The GiveWell Blog

Holden’s general notes from living in India

Last year, the staff of GiveWell moved to Mumbai for several months. We did this largely for personal reasons (our staff is small enough that we were able to coordinate it, and we all thought it would be interesting) but also took advantage of our time there to visit 20 nonprofits (some of them more than once). This post contains my general impressions; future posts will contain impressions from other GiveWell staff members as well as our thoughts on specific nonprofits. Our full set of notes and pictures from site visits to local charities in India is also available.

Limits to learning
The first time we saw the metro, we observed the people hanging out of the doorways and concluded that it was amazingly crowded. The second time we saw it, we noticed that the insides of the cars were actually empty at that time, but people were still hanging out of the doorways. By the time I was actually riding the metro, I realized that hanging out of the doorway was a privilege, not a necessity (and I did it whenever I could).

A lot of the observations I hear people make about their travels – and perhaps some of the observations I’ll make below – seem to me to be along the lines of “The subway is so crowded that people have to hang out of the doorways.” It’s very easy to look around and feel that you’ve seen something significant and meaningful, but very hard to get the full context needed to really understand what it is you’re looking at. Although we were in India for several months, there was never any real possibility of become fully integrated into society or blending in with the crowd. Our ethnicity alone marked us as clear outsiders, targets for panhandling to some and photo opportunities for others.

So take the rest of my observations – and, I’d argue, the observations you hear from anyone’s travels in foreign countries – with a grain of salt.

Absolute poverty

Across the board – with the exception of the very upper end of the income range (which included us) – poverty levels and living conditions seemed substantially and visibly worse than what one sees in the U.S. We saw people living in slums – and on the street – with much less space and much worse sanitation than any regular living conditions I’m aware of (including public housing) in the U.S.

I was also disturbed by the state of many animals I saw, particularly dogs and cattle – they consistently looked more emaciated and sickly than anything I’m used to seeing in the U.S.

We’ve argued, mostly based on data, that what counts as “poor” in the U.S. would be seen as “rich” in much of the rest of the world. Spending time in India reinforced this idea in a tangible way.

Relative poverty
I found that looks were often deceiving when it came to guessing which people were lowest-income and/or most appropriate as recipients of aid.

  • As discussed previously, there are certainly cases of relatively wealthy people living in the slums. I ran across anecdotes of people who owned motorcycles, people who had college degrees and promising careers, and even one woman who owned a flat outside the slum but continued to spend most of her time in it. My point isn’t that any of these people are wealthy in U.S. terms; it’s that I wouldn’t expect a donation from an American to go very far toward helping people who have substantial assets, education, etc.
  • In conversations, we got the impression that panhandling is a particular money-making strategy and is not necessarily the exclusive domain of the poorest. In fact, there may often be property rights around certain prime spots for panhandling, which have to be rented. We tended to encounter more panhandlers in areas that were wealthier and had higher concentrations of foreigners – on the occasions when we went into more remote, poorer areas (including a couple of accidental trips through slums), we were rarely if ever asked for money. I think there is a strong case to be made that the people asking for money are not the ones who would most benefit from it.
  • It seemed to be conventional wisdom among the people we talked to, particularly at NGOs, that Mumbai was a very wealthy city and that no one there was really poor compared to people from rural Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, etc. Here our instincts diverged heavily from those of locals: we thought many of those we saw in Mumbai seemed like appropriate aid recipients, but multi-city NGOs we talked to expressed strong preferences for working in poorer areas. One stated that it was planning on expanding to Mumbai primarily for fundraising purposes (since it would then have better access to donors living there).

The economy
One major difference between my time in India (especially Mumbai) and my time in Africa was the sense I got of the local economy. In the conversations I had during my trip to Africa, many spoke of the difficulty of getting jobs and seemed to see government and NGO jobs as most desirable. Most of activity I saw involved people providing redundant services (for example, when we drove through a village our car was surrounded by children trying to sell us water – I saw similar redundancy among people selling SIM card recharges and souvenirs). By contrast, in India many of the people I spoke to were adamant that (a) just about anyone can get a job in Mumbai; (b) anyone with valuable skills (such as English speaking) can get a good job in Mumbai.

Just by walking around Mumbai, we saw people making a living in a huge variety of ways. Our tour of the Dharavi slum was certainly consistent with Reality Tours’s statement that

Dharavi’s industries have an annual turnover of approximately US$ 665 million. Through our tour visitors experience a wide range of these activities: recycling, pottery-making, embroidery, bakery, soap factory, leather tanning, poppadom-making and many more. Most of these things are created in innovative ways and in very small spaces!

One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting Ebizon Netinfo, a website development team that had been working with us remotely for over a year, outside of Delhi. We enjoyed their enthusiasm and optimism; like many we spoke to in India, they believe that with hard work they are headed for serious financial advancement.

The overall picture I got was of an economy that’s extremely poor compared to the U.S. but has a lot more prospects for growth and optimism than what I saw on my trip to Africa. This would make it a very promising place for the kind of giving that I, as opposed to Natalie, prefer.

Site visits
A donor of ours earmarked $10,000 for regranting to a local charity in India, and in deciding how to give this away (and for general learning) we conducted 20+ site visits to small NGOs during our travels. In a sense, this was a chance for us to try out a more traditional method of giving: heavily based on referrals, site visits, and informal impressions rather than desk research.

Future posts will discuss much of what we saw on these site visits and what we came away with. Here I just want to note that

  • Small NGOs have the advantage that a single site visit can give one a look at a sizable portion of what they’re doing, and that they are (at least potentially) in close and constant contact with their clients. But they also raise problems of their own for a donor.
    • The room for more funding question can be particularly difficult with small organizations not built to scale.
    • Many small organizations simply seemed to have issues with professionalism and competence, as well as with listening to clients and putting their needs first. (Specific examples are forthcoming.)
  • A site visit can give a general impression of what staff are like, how they think, and how they interact with clients. However, many NGOs’ goals are very long term (for example, improving education), and in most cases a site visit isn’t nearly enough to form confidence in an NGO’s effect on clients’ lives.
  • As we usually do, we sought NGOs we could be confident in with the information we had. We did run across a couple that I feel good about supporting, despite the fact that our existing criteria are not a fit for them; thinking about these cases has been useful in re-examining our criteria.


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