The future of development innovation and finance is feminist

[By Ramona Liberoff]

Over more than 25 years of working in innovation and impact, I came to two conclusions: the first is that our public and international finance system needed significant reform for a more just world. The second is that despite the welcome appearance of female leaders like Christine Lagarde and Kristalina Giorgieva, the first women to lead two of the most powerful public finance institutions, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the investment agenda needs to follow at all levels. While both Lagarde and Giorgieva have been outspoken about the need to ‘build back better,’ and have mentioned women, low wage workers, and climate in ways their predecessors did not, they lead large organisations whose working practices and resource allocation do not always align with the ambition or rhetoric at the top.

I started my career in the mid 1990s in corporate innovation. Innovation – an overused word – in this context meant taking a consumer product and figuring out how to price it and market it to more buyers. Fifteen or so years later, I was working with large multinationals and their teams all over the world. Something kept bugging me: the places and the things that needed innovation most weren’t getting new solutions or attention, while there was all this brutal competition and stupendous talent busy launching another brand of toothpaste or mobile phone tariff.

Image credit: pxfuel

I wanted to know who was working on innovations to increase access and lower the cost of affordable energy, clean water, health care, education, and all the other things the world needed most. While there were small social innovation or CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) units in my client’s companies, they usually had no more than ten people. They would control very little budget directly, amounts less than promotional fees for new shampoo.  I also noticed that majority of decision-makers were men, even though their teams of employees were women, and most expected consumers.  Finally, though the companies were global and the workforce international, most people came from the highest, best educated elites-and had never known poverty. It was rare for them to take an interest in making a product more affordable or a business model more inclusive.

In 2010 I left big corporate and went to work for a new kind of company, an “impact business,” that delivered an innovation to connect the more than a billion people who did not have access to mobile phones, particularly women, smallholder farmers and merchants and other excluded or non-urban populations in Africa and Asia.

Given the size of the problem – and the opportunity – I started to get curious about how all these innovations and innovative companies developing solutions to meet fundamental needs get funded. That’s when I learned about development finance: its history, its present, and the fact that it’s not doing the job of funding much of what the world needs most.

What is the definition and history of development finance?

Most countries in the Global North, particularly Western Europe, Scandinavia, the US, Canada, and Australia, have had long standing commitments to provide 0.7% of their GDP toward international development. The history of this target is often aspirational and subject to political whim. There is even an article on most common criticisms at Britannica.

There is something strange about previous colonisers giving back a fraction of what they took from their colonies and calling it “aid”.

Leaving aside any political or philosophical challenges about strategy, power or objectivity in development spending, there is also a very practical one: is the money being spent in the most effective way? Critics like Owen Barder have pointed out that the answer is no.

These funds are much more important now than ever before to meet the world’s Sustainable Development Goals. Development finance money from wealthy countries is supposed to de-risk investment in poorer ones so that private sector money can follow along, which we need in to move ‘billions’ (public money) to ‘trillions’ (private money).

There are a few issues with this setup. For a start, development finance money is fundamentally yours and my money from taxes, but citizens rarely have a visibility or a say in how it’s spent. The organisations who administer this budget are often caught between two paradigms: use money to achieve outcomes or use it to achieve financial returns. The development banks often have charters that do not allow for them to take risk. Therefore, the innovative high growth start-ups go unfunded, while public money invests in what are already good investments, just in geographies less well served by private investors: bridges or power plants, not an edtech start-up. Whole sets of the sustainable development goals are underfunded: for instance, landscape restoration, because the business models and established practices of the development banks do not know how to invest in them.

Changing how this works is difficult, as there is little diversity in the development finance talent pool, and few people who challenge how it works from the inside. The management is usually recruited from mainstream finance organisations, is the elite of the population, and is not required to consult diverse voices from the countries in question about what they want. Economic development is seen as a good in itself. While finance is needed to transition the infrastructure of countries in critical areas as health systems, infrastructure, energy (increasingly although not yet exclusively renewable), and governance, the process of getting it there is more technocratic than democratic.

Why should we as citizens care about development finance?

First, it’s our money, raised from the tax base, which as the recent ProPublica investigation shows, comes disproportionately from our earnings rather than from the wealthy or from businesses. Second, the development budget has often been used as a wrecking ball by the media or political interest without much knowledge about how it is actually being used or how effective it is and without disclosure of the raft of benefits that accrue from its spend to the country. Many ‘aid’ departments have now been folded in under a ‘trade’ department, as in the Australian creation of AusAID and the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO). This leaves the development finance organisations with less support to figure out how their investments matter beyond financial risk and return.

More than anything, money is power. If we want to develop a new paradigm of how to use power wisely, we need to distinguish between classic, narrow investment logic of risk and return, to a much richer, restorative, and participative kind of finance – one which is respectful of what communities want and keeps the long term in mind. This would mean shifting toward investing in regenerative agriculture rather than food processing plants, in climate adaptation rather than energy generation, and in education and skills.

How can development finance be more feminist?

The post COVID recovery gives us an opportunity to re-include voices and perspectives that are often left out of the discussion. Good development finance should serve the citizens and the future over the investors. The benefit of these innovations accrues to us all: with better resilience, countries would avoid conflicts over resources exacerbated by climate change such as water and food security. Greater access to opportunities can be delivered by technology and entrepreneurship. Stronger and more transparent governance of capital markets can strengthen weak states. Financial inclusion and innovation would allow those not in the country’s elite circles access to finance.

Image credit: Claude Renault / Wikimedia

And why is this more feminist? At a working session for Finance in Common, feminist finance is defined as “challenging the status quo to rethink systems and unlock possibilities for transformative change that is inclusive and sustainable.”

The feminist future would see more community involvement in the design and deployment of development finance, more visibility and critique of the current practice, and more funding for grounded entrepreneurs and innovators whose goal is inclusion.

In conclusion…

Whatever finance we provide from public institutions needs to be just, future-oriented, and climate smart. In the areas of innovative and blended finance (the combination of public and private finance) and social enterprise, the majority of practitioners are female. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I believe those outside the system are best placed to question it and come up with alternatives that work better for more people. Now, we just need the money and the power to follow.

Ramona Liberoff is Lead, Strategic Initiatives at Roots of Impact. Roots of Impact is a specialized advisory firm dedicated to making finance work for positive impact on people and planet. We collaborate closely with public funders and impact investors across the globe to scale high-performing enterprises and innovations with strong potential for impact.

Before joining Roots of Impact, Ramona had been CEO of SPRING Accelerator, supporting nearly 80 companies to innovate products and services to improve the lives of millions of adolescent girls in Africa and South Asia, Senior Vice President at Nielsen Innovation, working with Unilever and a team of over 600 innovation experts, and a founder of several start-ups and investor and advisor to many more, including Drinkwell in Bangladesh, Civocracy in Germany, and The Dots and Thermify in the UK. Her passions are people, climate, and innovation to create better futures for both. She holds masters’ degrees from the London School of Economics and Yale University and lives in Berlin.


“The support has to come from home”: Evidence-based assessment of platform work in India

[By Sreelakshmi Ramachandran]

When considering the strategies for India’s economic rebound, it is imprudent to overlook the potential of the wider digital economy, as this all-pervasive technology has altered urban landscapes and living in the last decade in the country. An explosive combination of cheap handsets, lowest data costs in the world and rapid advances in vernacular language processing, has led us to this moment. Therefore, a platform economy of service providers and users can prove to be a robust vehicle for post-pandemic growth. Platform sectors span mobility, logistics, home improvement, beauty & wellness and many others, and the workers deriving their livelihoods from these jobs stand to gain from the safety and hygiene measures put in place to transition to an economy opening up.

Mahalakshmi is a Bangalore citizen in her mid-thirties. Her greatest joys are her ability to support herself in life and driving. She is a partner with a ride-hailing aggregator service in India, and regularly takes up trips in her self-owned sedan during the night – at least, till the pandemic hit and lockdowns and other restrictions were put in place. Through her children, whom she has enrolled in ICSE schools (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education; a school syllabus regarded as more competitive, elite and expensive by India’s mean income standards) to attain world-class education, she vicariously lives her unfulfilled academic dreams that ended in high school. Mahalakshmi represents many platform-entrepreneurs, especially women workers, whose lives have been transformed by the digital revolution and advent of the platform economy in India.

Women like Mahalakshmi still are a rarity in the mobility platform economy of India, despite best efforts directed at increasing representation of women in unconventional jobs like driving or delivery work. In the Indian society, conservative dictums situate women’s “proper” place in the domestic sphere, let alone in service jobs like driving which have traditionally been men’s forte. But it is important for women to be ridesharing service providers, from not just the perspective of their economic mobility; it also makes streets safer, mobility more accessible to women, and brings gender parity to public spaces that are otherwise dominated by  men.

Mahalakshmi, who especially enjoys the longer trips outside her regular city beat, is one of an even rarer group, but signals a shift of gears. There is an active effort by digital mobility platforms tailored towards skilling women in such jobs, mediating their financial access to improve their chances at micro-entrepreneurship through the platform economy, and in acknowledging that structural changes – such as hygienic public restrooms and gender-sensitised traffic police, toll booth operators, male drivers, etc. – are needed. By increasing women’s public participation in this sector, social change is expected to follow.

