Thursday, May 31, 2007

"Opportunity Structure" & Un-earned Privileges

This is a long due post.... has been hovering my mind...

...Some months back, in my course Social Entrepeneurship, I had made a reference to the Opportunity Structure in a society. Opportunities are not equally distributed in a society, i.e., for some of us certain "opportunities" come easily, while for others they never do - and therefore, the achievements are not always a function of just "merit" and "capability".

    "...e.g., suppose, you go to Chashire Home or School of Hope - or a T-Shirt manufacturer, etc. - and give a bulk-order of their produce, so that you can sell it in the campus (or elsewhere), make some margins and share it back with them. The chances are that, if you ask, they may give you the products on credit, simply because you come from a "background". That is, you can do this venture without "working capital". Morevoer, you also have an easy access to the 'market' (batchmates, campus people, etc.) to sell these products.

    Now, imagine that instead of you, it is one of those construction workers who are there on the campus these days, who approaches the same suppliers (Chashire Home, School of Hope, T-Shirt Manufacturer, etc.), with the same "business plan". S/he will need the "working capital" and even though being in the "market" (XLRI Campus), his/her access will not be as smooth...

    This difference would remain irrepective of the "ability" of the person...
Around the same time, I had come across (thanks to Annie's post on theotherindia) an insightful listing by "M." about these "opportunities" (or as she puts them "undeserved privileges") on her blog.

This is a list worth looking at. To quote a few of these "Undeserved Privileges":

    1. i've had a complete schooling. it's not expected of me to drop out of school to do the housework or take up a job...

    6. when i'm seeking specialised help for a financial, legal or medical problem, i'm treated with courtesy. the people in charge don't treat me with scant respect because they're doing "Charity"...

    12. i live in a house where i can turn on the tap to get water enough for my needs, without having to fetch it from miles away...

    17. i studied in an english medium school. i will never be disqualified from getting a job because i dont know english...

    etc. etc...
In a subseqent post "M." also related many of her "undeserved privileges" to the traditional caste system that "has merely ended in my life", but still lives in many other lives:

    being a brahmin is a relatively small issue in my urban, metropolitan world. i am more affected by the global caste system based on wealth, than by our traditional one based on ancestry.while the caste system of money is equally savage and brutal, i realise that im still privileged to be able to say that that is the main caste system that affects my life. because for so many people - dalits, the indigenous tribal groups - caste is a daily, life-threatening, livelihood- depriving, degrading reality still.

    i, in my relatively well-to-do state, have no right to pass the judgement that traditional casteism has ended. very simply, because it has merely ended in my life. there are still many lives whose continuing suffering cannot be swept aside - their experiences are still valid and real and should not be denied.
All of this also reminded me of two other encounters with these "un-deserved/un-earned privileges" that we - I - have:

One was an old post on Vikrum Sequeira's blog about his Akanksha Experience about why the 8-10 year old Prachi dropped out of school. He had written as a teacher,and I could resonate with his hurt:

    "...Prachi was one of my best students. She had a flair for mathematics and was extremely creative.... Prachi recently left Bombay with her family. They left because of one simple reason: they could not make ends meet.... Prachi's father was working as a private driver and earning about Rs. 4000 (USD $87) a month. Almost half of his earnings paid for the squalid hutment in the slum; the rest of the money was used to raise his family of five.... I'm sad for two reasons:

    First, I miss her. As a teacher, you care about your students and want them to do well in life. In the case of Prachi, the goodbye is especially depressing because I will never see her again. If I were a teacher in a more developed country, I could have taken down a phone number or an email address. But all I know is that Prachi has gone to a village, somewhere in rural Uttar Pradesh.

    Second, I wonder what would have happened if Prachi was afforded the education she deserves. In fact, I believe that she would have done great things if she had grown up in a more privileged background or in a more egalitarian country. Most likely, her potential will not come to fruition. And that does more than upset me; it hurts."
The other was an old mail which had long back floated in my mailbox (don't know the origins), but parts of it did clarified the perspectives for me:

  • If you woke up this morning with more health than are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.

  • If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation are ahead of 500 million people in the world.

  • If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to are richer than 75% of this world.

  • If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace ... you are among the top 8% of the world's wealthy.

  • If you can read this message, you just received a double blessing in that someone was thinking of you, and furthermore, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world that cannot read at all.

So, yes!... We have a choice:

We can:

  • count our blessings!
  • count our guilts!... OR
  • count our responsibilities!

  • Take your pick...


    gaddeswarup said...

    Professor Shukla,
    You might have already written about these matters; I have been following your blog off and only for an year. I think that growing up privileged or not has effect performance and 'success' later. I had some harijan classmates who were doing very well up to sixth grade and whose education faltered by the 11th grade; one of them used to be first in the class until the sixth grade. During the 70's and 80's I taught off and on for six years in USA. I felt that students from Africa and and West Indies were doing better than some minority groups from USA. You might have already written about the Hoff-Pandey experiments in U.P:
    There are some other studies which I have not completely read yet:
    it would be good to know of more such studies that you can recommend. Thanks.

    Madhukar said...

    Thanks for the links, Prof!
    I was awae of the Hoff-Pandey experiment, but had not read the full report... will also go though the other link.

    The other studies that I know were done by Robert Rosenthal on "Pygmalian Effect". I had blogged about that earlier. A good write-up on that is here:

    Veena Rao Saxena said...

    Dear Prof. Shukla,

    your blog brings me to another thought on inequality: we often want the best for ourselves but when it comes to giving the less privileged, albeit the very basic needs in life,we seldom compromise. An instance that happened earlier this week: our neighbour who works with a renowned IT organization stated matter of factly that he just works 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, nothing more. That its very important to have a work life balance, etc etc

    Yesterday, his wife employed my maid and wanted me to mediate the negotiations between them as there was a communication problem. I said that I paid the maid X amount per month etc and gave her a weekly off. The wife's instant reaction was, "My God, so she will come only for 6 days? What do I do now? It will be so difficult to manage"

    And they talk about work life balance...