Indian innovation for African development

Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the latter's visit to New Delhi on June 24, 2013. Denise Rollins, USAID's senior deputy assistant administrator for Asia, tells Devex how USAID views the country as an equal partner where technical assistance no longer needs to be provided by the U.S. Photo by: U.S. State Department

A catalyst for innovation: That is how the United States envisions India, a former aid recipient and now emerging donor that nevertheless still is home to millions of people living in poverty and is facing other development challenges despite its growing economy.

India is an “equal” partner whose development should be supported less by foreign technical assistance than by Indians educated at home and abroad who are producing so-called “frugal” or low-cost innovations, said Denise Rollins, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s senior deputy assistant administrator for Asia, in an exclusive interview with Devex.

Here are a few excerpts of our conversation with Rollins, conducted after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s first trip to India this week:

In many ways, the approach USAID has taken for building a cooperative partnership with India suggests a new role for the agency in spurring development. What is changing the most in terms of the development relationship between the U.S. and India? What are the most exciting and most promising areas from your perspective?

What’s changing the most I think is our attitude, more than anything. We have had a roughly sixty year relationship with India as development partners, and for the most part it has been a donor-recipient relationship. Over the last two years or so we have begun to transform that relationship, because we recognize that, first of all, India is a massive market and has a massive economy of its own. And our resource levels are just a pittance. […] When you begin to look at what kind of impact you can have in a country, you realize that in terms of doing businesses the way we did in the past, meaning trying to provide services to Indians to address key development challenges, we just don’t have the resource levels to do that, but India does. So what’s exciting is that we can engage in a relationship with India now where we can provide critical technical assistance to help to define and address development challenges, but we don’t have to do it ourselves, because Indians can do it on their own. […] So we look at, what can we really do in terms of fostering a more dynamic relationship? It’s looking at how do we catalyze Indian innovations because that’s what they’re known for and they do that extremely well […] in agriculture and education, health and a host of other sectors [like] energy and climate change. […] India can have a much bigger impact than just on India. They can have a bigger impact globally. And that’s what we’re talking about as global partnership. […] Our program is designed to help spark those innovations, “frugal innovations,” low-cost innovations that can be used for development in India, but also can be transferred to Africa.

How can USAID better ensure that its programs are reaching the “new bottom billion” — the people living in poverty within middle income, rapidly developing nations —  that has been identified in India and other emerging economies? What, in particular, is USAID doing to ensure that its programs contribute to decreased inequality?

We do extensive analysis and research whenever we’re going to undertake a program, and so what we’ve done [is] completed a new Five Year Strategy for India. […] We’re primarily in health  75 percent of our budget is in the health sector, so we’re looking particularly at child survival, maternal mortality issues, family planning, and of course infectious diseases. With our analysis we look at [where the gaps are in] India: We know that there are certain states in India where you tend to have the highest percentage of those living on less than $1-2 a day and we begin to look at the challenges in reaching those groups of people, and so we target our resources as a result of looking at it from an analytical base. And of course, we use a great deal of science and technology. So we have scientific efforts that target specific areas in which we believe we can have measurable impact.

Are there some specific programs that have zeroed in on those pockets of extreme poverty that you mentioned?

Our program has not had a focus on economic growth. India has done very well on its own in that regard. In the health sector we’ve worked in AIDS. I know that we have a major program in Tamil Nadu, and worked closely with the government of the state in helping to train health workers to help assess the gaps in terms of information and use of technologies that can help prevent HIV/AIDS and of course the testing. I’ve been out to Tamil Nadu, and the state has made remarkable progress in terms of addressing HIV/AIDS. I actually went to places where you had sex workers, and they were all using condoms, and they were all very aware of what to do to prevent the spread of AIDS. And so that state is actually doing particularly well, and we’re actually no longer providing resources to them, because they can do that on their own.

There is some concern that India is really not achieving the inclusive growth that is necessary to address extreme poverty, is there anything that USAID can do to leverage its influence to make sure that India’s domestic policy really does target inclusive growth?

Our programs are focused on inclusive growth, and we engage with the government of India on a regular basis in those sectors in which we work. For example, we announced a new Development Credit Authority that specifically focused on clean energy, but it’s trying to catalyze innovations that can be used at the grassroots level in order to save energy.

USAID’s British counterpart DfID has come to a very different conclusion about the role for foreign assistance in India, leading the agency to phase-out development assistance by 2015. What accounts for these very different strategies and conclusions between two of the world’s most prominent donors?

I wouldn’t say [they are] completely different conclusions. I think what we’ve looked at, and we’re all recognizing  the World Bank as well  is that the kind of program you do in India has to be different from the kind of programs you do in other countries because India is so different, so dynamic and so large, and it has quite a significant economy. And the Indians are insisting that we engage with them in a different way. They  the United Kingdom and India — obviously have their long term historical relationship, and I don’t want to [speculate] about any of that. But we recognize that we needed to change the way that we did business and that’s what we’re doing. And so that has met with a great deal of support and encouragement from the Indians, because we’re engaging them as equal partners now, rather than as a donor recipient.

Secretary Kerry has focused a lot of his energy during the trip on climate change. How big of a role does USAID play in changing the current climate change paradigm?

That’s more of a State Department, Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency domain, but we are firmly involved in climate change issues and that is one of the strategic objectives that we’ve selected for our strategy. And we have programs, for example [with] the DCA that was announced yesterday, that’s a USAID program, the $100 million that we’ve been able to leverage. We also have other programs that are focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency, particularly at the local level. I would say that we’re part in parcel of the whole U.S. government approach to working with India in this area.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.