My journey to not so ‘Flat World’

“We (You) don’t need to solve world hunger”. How often have you heard this phrase in your Corporate life? As today’s Corporation becomes bottom-line oriented with thin margin, frequently room for creativity is taken away in the favor of playing an inside the box role. In the words of management guru C. K. Prahalad before passing away, “senior managers should be spending less time looking inward and backward, and more time looking outward and forward. They need to be thinking about the implications of new trends and technologies, and about how their industries might be different in five or ten years.” However, I found the precisely opposite realities during my last 3 roles in corporate America. I pushed along in my career, but at every stage, I was reminded not to solve world hunger, in other words mind your role.

For last few years, I have been regularly questioning value that I create for a society using my knowledge, and I came out very empty every time. Growing up in India and working there on various rural integrated development projects and spending time working on rural and urban issues made me realize tremendous equity difference between the rich and the poor. When asked the biggest reason for hunger in the world, majority attributed it to politics and policy at local and international level. Some also attributed towards growing indifference in the society. Growing up I used to believe that poverty is mainly a creation of poor classes themselves who has not done enough to raise their class. My childhood belief was so far from truth. Working with various social activists and development projects in India, it has become amply clear to me that it’s so called “Development Policies” of developing countries and developed countries are creating disparities, injustice and force against a development of poor especially the marginalized urban poor (rickshaw owners, street vendors), the rural landless poor and tribal. Perhaps the cause of 40% of Maoist/Marxist infected country.

Since then, I have been asking what’s the best way to purposive allocate my time as basically there are three ways to contribute (or a combination of) “Service (Seva)”, “(Integrated) Development” and “Social Activism”. Given my background choosing Integrated Development is no brainer, realizing that you still have to work in a selflessness manner (Seva) and also work together with field social activists as they are just different sides of coin. Well, there it is I really decided to jump into this ocean by saying good bye to corporate world on Oct 1st. Like I said this is an ocean and navigating through this has been the foremost question. This led me to a core question behind this essay – How can we collectively solve world hunger and poverty and what has already been done in the world of integrated development to solve this key issue and why after billions of dollars the wall of poverty is thickening in the super growth countries like India where I came from.

To examine this let’s look at historically who are the main players and examine new landscape. Historically both international organizations and local government have tried to solve these massive challenges primarily through a form of an aid or subsidy. In last few years new generation philanthropist like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have poured billions of their and others philanthropic dollars. With an amazing agility, dedication and money, they still found challenges with recent polio vaccine setback setting up another century -long argument about vertical approach (vaccine approach – ‘take one disease at a time and solve’ vs. horizontal approach (solve various integrated development issues at once). Then come millions of grass root NGOs across the globe, who have learnt very hard way that if they try to solve the education problem but do not solve water, sanitation, health and sustainability, they are simply not going anyway. Then comes world’s new generation of social entrepreneurs. Since Ashoka Foundation’s Bill Drayton coined the word “Social Entrepreneur”, this field has seen gradual exponential growth. It is so encouraging to see such a recognition of what was already previously unlabeled social entrepreneurs like Mohandas Gandhi, Ela Bhatt and Mohammad Yunus. This new generation of “unreasonable entrepreneurs”, however are coming from many fields – management, finance, technology and politics. Unlike the previous generation, they bring their professional experience and subject knowledge into this new vibrant field. These entrepreneurs come with their passion and commitment to educate and improve employability for the rural or urban poor. Often they build simple, localized and scalable model with a hybrid or profit oriented sustainable organization with a major equities and participation from poor.

So, I ask the question, again, to all those new drivers of change, “Would they solve world hunger and poverty?” The answer is resoundingly no. To demonstrate let me draw a parallel between two other domains where I personally worked– Technology and Health care. Technology has been the best demonstration of how integration can work best. In Thomas Friedman’s “The World Is Flat”, he has demonstrated Dell global supply chain model (now he should point to Apple model). With millions of parts inside, with a significant supply chain challenges and price model changes, everything fits very well. Why? However, with 17% of GDP and price still jumping 10% a year and quality of care is still deteriorating, health care is at the completely opposite end of technology. At recent Stanford’s commencement, a famous American doctor and journalist Atul Gawande noted this, “Having great components is not enough. We’ve been obsessed in medicine with having the best drugs, the best devices, the best specialists—but we’ve paid little attention to how to make them fit together well.”

The situation is equally broken for rural integrated development, even after well intended social entrepreneurs, trying to develop the best solutions in the world to reduce poverty. To draw a further parallel in health care, Atul further notes “But this could not be further from the truth. Diagnosis and treatment of most conditions require complex steps and considerations, and often multiple people and technologies. The result is that more than forty per cent of patients with common conditions like coronary artery disease, stroke, or asthma receive incomplete or inappropriate care in our communities. And the country is also struggling mightily with the costs. By the end of the decade, at the present rate of cost growth, the price of a family insurance plan will rise to $27,000. Health care will go from ten per cent to seventeen per cent of labor costs for business, and workers’ wages will have to fall.”

We have a same situation with integrated development. After Government of India increasing their rural development budget mostly through various subsidy and foundations & internal organization spending billions of dollar, poverty in India is increasing in a worst form. In fact, worst yet my finding was confirmed when I talked to three well known social entrepreneurs and activist who just returned recently from India or who already has day to day experience working there at grass-roots level. Observes a noted social entrepreneurs word, we now have “Two Indias”. One that is constantly looking at the West and Multinational Corporations (MNCs) and trading their regular vacations outside India. They refuse to come out of their air-conditioned car and see what real world is like. They have built up a big wall, so that they don’t have to see any of them.

