Science and Technology: Understanding the Logics behind Grassroots Innovation in India

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Photo of Faculty Seed Grant recipient, Shobita Parthasarathy
Shobita Parthasarathy (Public Policy, Women’s Studies)
Photo of Faculty Seed Grant recipient, Shobita Parthasarathy
Shobita Parthasarathy (Public Policy, Women’s Studies)

In 2016, Shobita Parthasarathy, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, received an IRWG Faculty Seed Grant for a project on the relationship between grassroots innovation and gender order in India. By grassroots innovation, Parthasarathy means usually small scale, low tech, and low cost technologies produced by those who lack formal education or resources. They range from traditional medicine such as Ayurveda to windmills made of bamboo and aluminum that could help power an irrigation pump. We tend not to think of the poor or marginalized as innovators, because they lack technical knowledge and they rarely produce inventions that make it into the global marketplace. Instead, we assume that technologies are produced by people with formal technical training, usually inside laboratories, and with government or industrial support. But, Parthasarathy says, grassroots innovators have essential knowledge and expertise regarding their lives and surroundings, and the technologies they develop can benefit them, and their neighbors, in significant ways. Focusing on India’s unique social landscape, Parthasarathy wondered what kinds of gender and caste dynamics arise from India’s grassroots innovation system. She also questioned if grassroots innovation initiatives provides policy framework for encouraging innovation both for and by women with limited resources. To investigate her questions, Parthasarathy planned four case studies of Indian organizations involved in different aspects of grassroots innovation.

Since receiving the grant and traveling to India for preliminary research in 2017, Parthasarathy’s project has significantly expanded. Still looking at technology for the poor, her project has adopted two new dimensions. The first aims to develop a better understanding of the efforts to use science and technology to alleviate poverty and inequality. The second explores why and how certain approaches to technology and poverty dominate the discussions and recommendations by international institutions. “We tend to assume that science and technology, as well as associated policies, are fundamentally beneficial,” Parthasarathy explains. ”Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of technologies for the poor in the developing world.” For decades, Western development institutions, NGOs, and philanthropists have offered technical solutions to what they perceive to be the problems of the developing world (e.g., dams for electrification, toilets for better public health). Today, these have been joined by “social innovation” initiatives, in which international institutions, venture funds, and business incubators try to help entrepreneurs “do well by doing good.” Entrepreneurs receive seed funding or business advice to develop technologies for poor citizens at low prices--a cheap breast imaging device, for example--and ultimately, both they and the citizens benefit. “The problem with these initiatives,” Parthasarathy says, “is that they’re not always socially beneficial and there are a lot of assumptions about how society and markets work, and what poor citizens want and need, that prevent user interest and uptake.”  

A prime example of this kind of top-down approach is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which is a public-private partnership launched in 2010 and operates as a project of the U.N. Foundation. The intent of the alliance was to protect the environment, improve health, and empower women in the developing world by providing them with “clean-burning” cookstoves. According to the World Health Organization, millions die annually from respiratory and cardiovascular ailments caused by burning fuels such as wood, charcoal, or dung for cooking and to provide warmth. Cookstoves were intended to reduce illness and death and to minimize the environmental impact of conventional cooking methods. Since its inception, the alliance has introduced 28 million cookstoves into poor and rural areas across the globe. Despite massive international funding, relatively few rural women actually use the cookstoves, citing lack of access to cleaner burning fuels, poor design, and cultural misunderstandings. Parthasarathy wants to know why international institutions tend to privilege these kinds of technological interventions, rather than those that are developed by poor citizens themselves, to solve their own problems. Namely, why don’t interventions grounded in grassroots innovation get valued, valorized or funded in the way that cookstoves do? “Despite their unpopularity,” Parthasarathy asserts, “technical elites and policymakers are vehemently advocating we build more cookstoves for poor people in the developing world. I want to try to understand the politics of why.”

For her preliminary research, Parthasarathy spent two months in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. There, she conducted 40 interviews, ethnographic observation, and spoke with a wide variety of people including leaders of NGOs and other programs intended for science, technology and development. Parthasarathy also interviewed a number of government officials, program beneficiaries, and entrepreneurs about which programs they support. Going forward, she will interview national and international organizations including the World Bank, USAID, and the Gates Foundation, coupled with document and historical analysis, to try to understand the logics behind their development work. Through examining international organizations, Parthasarathy hopes to learn about their interests and understand how they think of technological intervention to alleviate poverty.

Since refining her project focus, Parthasarathy is preparing to apply for grants and fellowships to expand the project into a book which she expects will take up to five years to complete. “Without IRWG’s support, I couldn’t have started this work. The Seed Grant was instrumental in these first few stages. As I’ve worked to further develop this project and think about funding, Jocelyn Stitt, IRWG’s Program Director for Faculty Research Development, has been incredibly helpful.”

Ultimately, Parthasarathy wants to bring transparency to the politics of technology and international development. She hopes her work will encourage policymakers to ask different kinds of questions about the role of technology and what international institutions should be funding, what kinds of logics do they operate under, and what logics should they be operating under. “What’s both fascinating and unsettling to me is the dismissal of interventions designed by and for poor people. I want to understand why some ideas, like cookstoves or toilets that improve public health, get lodged in the brains of international institutions and seem very difficult to dislodge.” According to Parthasarathy, there’s also an expectation about how people should respond to these interventions, irrespective of culture. This disregards the realities of people’s experiences. “At the end of the day,” she concludes, “I would like to change those logics and make development experts aware of the assumptions that underlie their choices around technological interventions.”

During her fieldwork in India, Parthasarathy captured two jarring images of what (failed) social innovation looks like in the developing world.   

As a part of a global engagement initiative, three toilets were built on the same property in a village without any toilets. This is one example of a technology for the poor that failed to effectively serve the community it intended to. 

Since the metastasis of microfinance, Southern India has witnessed a surge in companies offering funding to unemployed or low-income entrepreneurs, yet on the ground, microfinance is not the consistent intervention it’s touted to be. Rather, there are many local dimensions which allow it to be successful in some areas and not others. This image, taken in a business district in Tamil Nadu, illustrates the oversaturation of microfinance and microcredit in the Indian marketplace.

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