Green Growth – the magic bullet from South Korea?

This article was first published in Asian Global Impact

In 2008 South Korea adopted a “green growth” model that countries around the world are now trying to emulate with the help of organisations like the Global Green Growth Institute. But has Korea’s story been an unqualified success?

If I asked you to shut your eyes and think of South Korea, I expect a range of images would swim in front of you. Perhaps the yin-yang (or strictly taegeuk) on the national flag, or the bright lights of a tiger economy with global brands such as Samsung and Hyundai to its name. Or maybe you’d mentally reconstruct video fragments of a certain K-pop single that took the world by storm last year.

One image that probably wouldn’t spring to mind is that of a trailblazing leader in the fight against climate change. But that, arguably, is exactly how former president Lee Myung-bak wanted to position Korea when, in a speech commemorating the Republic’s 60th anniversary in 2008, he proclaimed “Low Carbon, Green Growth” as the country’s new vision. The following year saw the launch of the Green New Deal, a £23bn fiscal stimulus package to fund a million environmentally sustainable homes, 2,500 miles of bicycle expressways and a host of other low carbon infrastructure and research projects.  This package formed the business end of Korea’s Green Growth Strategy which included a target for reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2020 relative to a “business as usual” scenario and stemmed from the philosophy that economic growth and environmental sustainability can – indeed must – be pursued simultaneously.

It was precisely this philosophy that underpinned the foundation of the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), established as a nonprofit foundation under Korean law in 2010 with the aim of exporting the green growth model to emerging economies worldwide. Based in Korea, but with satellite offices in London, Copenhagen and Abu Dhabi, GGGI’s activities fall under three key strands – Green Growth Planning & Implementation, Public-Private Partnership and Research. Countries with specific needs that GGGI can meet are prioritised and programmes are initiated following a high-level request from the country’s government.

One of the first countries to benefit from GGGI’s green growth planning support in 2010 was Indonesia, with a focus on the provinces of East and Central Kalimantan. Together these provinces enjoy a high rate of economic growth but to date this has relied heavily on exploiting the region’s natural resources. Extensive deforestation has not only damaged habitats but also released vast quantities of carbon dioxide, helping to secure Indonesia’s place in the top ranks of greenhouse gas emitters.

GGGI began work in East Kalimantan in 2010 following Governor Awang Faroek Ishak’s launch of a new green policy setting ambitious carbon reduction targets. Five sectors, including agriculture, forestry and fuel, were identified as having a huge potential green growth impact as they were responsible for more than three quarters of the region’s GDP and nearly 90% of its emissions. GGGI has supported the provincial government in selecting three programmes for detailed research. One of these is reduced Impact Logging (RIL), a suite of timber harvesting practices that aims to minimise the damage caused by tree felling to the forest as a whole and has actually been found to be more financially attractive in the long term than conventional logging. Another programme is to optimise the use of degraded land by planting cash crops such as oil palm. Often a byword for environmental folly due to its association with deforestation, palm oil when harvested from degraded land is a far more sustainable product as it allows forests to be left intact for provisioning and regulating services, as GGGI’s Anna van Paddenburg points out. She notes that there is still more to be done to ensure greener growth in this area, suggesting that the palm oil sector should focus on intensifying land use and managing the use of pesticides and fertilisers.

Since starting work in Indonesia, GGGI has expanded its operations into numerous other countries including Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Peru. Heartening as this is, I find myself wondering why these countries would actively pursue green growth when, in the short term, a business as usual approach is probably more attractive. Another key player in this space, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), has some answers in a recently published paper dealing specifically with “climate compatible development”, a similar concept to green growth with a strong focus on resilience to the impacts of climate change. A range of possible drivers for climate compatible development is identified, including natural resource scarcity, the need for energy security and the lure of new economic opportunities such as job creation and the stimulus of climate finance.