So what’s wrong with health care and integrated development? Is this an issue of lack of funding, is there an issue of talent, or is problem is simply not known? Answer really lies somewhere, cultural and political awareness. Like health care, there are real & better solutions known. In Innovator’s Prescription, Clayton Christensen has documented many of them. In today’s value networks Providers (Hospitals& Physician’s practices), Payers (Heath Insurance companies) and Employers have built a sort of monopolistic relationship. The best solution is to break loose payers from the equation (an industry where I came from) and make disruptive network between consumer (patients) and provider using integrated medical system. The original reason why health insurance was created to provide a protection against casualty and catastrophic situation. Instead, over many years health insurance companies have built products after products in such a way that you cannot further do/undo anything. There are already well known solutions from retail clinics for day to day medical issues, emphasis on Kaiser- like integrated medicine HMOs, Health Care 401Ks (Health Saving Accounts), reduce tuition imbalances so that most Stanford medical student can move to rural area as supposed creating a highly paid ghetto in bay area, pay for performance and not pay for service and make payers do what they should do best – catastrophic insurance. Have you heard any of solution being discussed during recent health care debate? Why not! All we heard was massive package to bring uninsured into system through health-care exchange and real solution were simply not heard. Not by Democrats nor by Republicans. In the recently charged climate of political and cultural indifference , who is going be the first to propose these solutions? One blogger recently wrote “As long as Sarah Palins of the political world are screaming ‘death-panels’ there are no way our leaders will be able to thoughtfully “bend the curve”. Our ‘health care reforms’ enacted this year will never work unless we are told to stop providing heroic care for the very elderly”.

Similarly, many solutions are already known in the integrated development. We have technology and processes for water re-harvesting and micro-drips, we can solve farmers’ pain through a better supply chain, we can solve rural distribution through already proven distribution models such as co-ops like AMUL, we can solve rural-world medical and education through new emerging para-skilling models such as Arvind Eye and Gyan Shala. They have proven as models of empowering the poor and the marginalized.

This brings me to final argument and parallel between health care and integrated development. So why do we still have 4/5th of poor in India’s rural villages? Why do many of the women walk barefoot for 4 hrs daily just to get daily water supply for a family? Why do we have so many of illiterates give up on government schools? Why is that Indians in urban setting ripping benefits of so called development policy refusing these major imbalances towards only top tier progress?

What is missing in both health care and integrated development is cultural and political awareness and consensuses. Our political culture is also disoriented to develop these imperatives. So you will ask, how can one boil this ocean for what you are trying to do. Well at least start with reality in our society today. Recent NY Times noted that “Indians give much less as a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product than Americans. Moreover, individual and corporate donations account for just 10 percent of the charitable giving in India, compared with 75 percent in the United States and 34 percent in Britain. The balance comes from the government and foreign organizations.” A dependence syndrome is grow. In fact, this is just an example of lack of empathy from Indians for their fellow-beings today. Noted social entrepreneur Harish Handre said to me recently while talking about fellowship program for sustainable energy incubator lab that “when we recently screened current application pool, out of 200 applications that we received 195 applications came from foreign nations. So guess how many Indians applied. Once again issue is not that Indian industrialist are giving less; it is the lack of empathy for society that has given them most through democratic and demographic dividend.

Forward thinking social entrepreneurs, activists and many on other spectrums need to come together collectively and ask how they can effectively challenge unconventional taboos and problems that is decaying our society. When asked Dr. P. K. Mehta, founder of “Indians for Collective Action” (ICA), 42 year back, Silicon Valley based non-profits which gave many well known social entrepreneurs and rise of Asha for Education and Foundation for Excellence, noted recently, “Start by creating ,1000 Vivekananda’s volunteers (world ambassadors)”. They will start to tear down this political and cultural wall. Swami Vivekananda was a key figure credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a world religion during the end of the 19th century. Like Vivekananda, these world ambassadors will be responsible for bringing community land rights for the people who have already been disfranchised by political system and policies, will bring awareness that western health habits will bring country to a halt, and energy conservation, environmental awareness and water sustenance are the only best way of our future existence, and community supported colleges are better answer to solve today’s dysfunctional government colleges. CharityFocus model started by Nipun Mehta has already inspired so many professionals people to contribute in meaningful ways to the world around them. This is one good model already in works, but we also need to multiply similar efforts in many different area in targeted way such as pool of capacity builders for hybrid (non-profit/for profit) organizations, pool of social evangelists who can articulate and stitch many of these complex issues in a constructive ways and become world ambassadors. One way to do that is by creating structured program where motivated social workers with a strong leadership skills in social fields such as environment, sustainable energy, water, land rights, education and provide them a systematic training with collaboration from esteemed enterprising institutes in India such as IIM. With eventual goal that they will forge a strong partnership to reconnect various social development and activism in their respective area and become champions of policies and help tear down social, cultural and political walls that exist today. Finally, even you can start in that direction by taking your first step by signing up with Indians for Collective Action- ICA Ambassador and ICA Social Innovation programs.

So, are you ready to solve world hunger?

Author: Unmesh Sheth, e-mail:
Details of programs in article can be found at or by contacting the author. The article has been written up to open up a dialogue on how to create 1000 Vivekananda volunteer. Author appreciates best ideas to create such.t,

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