009

Green Kerala: Kathakali

In Fort Kochi we saw a performance of Kathakali, a traditional style of theatre from Kerala. It originated in the 16th century (more or less at the same time as Shakespearean drama). The name Kathakali comes from the Malayalam (local Kerala language) words "katha", religious story, and "kali", play or performance.

Actors in Kathakali do not speak, so they rely on elaborate makeup and costumes, marked facial expressions and eye movements, as well as advanced choreography that comes from martial arts to tell stories from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana. The story is sang in Malayalam by a narrator to the beating of drums and ringing of bells. All actors are men, so the different colors in makeup guide the audience to who is who in the play: yellow is woman, red is evil, green and red is hypocrite, and so on.

Kathakali was traditionally performed in religious festivals and temples, but nowadays more and more it is performed in theaters and in shorter versions of the original stories. It is very impressive to see the makeup and the gestures of the actors; and once you get used to the loud drums it is quite enjoyable.

The story we saw was about an evil prince who wanted to take advantage of a princess (who was in diguise as a servant). With the help of her husband they trick him and kill him. Serves him right.

Important visitors at the office

Today has been a very exciting day. We had very important visitors this morning at the office. I really think they'll make a huge difference in the project...

They're a family of monkeys who are very happy sitting in the stairs picking off each others fleas.
We can't go out! If we try the mother monkey comes running towards us like crazy. She looks like the monkey in the movie 28 Days. See for yourself:

I think this can potentially become a twilight zone episode or something like the movie El ángel exterminador by Buñuel, where an outside force impedes the characters from leaving a certain place. I wonder what awaits us...

PS Could this be Hanuman at work?? Has Ganesh passed on the torch to a fellow god?