Bill Gates Q&A with Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

From The Gates Notes:

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. More:

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