This piece is part of a collaborative series between The Blahcksheep and the Bengal Development Collective. Devarchan, Founding Member, Bengal Development Collective, kicked off the symposium and launch of the Collective at Oxford University on 19th March, 2022 . His opening speech has been published herewith.
About Bengal Development Collective: A West Bengal-focused think tank, advocacy group and research community that aims to alleviate the developmental challenges in the state through policy-level interventions. The team comprises civil servants, lawyers, public policy professionals and academicians from national and international institutions. You can learn more about their work here.
This might end up in your inbox because, we figure, you have a connection with the state of West Bengal and feel deeply for it.
Like most of you, we’ve grown up in Bengal or have deep connections to the state. Many of us have had to migrate from the state in search of jobs and opportunities, or we’ve had friends who have had to leave. We’ve grown up around closed factories in Durgapur, Hind Motor, Haldia, and Kolkata.
We’ve seen trains full of patients going to other states for their healthcare, let down by the facilities on their own. We have seen standards of education fall in state schools and colleges. We have experienced repeated instances of devastation by cyclones made progressively worse by climate change.
We believe that the citizens of Bengal deserve better governance. We don’t believe the answer lies in our past (glorious as it may be) or in villains and heroes or grand ideologies.
We’re not big on violent revolutions, nor have great expectations from simple changes in political jerseys. We are also skeptical of neat solutions and elaborate models air-dropped by multilateral agencies, economists, and consulting firms.
Progress of any kind demands both imagination and a commitment to the truth, both the courage and creativity to see the destination, and a humble and honest assessment of where we are at the end of every step.
Countries have developed not by their commitment to ideological or analytical purity, but through a humble pragmatism that aims to address real problems in a complex world, seeking evidence from the ground on what works and then learning from things that go wrong.
‘We’ are a group of early-career public policy academics, practitioners and researchers from West Bengal, currently at leading global or Indian organizations.
We also have students from leading Indian (IITs, IIMs and NLSIUs) and international universities (Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge), as well as practitioners like former civil servants and employees at multilateral institutions (such as the World Bank), private development firms and private corporations.
We’re not here to protest or proselyte. We’re here to help.
Bengal Development Collective is a West Bengal-focused think tank and research community that aims to promote research and policy engagement focused on the state.
It seeks to create informed conversations on critical policy and developmental challenges facing West Bengal, provides evidence bases to frontline bureaucrats and implementers in the state and supports young researchers writing about West Bengal and its development trajectory.
We will work to:
(1) Make it easier for citizens to hold their government accountable on grounds of its programmatic performance:
That is, we wish for you to know how schools and hospitals in your state or district are doing, and what you could demand from your representative. We want you to know why the industrial strategy your government is taking might not be the best to create jobs and what it could learn from other states. In other words, we want to make the performance of government salient, so your politicians don’t get away with their personalities, on ideological fantasies, by selling hate or by targeting doles to specific voter groups.
(2) Provide junior bureaucrats and legislators easily accessible evidence on policy and offer policy alternatives:
We have heard from state bureaucrats on how they often have to make decisions on the fly and wish there was an accessible resource for them to engage with academic research. We want our decision-makers to have all the support they can get when they have to make tough policy choices. We want to enable, aid, and sustain state legislature debates about policy performance by working with legislators who may not have government resources.
(3) Support and train students from local universities in finding opportunities for careers in development, economic journalism, and public policy, and a platform for their published work:
Currently, careers in policy and development remain out of reach for a vast number of Bengali students. This is due to, in many cases, lack of awareness of such opportunities, but also on account of missing functional skills and the lack of opportunities for training within their institutions. We wish to address these gaps and provide the necessary skills, mentorship, and training for Bengali students to find meaningful opportunities in employment and education.
(4) Involve Bengali Policy Practitioners Globally in contributing to the State’s Development:
We wish to create a strong community that connects local passion and talent with the skills and experience of successful policy researchers and practitioners from Bengal working in leading institutions across the world.
This conference will involve research paper presentations and panel discussions on two of Bengal’s most critical challenges, premature de-industrialization, climate crisis, and entailed vulnerabilities. We have assembled an enviable panel of six leading experts who will share their insights on the issues.
The event will be held in a hybrid format at the University of Oxford and over Zoom on 19th March, Saturday, 5:30 PM IST onwards, and is the first student-led policy focused research symposium of its scale.
We have six presentations selected from 25+ submissions made to us. We have worked intimately with the authors, guiding and supporting them as they shaped their pieces.
Until now, we have worked closely with 60+ student researchers, conducting four sets of open workshops on a spectrum of topics like data visualization, policy writing, and effective research. We introduced a diverse student cohort to policy research, analysis and writing.
The workshops have been conducted by leading practitioners and academics working at the World Bank, Wall Street Journal, Dalberg, and Jindal Global Law University.
We have set ourselves a very bold challenge, whose relevance is beyond Bengal, and in many ways, beyond India. Governance and state capacity has been the central puzzle of development, the reason for the diverging fortunes of the world’s nations.
We believe we can nudge our beloved state out of its mediocrity in governance through sustained engagement with citizens and bureaucrats while creating and empowering a strong community of young policy practitioners.
Our success can create a template for civil societies elsewhere to take on the brave and messy task of improving governance.
We hope that our vision resonates with you, and we would love for you to be a part of the launch and the network and help us take a small step towards its fruition.
Devarchan is currently a Doctoral Student at the Said Business School, University of Oxford. He looks at how organizational design and strategy create developmental divergences in the Indian States. He brings experience in research, advocacy, and strategy to India and East Africa and was a Rajiv Gandhi Scholar at the University of Cambridge. His key interest is in bringing organizations and strategy to the study of development.