Apart from the mobility economy, women platform entrepreneurs are found in the services of home-based spa and salon service providers. Women in India are regarded as primary caregivers of their families, and the conventional job market also prioritises women providers for services such as healthcare, primary education, childcare, geriatric care, or beauty work. Replicating such historic trends in care work, but with greater pay, perks and flexibility than available in any other type of jobs, women have found lucrative opportunities in the at-home services platform, and stand to gain the most when the economy reopens post-COVID: Platforms are prioritising partner vaccinations, compliance with COVID-Appropriate Behaviour (CAB) and ensuring safety and hygiene for all actors.

Image credit: Jorge Royan / Wikimedia

The Ola Mobility Institute (OMI) has undertaken extensive research on the Indian digital platform economy and documented trends across urban services sectors that are now online; primarily, the digital economy of services is found in mobility, e-commerce & logistics, on-demand food delivery and at-home services, including home maintenance and salon services. Platform companies focus on matching skilled professionals with urban consumers in need of their services, and essentially act as digital intermediaries or online marketplaces. OMI studies the Future of Work from the prism of platform partners as micro-entrepreneurs, while fully accounting for nuances in a market like India where the conventional economy has a high number of self-employed workers and an even higher proportion of wage workers. These trends are replicated within platform relationships, and makes for a comparative study between work in and outside of the platform economy.

In the report, “Unlocking Jobs in the Platform Economy: Propelling India’s post-Covid Recovery”, OMI has collected primary data and presents the trends in the mobility platform economy in mid-2019; it shows how pre-pandemic, workers associated with platforms consistently supported more dependents than those outside of it, earned a higher income based on hours inputted, accessed finance and bought assets for the sharing economy, all different from the trends spotted in the traditional economy. Since the beginning of the pandemic and the resultant economic shutdown, platform workers have accessed more immediate relief, welfare nets and found work in emergency response operations coordinated by platform companies, thus securing incomes in albeit small ways.

A platform-led recovery from the economic effects of COVID-19 cases surging in 2021 can be realised: combined with meaningful reform, platform work can be made more secure, remunerative and an effective form of micro-entrepreneurship. Self-employment has long been the mainstay of the Indian labour market: the challenge is to prevent it turning exploitative. The study from OMI reveals that self-employment and asset ownership have important roles to play in buoying incomes in and outside the platform economy, and this can be achieved through reforms in the financial sector and lending practices. Driver-partners such as Mahalakshmi also benefit from being asset owners, i.e., owners of the means of their work, such as a vehicle, in the case of the mobility economy, and therefore are able to attain socio-economic mobility rapidly, through the platform economy.

Much of the debate around regulating work hinges on ‘on-the-job-benefits’. Therefore, to achieve universalised social security, well-funded state-led social safety schemes such as family healthcare and small savings for dignified retirement, and beneficiary qualification independent of worker status has to be normalised. This would require the recognition that equitable schemes can be designed only based on:

  • recognising the variety of platform work
  • augmenting social security financing through innovative means (like multi-source funding including civil society contributions)
  • institutionalising scientific methods to design these schemes
  • supporting workers and ensuring benefits reach them,
  • and welfare-state governments like India can lead the charge in effective labour reform.

This is the spirit of the recommendations in the “RAISE framework” captured in OMI’s report on ways to achieve lucrative and secure platform jobs, without burdening the job creator alone.

Women like Mahalakshmi deserve the chance to explore productive micro entrepreneurship. Future of Work is about equitable access and remunerative jobs which accommodate flexible needs without penalising workers with respect to their social security. The digital economy is the perfect testing grounds for such a solution, to benefit skilled workers across the spectrum, and it is time to acknowledge that truly socialised security is the only way to equalise our job market.

Sreelakshmi Ramachandran leads the Future of Work track at the Ola Mobility Institute, where she works on the experience of mobility workers in and outside the platform economy, social security systems and opportunities for mobile-based skilling. She also examines job creation in the light of the sustainability push, as well as financing public infrastructures and asset creation. She holds a Master’s degree in Development Studies from IIT-Madras and is interested in all things urban.


Another kind of silk road

[By Arvind Saraf]

Surat, a bustling city on the west coast of India, had been manufacturing silk and cotton since the 1700s. Entrepreneurs (including my family) poured in from all over India from the 1970s onwards, setting up their garment businesses. The city now has more than 40,000 power looms, about 400 dyeing and printing mills, thousands of embellishment units, and tens of thousands of manufacturing traders who work with these units and account for approximately 65% of synthetic fabric production in India. Traders from Surat supply to the wholesale markets in Chandni Chowk in Delhi, Kalba Devi in Mumbai, Bada Bazaar in Kolkata, Chickpet in Bangalore, and most other cities in India.

Dilip Shadeja runs an apparel retail shop named Sindh dresses in Varanasi, India. He buys his supply from the Surat wholesalers, and sells to a mix of existing and new walk-in customers. He is amongst the 18 million small retailers who make up more than 80% of retail in India.

The scale

The apparel industry, from manufacturers, traders and retailers, is dominated by small/medium businesses (SMBs, also referred to as SMEs), traditionally family-owned and run.

The sector is highly competitive, with net margins in single digit percentages. 70% of units in this sector have applied some form of digital tools but only 1% really use deep technology such as IoT, Artificial intelligence or Robotic process automation. While the total value of retail in India is $600 billion, close to $65 billion is lost annually due to supply chain inefficiencies.

I have had the opportunity to interact with these SMBs due to my family roots in Surat, along with my more recent experience of 8 years as an entrepreneur. The stress, challenge, and fear of survival amongst these SMBs is very real.

Relevant technology and digital solutions promise viability, survival, and growth of the businesses. More than any time in the past, the need and opportunity to adopt these tools is now.

The nature of business

Apparel manufacturing is a multi-step process, starting with raw material (natural or synthetic yarn) that gets woven into fabric, dyed, or printed, optionally embellished with surface work (e.g. embroidery, stonework, or handwork) and stitched. A trading manufacturer (esp. SMB) works on the designs to make and sell under his trade name, take the corresponding inventory risk, but often outsources many of the above manufacturing steps to other vendors or suppliers. Traditional SMB Apparel trading is low margin, with net margins in single digit percentages.

Image credit: PxHere

Apparel trading is inventory led – which means a business must buy the inventory before it can be sold. Most of these businesses (retailers or wholesalers) do not have access to institutional credit. They depend on their known supplier (wholesaler or manufacturer) to sell to them on credit with an agreed payment period. The payment credit period allows the buying trader the time to sell the product and repay back the supplier. The supplier makes the credit decision based on the buyer’s prior payment history or feedback from the other suppliers known to him (‘references’). A retailer with a period of poor sales could default on his payment to his supplying wholesaler, which may cascade these defaults to the manufacturing trader and their vendors. The credit risk limits the supplier options and hence design choices for the buyer.

Various auxiliary processes, critical to the industry, such as logistics, warehousing, marketing material creation (i.e. photo studios and printing) are also highly SMB dominated.

The opportunity

There are various business processes that must be run timely and efficiently, with minimal wastage for these businesses to be viable:

  1. Production and supply:
    1. Purchase of raw material or finished goods, aligned with planned production or projected sales.
    2. Coordination of work-in-progress inward or outward, including material requirement planning.
    3. Planning the usage and production of machines with the workforce.
  2. Marketing, sales, and distribution:
    1. Keeping existing customers (and new) informed of new products, inventory status, offers and discounts in a real time way; enabling buyers to track order dispatch and logistics status.
    2. Reaching out to new buyers, be they businesses or end customers.
    3. Assessing credit worthiness of buyers, including reference checks. Payment receivable tracking, starting with capturing trade terms and follow up on it.

Digitization opens the prospect of better tracking, visibility, and thus better decisions. Currently,

software to digitize above processes may not exist or are often entity-specific and not interoperable. Therefore, information gaps between the different companies remain.

Technology for social impact has been talked about for more than two decades, from the early wave of affordable computing (~2000-2005, e.g. MIT Media Lab’s One Laptop per Child, Simputer), improved communication around SMS (~2005-2010), to internet’s increased reach (e.g. growth of e-commerce). However, the opportunity now is much more real.

People have computing and connectivity in their hands, and they have been using it to further their business, with about 1 million businesses using WhatsApp to share product catalogue images, ledgers or general selling. Goods & Services Tax in 2016 and now COVID-19 has expedited the need to go digital. A decade ago, most apparel SMBs looked at technology startup innovation space as a separate world, not making sense to them, not applicable to them. Now, many look at it with curiosity, as a way out of challenges they see.

Mobile app first platforms now are enabling the following:

  1. B2B marketplaces, allowing manufacturers to list their products and retailers to buy from them. This allows global product discovery by the retailers, while also expanding reach and visibility of these businesses. Existing buyers can also see better retention.
  2. Enabling newer and lower fixed cost forms of retail. E-commerce has promised to take away some of the inventory risks, rental, and fixed costs from the merchants, but has not delivered financial viability yet. Social commerce is seeing innovation and adoption with similar promise.
  3. Enabling businesses to manage their existing channel sales better through technology and data. The channel could include direct customers, businesses, or a network of salesmen.
  4. SaaS (statistical software) solutions for businesses to manage some part of supply or book-keeping, tightly coupled to their buyers or suppliers use of WhatsApp.
  5. Platforms aggregating the highly fragmented logistics providers catering to this industry.
  6. Factoring out credit / working capital friction from the businesses by using prior transactions and references, beyond those used by banks and financial institutions.

Indian manufacturing and retail (overall, not limited to apparel) is different from North America, Europe or even China, but similar to most other emerging markets. SMBs are significant employment generators but now need technology driven efficiencies to survive. Technology products that work for India now have a much larger opportunity to deliver core impact globally. The success of some early startups is a sign of a promising future.

Arvind Saraf is a Computer scientist (trained at IIT, MIT & Google) and a Technology entrepreneur. He spent a decade setting up impact technology ventures in India – including co-founded a Ratan Tata backed healthcare social tech venture (Swasth India), digitized a bootstrapped apparel brand (Triveni sarees), and built and scaled a VC backed SMB focussed B2B fashion tech venture, Wishbook. He currently heads Engineering at Drishti – a company using AI to drive continuous improvement in manufacturing.

Blog Series: Re-thinking a crippled society

Re-thinking a crippled society – Part II: Inclusivity

This is the second part of a three-part series by Soumita Basu, a social-development-practitioner-turned-entrepreneur. When she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, Soumita’s views on society transformed. This experience made her realize how much is wrong with our society and the way we organize it. Join her reflections on re-thinking productivity, inclusivity, and entrepreneurship.

Slipping through the shades of oblivion

[By Soumita Basu]

It was a day like any other, until it wasn’t. No, not days like just anybody’s. But like ours. The ones in which we have to make umpteen calls if we want to catch up with a friend over coffee. Or plan days in advance if we have to celebrate with a lovely dining out experience. No, our days are not like yours, because everything needs planning – to the last detail. And then not much is left to uncharted experience. I am like anyone else, sometimes wanting to tread carefully, and sometimes just wanting to jive spontaneously. Having to meticulously plan every single outing can be tiring.

I’m tempted to think this need for such extensive (and often, expensive) logistics is due to my disability. It all happens, because I can’t move easily; because I use a wheelchair; because my hands are feeble and crooked, deformed and grip-less. And then, I think again. It’s because ramps are rare; it’s because everyone is expected to be comfortable with the same spoon; it’s because everyone thinks lounging is more comfortable (no! It hurts. It actually hurts most people, irrespective of their disability). And then on such days, I realise that it’s something much more fundamental: it’s about having surroundings that are thoughtful. Its knowing that I’m not ostracised and that people have given me enough thought.

So what really had happened that day?

I had yet another experience where I was told I was asking for a lot of accommodations. Reminders at every step that I’m not really mainstream and am expected to stay on the margins. Yet another experience where I had to claim my space instead of feeling I naturally belong. This surely wasn’t my worst experience but definitely one of the most frustrating. Here’s why: I was invited on this program for my work on inclusion; the program was by an organisation that promotes inclusion, diversity and encourages empowerment. But I felt excluded by someone who claims to be dedicated to the cause of (women’s) empowerment – the main facilitator of this programme and here, we will call her Halodale.

In a snapshot: I was one of the finalists in a program for women entrepreneurs, curated and organised by an agency and one of the leading universities of the world. Due to the pandemic, most of the programme was adapted for an online delivery. After nearly 18 months, the last 3-day segment was held in person. My disabilities, by then, were well known to the organisers. I had been given a lot of spotlight on their social media, for my work and often my lived experience of physical disabilities. Yet, the hall arranged for this 3-day meeting was not accessible for me. In fact, when I wasn’t asked if I had any specific needs, I was happy to assume they knew how to ensure inclusion and diversity. It was only when I started asking about some specific accessible needs for the room I had been assigned for my stay (more out of habit!), that I realised no thought had been given to how I would navigate the space. Halodale then just left it to me to contact the venue and make the right arrangements, and I did. Apart from fixing accessibility in my room, I also shifted the meetings to an accessible hall within the same grounds. There was such a space; the organisers had only to ask.

When suddenly faced with it all, Halodale only asked me this: “Would you like to stay in your room when the women entrepreneurs’ group goes out for dinner together? It’s a part of the agenda on Day 1 and I don’t know if the restaurant we are going to is accessible, but I will be happy to arrange for your dinner in your room. Would you like me to?”

I felt a bit stumped. I asked her if the objective of the group dinner was networking (extremely important for entrepreneurs). She tried to dodge it initially and then agreed that it would help in networking. However, she insisted that staying back could be an easier option for me. I countered the insistence with a simple offer: I can suggest accessible restaurants if she is willing to consider it. (It wasn’t difficult to find these restaurants as some mobile food apps allows restaurants to mark themselves as accessible and disability-friendly). I sensed reluctance. She had already used some contacts to reserve tables. On probing I found the reservation was without any pre-payment. Although I must admit, even that should not be an obstacle to include a participant. She offered to carry me over any steps we might encounter. Neither my safety, nor my dignity mattered to her. I refused. Finally, she agreed to look for another place based on my suggestion.

After everything was settled, I cried. Ten minutes were washed away by my tears. No, I didn’t feel relieved that I was finally included. I was pained that even where I had made a mark for myself, I still had to fight to be included. I cried because I just went to war to make space for myself, in a place where my existence was already known, where I had earned my spot. I was included in the program, but was far from being integrated.

Can laws enforce integration?

The hotel where the meetings were held boasted of four stars. To ensure it retains all its stars, it had to abide by the laws passed under Right of Persons with Disabilities Act (2016). It had mobile ramps. They are always quickly hidden away as soon as a wheelchair crossed over it; brought out only when another wheelchair user asks for it and patiently waits for it to arrive. The ramps are so steep that no wheelchair user would be able to wheel herself up or down the ramp. In fact, they’re too steep even for a comfortable walk. At many places, there were heavy glass doors which could only be swung open manually. They had only one disability-friendly room and they couldn’t offer a hard mattress there. They explained that they only had hard mattresses the size of a single bed, and the disability friendly room had a double bed. People with lower back issues usually prefer hard mattresses. The hotel didn’t consider that, just like it ignored all other accessibility needs. This is not just a matter of empathy. It is bad business. What business sense does it make to spend on ramps that don’t do the job?

Image credit: Mahesh Basedia

Even some of the top hotels I have been to across the country, had similar issues. Every one of them had only one room designed as a disability-friendly room. Yet, none of these special rooms were actually disability-friendly. None of them considered many disabilities like blindness and deafness. Mobility impairment was the main focus and even for that, the rooms were not fully accessible. I could hear the walls whisper the underlying assumption in every design. The designer didn’t expect a person with disabilities to travel independently. They are always expected to be escorted.

From disogyny to kindness

Like me, you may be wondering as well why all rooms are not disability-friendly. Wouldn’t it be easier for other guests, too? Those with a slipped disc, lower back ache, knee pain, sore neck (I can go on). Wouldn’t it be easier for the elderly? Wouldn’t it make more business sense to offer more comfort, especially in the luxury hospitality sector? If all rooms were disability-friendly, we wouldn’t have to frantically ask for it. We wouldn’t feel so ‘different’, so ‘special’. You can design to integrate, you can design to include, or you can design to disable.

So, why are these very evolved businesses not making enough business sense? Probably for the same reason Halodale was not very inclusive even as she works for the inclusion of women. Shrinath, a dear friend, calls it the problem of ‘disogyny’. We have coined this word to mean the hatred of, contempt for, or prejudice against people with disabilities. It enforces ableism by punishing those who reject an inferior status for people with disabilities.

Disogyny is systemically fanned. It has strong roots in our socialisation which emphasises homogeneity. We are made to think all our wants and needs are same and any difference is stigmatised. How often do we ask our guests if they have any food allergies before serving them? The person with allergies is expected to proactively ask and often gets something completely different from others, often served much before or after others. This is a small example from everyday life that shows how deeply the notion of uniformity is entrenched in us. It gives rise to assumptions, which we think are universal truths. But there is only one universal truth: kindness. Kindness doesn’t assume. It only asks “how can I help?”. Having that space to ask for help, the way you need and want it, is real empowerment.

While laws can help to push infrastructure to be inclusive, and nudge some thinking, it is people and thoughtfulness that can truly integrate. Thoughtful business is good business.

Soumita Basu is the founder CEO of Zyenika Inclusive Fashion, a company that designs clothes for all body types and physical abilities. Her work at Zyenika has been recognised with the Entrepreneurial India Award, 2021. She is the India Inclusion Fellow, 2020 and recognised as an Industry Disruptor by DO School, Berlin, UNWomen and the European Union. Soumita started her career as a journalist and then specialised as a social development practitioner and researcher, particularly in the domains of livelihoods, governance, and heath. Soumita’s focus has always been on cross-cutting issues like gender, inclusion, and equality. She is waiting for the publication of her reimagination of popular fairytales with a feminist lens. Soumita has earned a PG Diploma in Journalism, from Asian College of Journalism, and a Masters in Development Studies from ISS, The Hague, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She was awarded a fellow position at the Netherlands Fellowship Programme.


The case for care as essential infrastructure

[By Sharmi Surianarain and Kate Boydell]

Picture this familiar sight: the political leader in a hard-hat on a construction site, promising public investment in basic infrastructure o create new jobs and unlock wider growth. It’s a photo-op and sound-bite we can expect to see repeatedly in the months ahead as governments around the world seek to reboot their economies, post-COVID. 

But before we shovel money into ‘shovel-ready’ projects, we should pause. Because if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that the critical infrastructure that underpins our societies doesn’t always need a hard hat.

