Is the Millennium Alliance in India Strictly Business?

by Julia Waterhous

Source: Glen Cooper Photography

The Millennium Alliance promises to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in India, but it is unclear whether its driving force is primarily humanitarian or commercial.

The Alliance is a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and India's Technology Development Board. In its inaugural year, the founders of the Alliance have been travelling around the country to inform people about their mission to "leverage Indian creativity, expertise and resources" toward projects that benefit impoverished communities — or at least appear to do so.

The projects are supposed to address problems associated with poverty in an "effective" and "economic" manner. Basically, the goal is find a way to help the poor as cheaply as possible. If the focus is on reducing costs, will projects actually benefit those at the "bottom of the pyramid"?

Source: Orissa Diary
In speeches at the FICCI headquarters in Delhi last month, it seemed that partners in the Alliance had different visions. According to handouts from the information sessions, one goal was to create "a platform to leverage Indian creativity, expertise, and resources to source and scale innovations ... that will benefit vulnerable populations across India and the world." Another was to "synergize the world of science and the world of business by assisting the Indian innovators to accelerate their technologies into the global markets."

Elizabeth Warfield, deputy mission director of USAID, explained that the initiative sought "innovations for sustained global impact" to "drive meaningful solutions to global development challenges." Her speech championed business development as the path to global impact and meaningful solutions.

In contrast, Indian representatives of the Alliance showed a clear social-development focus. Arabindra Mitra, head of the International Bilateral Cooperation Division for the Indian government's Department of Science and Technology, introduced the partnership with the idea that industry should regard itself as a servant of the poor. H.K. Mittal, secretary of the Technology Development Board, talked about business but did so with emphasis on social entrepreneurship.

It remains to be seen whether projects that receive funding will concentrate on the most vulnerable populations or simply those with wide market potential. The two are not necessarily incompatible, but they can be.

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  1. good points. it will be interesting to see how this plays out. i agree that business and poverty-reduction aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, but too often a focus on business completely skews priorities. what could be more important than the health of children born into poverty? and if there's no profit in meeting their needs, how would market-oriented approaches really work?

    1. Way more profitable to make toys for rich people.

  2. This definitely brings up the split between motivations behind “urban improvement projects.” It’s very possible that two different ways of approaching the situation will create problems between USAID and FICCI because while one concentrates on the future the other is focusing on the here and now.
    USAID’s approach to make a sustainable environment through business and by pumping resources into an area is one that is frequently seen, but less frequently known to help the people the program has been “designed” to give assistance to. Like any policy that aims for sustainability, USAID’s approach is one that is focused on a future result. Almost as if it were a gentrification effort, they plan on putting resources into an area of disinvestment, people wise, to create something new and a source of future resources.
    Coming from what seems to be an entirely different point of view, FICCI has set out to help impoverished areas by bringing in resources, not just capital and investment, to help foster grow. Their position is coming from behind the people, more an environmental justice effort than sustainability. Being a “servant” to those the program focuses on is very different than working on “sustained global impact.”
    Though both plans involve using business and entrepreneurship, the effect will really depend on where the intent is coming from. It seems like if FICCI takes the lead, focus will be on highest need areas, while if USAID takes charge, it will be looking to create as strong a feedback as quickly as possible, by focusing on the most promising areas instead of most in need. Not necessarily mutually exclusive, but probably.


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