They know it better

There is a subcontinental society that we form – of material status, skills, nationality and race, in countries where South Asians gather. Among those living in economically prosperous parts of the world, whether temporary or for long term, this pattern can be recognized. It doesn’t matter how skilled an immigrant from this region is. It takes him a long time to be confident about it and behave confident.  A Pakistani engineer working for a European telecom takes a longer time to get comfortable in his skin. It takes a much higher level of education for the South Asian to feel even partially confident to sit by a technician making a point, who might at best would have attended a vocational school and perhaps has not seen the inside of a university. I notice the striking difference in years of education and training that immigrants have compared to the residents, in Europe and the US.  What the resident has is perhaps not the right university degree but certainly the right nationality and a right passport to go with it. And, he can teach English!

On brief work visits to Europe, this contrast is striking. Possibly, the resident European (plug any Western or Scandinavian nationality) has a different view on it, as he goes about serving coffee at a local cafes or work the checkout counters in departmental store or be a cyclist for a food delivery company. But this is about a visitor’s experience and what meets his eye. We are all only degrees apart in latitude – the countries, but in confidence we are a world apart, especially on the world stage. A Bangladeshi, a Pakistani, a Nepali and an Indian (and perhaps Sri Lankan) might take several years and repeated assurances of his excellence before believing in it. It doesn’t come easy to them that they can be good at their work or in what they know. This could be partly conditioned by the Asian families that they come from and the legendary ethic of proving oneself. In the process the Asian strives too hard.

Why does this matter – this lack of confidence? This leads to stifled state of innovation, risk taking and leadership roles in multinational teams as well as in their home countries when some of them return. Asians, and Indians in particular, become proficient at working on assigned tasks than leading teams. This may not be true of Indians in Silicon Valley, but I have only secondary information and no first hand experience. It appears as though this lack of confidence makes Indians come into themselves quite late in their careers, when they could have been in driving roles much earlier. The lost years, is my concern. Moreover, this under-confident behaviour in multinational settings, seeps into successive generation of professionals who take after them. The next in line, go about experiencing the world already defined and conditioned by their less confident elders.

I am not sure what the remedy for under-confidence is. However, it is one of the reasons that there is a perceived disparity between perception of ‘expertise’ and the reality of it. Expertise seems to be almost always available in the West and is their forte. It must be imported as tech, consultants or other forms of knowledge products. How do we change this? There seems to be a relationship between an individual’s nationality and in the confidence he carries while working in multinational settings. This shapes the individual and his country’s perception, although in a subtle manner. May be, by being conscious of it can help a bit in avoiding this behaviour.


Devesh Kapur has moved from CASI at UPenn to Johns Hopkins University. In a recent piece (H/T Amol Agarwal) he writes the following, which also serves a case in point –

While there are notable exceptions, in many large data projects, India-based personnel are the intellectual equivalent of coolie labor—they do the grunt work, leaving the thinking to Boston Brahmins, so to speak. An intellectual hierarchy has been created between the haves and have nots wherein the funding channels reinforce the model of fly-in-fly-out academia that professes that it is doing all this work to help India.

India has largely itself to blame for this state of affairs, having done so much to undermine its universities and intellectual culture over the past few decades. Indeed one personally knows of cases of government departments denying data access to Indian graduate students even while they give the same data to foreign researchers—a bizarre interpretation of a level playing field.

Further, a slightly different issue but no less pertinent –

When asked how many of these expensive RCTs had moved the policy needle in India, Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor, GOI, was hard pressed to find a single one that had been helpful to him in addressing the dozens of pressing policy questions that came across his table. By contrast, the compiling of just some key facts on learning outcomes by Indian NGO, Pratham, has had a big impact on policy discussions in education, because it is backed by a degree of specific knowledge and engagement that is more credible and persuasive. One could question whether “relevance” or “timeliness” are a valid standard for good research—yes they are, when those are precisely the reasons given to funders for these projects. 


One thought on “They know it better

  1. I noticed the general high level of education in India. I can’t compare it to Europe where in many countries higher education is free, but in North America (especially the US), the cost of university education is so high that unless your parents can afford to send you, you will emerge with massive debts and no guarantee of employment. In my case, my parents paid for my first degree but I funded my second with loans. When I was accepted to law school I was already carrying a significant debt and I could not even afford the down payment to hold a place. The thought of incurring that much more debt at a time when there was a glut of law students beyond available articling positions was unimaginable. Student loan debt, unlike any other debt is absolutely unforgivable even in bankruptcy. I belong to the immediate post-Baby Boom cohort who had a very difficult time finding work or who lost everything in the recession of the 1980s and spent years rebuilding their lives in their 20s and 30s.

    When I was working in social services, I essentially did what a social worker does and even moved in management but without accreditation I could not sign off on certain documents. The social workers we employed typically had no more than a two year diploma whereas I had two degrees . Now that the economy is low again, I would not be able to return to my field without a minimum of a masters in social work—another 4 to 6 years of schooling. My practical experience has no currency. Education and employment prospects do not necessarily mesh and fluctuate with the economy. Many people with graduate degrees work minimum wage jobs and carry crippling debt. Even there, degrees are often seen as a barrier to securing work so often they are left off of resumes. So the college diploma route, if you can swing it, is the better bet.

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