The paper’s lead author, Karen Ellis, is particularly interested in how the opportunities and threats posed climate change and resource scarcity affect a country’s economic competitiveness. Working for the Overseas Development Institute (a leading UK think tank on international development and a key member of CDKN) she and her colleagues are developing a “Low Carbon Competitiveness Diagnostic”, a resource for policy-makers to make a logical assessment of these opportunities and threats and develop an appropriate policy response. The development of the diagnostic has been informed by ODI’s work in Cambodia, Nepal and Kenya and there are now plans to test out these ideas in a variety of other countries and sectors. Ellis is hopeful that the tool will give policy-makers in low-income countries the coherence of understanding needed to convince their governments of the economic sense in pursuing a climate compatible development model where it is appropriate.

Back in South Korea, on the other hand, the goal of green growth seems to be slipping away as the recently-inaugurated President Park Geun-hye steers the country towards a new culturally-led growth model called the “creative economy”.  In the process, Lee’s Presidential Commission on Green Growth has been scaled down and the word “green” deleted from the names of various divisions of the Environment Ministry, whose head, Yoon Seong-kyu has criticized the green growth initiative for leaning more towards “growth” than towards “green.” This charge is nothing new – from the outset, environmental groups in Korea greeted Lee’s policies with scepticism, dubbing it “old-style fiscal spending with a new label” and pointing to his earlier high-ranking role in the Hyundai Group that stood to benefit significantly from the green stimulus package. The biggest controversy surrounded a multi-billion dollar project to dredge and dam four major rivers in a bid to improve water quality and security while controlling flooding, restoring river ecoystems and promote river-based recreation. Environmental groups have claimed that the project will actually destroy ecosystems and contaminate drinking water, while the Korean media has been filled with reports of broken bridges and flooded farmlands.

Despite this, polls suggest that the vast majority of Koreans feel that the green growth initiative has contributed to addressing climate change and tackling energy crises and think it should be sustained under the new government. Time will tell what Park Geun-hye’s change of stance actually means for Korea’s relationship with the environment and, while GGGI does not comment on Korea’s domestic policy, a representative I spoke to was keen to stress that the organisation enjoys firm support from the new administration. In any case, the global green growth agenda shows no sign of slowing and, challenges and controversies notwithstanding, I cannot help finding this inspiring. This year’s Global Green Growth Summit, focusing on the nexus between finance, innovation and policy, is being held in the Songdo International Business District which, a self-proclaimed Sustainable City boasting green spaces and green buildings but facing criticism from Birds Korea due to fears of habitat destruction resulting from mudflat reclamation, is perhaps a perfect microcosm of the complex journey that South Korea, along with the rest of the world, is taking into a difficult future.

Powering China: keeping the lights on in the world’s biggest country and why it matters to you

Poised on the brink of superpowerdom, questions around China’s energy use matter to all of us. How much is needed and where will it come from? I explored these ideas in this article which was first published in Asian Global Impact (Issue 07: May/June 2013).

Few countries are as confusing to the non-specialist as China.  Unlike neighbouring giant India, the People’s Republic does not seem to wear its soul on its sleeve. Its politics, save the odd spectacular scandal, sit obscurely behind rows of soberly-suited individuals with motives hard for outsiders to fathom, while learning its language has been described in a previous AGI issue as like running a marathon.

Perhaps most confusing of all is China’s position with regard to climate change and sustainable energy. With over a quarter of global carbon emissions to its name, and at least five years of topping charts as the world’s highest emitter (currently followed by the US and India), China’s potential threat to humankind can hardly be ignored. Meanwhile, nearly a third of the world’s existing coal-fired power stations are in China, as are a similar proportion of the 1,200 or so in planning and it is easy to paint China as the big bad wolf.

Easy but lazy. As the world’s most populous country, should its carbon footprint really surprise us? And as a rapidly industrialising economy with over 100 million still living below the international poverty line can we simply condemn it? In any case, when it comes to per capita emissions, China only weighs in at about 70th place, well behind the Gulf states, the US and most of Europe.  China is also a world leader in renewable energy production and manufacture and meets nearly 10% of its overall energy demand from non-fossil fuels. Encouraging though this may be, it is not unalloyed good news: the biggest chunk of this power comes from hydroelectric plants such as the notorious Three Gorges Dam which has required the relocation of over a million people and is associated with landslides and loss of habitats.

