by Joseph Tharamangalam

Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax NS, Canada


Revised Version of Key note Address at the International Conference on “A Decade of Decentralization in Kerala” Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

 October 7-9, 2005

This address stems from a comparative study of the development experiences of Kerala and Cuba which I began some time ago[1].  It begins with a bold assertion that Kerala and Cuba are among a handful of countries/regions in the third world that can offer some lessons about development, lessons that may be of world-historical significance at the turn of the third millennium. For these small and relatively poor countries/regions (Kerala is only a state in India while Cuba is a sovereign country, but with one third of Kerala’ population) have achieved for their people some basic levels of security and well being that continue to elude more than one fifth of humanity in a world of unprecedented opulence. While the focus of my research (and therefore also of this presentation) is not decentralization or decentralized governance, I would like to note at the outset that both countries do share a strong interest in decentralization and decentralized governance. Their experience in this regard would, no doubt, be a very useful point of comparison.

The Significance of  Kerala and Cuba

The scandalous levels of hunger and human deprivation in the world have moved the United Nations and other world bodies to action in formulating plans such as the millennium project. Yet it is telling that they do not hold out the examples of Kerala or Cuba or other similar countries in their prescriptions for achieving the millennium goals, already pathetically behind target at mid-point. I argue that there is an urgent need to make the experiences of these countries part of the debate about poverty alleviation and human development in the world today. For the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the saying goes; and here we have proof from actual success stories that  poor countries can achieve for their  people vast improvements in basic security and well-being in a short time. Kerala and Cuba are, of course, not the only success stories in this regard.  There are others such as Srilanka, Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan. But there are some good reasons why a comparison of these two may be particularly useful. In the first place, they stand out as among the best examples of countries making these achievements with relatively low incomes and low economic growth - without waiting for the proverbial trickle-down effect of economic growth. True, it would be preferable to achieve these gains in tandem with economic growth as South Korea and Taiwan have done. However, if we keep in mind that economic growth across the globe has historically been a zero-sum game, that it continues to elude at least one fifth of humanity, and that continuing growth across the world is likely to be ecologically unsustainable, it becomes plausible to think that the paths of Kerala and Cuba may hold out better hope for the world’s poor. Third, located in distant continents and vastly different cultural and political landscapes, the two countries demonstrate that homogenization of political systems or cultures is not necessary for achieving these social gains. To be sure, they continue to face may problems, and their achievements may prove unsustainable in the end, but such a possibility only makes it all the more vital that their experiences become part of the current development debate.

The achievements of Kerala and Cuba are well known and well documented (see tables 1 and 2 below).[2]  Here I will highlight only some notable ones and their significance especially as I provide a brief description of their stories below. Kerala’s achievements may be summed up by stating that in the measures of general human well being such as literacy, life expectancy, and reduced infant mortality rates it is on par with many developed countries and is far ahead of all other Indian states. It is also a rare third world example of a region reaching the third stage of the demographic transition. Further,  Kerala achieved these gains in a remarkably short period of time. Former US Vice-President Al Gore was so impressed by Kerala that he called it a “stunning success”. Cuba’s human development achievements are even more remarkable than Kerala’s and far above Latin America’s none too enviable record. Cuba has won praise from the UN secretary General and the World Bank president, among others. Furthermore, in the 1990s Cuba also pulled off a sort of second miracle in the way it confronted a very serious economic and food crisis, mobilizing its population to undertake various innovative and creative measures, especially those aimed at attaining self-sufficiency in sustainable forms of food-production.  Cuba’s success in averting a famine in the early 1990s could, in fact, be used as a case of “entitlement success” supplementing Amartya Sen’s famous studies of famines as  “entitlement failures” (1981, 2000).

Why did these societies succeed where so many others failed? Are their successes attributable to unique conjunctures of historical conditions that are not replicable?  The answers to these questions are not easy, and there are contesting interpretations. In the   brief review of the historical trajectory of these societies I highlight some important factors that, I hope, will help to answer these questions. I will return to them once again in my concluding session.

