Monday, 30th October 2017

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Why SMART is not always smart for India

Bihar Safarnama

By Ruchira Gupta
  • Published 26.06.16
A Bihari family. Picture by Ruchira Gupta

Statistics is not about data. It is about how you read the data.

I stopped at Patna to attend a meeting organised by the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI) on social development indicators. I was intrigued. Everyone in New York and Washington worked with a framework called SMART. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Results Oriented and Time-Bound. It has led to quick fix, top down, product and technology-oriented solutions which have entrenched the harm instead of reducing the harm in most cases.

The United Nations had realised the limitations of SMART and course-corrected by shifting from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals. Few foundations globally, in spite of their colossal failures, have had the courage to explore new indicators. When I was contacted by ADRI's soft-spoken founder Shaibal Gupta, I jumped at the chance.

I have been travelling through Bihar for the last weeks reporting on change in one of the poorest states in India. I saw that change was happening bottom up. In Bihar, development was happening in the changing life of the school-girl in a remote village, a landless farmer, a district ASHA worker, a sharecropper, a district teacher. The development in Bihar was in the construction of roads to villages and pink schools, not endless shopping malls and office complexes.

I had been looking for indicators to explain to the big foundations that SMART was stupid. It only skimmed the top of the bottom. It ignored the basic needs of the most marginalised and disenfranchised of human beings.

In the context of my anti-trafficking work, an example is the over $500 million AIDS control programme of India in the nineties focussing on the distribution of condoms in red-light areas. It hired pimps and brothel keepers as "peer educators" to distribute the condoms and funded advertisements saying it was all right to buy a girl as long as the customer put on a condom. The girls contracted AIDS anyway as some customers used condoms and some did not. The sex industry became more powerful because pimps and brothel keepers gained legitimacy as peer educators. Red-light districts increased by 17 times in the period.

Had the same amount of money been invested in reducing the vulnerability of the girl at risk to prostitution, paying for her basic needs like food, clothing and boarding schools, the AIDS programme would have been more successful. It would have prevented AIDS among at-risk girls. It would have also prevented AIDS among men by reducing the supply of girls through trafficking.

The programme design was driven by the SMART framework. A product like a condom was specific. Setting a target for the number of condoms to be distributed was measurable. The hiring of pimps and brothel keepers to distribute the condoms made the target achievable. It was also results oriented and time-bound, compared to educating girls or changing sexual behaviour or running a campaign asking men not to buy sex. The girls would have to study for a long time, nobody could guarantee if they would drop out, it was difficult to measure the changes in the girl's life with education, and she would need food, clothing and shelter, not just specifically education. The low-hanging fruit was a condom - easier to monitor and evaluate.

I was thrilled to see Jean Dreze, a Belgian-born Indian development scientist whose work on poverty and hunger led to the creation of the largest job guarantee programme in the world, NREGA, in India. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen once remarked that the "agreeable thing" about working with Dreze is that "he does most of the work and I get most of the credit".

Dreze's work combines standard economic methods and tools that are used by anthropologists, such as living for a period in a village under the same conditions as local people, farming a plot of land and keeping animals as recounted in the article "Sharecropping in a North Indian Village." I would be able to talk to him about basic needs being human rights. We chatted over lunch and the urgency of development for the most vulnerable of human beings. He asked if we would like student volunteers in the red-light areas of Forbesganj, where my NGO works. He promised to come and bring few volunteers to teach.

I smiled. This would be a conference from the bottom up.

It started with the felicitation of Professor Prabhat P. Ghosh by the Vice-President of India to a packed room of scholars, activists, policy makers. For the last 25 years Ghosh has provided critical academic leadership to a number of young scholars on Bihar and helped Bihar create data to take its social justice agenda to the marginalised. He is the first batch of graduates from the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta, and is as old as Independent India.

The conference agenda included topics like: The need to reform the Statistical System for Socially Marginalised Groups; Villages Studies and the Rural India; Multi-dimensional Poverty; Students Educational Achievement at School Level: An analysis across social categories, social statistics for social protection; gender budgeting; role of local variables in social statistics; and is social democratic development still possible.

"When I was a student, I couldn't imagine that one day there would be a conference like this. As a student we knew statistics should build indicators for development, it should be about people's needs. I did not know that in my life such infrastructure and such thought leadership would be possible," said a gratified Professor Ghosh.

He was right. Only in Bihar we could challenge the all too dominant SMART framework. After all, Gandhi ji launched his first satyagraha from Champaran in Bihar.

I often wonder if Gandhi ji would have launched the cry of Quit India if he had been conditioned by SMART. Perhaps his indicators might have Holistic instead of Specific, Experienced of Felt instead of Measurable, Idealistic instead of Achievable, Mission-oriented instead of Results-oriented and sustainable instead of Time-Bound.

After all indicators should supply information for the goal that had to be achieved and should not become the goal themselves. And that's what was discussed at the ADRI conference by a new generation of scholars, mentored by older, well-placed experts.

• Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide.