Devarajan ’75 speaks on value of service
Devarajan emphasized a message that he himself received 40 years ago as a freshman: University students should “do something with [their] Princeton education that will benefit people less fortunate than [them].” His work contributing to the World Development Report focused on making services work for the poor, and he spent a week in an Indian village working with a woman who earns less than a dollar a day as part of the World Bank’s “village immersion.” The week inspired him, he said, and changed his thinking on how economics can help the poor.
According to Devarajan, there are 800 million people living on about $1 a day accross South Asia and Africa. Ironically, he said, “both of these regions … these economies, have been growing quite rapidly” at 6 percent a year, compared to the United States’ 2 percent. He added that the governments of these countries have been running programs to provide services such as free education, free health services and agricultural subsidies to the poor. “So why are there still so many poor people?” he asked.
One of the answers, he explained, is that the very government programs intended to help the poor are failing.
“They don’t end up helping the people they were intended to help,” he said. As an example, Devarajan pointed to the fact that no city in South Asia or Africa has 24/7 access to water. This is because politicians control water subsidies, he explained, which means cheaper water is typically sent only to the districts in which the main voter base lives. This approach often excludes the poor, who are forced to purchase water at five to 16 times the meter rate.
“Programs intended to help poor people are being captured by politicians,” Devarajan said. “The problem is that poor people don’t perceive that it’s a problem of politicians — they assume it’s a problem of just life being terrible.”
Devarajan then urged the freshmen to use their University educations in a way that is “different than usual approaches” to directly help the poor. Students should engage in the academic side of community service – conducting analysis, presenting at conferences and so on — and use their knowledge to “directly inform the poor” so that they might pressure the politicians and speak up for their rights and needs, he said.
“Use that information, use that knowledge, not for its own sake,” but rather to empower people, he said.
Following his speech, Devarajan joined Alexis Morin ’12, Andrew Blumenfield ’13, Norm Bonnyman ’12 and Ogechi Oparah ’13 in a panel session to answer audience questions and offer advice to the freshmen.
“Don’t be afraid to go narrow,” said Morin on her approach to civic engagement. Morin, after describing her fellow panelists as more “well-rounded” than herself, explained that she had identified her area of interest — education reform — very early on and had chosen to focus on that issue throughout her time at the University.
Meanwhile, Bonnyman encouraged students not to be afraid to take action.
“The most powerful thing you can do is pick up the phone,” he said. “Don’t let anything hold you back.”
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