The confusion extends to the political sphere. Those who condemn China’s approach to the environment as uniformly disastrous might be disconcerted to discover that its 2007 National Action Plan on Climate Change was the first of its kind in developing world. The plan sets out ambitions to increase renewable energy and nuclear power while improving the efficiency of coal-fired power stations. At the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009, China announced a “carbon intensity reduction target” which means a reduction in the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per unit of economic output – in this case a 40-45% reduction by 2020 compared to 2005 levels (compare India’s simultaneously-announced target of 24%). Judging by performance to date, it seems plausible that the target will be achieved by continuing the drive to improve energy efficiency while increasing the proportion of energy demand supplied from renewable sources.

But reducing carbon intensity is not the same as reducing overall carbon emissions: intensity is simply measured in relation to the overall economy, so if the economy grows faster than carbon intensity reduces, overall emissions will increase. Indeed, analysts predict that China’s GDP will triple in the 2005-2020 period meaning that a 45% reduction in carbon intensity will still result in a 65% increase in total emissions.  To date, there have been few signs, if any, that China would be prepared to commit to a legally binding emissions reduction target. In fact, outgoing premier Wen Jibao has repeatedly pointed out that China’s commitment to addressing climate change will need to be balanced against its commitment to economic development and has reminded the industrialised West of its historical responsibility for current global greenhouse gas levels.

What impact China’s new administration will have remains to be seen, but there are already signs of an aggressive boom in hydropower projects such as the Nu River Dam, which Wen Jibao had previously suspended in the face of widespread opposition. His successor, Li Kequiang, announced his support for the solar industry late last year, although it is unclear how this sits with Mr Wen’s earlier statement that China would put an end to the “blind expansion” in this industry and focus more on nuclear power, hydropower and shale gas (in addition to the ubiquitous coal), none of which could be described as entirely uncontroversial.

Maybe, just maybe, our hope must ultimately rest with China’s greatest asset and liability combined – its 1.3 billion strong population.  Unlike in India, environmental activism is not a prominent feature of Chinese public life, although the government policy of wen wei (maintaining stability at all costs, usually by quashing dissent) has occasionally played in protesters’ favour when carrots are judged more effective than sticks. Recent public protests have resulted in the suspension of a new coal plant in Haimen, near Shanghai; the scrapping of a proposed waste water pipeline in nearby Qidong; and the relocation of a chemical plant in Dalian in the north. While it is hard to gauge whether these acts of nimbyism will simply see the same infrastructure imposed on other, less vocal communities, they nevertheless provide a faint but much-needed glow of hope that people power may have a place in Chinese politics.

Amongst all the confusion, perhaps only one thing can be said with any clarity: whatever course China takes in the coming decades – carbon intensity, carbon reduction, energy efficiency, hydropower – it is going to be of the utmost importance to all of us.

Economic Growth and Sustainable Development – Irreconcilable Opposites?

Those wishing to undermine the UK’s climate change mitigation agenda as useless can do so with just one word: China. Or maybe two: China and India. In this article, which first appeared in Asian Global Impact (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) I probe the assumption that economic growth and sustainable development have to be at loggerheads and introduce a new initiative called India: Innovation Nation.

Is it immoral to expect emerging economies to commit to curbing their environmental impact, potentially stifling growth and trapping billions in poverty? Or is it immoral not to, given ever-bleaker climate change projections and the state of the world’s natural resources? Moral or otherwise, views on this subject are unhelpfully polarised: some argue that urban growth, airport expansion and coal-fired power stations are non-negotiable in improving the quality of life in the developing world; others insist that our only hope of saving the planet rests with stringent carbon emissions reduction targets for growing giants like India and China. Among the latter camp, applause for the existing carbon intensity targets announced by both countries at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit is muted at best. Meanwhile, a new global climate deal will not be struck until 2015, and the contribution of the developing world is far from finalised.

But do economic growth and safeguarding the environment have to be incompatible? The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit – now in its 13th year – is based on the conviction that they don’t. The flagship event of Delhi-based TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute), it provides an international platform for a diverse group of state premiers, policy-makers and corporate leaders to debate critical issues relating to energy and the environment. Regular highlights include a special summit for global CEOs and a Sustainable Development Leadership Award (previous recipients have included Ban Ki-moon and Arnold Schwarzenegger). This year’s events are grouped into sub-themes including “Employment and growth potential of a green economy” and “Choices before the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and a new economic construct”. The latter is framed around the search for a new paradigm of growth with low resource requirement and minimal pollution, and takes its rallying cry from Gandhi: speed is irrelevant if you are going in the wrong direction.

