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Class Conversations

Tarun Khanna’s Contemporary South Asia – Entrepreneurial Solutions to Intractable Social and Economic Problems is helping a broad cross-section of students from across the University develop an understanding of the complex social structures that make up present day South Asia.

The class started with vibrant conversations in trying to understand the self-imaginations of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The class has analyzed a range of materials, from the writings of scholars and philosophers to Anna Hazare’s popular movement against institutional corruption. Background information on the antecedents of the Human Development Index, from the foundational work of the Dr. Mahbub-ul-Haq to Professor Amartya Sen’s writing were examined in class. Class discussions have moved further as a multitude of institutions—of the state and otherwise—underpin daily life across South Asia. These institutional underpinnings are a function of the activity of entrepreneurs—in business, politics, and society —and they take time to emerge. To understand these underpinnings the class focuses on understanding today’s economics and politics, but also the historical and cultural roots of the highly contoured and variegated environment in which today’s entrepreneurs must operate.

The class has reviewed the available evidence on the incidence, causes, and consequences of the problem in question through case studies. Through this teaching method, the class has examined real world, entrepreneurial attempts to provide solutions and for each.  The discussion centered around whether and why the approach worked, how it could have been improved, and compared the effort to other successes and failures.

The class had a detailed discussion on corruption, as an example of social context by trying to understand the institutional solutions to the problem. Corruption touches almost every nation’s citizens at some time or another—often with troubling frequency—regardless of ethnicity, creed, region or economic status. The phenomenon is hardly unique to South Asia, but its seriousness and the place that it has earned within recent discourse in India has made it a compelling point of entry into understanding the region and the perspective of the course on the region.

The next session studied schisms (social, political and economic) in the fabric of the region. It asked students to reflect on the factors that prevent talented youth from getting a quality education or access to healthcare, or the difficulties of matching would-be employers and employees amidst a lack of physical infrastructure, social barriers, and political unrest. The class discussed how the states in the region have attempted to redress some of these barriers over the past decades, with occasional successes, but with plenty of room for improvement. Professor Khanna introduced an analytic exercise, to run through the term, to study the efforts of Aspiring Minds, an entrepreneurial firm in Delhi, to use technology to circumvent barriers that prevent the disenfranchised from getting jobs. In the language of the course, Aspiring Minds is an intermediary that is trying to fill a ‘void’ in the institutional context of India.

The class illustrated three sets of entrepreneurial efforts to ‘repair’ the institutional fabric by filling other such voids, and thereby spur economic development. India’s unique ID effort, to provide a biometric, instantly verifiable ID to every Indian resident, is an ambitious effort initiated by a celebrity private-sector entrepreneur and embraced by the central government. For the first time, the state will be able to ‘know’ who its charges are, as a precursor to discharging its duties. The class then moved to study microfinance, in Bangladesh and across the region, and asked about the pros and cons of for-profit and not-for-profit entrepreneurial solutions to these problems. The sector, having enjoyed massive success, has come under political attack in both Bangladesh and India in the past few years. Finally, if better information about residents and easier access to micro-loans are part of the ‘soft’ infrastructure that enables productive economic activity, the ‘hard’ infrastructure of the region is also glaringly inadequate (think roads, power plants, and the like). As an example, the class looked at Roshan, an entrepreneurial effort to jumpstart access to mobile telephony in conflict-prone Afghanistan.