Kerala: A Century of Social Movements and Public Action

 As mentioned above, Kerala’s record of Human Development stands out in comparison with those other low income countries as well as with those of other important states in the same country. I will follow Amartya Sen (2000) and the World Bank in comparing Kerala (population: 32 million) with Uttar Pradesh (UP), the most populous and politically powerful state in India (population: 175 million) . UP is part of a large region in north India that has performed very poorly in HD relative to not only other countries, but also other regions in India. The contrast is significant as both Kerala and UP are in the same country and function within the framework of the same political system and the same constitution. Consider the following. Today a girl child born in Kerala can expect to live 20 years more than one born in UP. IMR rates in UP are 5 times higher than in Kerala. Literacy for women is about 25% compared to near 100% in Kerala. In UP only one in three girls is in school at the turn of the millennium; in Kerala enrollment is 100%.  In UP a teacher may be absent for days, even weeks from a primary school, with virtual impunity; in Kerala he or she will not get away without vigorous protest and action from parents and a watchful pubic. Table 2 provides some more figures comparing these two states.

How did Kerala become a “success story”? I will bypass the history of the many public policies in such crucial fields as education and health to focus on the cultural transformation that created the social and political conditions favoring these policies. To keep the historical record clear, it is necessary to mention that Kerala was carved out of two small princely states of (Travancore and Cochin) and the Malabar district of the Madras presidency of British India.  While there is no complete agreement among Kerala scholars about what brought about Kerala’s  achievements, most of them speak of a century of social mobilization, a variety of social and political movements which were more prominent in the relatively more advanced princely states in their early stages. These movements were able to exert considerable influence on the state (the native states in southern Kerala ruled by Maharajas before independence in 1947, and democratically elected state governments after independence). Special mention should be made here of the social movements of the untouchable and other low castes towards the end of the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century. The most important of these was the movement of the largest low caste, the Ezhavas, led by a charismatic saint-philosopher-activist, Sri Narayana Guru. The movement combined a Kerala model of Enlightenment and Reformation. It was more a movement for religious freedom and basic human dignity than for economic or material gains. One of the Guru’s most revolutionary activities took place when he hoisted an icon of Lord Siva- something forbidden to low caste people. To the orthodox upper-castes who attacked him for his irreverent defiance of such a time-honored injunction, the Guru’s famous answer was that he was hoisting not a Brahmin Siva or God, but just an Ezhava Siva. There was a similar movement by one of the lowest of all castes, the Pulayas, again focusing on human rights and human dignity rather than material gains.  In 1894 the leader of this movement, Ayyankali, drove his decorated bullock cart on a public road defying the centuries old prohibition against untouchable castes using public roads. Both Narayana Guru and Ayyankali ardently fought for the rights of the lower castes to education.  On education, an early associate of the Guru, Dr. Palpu had this to say: “We are the largest Hindu community in Kerala…Without education no community has attained permanent civilized prosperity. In our community there must be no man or woman without primary education”(quoted in Ramachandran 308).  It is not accidental that universal access to education (first primary and then secondary and even post-secondary) became an issue of high priority in Kerala both in terms of public demand and public policy.[3] That these movements were largely successful in Kerala can be seen from the fact that the untouchable Ayyankali, after facing much initial opposition, including violent attacks, was made a member of the Legislative Council of the state of Tranvancore, then ruled by the Maharaja of Travancore.

The subsequent history of Kerala is one of expanding social mobilization.  The caste associations and social reform movements were gradually joined by trade union and political movements. By the 1930s a relatively large proportion of Kerala’s people had been organized into trade unions, radical political parties including socialist and communist parties, and other civil society movements such as a well known library movement, a rationalist movement, and a successful writers’ cooperative.  Later, Kerala would also organize a unique people’s Science movement that received several international awards for its contribution to “…a model of development which…rooted in social justice and popular participation, and has made dramatic achievements in health and education." (the Right Livelihood Award citation , 1996). Kerala became internationally known in 1957 when the newly reorganized Kerala state elected a communist government through a process of peaceful parliamentary democracy. Since the 1970s, however, Kerala has been ruled largely by one or another of two coalitions of parties, one headed by the left of centre Communist party of India-Marxist (CPIM) and the other by the right of center Congress Party. Most of the gains in education, health and other human development indicators  were gained during this period, but there is no doubt that these would not have been possible without the early movements that created the public awareness and the desire for change, more importantly empowered the people to demand what they believed were their entitlements.  These also created governments and bureaucracies that became accustomed to the need to respond to the demands of the public, of organized groups and political parties. The dialectic of a state that responds to the public and a public that make demands on the state- a process that includes adversarial politics as well- became the model of public action in Kerala. Some scholars (Sen, Heller, Evans) have noted that these processes created considerable social, cultural and human capital. As I have discussed elsewhere (19981, 1998b, 2006), Kerala’s trajectory has, by no means been unproblematic, but sufficiently integrative and synergistic to enable it to sustain its achievements.

