A new book by Robert Guest, business editor for The Economist, focuses on Indian and Chinese immigrants and their connections to India and China. The book is called Borderless Economics.
The author begins his discussion of Indian immigrants by relating a conversation with Vish Mishra, a venture capitalist. Mishra related that personal introductions were “absolutely critical” in his line of work. According to Mishra, “If you cold-call, you start from nowhere, it’s laborious and tedious. If you know someone, you can move faster. The advantage of any network is you get to see things you might not otherwise see.”
Guest points to a Kauffman Foundation study that “returning Indian entrepreneurs maintain at least monthly contact with family and friends in America, and 66 percent are in contact at least that often with former colleagues.” The subjects most discussed are customers, markets, technical information and financing.
The Diaspora Helps India
Guest argues against the idea of a “brain drain” hurting home countries. “Nonresident Indians bring ideas and investment back,” writes Guest. “But arguably the biggest favor the diaspora has done for India was to persuade it to open up to the world in the first place. They were not the only force – four decades of stagnation alerted India’s leaders to the possibility that something was wrong with their economic model. But the diaspora was highly influential.”
In the book, Palaniappan Chidambaram, a former finance minister in India, is quoted crediting the emigration of Indians for changing policies inside India: “First, the phenomenal success achieved by Indians abroad by practicing free enterprise meant that if Indians were allowed to function in an open market, they could replicate some of that success here [in India]. Secondly, by 1991 sons and daughters of political leaders and senior civil servants were all going abroad and studying abroad and living and working abroad. I think they played a great part in influencing the thinking of their parents.”
Networks of Innovation
An entire chapter of the book is devoted to how the connections between Indians abroad and those back in India help create innovations. “When ethnic Indians in different countries talk to each other, ideas bounce across borders,” writes Guest. “There is another benefit to the constant nattering that goes on within ethnic networks. As good ideas are passed around, they evolve. Insights are taken apart and recombined in millions of individual brains. Then they are fed back into the network. After a while, new ideas emerge.”
The subtitle of the book is “Chinese Sea Turtles, Indian Fridges and the New Fruits of Global Capitalism.” The “Indian Fridges” referred to in the book comes from the efforts of Indians to build an inexpensive refrigerator that poor people could afford. He describes how Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing, based in Mumbai, developed a refrigerator that costs $69. “The engineering miracle was conceived through a marriage of ideas generated by Indians in India and by Indians overseas,” notes Guest.
While much of the book is devoted to the reality of economics and the benefits of mutual exchange, at one point the author moves away from finance to the patriotism at the core of a naturalization ceremony in America. He describes his initial uneasiness watching a citizenship ceremony in Miami and the boisterous rendition of ‘God Bless the USA” playing at the ceremony’s end. “Where we come from, memories of patriotism warping into something terrible remain vivid,” writes Guest. “But as I look around the hall full of cheering, hugging new Cuban, Venezuelan, Haitian and Russian Americans, I am suddenly swept away by the crowd’s happy frenzy. To my surprise, I feel a tear rolling down my cheek.”