Pre-Trip Orientation: Niswarth Seminar #3

Dr. Christopher Shaw, a history and economics teacher at PA, was a guest speaker at our gathering.  Dr. Shaw has supported the idea of Niswarth for over 10 years and as Director of the International Academic Partnership gave seed funding for the first iteration of the program in 2004.  He has seen the program in action and has been an important advisor to the development of the program. At this gathering he gave a compelling talk about developmental economics, economic divide in India, and the emergence of microfinance institutions.  Students and teachers were totally engaged, asked keen questions, and are eager to see how education and development are linked in India.

Student reflections from Hannah and Supriya:

This past Friday, our meeting included a lecture by Doctor Shaw on the different levels of poverty and what factors helped them rise out of that poverty. He introduced to us three different kinds of poverty, and the unique perspective of what "homelessness" means in India. First there are those in the slums who live with their large families in a small room all together; they typically live with relatives and have a "home" in the sense that we understand. Next come those that stake off a portion of side walk or street and claim that as their home. They also typically live with relatives or others who take care of them in this stake of concrete and it is their "home". Then there are those at the lowest poverty level who are often children with no one to take care of them. They drift from place to place, never having a "home" to return to. Doctor Shaw then went on to explain the three most important factors that help raise these people out of poverty. The first, and most obvious, is the increase of a households income. The next most important fact, which I found very interesting, is consistent access to clean water. At first I only thought that clean water affected the health of individuals, but it can affect so much more! The availability of clean water functions in a very multifaceted way that affects health, hunger, and education. Clearly, it is unhealthy to drink dirty water and it thus increases the death rate in India, especially for children. A reliable water source is also essential to growing, and preparing food. Water sources are often far away from peoples homes, making them spend a huge amount of time traveling to the water source and back; this leaves very little time for education. All these factors make clean, reliable water a huge part in the process of poverty alleviation. Another factor to poverty alleviation is maternal education. It is important for mothers to be educated so that they can, in turn, educate their children and understand the importance of sending them to school. These factors, working together can bring a family out of any kind of poverty. And this summer at Niswarth, I hope to strengthen the factor of education. 

My first Niswarth meeting was an amazing opportunity to get to know the diverse group of students who will be going on the trip and be exposed to the complexity that is India. Dr. Shaw’s concise and extremely informative presentation on the nature of economics in the largest democracy of the world shed light on a lot of the inherent contradictions and disparities that exist in India. Amidst unparalleled economic growth, large populations of Indians still live in extreme poverty and challenge the traditional notion of “homeless” that exists in the United States. It was interesting to learn how access to clean water and maternal education are two factors that can potentially break the vicious cycle of poverty, and yet how obtaining those things is easier said than done. On this point, we discussed microeconomics, a successfully implemented method that relies on the principle of hand-ups instead of handouts. In true PA fashion, everyone was engaged in the conversation and had many questions for Dr. Shaw, and all this preparatory work will definitely help us make the most out of our time in India. Our discussion then moved to the more cultural aspects of India as we each received a copy of the book, “Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God” and began to discuss the religious diversity and caste system that many associate with India. It’s definitely starting to feel more real- in merely three weeks we’ll actually be in India, experiencing first-hand everything that we’ve talked, read, and heard about. Something that really stands out in my mind about this meeting was the astounding statistic: right now, India has the largest number of malnourished people and will soon have the most obese as well. This, along with all of our conversations, just goes to show that India is impossible to capture in simple terms, and makes me even more grateful to be able to travel there and engage in service-learning with other PA students and faculty members.