Another overlooked, human infrastructure underpins almost all human economic activity—one that isn’t extractive, that has no negative environmental impact, that doesn’t depend on imports and that’s resilient to macroeconomic forces.

We are talking about the infrastructure of caregiving. This infrastructure—spanning a range of jobs—helps meet society’s most fundamental needs: the physical, psychological and emotional needs of adults and children, old and young, frail and able-bodied.

Caring for our own families might not seem like an economic act, but how we organise it has huge economic and social consequences. These are especially felt by women, since care work (paid and unpaid) is usually performed by them as a routine part of their domestic or even professional roles. This has been acutely felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed the vital need for the large-scale provision of care—to children, the elderly, vulnerable and sick. School closures forced policy-makers to ask not just ‘how will children learn?’, but also ‘how will parents work?’ And, care giving is often the invisible glue that binds many activities together—strengthening our daily transactions with relational bonds.

Image credit: SmartStart

It is now clear that this “infrastructure of care” is just as vital as roads, ports and data networks, and it plays an important role across the human life cycle. Investing in early childhood care alone multiplies value at a grand scale—improving the health and educational outcomes for a generation of children, creating thousands of jobs, while also enabling caregivers to work outside the home.

So why don’t we talk about and invest in care work this way? There are many reasons.

One is simply a failure of political imaginations shaped by that persistent hard-hat image—and an inability to recognize caregiving as work. Second, due to powerful social norms, the work primarily done by women is tarred with the pernicious low-skill label which lowers the status of those who do it and those who study it.

But there is also a practical and immediately addressable reason we continually overlook the potential of care as an economic lever: we just didn’t know how to pull it.

Economists bring precision and broad consensus to how economic activity is counted and reported. They develop models that value it properly, including wider systemic effects. And they propose new investment mechanisms to shape and unlock that value. In other words, they define economic levers and how to use them. Historically neglected by mainstream economics, care work has as a result, been under-counted, under-valued and under-invested. Indeed, as a result, “care feminism has taken a backseat to career feminism.”

What if care feminism engaged with mainstream economics head on? We suggest three specific actions to recast care using feminist economics: Count it. Value it. Invest in it.

Count it.

“What gets counted, counts,” said data feminist Joni Seager.

Over 16 billion hours are spent on unpaid care work every day – a reality that many of us had to confront during the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools and day-cares were shuttered.

If care work—as priceless as it is—was actually counted in real GDP estimates, this would be valued at over $11 trillion. If “care work” were an economy, it would rank only behind the United States and China.

But it is hard to put a price to something as intangible and priceless as care.

Many of us prickle at the act of counting it—as it relates to an act so fundamentally cherished and so human, one that evokes deep emotions. As if care were something that can be measured by money and economics alone.

But money and economics matter. Especially to the millions of those in this sector who are unpaid and under-valued.

And so, if what gets counted, does indeed count, then the act of “counting” the care economy—in our national accounts, and as “real work”—reveals its value.

Counting care work as work and accounting for it in our GDP is the first step, giving us a language with which to comprehend its many dimensions, to label it, categorise, and regulate it. Drawing on decades of activism for the decriminalization of sex work, for example, it allows for care work to be situated within a broader framework of worker’s rights.

Counting care work can allow for the design of policies that acknowledge that burden of care and allows for the regulation of work in this space. Formal recognition of care work as “work” takes it out of the shadows, where this work can be so easily ignored and exploited because it does not count.

Value it

Even if we did count care work in our national accounts or included this work in broader frameworks of workers’ rights, this still would not be enough. Valuing care work requires a fundamental shift in the way we not just count work—but also how we pay for it and protect it.

Women comprise more than 76% of the total care workforce of nearly 400 million—and this work is some of the least paid and most precarious in the world.

Care responsibilities often come at a cost—professional, and personal. The most well-known of these being the motherhood penalty—where women with young children record the lowest employment rates in the world. Care work is also exhausting, demanding, and fraught with physical and emotional complexities.

Image credit: SmartStart

As Ai-jen Poo reminds us “caregiving is most definitely work: physically strenuous, rigorous work that requires discernment and flexibility. As with all forms of labour, you put in a hard day’s work and you expect to be appreciated and compensated.”

What if we valued this work at a structural, systemic level, as well as paid for it, and protected it the way we should?

Recent insurance and divorce settlements in India and China point to a slow shift towards greater monetary valuing of the work done by women in the home. We need to amplify and institutionalize these trends.

Paid family leave for caregiving responsibilities has been shown to help women stay in the labour force and improve well-being for caregivers across the world. Including care and domestic worker rights in national frameworks for labour legislation, imposing minimum floors and clear frameworks to reduce abuse and exploitation can also make a difference.

Invest in it

The ILO estimates that over 2 billion people will need care by 2030—as a result of a growing and ageing population. Unlike many other economic sectors where jobless growth is the norm, the care economy represents huge possibilities.

Demographic trends of ageing and population growth suggests that over 400 million jobs could be generated across the world. Expanding the early childhood development infrastructure, to meet the need worldwide for early childhood care, could alone generate up to 43 million jobs.   

Organisations like Silver Angels in India are trying to focus on the elder care market and investable ideas and opportunities that can be harnessed. Early childhood is a growing focus area for investment by countries, donors, and private investors alike—with the World Bank alone committing over $6 billion in ECD and related investments over 15 years.

Indeed, if we truly valued the things we said we did, we would invest our resources in ideas that strengthen our support for those who need care without compromising its intrinsic value.

All the recent efforts to quantify care work, to evaluate investment in caregiving versus other industries, and to reimagine how it is provided show that the tide may be turning on how care work is viewed, spurred by the aftershocks of COVID as well as long-term demographic shifts.

We can choose to ignore the value of caregiving in our plans, or we can strengthen this invisible infrastructure and empower the millions that carry its weight.

It’s time to lay aside the hard hats and take a hard-headed approach to investing in caregiving – so it can become an engine of economic growth and human thriving.

Sharmi Surianarain serves as the Chief Impact Officer, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa.  Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator develops African solutions for the global challenge of youth unemployment. Sharmi is an activist for opportunity creation for young people, particularly women. She is an Aspen African Leadership Initiative Fellow, Class of 2020 and sits on the Boards of Emerging Public Leaders, Ongoza, Metis, Instill Education and is on the Advisory Council for the NextGen Ecosystem Builders Africa 2020. Sharmi holds a B.A. from Harvard University, a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Kate Boydell is a writer and advisor with 25 years’ experience using the power of strategic stories to help leaders, movements and organisations bring about systems change. She has a particular focus on the future of work and of education, gender and parenthood, and purpose-driven leadership. She is a Fellow of the RSA, an Unreasonable Impact Mentor, a former Head of Strategy at change consulting firm SYPartners and former WPP Fellow.


What does the abandoned public toilet tell us?

[By Chinar Mehta]

Abandoned public toilets have become a familiar sight in India. Long power cuts and acute water shortages have rendered thousands of them unusable. While the burden of maintaining the toilets falls on the sanitation workers, the sanitation system remains institutionally disconnected from the water or electricity system. Across India, the continued challenges to the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Campaign) have thrown light on these institutional failures and the socio-cultural politics of sanitation work. This keeps many of the newly constructed toilets unused. What causes this gap between the intentions behind these interventions and actual use?

Image credit: Karan Rai

One aspect that has recently been highlighted in social projects is to understand the “system change” required for interventions to work. Standing in typical project management terminology, system change is defined as “the emergence of a new pattern of organization or system structure. That pattern being the physical structure, the flows and relationships or the mindsets or paradigms of a system, it is also a pattern that results in the new goals of the system.” This pattern of relationships is essentially what can be understood to be a stakeholder analysis. As a methodology, stakeholder analysis is employed in a variety of industries and is tied to any kind of project management. It helps with understanding connections between things and identifying root causes. However, it often deems invisible the human dimension that is long fraught with cultural stigma, inequality, and precarity.

FemLab.Co stakeholder management: in pursuit of the invisible

Informal sectors such as construction, sanitation, gig, and artisanal work have a workforce that seems scattered. Thus, identifying stakeholders can be challenging. Important stakeholders are usually identified from the following domains: international actors, governmental (ministries and local governments), political (legislators), labour unions, private or for-profit organizations, non-profit organizations and in some cases, civil society organizations (CSOs). Essentially, the analysis (usually) reveals the impacts of a state policy initiative on various parties, which may be individuals, aggregates of individuals, or organizations. Proponents of stakeholder analysis argue that it enables the efficient and effective completion of a policy or a project that is most acceptable to all parties involved.

Stakeholder analysis is derived from a research paradigm that values the different experiences of stakeholders with the “same” reality. Take for instance the use of machines in sewer cleaning in India and Bangladesh. Sally Cawood and Amita Bhakta, urban studies scholars, write that sewer-cleaning robots and machines have been rolled out somewhat effectively, but one of the issues the truck drivers and helpers face is that the machine parts are not locally available. So, while the health risks of workers are seemingly solved using machines, the workers face a reality not accounted for by the policymakers. In part, our research also seeks to identify and amplify stakeholders whose voices have so far not been heard.

Entering the rabbit hole

Two key challenges have to be met for a meaningful stakeholder analysis: Firstly, in India, where approximately 450 million workers are employed in the informal sector, revealing all the relevant stakeholders proves to be a monumental task that never truly concludes. The sectors that we have picked for this research have been selected on the basis of the existing structures of terms and conditions, collectivization, and the precarity faced by women workers in the sector. Moreover, some stakeholders such as middlemen who supply labour or connect workers to potential markets only appear as and when we examine the field. Making a stakeholder map, then, becomes a fraught but creative exercise. Consequently, a second challenge lies in estimating how localised we keep our analysis.

