Global Issues

An open model for international aid: Sanjay Pradhan at TEDGlobal 2012

Sanjay Pradhan

From Bihar to the World Bank

Sanjay Pradhan grew up in Bihar, India’s poorest state. He came home one day, at 6 years old, to find a cart of sweets at the front door. He and his brothers greedily dug in — but when his father came home, he was livid. Those sweets, it turns out, were a bribe from a contractor. His father built roads in Bihar, and he had “developed a firm stance against corruption, even though he was harrassed and threatened.”

Bihar was India’s most corrupt state, and in it, “The poor had no means to voice their anguish if their children had no food or no schooling.” During his education, Pradhan traveled to different villages to study poverty. In one, a very poor man invited him into his hut and fed him. Pradhan only later realized that what he’d eaten “was food for him and his entire family for two days.” That day changed his life.

He joined the World Bank, which sought to fight such poverty by transfering aid from rich countries to poor countries. In Uganda, he saw new schools built with funds from the World Bank — but no books; new hospitals — but no drugs: the poor without any resource.

“Globally, 1.3 billion live on less than $1.25 per day.”

The problems go back years, to the establishment of the Bretton Woods system, including the World Bank. Pradhan lists three elements that are problematic:

  • The model was built on a transfer of resources from North to South, with conditions for that aid.
  • There was little transparency.
  • The engagement was entirely with elites in the receiving countries, and little with citizens.

“Today, each of these elements is opening up,” says Pradhan, due to the transformations in the global world. This has produced 3 key shifts transforming development.

  1. Open knowledge. Developing countries will not simply accept conditions as they are. Instead, they are seeking inspiration from other nations who have succeeded.
  2. Open aid. The World Bank recently opened its vault of data for public use. They launched a global competition to crowdsource apps for this data. They are also opening projects for funding, such as geomapping to reveal problems. That project that has already had success finding holes in development projects.
  3. Open governance. Citizens are demanding more. A great example is opening budgets to the public. But “there is a big difference between a budget that is public and a budget that is accessible.” Now, citizens are able to use new tools to visualize the budget.

All of this is producing results. For example, Pradhan says, “In the Phillipines, today, students and teachers can give real-time feedback on whether teachers and textbooks are showing up in schools.” That innovation, at checkmyschool.org, is moving to other countries. As another example, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, university students used mobile phones to map the entire city and got feedback on which health and water points needed service.

Sanjay Pradhan

A picture of aid in the future

In many areas governments are not interested in helping the poor. “It is,” Pradhan says, “a real challenge for those who want to change the system. These are the lonely warriors.” The job now is to help them join hands so they can do their jobs.

Two years ago, Pradhan called his father. At age 80, he was typing up a 70-page litigation against a corrupt road project, and argued the case. That night he passed away, bookending his life in service.

At the World Bank, they are embracing the new directions. They need, says Pradhan, “to radically open up development, so knowledge flows in multiple directions … If we do, we will find that the collective voices of the poor will be heard in Bihar, Uganda, and beyond. We will find that the textbooks and teachers will show up in schools for their children. We will find that these children, too, will have a real chance of breaking their way out of poverty.”

Photos: James Duncan Davidson