Whatever their value, targets and paradigms can seem offputtingly remote, and practical examples are usually a more inspiring call to action. One new initiative being launched at this year’s summit is dedicated to just that. India: Innovation Nation is a collaboration between TERI and global non-profit Forum for the Future and centres round a special publication celebrating success stories of sustainable innovation in India.

Browsing the publication, it is not difficult to feel enthused by the wealth of examples. Air conditioning, for instance, is responsible for 30-40% of India’s domestic energy consumption, but cooling doesn’t have to be so resource intensive. Technology consultant Infosys’ new Hyderabad campus comprises two identical wings, one with conventional air conditioning, the other with a “radiant cooling” system which draws heat from the room to walls cooled by water. Not only does the wing with radiant cooling consume 38% less energy than its air conditioned neighbour, but its capital spend was fractionally lower and, according to occupant surveys, it is a much more comfortable place to work. Meanwhile, microgrids – local electricity networks powered by renewable sources such as solar and biomass – are springing up over India, providing power cheaply and reliably for the first time to remote communities and casting doubt on the paradigm that fossil-fuels are a pre-requisite for modernizing societies.

India: Innovation Nation tells an inspiring story, but I can’t help wondering how widespread such examples really are across India. Martin Wright, spearheading the initiative from Forum for the Future, stresses its role as a blueprint in demonstrating persuasively that there are practical and profitable alternatives to the dominant model of high-carbon, resource intensive growth. He argues that India is an intrinsically innovative culture and has pedigree in spreading new technologies and ideas. Mobile phones are a classic case, with many remote Indian villages now supporting better networks than parts of rural England! Moreover, so much of what we would label “green living” in the West – recycling, low energy consumption and low car ownership – is commonplace in India, a country well-versed in the art of jugaad, variously translatable as “muddling through”, “quick-fix” or the rather more respectable “frugal innovation”. Unfortunately, the trend among the mushrooming middle class is to move away from this low-impact lifestyle towards more conspicuous patterns of consumption. Part of India’s challenge will be to make sustainable living desirable while putting measures in place to reduce the damage that inevitable new waves of consumerism will cause.

Targets, paradigms, blueprints and a deeply-ingrained flair for jugaad – all of these will be necessary if India is going to embrace a new model of economic growth that doesn’t help destroy the planet. Endeavours like the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit and India: Innovation Nation aren’t the whole solution – especially when we broaden the debate to China, Brazil and other emerging economies – but they provide a vital shred hope that such a model is possible.

The Delhi Sustainable Development Summit was held between January 31st and February 2nd 2013 at Hotel Taj Palace, New Delhi. For more information about Forum for the Future’s work in India, visit: and


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”

There is a grand tradition of naming of naming foodstuffs after places. Think of Cheddar cheese. Think of Danish pastries. Think, for that matter, of Parma ham. There’s no guarantee that the name corresponds to the food’s place of origin –  what we call a turkey, the Portuguese call a peru, which is only marginally closer to the fowl’s actual ancestral home in North America. It should therefore not come as a complete shock that in many languages an orange is referred to as a “Portugal” – take the Greek portokali, for example, or the Arabic burtuqal. Oranges don’t come from Portugal, as it happens, but it was predominantly Portuguese traders who brought sweet oranges (probably from China) to Europe, and the name seems to have stuck.

No amount of etymological twisting and turning will get us from “Portugal” to “Orange” so for the main event we need to look back into history. Until the 16th century, the only oranges available in Europe were bitter oranges, first introduced by the Crusaders with their Arabic name tag – naranj – intact. This word is still used in Arabic, but only to refer to bitter oranges, and a similar usage in Greek has given rise to a preserve called nerantzi glyko. On an English breakfast table, meanwhile, bitter oranges are mostly likely to be encountered in the form of marmalade, typically made from a variety named after the Spanish city where it is cultivated: Seville.