Each sector has its own unique networks of stakes, and a stakeholder analysis begins to reveal gaps in communication within these networks. Sanitation work, in which we largely focus on workers who are employed within the public infrastructure, includes cleaning and sweeping of houses, streets, roads, institutional premises, railway lines, train toilets, community and public toilets, drains and sewers. At the outset, the specific work that we are looking at consists majorly of government stakeholders at varying levels – national, state, and local. While local CSOs are crucial to understanding collectivization, advocacy efforts are also directed towards legislative policy formulation.

For instance, there are clusters of groups of domestic workers in Hyderabad locally, but many issues faced by domestic workers may only be mitigated by a central law since workers commonly cross interstate boundaries. This is even more necessary considering that employers in this sector are largely individuals and scattered across the city. On the other hand, sanitation work undertaken by local governments, while formalised to an extent, is closely linked to private manufacturers, contractors, and research institutions. But each of these entities is diverse; for instance, while the role of contractors has largely to do with supplying labour, contractors may be corporations or individuals. Depending on the unique conditions of contractual labour, CSOs channel their advocacy efforts towards the contractors. Moreover, manufacturers and research institutions have to work in close collaboration to develop and produce machines that help in sanitation work. However, the presence of only a few large-scale manufacturers and scattered local suppliers makes product differentiation and development difficult. This points to a gap in communication within the stakeholder network.

We have noted that even though we have a stakeholder map from secondary research, many of the stakeholders will only become visible as we go into the field. In the construction sector, contractors and builders are a diverse group of stakeholders. As we begin to go into the field, we see that labour contractors in this sector are mostly those who got promoted from the workers themselves, and they have strong ties with the community based on geographical and social location. Depending on these ties, the involvement of the contractors, and what they imagine to be their stake in the workers’ welfare will emerge from the field.

Pinning down emerging stakeholders

Pinning specific stakeholders when digital tools are involved needs more thought; these platforms seem centralised and de-centralised at the same time. For example, the supply chain in platformised work is largely opaque. In the platform salon work, particularly, issues faced by women workers remain highly localised depending on customer responses, but platform policies are formulated at a much higher level in the corporation. As Sai Amulya Komarraju writes,

“Customers and their experience and satisfaction are placed at the apex since they bring business, and software engineers enable ‘extra-legal’ mechanisms (rating, tracking etc.) to monitor the service partners through the app in order to ensure the quality of services. Even though service partners are considered as a crucial resource […], the oversupply of workers compared to the demand, and control mechanisms in the form of rating and reviews serve to maintain power asymmetries between the platform, customer, and the service partner.”

Defining stakes then takes on the challenge of translating the language of the women workers to what can be included in the language that is actionable by developers and managers who develop the platform.

There may be many traditional and new stakeholders involved in these sectors. On one hand, there are emerging stakeholders that work in collaboration with traditional stakeholders, for instance, in the sanitation sector. When the Nagpur Municipal Corporation introduced watches with GPS to surveil sanitation workers, the workers and other activists opposed the move. What is important to note here is that NMC collaborated with a Bangalore-based IT company to use these rented watches to track the movement of all sanitation workers. The IT company, in this case, is a relevant stakeholder that, until even a few years ago, would not have been associated with this sector. On the other hand, we also find that emerging stakeholders may introduce us to view digital collectivisation as an alternative, as diffused as these stakeholders may be. For instance, Facebook groups where domestic workers across the world make a community, help them to articulate their common concerns, fostering a sense of solidarity and community. The members of such groups and the platform corporation are all stakeholders of different kinds, and the stakes would have to be defined with the end goal of collectivisation in mind.

What’s in it for me – rethinking stakeholder logics

Previous work on stakeholder mapping exercises has critiqued the reductionist approach that this methodology may seem to encourage. Traditional stakeholder analyses assume that stakeholder behaviours are only guided by rational, individualised concerns. “What’s in it for me?” the stakeholder seems to ask. Instead, the authors argue for an approach that takes into account the politics of “the history, the present, and the expectations of the future” which they collectively operationalise as “shadows of context”. Our initial experience in the field echoes this sentiment.

While direct guidelines about how to create a stakeholder map are useful, these guidelines have to be reorganized to reflect what we learn in the field. During this process of stakeholder mapping, we keep going back to the image of the abandoned toilet; remembering that interventions need to be sensitive to the “shadows of context”. These shadows are not only at the point of the result of an action research project, but needs to be a part of the project from the very start.


Automation of the Readymade Garment Sector in Bangladesh: Who is paying the price?

[By Mohammad Sahid Ullah and Rawshon Akhter]

Alaya Akter, a first-generation garment worker in Bangladesh, began her apparel career as an operator assistant in the early 90s. She lost her job at the age of 48 due to automation at her factory last year. She is no exception; several thousands of Readymade Garment (RMG) workers across Bangladesh lost their job since the automation started after the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that caused 1,132 deaths and more than 2,500 injured. The increasing automation is also partly a realization of the “Digital Bangladesh” vision the Bangladesh Awami League party outlined in 2008 for the year 2021 – the country’s 50th anniversary. But it is coming at a price.

The losers of automation are mainly women like Aliya, who have migrated from the village with little or no education to work in the garments sector, primarily situated in the city areas. A study by the private think-tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in 2018 found that the automation of manufacturing reduced the female workers’ participation ratio in the garment sector to 60.8% in 2016 from 64 % in 2015. The current male-to-female worker ratio in the garment industry is 41.7 to 58.3, according to a BRAC university study. The report of 2020 claims that the main reason for decreasing female workers’ participation is that the factory owners consider female workers illiterate and unable to handle modern machinery properly.

In Bangladesh, around 4.2 million workers in 4,825 factories produce goods for export to the global market, principally Europe and North America. To meet foreign retailers’ strict lead-time requirements, 47.37% of large businesses and 25% of medium companies use automation and other advanced technologies. The sector has been in a severe crisis of a lack of overseas buyers’ orders due to the global COVID-19 outbreak, However, the country has recovered thanks to a Tk. 10,500 crore ($ 1,221 million) bailout fund (Stimulus package) from Bangladesh’s government and a rise in retailers’ orders from overseas buyers. Yet, how automation will impact women in this garment industry and whether new technological interventions and the future of decent work for women are compatible remain open questions.

RMG factory in Bangladesh
Image credit: Fahad Faisal / Wikimedia

To explore the impact of automation among female garment workers we interviewed entrepreneurs, union leaders, and think tank members. Moreover, we consulted some recent studies on the matter. Several reports have mapped critical tensions between the empowerment and disempowerment of RMG workers for automation of this industry.

The garment industry’s struggle for survival

The CPD survey, after inspection of 193 garment enterprises and 2,123 workers, has found that female workers are proportionately less knowledgeable about operating different machines than their male counterparts. The initiative, Mapped in Bangladesh (MiB), was launched in 2017, a BRAC university project in collaboration with the Netherlands’ Embassy in Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers, and Exporters Association (BGMEA). The Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA) mentioned that wage hikes and automation are the major factors behind the decline in the sector’s overall workforce.

The $ 30 billion export and 15% of the Bangladeshi economy’s GDP generation industry considered that automation is the cause of job loss. At the same time, there is hope that RMG businesses become more profitable and sustainable due to automation. For instance, Mostafiz Uddin, Managing Director of Denim Expert Limited, a leading RMG businessperson from Chattogram, regarding automation recently said, “Automation facilitated increased economic growth which ultimately led to job creation.” The World Economic Forum also forecasts that by the mid-2030s, one-third of all jobs could be automated, stating that the workforce most likely to be disrupted will be those who have low educational attainment. This is a strong argument for placing an increased focus on training and education alongside work in the RMG sector. This is something that the Bangladeshi government has thankfully begun to look more closely at in recent years, opines Mr Uddin.

According to Mr Uddin, the garment industry is very people-intensive and provides millions of jobs, but automation is minimal. So, the productivity rates and wage rates are still low. Falling behind in automation will put the business at risk in the future; mentioning this, Mr Uddin points out:

“If we want to move onto the next level of high production, profit and wages we must   embrace automation. Our very survival will be under threat, given that all of our major competitors—Vietnam, India, China and so on—are now looking to automation in a big way.”

A similar voice was raised by Syed Nasir, Managing Director of QPail Ltd from Tongi, Gazipur, a big hub for Bangladesh’s apparel industry. He said, “Buyers prioritise error-free product, and automation ensures flawless products and also helps to boost production rate.” His factory started the automation process in 2016 and completed the transformation in late 2019 with a Taka 50 crore (US$ 5.81 million) bank loan. He opines that although 70% of his factory workers were women, it is less than a percent at the inspection level.

Mr Uddin admits that the adoption of automation from the very beginning jerks this low-cost, labour-intensive garment industry’s job security. “Countries like Vietnam, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka have already proved that new technologies and automation boost productivity growth, lower product prices, and ensure higher wages and much profit,” says Mr Uddin.

Inevitable automation – at whose cost?

