The Commonwealth Games: Does inspiration help the poor?
As the Commonwealth Games get launched next week in New Delhi, scrutiny is falling on the costs of this $6 billion extravaganza. While the Games inspire, much like the World Cup and other major sporting events, do the benefits outweigh the costs?
The media has been focused on various aspects of the Games- what it means for child labour, for security in the Indian capital, and then there are the worries of the athletes whether it is the risk of catching dengue or of finding a snake in your room or a menacing monkey outside of it. (The monkeys are terrifying, not cute)
With all this (mostly negative) coverage, ranging from important to trivial, it’s easy to lose sight of what the Games are supposed to mean- a chance for India to shine, to replace its image of undernourished children and starvation with world class stadiums, competition and a chance to show that it’s on equal footing with the previous hosts of the games, such as Australia, England and Canada. An event of this scale can inspire right?
I was thinking about this a few months ago when I attended a talk in Oxford by Bernie Fanaroff about science contributing to development in Africa. Dr. Fanaroff is an astronomer who has managed to get big money from the South African government to support a bid to become a major player in astronomy. He is also project director of SKA- the Square Kilometre Array- which is basically a telescope project. I will stop going further into the physics before embarrassing myself (and my husband who is an astronomer!).
But in short, Dr. Fanaroff made a strong case that investing in something inspirational- that takes us beyond the day-to-day- can have sustainable and important repercussions for the country as a whole. Because of his efforts, astronomy courses are being taught in Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritious- and other African countries are thinking of starting. In a room full of physicists, the questions were technical, but I asked a political one- how he had convinced the government to invest in studying the universe when it had so many problems on earth- for example, how many more people could have been put on ARVs with that ~$100 million. I was persuaded by Dr. Fanaroff’s response that having these kinds of world-recognized projects (and events) can inspire the youth of the country to invest in their education, can provide jobs as technicians and scientists, and can ensure that the best brains stay in the country rather than emigrating to Europe or the U.S.
I would say that the jury is still out on the impact of these grand projects and events- such as the World Cup, SKA, the Commonwealth Games- on benefiting the entire country, and particularly the poor. What this area really needs is in-depth study- and research on-the-ground- it would make an ideal PhD dissertation to look at what (if any) are the long-term benefits of these types of events, and whether they make up for the cost.
Food for thought- $6 billion for the Commonwealth Games, $4 billion annual government expenditure on health (0.36% or GDP for 2010-11).