In Spanish, however, Seville oranges are called naranja amarga (bitter orange) and we can instantly recognize the Arabic origin of the first word, which is now used to refer to all oranges, bitter or sweet. The same is true in other south European languages, where havoc has been played with the initial “n” giving us the Portuguese laranja, Catalan taronja and Italian arancia. To understand what probably happened in Italian, here’s an experiment: say “una narancia” over and over again getting faster each time and what do you get? Un arancia, in my case. The same is thought to have happened in French, where une narange ultimately became une orange, the form in which (fanfare, please!) it passed into English in the 13th century.

But the story doesn’t end, or begin, with Arabic. Naranj, in fact, comes from the Persian narang, which in turn comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “orange tree”, thought ultimately to derive from a south Indian language. Indeed, in many Indian languages narangi, or similar, is still used for some varieties of orange, while santra is used for others. There is a delicious theory that santra may actually be a corruption of Sintra, a town in Portugal, but this is not widely supported and a good rule of thumb for a budding etymologist is that if it sounds that nice, it probably ain’t true. Perhaps the Dutch and Germans have a better idea with sinaasappel and apfelsine respectively, both meaning “Chinese apple”. Likewise, in Puerto Rican Spanish, sweet oranges are simply called chinas, while Algerian dialects of Arabic use tchina.

And finally… in case you were wondering, the majority of the languages referenced here give the same word (or similar) to the colour as they do to the fruit. I’ll leave you to ponder that one.

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.



This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact in the column “Asian Verbal Impact” –

I grew up with a vague idea that tea drinking was a habit the British picked up in India. Not an unreasonable conclusion to draw from the tableaux of sari-clad tea pickers on the front of packets labelled “Darjeeling” and “Assam”, I suppose, but totally inaccurate. The early chapters in the story of man and tea are overwhelmingly linked to China.

Whatever the truth of a popular story involving Emperor Shen Nung, a pot of boiling water, a nearby shrub and a gust of wind, Chinese references to tea drinking stretch back over 2,000 years. By the Tang dynasty (7th to 10th Century CE) tea was widely drunk across China, Japan and Korea.  The name given to the beverage (and plant) varied slightly between languages, with most of China calling it something like cha (the name used in Mandarin and Cantonese today), but those in the southeast opting for ta.

Cha was certainly the form that travelled to Iran, where it became chai which, drunk black and accompanied by dates and sugar cubes, still holds a focal position in Persian social life. As chai, the word has found its way into the vocabulary of Russia, the Arab World, North India, East Africa and most recently even Starbucks!

The first Europeans to encounter tea were the Portuguese, as written records dating back to the 1550s attest. As their major foothold in China was Cantonese-speaking Macau, the word the Portuguese adopted was chá. It is ironic that from Portugal, today a nation of coffee-addicts, one of Europe’s most enthusiastic tea-drinkers spread the habit to Britain. Although the first dated reference to tea in England comes from a 1658 London newspaper, it was Catherine of Braganza, who married Charles II a few years later, who really put tea on the English social map (other legacies from the Portuguese princess include the city of Bombay and, allegedly, the use of the fork).

Why, then, do we (almost always) call it ‘tea’ rather than ‘char’? The answer lies with another European sea-faring nation with trading interests in the Far East. Back in 1606, the first consignment of tea from China to Europe was shipped by the Dutch. They traded with the Fujian region where the word ta was used, and routed ships via Java where this had morphed into teh. As Europe’s principal supplier, the Dutch scattered their thee across Western Europe, giving the French thé, the Italians and the Germans tee.

And what about those tea pickers of Assam? My childhood theory actually played out in reverse. By the 19th century, tea had started to spread from Britain’s elite to all levels of society and demand for Chinese imports grew ever higher, prompting the East India Company to investigate the possibility of growing tea in India. Assam, home to an indigenous variety of tea, seemed a logical choice of location and by the 1850’s cultivation and import of Assam tea was in full swing although it was only well into the twentieth century that tea achieved the ubiquity in India that it maintains today. Most of India refers to it with some variant of chai or cha, while some southern languages use teneer (“tea water”) or simply ti. Round the corner in Burma they call it lahpet and eat it pickled as a salad, but that doesn’t really sound like my cup of tea…

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact (Issue 07: May/June 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.