“It is a day for quality and competent people, unskilled has gradually been replaced by skills. There is no way except adopting the automation to satisfy buyers,” said Syed Nasir. Following pressure from buyers, factories have to switch to automation with enormous costs, but buyers do not intend to pay more for a product. Thus, many factories face difficulties to repay loans, and some even shut their doors. Syed Nasir explains their approach:

“… as we grab orders, we can repay those loan from the profit. In fact, better price does not depend on automation, but boost up the priority to some extent in grabbing orders from other competitors.”

Dr Syed Basher, Professor of Economics at the East-West University, Bangladesh, and a leading researcher on the RMG sector, categorises the effects of automation at the RMG sector into two-fold, firstly for the short term; this move cuts jobs. Still, it benefits by boosting production and reliability on the quality of output for the long term. Automation is a long-time process and almost all factories have already automated the washing and knitting section. Two-third of big factories have adopted the swing, the most important section of RMG.

“I don’t think the job cut affect women labour because it takes several years to switch a full-fledged automation or robotic installation. The shift takes place gradually and for such, there is not any possibility of sudden job loss. I feel automation might cause a job loss of maximum 300-400 thousand illiterate RMG workers altogether and who can easily absorb other entrepreneurial opportunities like established home-made tailoring or work for small fashion design houses,”

said Dr Basher. In answering a question about the consequence of disempowered rural women after losing jobs from the apparel industry due to automation of factories, he elaborates:

“The number of job cuts is not very high, the cancellation of orders by foreign buyers in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis has instead jeopardised the RMG sector during 2020, leading job losses and affecting nearly 2.5 million people, primarily women.” 

Mentioning a report in The Economist, Dr Basher said that the recent rise in global trade protectionism poses further challenges if it combines with technological advances in automation to shift manufacturing back to developed countries – the primary market for apparel produced in Bangladesh. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s core forecast is that automation and the “reshoring” of manufacturing to developed nations will have a marginal impact on Bangladesh’s apparel export industry in 2019‑23 because the industry stands on a strong bailout fund.

Lalin Salauddin, working as an administrator at a garment industry of Nasirabad Industrial Area in Chottagram, informed that many female workers left their jobs during this COVID-crisis leading either from pregnancy or their unwillingness to continue in automated factories. He said:

“We still value the female workers who have been working in our factory more than ten years as they are competent enough after having minimal training. More so educated male and female youths have got an appointment in recent past. In that sense, we create spaces for the new generation of the skilled labour force through automation.”

As mentioned about Alaya’s case, Lalin said, “Alaya has left, but we hire her young son Gani Arman with more salary, and therefore her leaving might not affect her position in the family.” He also said, “Bangladesh is moving towards Digital Bangladesh, so in honour of that move, we must change our attitudes, I mean adopt new technology.”

According to BGMEA, the apex body of the RMG sector, every year, about 100 new factories opens their doors, using advanced technology in the entire apparel manufacturing process. It believes that advanced technology helps cut down production costs significantly (30-40%) and has spill-over benefits in terms of higher productivity and cut down on lead time.

Ms Zakia Sultana, a veteran RMG worker union activist, associated with Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, Dhaka, admits that robot technology in manufacturing is growing, and factory-based employment is dropping for this. She said, “Workers unions are not against automation. However, an honourable departure from the job should be the rights, and we must honour that for the sake of harmonious leaving from the job.” After serving 10-15 years for a factory, workers expect some honour from their factory owners and worker unions – at least recognition. But as Ms Sultana explains, division within the unions and their leaders in the end effects those they are supposed protect – the workers.

Bangladesh has indeed made significant strides during nearly four decades to bring about gender equality, particularly in women’s participation in the RMG sector. The industry has been a source of economic opportunity and pride for some of Bangladesh’s poorest and most disadvantaged women – those from uneducated, rural families. However, they are also likely to be the first to be disposed of when technological advancements become commonplace. This falls in line with research showing that factory workers largely regard the female garment worker as a cheap and disposable labour source. However, the silent departure of Alaya from her job and the inclusion of her son ascertain that males will once again reap the benefits of the RMG industry in Bangladesh.


Superbrands, super evil?

[By René König]

For FemLab.Co I spoke to Linnea Thompson. Her article ‘Crowdsourcing as a platform for digital labor unions’ with Payal Arora served as an early inspiration for our project and she now works as a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) specialist for the Norwegian fashion retailer Varner. Our conversation helped me to overcome some of my prejudices towards big brands. Maybe it will help you, too?

Superbrands – popular and hated

If somebody would ask you to name a clothing company known for its abusive working conditions, which would you choose? Let me guess: It’s one of the big well-known brands. Certainly, that is what would have come to my mind if somebody had raised that question not too long ago. I spent my transformative years towards adulthood in the 1990s in Germany. Communism was defeated and capitalism emerged as the big winner of the cold war. At least, that is how it appeared for a little while, prompting Francis Fukuyama to announce the “end of history”.

While governments worldwide embraced neoliberal strategies, an anti-capitalist counter-movement was on the rise. In 1998, the NGO Attac was founded in resistance to the seemingly limitless power of globalized corporations. A year later, 40.000 protestors turned against a conference of the World Trade Organization, clashing with police in what has come to be known as the iconic “Battle of Seattle.”

By the time I started studying sociology at Bielefeld University in the early 2000s, it was pretty much common sense among my peers to blame global corporations for almost everything that was going wrong in the world. Like many others, I was impressed by Naomi Klein’s bestselling book “No Logo,” a work that fundamentally criticized the overwhelming power of superbrands and their often-exploitative practices hidden behind the shiny facades created by marketing specialists:

“Since many of today’s best-known manufacturers no longer produce products and advertise them, but rather buy products and ‘brand’ them, these companies are forever on the prowl for creative new ways to build and strengthen their brand images.” (Klein 2010, p. 5)

Looking back at the book two decades later, Dan Hancox portrays the atmosphere of that time like this:

“The battle lines were clear, as ordinary citizens around the world stood in opposition to corporate greed, sweatshops, union-busting, ‘McJobs’, privatisation and environmental destruction: and the avatar for them all, the increasingly unavoidable logos of western ‘superbrands’.”

Klein wrote about a movement that emerged which tried to fight corporations with their own weapons. “Adbusting” built on the same powerful mechanisms as advertising – but it smeared brands instead of promoting them.

Anti-Nike spoof-ad. Image credit: Adbusters Media Foundation

The campaigners had more than enough material at their hands. From environmental catastrophes to never-ending reports on terrible working conditions – there was no shortage of reasons to scratch the shiny facade of big brands. At the same time, their omnipresent advertising guaranteed an endless supply of material that could be weaponized. Take this simple but effective modification of an Exxon advertisement, shortly after their vessel Exxon Valdez spilled millions of gallons of oil in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in a disaster that affects the region even today:

Adbusting by the “Billboard Liberation Front” in 1989

Just like Exxon Valdez’s oil keeps poisoning the ocean, nothing has fundamentally changed regarding brands and their perception. Major corporations continue dominating the markets. Scandals keep surfacing just as predictably as the riots and protests waiting in the wings of the next WTO summit. Occasions and names may change, the basic driving forces remain the same: Greedy global corporations exploit vulnerable local populations, covered by corrupt governments. While a few ‘conscious consumers’ may resist, the vast uncritical majority keeps the machinery running. In fact, the situation may have gotten worse due to the new superbrands of the digital economy as Dan Hancox remarks in his article reflecting on Klein’s book:

“Proud of yourself for not buying books or gifts from Amazon? Fair enough, but it is also the largest cloud service provider, with a 32% market share; your favourite activist website is probably using Amazon Web Services.” 

The internet era started with the promise of endless possibilities. Yet, a smartphone user in 2021 can merely choose whether to feed Apple’s or Google’s data-hungry systems. Klein’s book seems as relevant today as it was during the battle of Seattle. Superbrands are to blame. Who could argue with that?  

A look behind the black and white facades

Although they have contrary intentions, advertisers and adbusters have one motivation in common: They paint a very one-sided picture of the story. The problem with that is not just that this approach rarely leads to accurate perception. What´s worse is that consumers are driven to a state of learned helplessness, a weird mixture of willful naiveté, when we give in to the constant bombardment of glossy advertising, paired with occasional outbursts of inconsequential rage when we stumble over another scandal. All this obscures not only that we don’t live in a black and white world but also that there is much that can be done to improve it – and is in fact done on a daily basis. Including by superbrands. Maybe – and my socialization makes it hard to write this – especially by superbrands.

My interview partner Linnea is the one who is giving me this hard time. When I ask her, what got her into the field of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), her initial reply still neatly fits my worldview:

“When I studied media and communication at Erasmus University Rotterdam, I wanted to know how businesses really work (in contrast to what they are communicating). To me, CSR is so important but obviously, there was and is also a lot of green washing going on. When I was a student, we were all very critical. Our papers were dedicated to finding out ‘who is just green washing and who is actually doing good work?’ because it´s often very difficult to distinguish the two.”

Sure, superbrands talk a lot about social responsibility. It’s part of their marketing strategy. But digging deeper into Linnea’s motivations, I begin to understand that marketing is certainly not what is driving her:

“I´ve always been super interested in following up production chains, wondering how one could make them more responsible and what businesses can do to improve them. In part, that´s for personal reasons: When I was young, my mom was working as an advisor for businesses to create better working conditions with regards to human rights and sustainability. She told me all about it, which got me into this field.”