Cuba: Revolutionary Transformation and Paradigm Change

Even more than Kerala, Cuba may be the case par excellence of high human development with low economic growth. In this respect, Cuba also stands out as a notable contrast to the failures of Latin America in general, and of such important Latin American countries as Brazil in particular. Cuba’s achievements have been noted, or rather conceded, even by the World bank President, James Wolfenson.  Reviewing the World Bank’s 2001 edition of World Development Indicators, he said:

“I think Cuba has done—and everybody would acknowledge - a great job on education and health. I have no hesitation in acknowledging that they have done a good job, and it doesn’t embarrass me to do it….We just have nothing to do with them in the present sense, and they should be congratulated on what they have done.”[4]

And Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, held up Cuba as an example for poor countries:

“ (Cuba) has shown that even a poor country need not leave its people defenseless against some of life’s worst hardships. On the United Nations human Development Index, which measures education and life expectancy as well as income per head, Cuba consistently ranks above other countries whose per capita product is much higher”[5]

The basic facts about Cuba’s achievements are well documented by independent observers (Mehrotra, 2000) as well as international organizations such as, the UNESCO, the World Bank, Oxfam and the OAS.[6]  Mehrotra (290) notes how post-revolutionary Cuba achieved very rapid progress in health and in reducing its IMR  (from 40 per 1000 live births in 1960 to 10.2 in 1992). The early attention to education was no accident: “From the very beginning of the revolutionary process, education was declared to be every one’s right” (Mehrotra, 395). A report by the staff of the World Bank (Gasperini,1999, Executive Summary) refers to Cuba’s record of education as “…outstanding: universal school enrollment and attendance; nearly universal adult literacy; proportional female representation at all levels including higher education; a strong scientific training base, particularly  in chemistry and medicine; consistent pedagogical quality across widely dispersed class rooms; equality of basic educational opportunity, even in impoverished areas, both rural and urban.” And a UNESCO study (1998) ranked Cuba first in mathematics  and science among all countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The country’s primary school teacher to student ratio of 12 is on par with Sweden’s and  better than that of most countries. Its life expectancy of 76.5 (HDR 2003) too is the highest in the region and on par with that of many developed countries. Furthermore, it has the highest ratio of doctors to population in the world, at more than five doctors per one thousand people.  Perhaps even more notable, Cubans enjoy a “Healthy Life Expectancy” of 68.4 almost equal to that enjoyed by Americans. This new yardstick is used by the World Health Organization to measure the number of years a person can expect to live in full health. The World Health Organization awarded Cuba its  “Health for All Gold Medal”  on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. (Saney, 35).

Post-revolutionary Cuba’s success in rapidly reducing the incidence of malnutrition was equally outstanding until the crisis of the 1990s. An OAS report (citing studies dated in the early 1980s) found no reason to disagree with the Cuban government’s assertion that malnutrition in Cuba had fallen from a pre-revolutionary level of 40% to a current level of less than 5%[7]. As is well known, however, in the late 1980s Cuba faced a very serious economic and food crisis that threatened not only to undermine its achievements but to plunge the small nation into serious food shortage and famine. The crisis was created by two entirely external factors, the fall of the Soviet Block which was its ally and main trading partner, and the increasingly hostile posture of the US which began to tighten its embargo. As  Mehrotra (409) notes, the US embargo against Cuba “… has been the largest embargo by one State against another in modern history”, indeed by the world’s sole super-power against a tiny and vulnerable state in its backyard which has dared to walk its own independent path towards human development.

Cuba’s response to the food crisis involved intense social mobilization and collective efforts. Independent observers generally agree that these achieved a level of success that is quite remarkable (Kont, 2004, Malhotra, 2000). Commenting on the rapid recovery of Cuban agriculture, a report by Oxfam America (Sinclaire and Thompson, 2004, 48) stated: “Under the circumstances facing Cuba- the U.S. embargo, loss of trading partners, little international aid, and economic collapse—the agricultural recovery is nothing short of extraordinary.”  While the country continues to be vulnerable and the situation remains far from satisfactory, it managed to sustain its human development achievements and to bring its food supply to a reasonably adequate level.  Assessing the country’s crisis and reviewing its vulnerability in about 2000, a careful observer (Malhotra, 2000) stated: “Nevertheless the foundations of the Cuban health and nutrition system are strong enough to ensure that the infant-mortality rate and the under-5 mortality rate are being maintained- at least so far.” The country’s response to the crisis and the massive mobilization to overcome the food shortages underscore the entrenched belief in post-revolutionary Cuba that food is a basic entitlement for all people, and once again emphasizes the role of culture, ideology and public action in human development (Koont,2004).

