How Economics saved me from a cultural shock


On the 28th of February 2014, I opened my eyes in the pale light of a 7 a.m. morning as a lullaby came from the street. It was the song of a junk dealer that every day woke up the sleeping streets of Kolkata, and now it had become my personal alarm clock. Every day I lingered for a while under my bed net, trying to recall to my mind where, why and how I got there. The former question was simple to answer, I was in India. But why was I there? I didn’t know it yet. If someone had asked me the same questions a month before, when I was still in Italy in my comfort zone, no doubt I would have spoken as fast as I could in order to motivate my imminent exotic trip. At that period, I was going to complete in few months my B.A. in Economics and I was feeling a bit frustrated about all the stuff that I had learnt in classrooms. Ok, let’s tell the truth. I was not slightly frustrated… I was truly disappointed by Economics, and I was wondering why I did not choose Philosophy after high school. Sound familiar, doesn’t it? To make a long story short, I was in my just-a-bit-in-delay-rebel-period and society was the first enemy, as always. By chance, I attended a course in which the professor spoke about Grameen Bank and microcredit and… that’s it; no course of development, no academic framework provided. I decided that this was the way to go and that I needed to leave. I organized everything in a rush: the VISA, the internship, the vaccinations and I contacted a professor to do my thesis on India and microcredit. Yes, I was going to save the world, to find illumination, to become wise as a monk, and I was going to write a thesis with my own data in a developing country.
Oh, Sweetheart.

Two things became clear in my mind as the end of the first month spent in Kolkata was approaching. First, I was having a great time; each day was completely different from the previous one at IIMC-Indian Institute for Mother and Child, the local NGO settled in the rural areas around the city of Kolkata where I was doing my internship. I was mainly interested in the microcredit activities, collecting data from the microcredit branches of the Mahila Udyog Unit, their Grameen-inspired microcredit bank. Several times I followed the COs in their daily trips to the villages and I had the chance to see microcredit coming to life from books to reality. It was every time a charming vision seated on the floor of a bamboo house, a pale face in a storm of colorful saris. I will always remember the concentration stamped in the eyes of the women while handling their money, the feeling of understanding among them and that electric shiver of strong resolution that was in the air. Aside from microfinance, other countless daily experiences were shaking me; from taking a cow away from the traffic jam, to listening to the stories of the women I had the pleasure to speak with, children running free in the paddy fields; all these stimula were teasing me to arrive at a conclusion I was not able to grasp.

And here we are to the second thing I realized at the end of February: I was not any closer to figuring out it all! Despite the intensity of the past days, I felt that I was lacking a personal interpretation of my being there. I felt like a silent bystander who was watching an interesting movie, unable to gain his own place in the plot. I know now that this feeling is far from being unusual among people in the field. It comes from what my Indian friends in Kolkata used to call “a cultural shock”, a kind of difficulty to deeply adapt and make sense of a different world. The cultural shock is a very subtle “disease” as the sick person is apparently plain sailing, enjoying his exotic permanence without there-is-a-mouse-in-my-bed-stuff hysterics. However, he is just not really into it. He can make fun of odd events and actions because he cannot understand them, and he cannot interact with people on a peer-to-peer basis as he always has to position himself. Well, I was sick. And last but not least, I had wasted a full month torturing the microcredit responsible to obtain data and my basket was sorely empty. I did tell you I was sick, didn’t I?

I don’t remember the exact day I started to “heal”. But I remember the person who unintentionally inspired me the interpretation key of that experience. He was the Branch Manager of Hogolkuria’s bank and his name was Sabir, a Muslim with primary education. I had already met him several times without giving him much credit but this time was different, as I had come to know that he had the data I desperately needed. I rushed cockily into the dusty room of the bank and I blurred out something like “Listen Sir, Doctor Sujit (the President of IIMC) gave me the authorization so you have to provide me these data!”. Sabir, an amused light in his eyes, calmly replied: “Listen Madame, I don’t know if I can help you. It would take time and I can’t ask my COs to work more for something they don’t understand at their wages. I suggest you to come back here, many times, so that they can become familiar to you. And then we’ll see”. I tried everything, from international repercussions to praying Ramakrishna, but he was firm with his decision. That night, my fury against all Indians was keeping me awake. However, two words he had said somehow kept coming back to my mind: time and wage. Indeed, I was quite familiar with them from my Microeconomics I course. Turning in my bed, I remembered that the professor told us that time is a commodity with its own value, and that people can decide to give up part of their time for wage; in this exchange, time is the opportunity cost of wage. But what if you want people to give you extra time and the wage is set? I was starting to understand the point. Maybe motivation could be the way, if we think of motivation as good. “Something they don’t understand” Sabir said, motivation was out of discussion. So, how could I push these people to work more? The following weeks, I went every day to Hogolkuria. I spent every morning there, speaking to people, getting to know them and their lives. We chatted a lot about everything, we sang, ate Nutella, laughed together and I worked with and for them. Lastly, we had become friends, people who care and trust each other. And my last week, data literally flowed to me, hundreds of observations collected in a week of hard work, cooperation and fun. Sabir was right from the very beginning and Economics had been my unexpected translator. If you cannot offer neither money nor professional motivations in exchange for people’s time, you have to share something that will ensure them their time is not going to be lost. Something very fashionable in academia. Can you guess?

Economics saved me many other times during that beautiful month of growth. From the crossing of the streets to workplace, I was now able to see how trust and human bond were of paramount importance in those contexts of limited resources. Sabir and I had a lot of fun using the Kanheman and Tversky theory to design the data collection sheets for the COs, mixing nudges and framing effects to improve their work. And it incredibly worked one more time. One day, I was helping in the hospital and I came after an 18 years old girl who was in danger of life. The mother wanted me to stay there with her, and while she was sleeping I had a lot of time to touch by hand the tragic reveal of what economists call choices under uncertainty. The girl was born with a congenital disease and the mother told me that her and the father were to retire the girl from school to concentrate more on the education of the other children. This conversation drove me to visit the schools of IIMC, where I had the strongest and most inspiring confirmation of how Economics hit the bull’s eye in saying that education is the way.  A lot of lively girls told me how their older sisters were married at their age while they were planning to go to college. Many children were able to speak in English better than their parents did. Some children wanted to know if I was African, which made me laugh and ask why. They explained to me that their geography teacher taught them that in Africa there was a desert called Sahara, a desert of golden, fluffy sand; they were completely blown away and wanted me to give more information. I took my mobile, connected to the internet and googled Sahara Desert. And there I saw the light brought by discovery sparkling in their curious eyes, while more and more children were coming around us to see the hills of the Sahara.

When I landed in Milan, I was coming back. I left to escape from a disappointing university choice, but India taught me Economics all over again. In particular, I discovered the inner beauty of our dismal science and its ability to provide an all-around framework to interpret life.
Ok, let’s be honest again. When I landed, I was not so philosophical and deep. But I remembered the first thing Doctor Sujit told us when we arrived at Sonarpur IIMC headquarters: “Please guys, do not have a cultural shock!” and how I skeptically laughed at him.
Oh, Sweetheart.

Giulia Buccione



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