Working for the business side has made Linnea not less critical but enabled her to take a more granular point of view: 

“The perspective I had as a student became a bit more nuanced after I started working in the field. It´s easier for me now to differentiate marketing from actual corporate responsibility. Any brand, big or small, wants to be perceived as ‘good’, and in the end it’s up to the consumer to distinguish between marketing and responsible business practice. A sustainable image might be just that: an image.”

I immediately have a picture of one of those seemingly close-to-nature outdoor brands in my mind. I probably still have a piece by such a company in my closet from one of my little nature adventures. I recognize myself as the prototype customer who would get allured by the romantic marketing vision created by a Nordic outdoor brand. I was critical but my anger was targeted against the big corporations, not those seemingly sustainable small companies. My intuition let me down as I realize when Linnea elaborates:

“A lot of people have this perspective that the big corporations are the bad ones. But really, the more research you do on this, the more you will realize that this perception is often not true. The reason is simple: these big companies actually have the resources to put their words into action.”

Corporate Social Responsibility – more than marketing

Maybe more money doesn’t necessarily translate to more exploitation. Yet, we intuitively take the side of the underdog. It’s deeply rooted in our culture. From David vs. Goliath to Slumdog Millionaire – we love and cherish the narrative of the disenfranchised who beat the odds. But as attractive as these stories are, they might not be the best guides for conscious consumption. Marketing specialists already took notice of our preference for the underdog and many try to portray their company as one – regardless of whether this portrayal is based in fact.

At the very least, small businesses usually stay under the radar while superbrands are always in the spotlight, making them giant targets that are hard to miss. Adbusting is one example for how this prominence can backfire but brand communication is generally a balancing act with many pitfalls, especially when it comes to corporate responsibility as Linnea explains:

“I understand now how difficult it is to balance the communication of your CSR efforts. Especially in the media in Norway we see, for example, H&M who received intense criticism because they marketed their CSR strategies as better than how experts judged them. So, they end up in this position in which they are perceived as ‘all bad’ – while they´re actually one of the best companies when it comes to following up their supply chain. They have been very innovative on that front.”

There is not much room for nuance in our polarized world and its fast-paced media landscape. What shapes our thinking are the big headlines, scandals, and crazy stories. Like the one from 2014, when Primark shoppers found labels in their clothes with sentences such as “Forced to work exhausting hours” or “Degrading sweatshop conditions”. While it remains unclear if these labels were even authored by actual workers, the story is too remarkable to forget. What remains untold are the far more stories in which workers found better channels to express their grievances due to CSR programs and other activities to help workers. Accordingly, when I ask Linnea about common misconceptions that she would like to change, she answers:

“Many people think that the big fashion brands just order clothes from sweatshops. This is commonly portrayed in the media, but not the other side of the story where brands and suppliers collaborate closely to ensure fair and safe working conditions. This misconception does not help to make consumers respect the work that has been put into producing their clothes.”

My conversation with Linnea made me re-think my own misconceptions about big and small brands. I realized that the power of marketing images is a double-edged sword. Not only can it be turned against them, it also obscures a nuanced discussion of their practices. Sympathy for the underdog is an intuitive counter-reaction to the overbearing power of superbrands but it rests on the same questionable mechanism: image over facts. The truth is out there. It just takes a lot of effort to uncover it. As tempting as it may be, we should not fall for the shortcuts provided by marketing specialists – no matter who they represent.


Man or machine? Eliminating manual scavenging in India and Bangladesh

[By Sally Cawood and Amita Bhakta]

Manual scavenging – the hazardous removal of human waste from drains, latrines, septic tanks and sewers by hand or with basic tools – persists as a form of caste-based slavery in South Asia. Across India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, men, women and children from low-caste, religious and ethnic minorities manually handle our waste, frequently resulting in injury, illness and even death. Since 2014, an estimated 156 people have died in septic tanks in Bangladesh alone, while in India one person dies every five days after entering septic tanks and sewers, often drowning after falling unconscious from toxic gases.

Over the last 5-10 years, there has been growing attention on the potential of robots, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machines to eliminate manual scavenging for good. Recent media and academic articles reveal opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation. We take this further and offer some avenues for inclusive practice on a process (mechanisation) seen by many as the only viable way to eliminate manual scavenging in our towns and cities.

A range of global technological innovations in sanitation have emerged in recent years, from sewer-cleaning robots such as ‘sewer crocs’ or ‘bandicoots’ and AI or manhole monitoring systems (to identify and resolve sewer blockages) to mechanical trucks (to suck out human waste from septic tanks) or Gulpers (hand-powered pumps). The creators of these innovations, including private technology companies, claim that they improve efficiency, safety and dignity of sanitation work, by removing or reducing the need for human contact with faeces. To help us understand some of the opportunities and challenges brought about by mechanisation, we first need to place this process into the deeper historical, social, political and economic context in South Asia into which it’s deployed, and ask: who is engaged in manual scavenging today, and has this changed over time?

In India, manual scavenging is most commonly associated with Dalit women (of various sub-castes, most notably Valmiki) collecting and dumping waste from dry latrines, often found in rural areas. Widows from the ghettos of Mumbai have also been found to do this work, often recruited upon the death of their husbands through manual scavenging, or ‘sewer deaths’. With the introduction of the 1993 and 2013 Elimination of Manual Scavenging Acts, subsequent directives to demolish dry latrines and improve sanitary facilities in line with the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), the mode of manual scavenging and gendered nature of the work is changing. Far from being eliminated, manual scavenging has simply adapted with modernisation, with a shift from dry latrines (though these also remain in some areas) to the removal of human waste from pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers – a task most commonly undertaken by Dalit men. In Bangladesh, too, low-caste men (largely from self-defined Harijan communities, or ‘children of God’ as they were originally referred to by Mahatma Gandhi) are predominantly involved in the handling of human waste, using their bare hands or basic tools, such as a bucket, rope, and spade. It is within these underlying social contexts that new technology is being trialled and gradually introduced, but to what effect?

Across India and Bangladesh, governments (national and local), international donors, NGOs and private companies have been instrumental in rolling out technologies and associated programmes to improve sanitation work, and sanitation services. In India, sewer-cleaning robots and machines such as the Bandicoot are slowly making their way to different municipalities and local authorities, most recently in Tiruppur Corporation to great jubilation (Tamil Nadu having the highest recorded number of sewer deaths across the country). In Bangladesh, Gulpers and mechanical trucks (known as Vacutags) have been introduced in a range of municipalities and city corporations. In both countries, the introduction of technology –  often accompanied by provision of uniforms, personal protective equipment (PPE; e.g. gloves, hat, boots, masks), skill training and, in some cases, higher wages, has helped to professionalise the sector. It also greatly improves health and safety, with workers better protected against chemical, physical and biological hazards, and some reporting greater respect from service users, though this is not always the case. The introduction of technology and PPE to safeguard the wellbeing of sanitation workers has also been supported by efforts to introduce social security schemes, such as the ‘Garima’ scheme in Odisha, India, covering 20,000 sanitation workers and their families.

A Mechanical Vacutag Truck in Bangladesh
Image credit: Sally Cawood

Whilst these interventions have brought about marked improvements, they have also brought tensions and contradictions. Two main points are noted here. First, the roll out of technology is still in early stages, with the majority of municipalities and local authorities being a while away from semi or full mechanisation due to the high cost, limited production of local materials, administrative hurdles, lack of political will or protests from workers. The lack of equipment or specialist skills required to repair machines, also means there are frequent operation and maintenance failures. In Bangladesh, for example, truck drivers and helpers complain that it takes a long time to replace parts on the trucks (mostly imported from overseas) when they break down, as they are not locally available (something that NGOs and businesses are working hard to resolve). In India, a sewer-jetting machine (to unclog sewers) of 6000 ltr capacity can cost Rs. 44 lakh (approximately 59-60,000 USD), making such technology unaffordable for many local authorities. Linked to this, PPE or other handheld equipment may be poorly designed for the climate, task at hand, and comfort of the wearer (an issue also reported by female road sweepers who often receive PPE designed for men). This frequently leads to non-use or the rapid wear-out of PPE that is not replaced. Yet, the provision of PPE for pit emptiers in Khulna, Bangladesh and in Lahore, Pakistan, shows some signs of increasing attention now being paid to this issue.   

Second, and a particularly recurrent theme from fieldwork in Bangladesh, is that the most marginalised workers involved in manual scavenging or emptying are often not able to access improved sanitation work or alternative livelihood options, due to entrenched stigma linked to identity, occupation and place of residence, as well as bribery, nepotism and corruption. Some manual emptiers also fear job loss associated with the switch to mechanisation. Likewise, in India, fears over job redundancy and takeover among Dalit workers are supported by evidence that indicates higher-caste or other socio-economic groups (predominantly men) are more likely to own or operate machinery and, even, to access rehabilitation support under the remit of ‘manual scavenger’. In both countries, improved or alternative livelihood options also require scrutiny, as many ‘liberated’ manual scavengers also remain in low-paid, informal or exploitative work arrangements, even if it is regarded as a step-up from handling human waste (for example, road sweeping or solid waste collection  –  which can, in fact, also expose workers to faeces). Whilst many may argue that job takeover by other (non-Dalit) groups can reduce stigma around sanitation work (an important avenue for future research and action), these challenges raise critical questions over who actually benefits from mechanisation, and who these technological innovations are designed for in the first place.