The social policies behind Cuba’s success are broadly similar to those followed by Kerala and the other cases which have been successful: policies that gave priority to education, health services, housing and other benefits accessible to the masses of the people. But behind these policies lay a radical paradigm shift heralded by the revolution. This shift is best expressed in a poignant exchange between Castro and Che Guevara in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. When Che argued that certain designs for public housing were too expensive, Castro retorted emphatically: "But that’s why we had a revolution, so every Cuban can have such a place to live”.(Saney, p2). Consistent with the same spirit and commitment “(F)rom the very beginning of the revolutionary process, education was declared to be every one’s right.” (Mehrotra 395).  What better instrument to raise consciousness and empower people than mass education?  In addition to organizing one of the best and free public school systems anywhere, Cuba also captured the world’s attention, just two years into the revolution, for its innovative and revolutionary nine-month literacy campaign which mobilized 100000 secondary students and other volunteers to impart the skills of reading and writing to 707000 adults in all parts of the country. A notable aspect of mass participation, especially important in health care, has been the pivotal role of “women’s agency”.[8]  Not surprisingly women make up nearly half of all physicians as well as directors of hospitals and polyclinics (Mehrotra (402).  To be sure, some of the initial enthusiasm waned later, some goals were moderated, some policies changed, and others are still being debated.  But the Cuban experience supports the general point that some kind of social mobilization and cultural revolution, and social commitment to change were prerequisites to the introduction and implementation of the policies that led to the achievements.

Two examples from my fieldwork in 2005 will illustrate Cuba’s continuing commitment to the public good and to public participation. (as well s to decentralized governance). As Cuba implements economic reform, it has had to closes down some “unviable” enterprises such as old sugar mills. However, Cuba’s policy towards the workers who are laid off stands out in sharp contrast to the neo-liberal policies elsewhere which victimize the workers in similar circumstances. Not only do the Cuban workers continue to receive their full wages, but are encouraged to pursue higher education in the areas of their interest at public costs. Many are enrolled in higher level courses in the increasingly decentralized university system. In interviews and lectures one hears Cuban commentators and experts assert that such a policy is mandated by a commitment of the Cuban revolution, that “we will not abandon them” no matter how hard the circumstances may be. A second example refers to Cuba’s preparation for hurricane Katrina which hit Cuba during my stay in Havana before it moved to the US. The day before the hurricane, all levels of government as well as public and neighborhood institutions were at work. School children in vulnerable coastal areas were evacuated, and practically every adult person knew what she or he had to do, mainly within the neighborhood societies and civil defense organizations.  Knowledgeable friends assured that nowhere else would I be safer in the face of Katrina than in Havana.  Some 24 hours before Katrina’s expected arrival I sat in a research institution at a pre-arranged meeting with the president discussing the possibility of collaborating in a research project on Cuba and Kerala. After a friendly, but brief and professionally conducted meeting (in which the president also commented with great interested on the Hindi film, Lagan which had recently been screened in Havana by the Indian embassy), he gently indicated that our meeting would now be concluded. “From this moment on”, he declared,  “ I am not only the president of this research institution, but also the head of civil defense. I must now meet with all the employees of the institute, and take all the actions necessary to prepare for tomorrow’s hurricane. Within the hour we will not only take such steps as shutting down our electrical and computer systems, but every one of our 93 employees will know exactly what he/she should be doing during the next 24 hours and beyond”. He bid me good buy and took his leave. As the world learned in a few days, this was a telling contrast to the way their giant neighbor was preparing for the same Katrina, which also gathered far greater fury as it moved to New Orleans in the next few days.

