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‘Don’t overvalue competition and underrate cooperation in economic and social life’: Prof. Jean Drèze

25 August, 2021: In his valedictory address at the XVI International Conference on Public Policy and Management this afternoon, hosted by the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore, Prof. Jean Drèze, Visiting Professor at Ranchi University and Honorary Professor at the Delhi School of Economics, began with a question on why some ideas flourish while others fall into oblivion. Remarking that ideas that suit the privileged tend to flourish, he pointed out that ideas have a better chance to survive if they serve powerful interests.

To give an example of what he described as ‘selective intellectual memory’, he remarked that Dr Ambedkar nearly ended up as a forgotten thinker, not by the public but by the country’s intellectual elite. Until twenty years ago or so, the intellectual elite rarely mentioned him or, at best, mentioned him in passing, he said. “I asked myself did Ambedkar have things to say that the ruling classes and castes of the country did not want to hear,” he added. Giving yet another example of lopsided ideas, this time from economics, Prof. Drèze spoke of how competition and self-interest are considered fountains of human progress. “This is not to deny that competition works well for some purposes. But when it comes to quality education, healthcare, the environment, justice, a functioning democracy and many other essential aspects of the quality of life, competition will not take you very far.”

‘Education policy is driven by the privileged’

Explaining how some of the most valuable things in life – like bringing up children – happen in a family, which is based on the principles of cooperation, he said in many other institutions, from sports clubs and trade unions to economic cooperatives, competition coexists with cooperation. 

“Think of what India would be if teachers, parents and educators cooperated to give children the best possible education. The present schooling system is unfair and is designed for the winners. The Class X text books are completely inappropriate to first-generation learners and the marginalized. Education policy is driven by the privileged. Schools have been closed for the last 17 months and the impact on poor children has been disastrous. They have no access to online education. They have forgotten what they have learnt. Moreover, they been promoted two classes ahead, which means there are sure to be drop-outs. There has been virtually no serious public debate on this. I think we should start bringing in principles of cooperation in the education system,” he said.

‘Expand boundaries of cooperation’

Quoting an anecdote from Sujata Gidla’s book ‘Ants Among Elephants’ to illustrate how solidarity works in villages in India, he said solidarity and cooperation work mainly within castes. “On the other hand, adivasis have remarkable institutions of mutual aid for many activities like transplanting paddy, building houses, celebrating festivals, clearing forests, organizing public protests. We have much to learn from this rich tradition of theirs.”

Calling for an expansion of boundaries of cooperation in social life, Prof. Drèze said: “People must depart from the self-interest paradigm for this to happen. You don’t need to be an altruist to do something that departs from selfish behaviour.”

About the speaker

Prof. Jean Drèze, who studied Mathematical Economics at the University of Essex and did his PhD at the Indian Statistical Institute, New Delhi, has taught at the London School of Economics. 

He has made wide-ranging contributions to Development Economics and Public Policy, with special reference to India. His research interests include rural development, social inequality, elementary education, child nutrition, healthcare and food security. 

Prof. Jean Drèze is co-author (with Dr. Amartya Sen) of ‘Hunger and Public Action’ (Oxford University Press, 1989) and ‘An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions’ (Penguin, 2013), and is also one of the co-authors of the ‘Public Report on Basic Education in India’, also known as ‘PROBE Report’. His latest book is ‘Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone’.

Conference highlights 

This XVI edition of the international conference, hosted by the Centre for Public Policy at IIM Bangalore, received a very good response. A total of 56 papers were presented in two tracks over three days of the conference.

Due to the current situation brought about by the pandemic, the conference was held online.

The highlights of the XVI International Conference included the inaugural address by Dr Mahesh Rangarajan, Vice Chancellor, Krea University; a special address on the complexity of public policy in administration by Dr PTR Thiaga Rajan, Finance Minister, Govt. of Tamil Nadu and a special track on cooperatives to commemorate Dr V. Kurien in his birth centenary year.

The organizing committee of the conference comprised Prof. M S Sriram, Chairperson and faculty, Centre for Public Policy; Prof. Rajalaxmi Kamath and Prof. Arnab Mukherji from the Public Policy area, and Prof. Tirthatanmoy Das, faculty in the Economics & Social Sciences area of IIMB. 

Click here for the Conference schedule

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