If I asked you to list the food products in your kitchen with Asian names, I doubt sugar would spring to mind. And why should it? Sugar has been a bona fide English word since the thirteenth century and long since integral to British cuisine. Wealthy Tudors were notorious across Europe for their rotten teeth, and from the seventeenth century onwards sugarcane cultivation was a central feature of European colonialism in the Americas. Today, roughly a quarter of the world’s sugar is produced in Brazil.

Probing back into the word’s origins we start in disarmingly familiar territory. It is generally agreed that sugar derives from either the French sucre or a related Venetian term. Venice, in any case, was at the heart of European sugar production in the late Middle Ages, sourcing cane from plantations in Cyprus and Crete to fuel a love affair that had taken off with the Crusaders who brought sugar back as a souvenir from the Holy Land. Naturally they adopted its Arabic name, sukkar, which as al sukkar travelled into Spanish as azúcar.

Both the name sukkar and the method of turning sugarcane juice to granulated crystals came to the Arab world from the Persians. They in turn got their shakkar (probably in the 6th Century AD) from India where cane had been grown for centuries, although the plant is thought to have originated in Papua New Guinea. The ultimate parent word was the Sanskrit sarkara which originally referred to any gritty substance before taking on sweeter connotations. Outsiders, such as Alexander the Great, were more poetic in their appreciation and references to “honey without bees” and “honey-bearing reeds” can be found in contemporary travellers’ accounts. Indeed, the Macedonian army brought sugarcane back from the banks of the Indus in the 4th Century BC, and for 1,500 years sugar, Hellenised as sakharon, remained a little-known commodity restricted to the wealthy. Via the Latin saccharum the word lives on in English as saccharine (which has been used to refer to something cloying since the 19th century) and the artificial sweetener Saccharin.

Sarkara also passed into the South Indian language Malayalam as chakkara which ultimately mutated into the Anglo-Indian jaggery, an unrefined form of cane sugar consumed widely across Asia, Africa and Latin America. In some parts of India the word was less durable, and the modern Hindi name for granulated sugar is actually chini, meaning “Chinese” (a strange misnomer, since sugar almost certainly travelled from India to China rather than vice-versa), while sugar candy is called misri (“Egyptian”) in reference to Egypt’s monopoly over production in the Middle Ages. Elsewhere, the reach of Sanskrit has been impressive, and you can enjoy sheqer in Albania, siwgr in Wales and saaxarax in the Aleutian Islands. The awkward fact that in Chinese sugar is called tang, we’ll leave for another time…

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.

Village Development in Rajasthan

This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact (Issue 05: Dec 2012/Jan 2013)

Building roads or feeding cattle? This post looks back on lessons I learnt while working with a rural management NGO in North India.

“In Kuwait?” I asked in disbelief.

“Yes, sir,” said Suresh, leaning on his bullock-plough and laughing. “Four village members are working in Kuwait.”

Coming minutes after the bombshell that Suresh, a tattily-dressed maize farmer, had a degree in History, Politics and Hindi Literature, this was getting too bizarre. While sweating up a mountain-track on foot to get here, I’d formed an image of what a remote tribal village might be like and, needless to say, Bachelors of Arts with friends in the Gulf had not been part of it. Rural India was clearly going to be full of surprises.

I was in Wanibore, a mountain-top hamlet in Rajasthan, North India, with a 600-strong community belonging entirely to the Meena tribe. Once branded by the British as criminals, the Meena are now formally located within the fabric of Indian society as a Scheduled Tribe at the bottom end of the traditional caste hierarchy. I had come as a volunteer with a locally-run NGO called Seva Mandir whose mission is based on rural and tribal development, rooted in the concept of empowerment. Communities, the argument runs, should be empowered to direct their own development from within, rather than relying solely on outside intervention. My role was to work with the community to assess its development needs and set out a plan to meet these needs in a report that Seva Mandir could use to approach state government for funding. Despite my near-total inexperience in this field, Dilip, my affable “in-charge”, seemed alarmingly confident in my abilities, and thus, armed with naïve enthusiasm and a smattering of Hindi, I got down to work.