The road ahead

It is clear that societal attitudes, personal aspirations after hundreds of years of dehumanisation and viable alternatives for manual scavengers will not change, right away, in line with mechanisation. As we show above, mechanisation can also reinforce gendered, classed and casteist inequalities. This might be especially so when interventions oriented primarily towards profit, efficiency, proving one’s ‘business model’ or prototype, takes precedence over the realities of those cleaning our waste. With this in mind, we end here with some tentative avenues for further research, discussion and action among academics, activists, journalists, governments, NGOs, private businesses and workers themselves:

  • Place greater attention on the priorities of manual scavengers relating to improved or alternative livelihood options, especially the new generation of educated youth. For example, via education, vocational and skill-based training, business grants.
  • Integrate ‘transition plans’ into sanitation interventions for workers to prepare for mechanisation, including skill-development training to operate machines, or in the case that fewer jobs are available, appropriate re-deployment or support in seeking alternative (non-sanitation) work.
  • Improve working environments for all ‘sanitary workers’, including appropriate PPE, health insurance and work benefits (pensions, maternity leave, annual leave), which are currently lacking.
  • Support workers to organise (via unions, cooperatives or associations), to bargain with employers for improved pay and more regular, secure work, which remains a major challenge in light of informal subcontracting.
  • Deepen and expand our understandings of the impacts of mechanisation on manual scavenging within and outside of India and Bangladesh, for example, to Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Nepal, where these caste-based occupations also exist, and persist.

In the midst of this focus on mechanisation, sanitation workers will remain integral to the operation of this technology. Mechanisation in sanitation services should also include improving sanitation for workers themselves, to ensure their health and wellbeing. Yet, Dalits remain excluded from services, including toilets for their own homes, leading many to defecate in the open. The SBM’s construction of toilets without improvements in sewage systems (increasing the number of pit latrines and septic tanks requiring emptying) also means that manual scavengers will remain in India, denying other employment opportunities and worsening caste oppression. More research and activism is sorely needed to deepen our understanding of the impacts of mechanisation and ‘improved’ sanitation, and propose inclusive solutions and responsive alternatives, to make sure that not one more life is lost in manual scavenging.

Dr Sally Cawood is a Global Challenges Fellow at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (USP), University of Sheffield, UK. Sally is currently leading a Global Challenges Research Funded (GCRF) project with WaterAid on gender, caste and sanitation work in India and Bangladesh.

Dr Amita Bhakta is a freelance consultant in the UK. Amita specialises in delivering inclusive infrastructural services in the global South, particularly in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector.

Blog Series: Re-thinking a crippled society

Re-thinking a crippled society – Part I: Productivity

This is the first part of a three-part series by Soumita Basu. Soumita is a social- development-practitioner-turned-entrepreneur. When she was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, her views on society transformed. This experience made her realize how much is wrong with our society and the way we organize it. Join her reflections on re-thinking productivity, inclusivity, and entrepreneurship.

The value of my every hour

[By Soumita Basu]

“Now, I’m neither productive nor reproductive,” she said with a wry smile, skilfully turning it into a giggle. We were soaking in the warmth of the rare pre-spring sun beside the canals of Den Haag. It was a spontaneous meeting. We had a lot of respect for each other. What we lacked in chemistry, we made up for in our common quest to find our place in a world we had suddenly become alienated from. Words moved effortlessly as we sat beside each other on the wooden bench, munching on a mixed bag of nuts.

When she suddenly remarked on her productivity, I was staring at the tall, almost barren purple tree across the canal. I missed how the words looked on her. I turned to meet her eyes and found tiredness wrapped in smiles and giggles. A few months ago, she was diagnosed with stomach cancer. She wasn’t thinking of death. She was looking for life as she knew it for over four and a half decades. While I had fifteen less years to boost, my relationship with life was changing rapidly too. My (then) undiagnosed autoimmune disorder had started ruling much of any conversation.

Unless, they were with friends.

Friends bring out the deeper value of our existence. Something, we all need to cherish from time to time. Our value in the lives of our loved ones isn’t defined. Its sacred territory. This is the single most important thing that brings life to our days. But what about livelihoods? And the distinct identity we draw from our productive avatars? In a world where ones’ ‘usefulness’ is often judged by how productive they are, finding the space that allows you to be productive becomes imperative for ones’ existence. Yet, for most of us, it is also about existence itself. About the means to survival.

Image credit: Pixabay

Countries with strong social protection programs for the chronically ill or with disabilities are very few. While social protection programs ensure survival, it doesn’t give meaning to it. That can come only when we co-exist and co-create. Having chronic illnesses or disabilities systematically excludes us from having this feeling of contributing. It deprives us of a sense of belonging. Slowly the spiral of questioning our self-worth begins to grow. At every turn we ask if we are a ‘burden’. I had to restart my career in my mid-thirties when I acquired an autoimmune disorder and started to gradually lose my mobility. The more mobility I lost, the less work I got. And finally, I stopped working completely. I had no income, while the medical bills were piling. I leaned on my family. Anxiety started surfacing. I wasn’t worried about the constant chronic bulldozing pain that I experienced every second of everyday. I wasn’t worried about death either. I was worried about living, about being able to buy my medicines and put food in my mouth. I was worried about survival. I was worried and I was guilty. There are not enough words to suggest how guilt can engulf you without any trigger when you feel like a burden, when you cannot financially support your aging parents. In fact, your illness demands every penny ever saved as a family. Everyone told me I wasn’t being rational, especially since my family was so supportive. But it wasn’t about my family.

The world around me was not rational either. It only talked the language of productivity. It rated people based on a hazy relationship between input and output, where the output is very vaguely defined and the input is usually just reduced to the movements of the hour hand on our clocks. It’s completely irrational. Or at least very overpowering because most people usually cheat (often, themselves). In most white-collar jobs, people work unrecorded, and unpaid, ‘overtime’. News of burnouts have become common stories in any sector. We don’t just burn the mid night oil, but often ourselves in the name of passion, and dedication. However, when we work a few hours less, our compensation packages get adjusted accordingly. The relationship with our organisations and their employees is guided by mistrust, rather than faith. This mistrust becomes even more pronounced in case of persons with disabilities as there are often ill-founded doubts on their work-related abilities. The organisation-staff relationship is driven by ambition, instead of empathy. Completing the task gains importance over how that is achieved. Often, this alienates from the people of the organisation. It colours the people with monochrome, instead of multidimensional beings.

This doesn’t mean we should be without ambition. We need ambition to grow. It is important even for individuals within the organisation. However, we need to be driven by empathy at the core, with ambitions in the periphery instead of the other way around. A paradigm shift towards redefining our relationship with our organisations and redefining the identity of the organisation is imperative to be inclusive. Instead of focusing on linear one on one relationships with each individual staff and the organism, we need to build an organism as one unit with geometric networked relationships between the individual members. Here, tasks are not assigned to individuals but to teams. So, while the team completes the task, the individual members may contribute with ease. There could be the young parent needing to be back home early afternoon every day or someone who can work late evenings but needs a three week break every quarter. The design thinker with spurts of creativity and the focussed repetitive organised worker find equally comfortable space. Workspaces need to be designed to encourage collaboration instead of fanning the notion of survival of the fittest.

Being disability friendly demands a healthy environment. The culture of a place needs to be healthy and friendly for everyone before it can become disability friendly. In other words, being disability friendly and inclusive ensures a healthy environment for everyone. Not physically, but mentally and emotionally, too. It is an impossible feat to be disability friendly for just one person or a few select people. It’s a culture, a way of life, not something that can be practiced in silos. We need to rethink not hiring practices but also our work integration. Organisations truly invested in inclusion have started to reengineer their work processes to ensure more talent can participate.

The function of the society is to ensure its members operate at their full potential, creating a harmony that would otherwise be unknown. However, when the society choreographs its moves to only allow for a chosen few, it is not a healthy society. There are many people who have certain disabilities. Probably, if we look across the spectrum, we will find more people with disabilities than otherwise. Often, they might not even identify as a person with disabilities. Yet, the social structures favour the chosen few, and label others as marginalized. If we look deeply, even if there are people with disabilities, it is the society that’s disabled.

How do we evaluate the productivity of such a crippled society?

Our self-worth is silently driven by how useful we feel. I realised I needed to fulfil this existential need of mine. There was one year when I was completely without work; my sense of worth was shaken. I thought of the home makers. But they work at their homes, I thought. It was unpaid labour but at least there was tangible labour. I couldn’t do that either. I felt “neither productive, nor reproductive”. I took rescue in the locks of my hair. I cut them to donate to patients of cancer and alopecia. I needed to feel useful. I needed to be part of some story.

Soumita Basu is the founder CEO of Zyenika Inclusive Fashion, a company that designs clothes for all body types and physical abilities. Her work at Zyenika has been recognised with the Entrepreneurial India Award, 2021. She is the India Inclusion Fellow, 2020 and recognised as an Industry Disruptor by DO School, Berlin, UNWomen and the European Union. Soumita started her career as a journalist and then specialised as a social development practitioner and researcher, particularly in the domains of livelihoods, governance, and heath. Soumita’s focus has always been on cross-cutting issues like gender, inclusion, and equality. She is waiting for the publication of her reimagination of popular fairytales with a feminist lens. Soumita has earned a PG Diploma in Journalism, from Asian College of Journalism, and a Masters in Development Studies from ISS, The Hague, Erasmus University Rotterdam. She was awarded a fellow position at the Netherlands Fellowship Programme.