June 15, 2012
Q&A with Katherine Boo, Author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers
With its detailed depiction of life in one of Mumbai’s urban slums, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is one of those books that makes you wonder about the story behind the story. So I asked author Katherine Boo if she would answer a few questions.
Bill Gates: How did you pick the particular slum and the people that you profiled in the book?
Katherine Boo: Although I’d been spending time in slums all over Mumbai, I kept gravitating to Annawadi because of the hope there. In 2008, preventable disease was rampant and only six of 3000 residents had permanent work, but the place was still frantic with the optimism and entrepreneurial energy you noted in your review. By scavenging and selling recyclable garbage, hawking marigold garlands in traffic, picking up day jobs at construction sites, and identifying other market niches in the prospering airport area, nearly every family in the slum had crossed the Indian government’s poverty line, if not the World Bank benchmark. One young woman, Manju Waghekar, was poised to become the slum’s first female college graduate. In other words, the Annawadians were no longer just subsisting. They were part of India’s growth story, one of the great, unfolding success narratives in the history of global development. The slumdwellers felt that progress keenly, and whenever an Annawadi kid labeled another kid a “poor boy,” you best believe it was an insult.
Still, the economic lives of lower-income people in any country tend to be extremely volatile, and the correlation between effort and reward isn’t always robust. Hence, achieving upward mobility demands an enormous amount of imagination, self-correction, and improvisation. I wanted to document that blistering effort at a granular level by following families in one slum over the course of several years.
That’s not to say that Annawadi is a perfect microcosm or “representative” slum. Those terms have always struck me as flimsy journalistic conventions. But the slum did strike me as a decent place to study the mechanics of upward mobility in urban India. The settlement was an all-India mash-up of caste, ethnicity, faith, and language, and (like most slums, despite stereotypes) contained considerable economic diversity. From the beginning, I focused my attention on both relatively privileged and desperately poor residents, though as my book tries to convey, such categories are anything but fixed in an age of fluctuating markets and poorly functioning safety nets.
Bill Gates: Why did you choose not to make any policy recommendations in the book? Are there specific policy-related opportunities that you believe are important?
Katherine Boo: As a documentary journalist, I don’t see my role as lecturing governments or international development people about what they should do. Rather, I’m trying to give an unsentimental, rigorously reported account of how government policy or market forces affect lives and prospects on the so-called ground—not least because I think that’s information conscientious policymakers and philanthropists long for, and often lack.
On the books in India, for instance, you’ll find internationally acclaimed laws intended to involve more Dalits and women in the governance of the country, as well as to bring child laborers and girls into the education system. But when I looked closer in Mumbai, I found that the reforms had been implemented so shoddily that their main effect was to circulate money and power among the political elite. (I’ve seen variations on that theme in American inner cities, too.) If such diversions of public funds and subversions of policy intent aren’t brought to light, we might assume that low-income or low-caste families have received more help than they’ve actually had. Worse, we might see their failure to thrive as a reflection on their capacities, when the essential failure has come at the level of the powerful.
Bill Gates: Your peek into the operations of some non-profits was concerning. Are there non-profits that have been doing work which actually contributes to the improvement of these environments?
Katherine Boo: There are many nonprofits doing work that betters lives and prospects in India, from SEWA to Deworm the World, but in the airport slums, the closer I looked at NGOs, the more disheartened I felt. WorldVision, the prominent Christian charity, had made major improvements to sanitation some years back, but mismanagement and petty corruption in the organization's local office had hampered more recent efforts to distribute aid. Other NGOs were supposedly running infant-health programs and schools for child laborers, but that desperately needed aid existed only on paper. Microfinance groups were reconfigured to exploit the very poor. Annawadi residents dying of untreated TB, malaria and dengue fever were nominally served by many charitable organizations, but in reality encountered only a single strain of health advocate—from the polio mop-up campaign. (To Annawadians, the constant appearance of polio teams in slum lanes being eviscerated by other illnesses has become a local joke.) I tend to be realistic about occasional failures and “leakages” in organizations that do ambitious work in difficult contexts, but the discrepancy between what many NGOs were claiming in fundraising materials and what they were actually doing was significant.
In general, I suspect that the reading public overestimates the penetration of effective NGOs in low-income communities—a misapprehension that we journalists help create. When writing about nonprofits, we tend to focus either on scandals or on thinly reported “success stories” that, en masse, create the impression that most of the world’s poor are being guided through life by nigh-heroic charitable assistance. It’d be cool to see that misperception become more of a reality in the lives of low-income families.
Bill Gates: I’m interested in the questions of economic mobility, as many of the urban poor have moved to the city for economic opportunity that seemingly doesn’t exist in rural areas. Have you had a chance to spend time in more rural regions of India? While there are obvious differences, what is your take on the underlying issues you have seen in other parts of India? Elsewhere in the world?
Katherine Boo: Traveling in rural India with Annawadians and others, I’ve come to share the view of Abdul Husain, a young garbage sorter featured in my book whose family hails from Uttar Pradesh. As he puts it, a city like Mumbai is hard on migrants, terrible sometimes, and also better than anywhere else.
To rural Indians, the attraction of cities isn’t just the greater prospect of economic mobility. Cities also allow people to escape from caste and gender identities and start discovering what it is to be an individual. (One of the most heartening things I discovered in Annawadi was how little caste identity mattered to the young.) The problem, of course, is that a handful of cities can’t sustain the dreams of 1.2 billion people.
To create more opportunity in the countryside, the central government has lately spent serious money building roads, colleges, water projects, and a rural work-guarantee program--investments that government officials hope might also quell Maoist insurrections in some of the poorest stretches of central India. But opportunities aren’t being created fast enough, so the urban-rural inequality gap continues to grow.
Foundations like yours have been working to address the still-massive problem of malnutrition and stunting in rural children, treat preventable illness, and improve access to potable water in Indian villages. That’s crucial, and it’s making a difference in outcomes. But if I had foundation funds at my disposal, I’d also be keen to support more of the activists currently risking their lives to expose corruption in public governance via relatively new and potent right-to-information laws. Supporting such local activism is a sensitive area for nonprofits, and it’s not a particularly photogenic form of charitable relief. But corruption is a great underlying issue—one of the few things that rural and urban India still have in common—and improving the accountability and transparency of governance may make more of a difference in the long run than opening another health clinic or school. Good nonprofits may supplement the work of a functional and accountable state, but they can’t replace it.
Bill Gates: What do you hope people will do after they’ve read the book?
Katherine Boo: I love it when readers care about and want to help the specific families or communities I write about, but I also hope readers will step back and think about how important it is to improve the infrastructure of economic and educational opportunity. Not much is going to change for powerless people until people with more power grasp how difficult it is for smart, energetic low-income families to improve their lives, and how much human capability our planet squanders as a consequence. And while my years of reporting have made me skeptical of silver bullets and Six-Point-Solutions-to-End-All-Poverty, I’m with the Indian economist Amartya Sen in that, if we can’t have perfect solutions to profoundly complex problems, we can still make incremental improvements in public health, educational quality, governmental accountability, and other realms that will benefit poor families immensely, and allow the talents of more young people to take wing.