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The Politics of Technology for the Poor: Between India and the World

The project: Technological innovation seems to have enormous potential to improve the lives of the poor, from improving sanitation to increasing access to education. But these interventions often have limited user interest and uptake. This project examined whether we can do a better job of leveraging technology for the poor, with a specific focus in India. This project investigated the politics that shape development of these technologies, both at the international level and within India. Understanding these politics is a key step toward transparency in policymaking and toward ensuring that technologies are chosen and implemented in ways that poor citizens want and need.

The process: Researchers did fieldwork in India to compile an in-depth case study on technological advances related to sanitary pads available to Indian women in poor, rural areas. Researchers conducted 60 interviews with researchers, entrepreneurs, non-governmental organizations, and government personnel involved with menstrual health and hygiene management innovations for the poor; attended training sessions; and conducted reviews of academic and policy literature as well as news media on the topic. 

Results: Researchers found existing development initiatives focused on menstrual health and sanitary pads in India can actually disempower women as knowers and innovators. Much attention has been paid to Arunachalam Muruganantham as the developer of affordable sanitary pads who also built machines for manufacturing them. He sells these machines to women’s self-help groups across India so they can start businesses selling these pads, become social entrepreneurs, and rise out of poverty. However, researchers noted that publicly celebrating Muruganantham’s contributions can erase and denigrate hundreds of years of innovation by Indian women in managing their menstruation. The research points to the need to start by asking poor and rural women about the biggest problems they face in an open-ended way and amplifying their knowledge and innovation. 

Shobita Parthasarathy, Ford School of Public Policy