In the weeks that followed, my eyes were opened to poverty, polygamy and even a poultry sacrifice. I slept on string beds and drank a fearsome local tipple brewed from the flowers of the mahua tree. I was also struck by the warmth and intelligence of Wanibore’s citizenry and developed some strong ideas on what the village needed to bring it to somewhere approaching the twenty-first century. Chief among these was a tarmac road with a regular jeep service, enabling faster delivery of supplies, a less time-consuming school run and vastly more efficient transport of the sick to medical help. What was more, the village was in broad agreement over this, ranking a road even above electricity as a priority.

Back at the headquarters, Dilip had other ideas. He felt I had concentrated too much on infrastructural problems that are outside Seva Mandir’s scope, and the focus should shift towards livelihoods and natural resources. Stall feeding for cattle, for example, or managing drainage. “Stall feeding for cattle?” I echoed derisively, making my disagreement clear. For me, development was about sweeping gestures – building roads, laying on electricity – and we should be focusing our efforts there, not fretting over dining facilities for local farm animals. Patiently, Dilip reminded me that Seva Mandir had its own areas of expertise and a remit based around these. Road-building was not one of them. I conceded that he had a point, dutifully amending my report while attempting to engage the movers and shakers of Wanibore in a petition to the local government for a road. Before long, my time with Seva Mandir was up, and I felt I had only just begun to understand what sustainable development was about.

Two and a half years later, I returned to Wanibore – on a jeep! I take no credit for the rough-surfaced road that now leads right up to the village school, but it was heartening to hear my old friends’ enthusiasm for the changes it had made to their lives: quicker trips to the nearest grain shop for the men and better access to the local secondary school for their children. For Suresh too, now studying for a BEd, it was a great improvement on the tiring climb of days past. He wasn’t entirely happy when I met him, however, as he was missing his brother who had left to work for a construction company in Kuwait…


This article first appeared in Asian Global Impact (Issue 06: Feb/Mar 2013) in the column “Asian Verbal Impact”.

Aubergine: the classic Mediterranean ingredient. Melanzana to the Italians; eggplant to the Americans; and a fixture on the oven-trays of Britain’s chattering classes who serve it, lemon-drizzled, on cous-cous dreaming of warmer climes. But it’s big on Indian menus too, isn’t it? And in Middle Eastern cooking, surely? So where exactly does it come from?

Although the earliest written records of aubergines come from fifth century China, cultivation is believed to have originated in India. In any case, our story starts with the Sanskrit vatingana, loosely translatable as “vegetable that stops you breaking wind”. Drop the “t”, change a few consonants and vowels and shift forward a thousand years or so and you get baingan, the standard Hindi word for aubergine. But that’s just a sideshow compared to what happened when the vegetable travelled west into Persia. Modern Hindi is famously peppered with words borrowed from Persian and Arabic, so it’s worth remembering that this was a two-way trade, in this case resulting in the Farsi word bademjan – as in the famous Iranian aubergine and whey appetizer kashk-e-bademjan.

It is likely that the Arabs first encountered aubergines when they conquered Persia in the seventh century. In any case, in Arabic the word became al-badinjan (the al simply meaning “the”, and found in words like algebra and alcohol) and was syndicated across the Islamic empire. In the westernmost reaches it entered Moorish Spain and lost the al to become berenjena, still used in modern Spanish – try the gratinada version at your local tapas bar. Europeans regarded the vegetable with suspicion; indeed, it has been argued that the Italian melanzana is a corruption of the Spanish, re-interpreted as mela insana or “mad apple”.

Meanwhile, the Portuguese variant, berengela, travelled back East to become the Anglo-Indian brinjal, a word familiar to curry aficionados across the UK. In eastern Spain, on the other hand, Catalan-speakers retained the Arabic article and called it albergínia, a mouthful for their Gallic neighbours who couldn’t manage the “l” in “alb-”. Hence, in the same process that turned the Latin words falsus and castellus into faux and château, the name given to the delicacy favoured by faddish Parisian diners in the late 18th century was none other than the one that ultimately crossed the channel into the English dictionary: aubergine.

Disclaimer: while the above is based on well-established theories of etymology, it should be noted that alternative theories exist for a number of the word origins described.