Key Lessons and continuing Challenges

Some of the key lessons offered by Kerala and Cuba can now be stated: a) dehumanizing deprivations can be eliminated in a short time; b) and at low costs (because of the economics of relative costs); c) affordability is not what makes the critical  difference (eg., between Kerala and UP); d) public action (with state-society synergy) makes a huge difference; and e) education and literacy have a foundational role in this transformation. It is also important to note at this juncture that the paths leading to these achievements deviated significantly from the neo-liberal prescriptions now in vogue and continue to underlie mainstream global efforts at poverty alleviation.

Re-stating the deeper question raised above, we can now ask:  what social or cultural factors or forces  moved   these societies, their states and bureaucracies to formulate and implement the approaches and policies that led to these outcomes?  I have tried to highlight the critical role of public action, the high value placed on the pursuit of the public good, and the importance of public provisioning for the security and well being of citizens. We also see that such public action was itself spurred by relatively successful socio-political movements that bring about what I call a cultural revolution. I use the concept of Cultural Revolution here to refer to a transformation in human consciousness and a paradigm change in social values and ideals, in people’s conception of and commitment to social and distributive justice, human rights and entitlements, and in people’s aspirations for themselves and their children. In particular, I have tried to highlight a widespread and deeply cherished commitment by state and society to the pursuit of the public good as a basic goal of public action.  In the historical paths traveled by Kerala and Cuba it is possible to locate the pivotal “moments” akin to the declaration of the Rights of Man during the European Enlightenment. As I emphasise the role of public action and the cultural revolution I should also introduce a caveat that there is no implication here that these provide sufficient conditions or that other factors are unimportant for successful human development outcomes.[9]

 Kerala and Cuba now face many challenges, some common and some different, some old and some new.  Cuba, for example, faces unique challenges in the face of the continuing US hostility and trade embargo. There are strong winds of change in both countries, particularly in the context of globalization and economic liberalization. Few in Kerala or Cuba now subscribe to the idea that markets are inherently bad or necessarily instruments of capitalism, and few believe state controlled command economies to be the panacea for their society. Both have launched reforms in their own ways in attempts to spur greater economic growth by removing over-regulation and inefficiency. While these steps are aimed at correcting internal problems and deficiencies, they are also responses to global forces and regimes over which these societies and their governments have limited control.  The challenge faced by these countries is how successfully they will draw on their accumulated social and cultural capital to sustain their gains with equity and  social justice, and to strengthen their culture while carrying out the reforms that may be inevitable in a neo-liberal world in which these countries are encapsulated. In the face of these challenges, will Kerala and Cuba sustain and enhance their commitment to the public good both as a basic cultural value and as a goal of social policies?  I, along with many other observers, remain cautiously optimistic that they will, but the final outcome remains to be seen.

Some Final Thoughts:

Each day in the world 200 million children sleep in the streets. Not one is Cuban” said Cuba’s Vice-President Carlos Lage in the UN General Assembly in  1996

Amartya Sen (1980s) told us about  a 100 million “missing women” 50 million in India. I think we can say safely that not one of them was, is, in Kerala.

A girl child born in Kerala can expect to live 20 years more than one in UP, and 11 years more than in Karnataka, the  neighbouring state spearheading India’s IT revolution.

Can there be a case that the experiences of Kerala and Cuba do not matter to the UN and other policy makers of the world?

[1] I am happy to report that a new 3 year research project on the subject has since been launched at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Canada in partnership with the University of Havana and the Institute of Social Sciences in New Delhi and Trivandrum, and supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

[2] The best one volume work on successful HD models that I have found is Jolly and Mehrotra (2000).

[3] Ramacandran (2000,255), writing about the role of literacy in Kerala’s achievements notes:  “Literacy is the foundational feature of Kerala’s political culture, crucial in the creation of public opinion and essential to that consciousness of individual and political rights that is so conspicuous a feature of social and political life in Kerala”. It appears that zealous protestant missionaries who opened schools to educate the lower castes shamed the government of Travancore into following suit and making the historical declaration of 1817 that made universal education, paid by the state a goal of state policy (Ibid.269)

[4] Jim Lobe (2001). “Learn from Cuba, says World Bank” (IPS). http://members.allstream.net/~dxchris/CubaFAQ//3.html, accessed, May 22, 2004.

[5] Secretary General in address to Developing Countries, UN Information Service, 2000, http://members.allstream.net/~dchris/CubaFAQQuotes.html, accessed May 22, 2004.

[6] See, for example, UNESCO, 1998, “First International Comparative Study of Language, Mathematics and Associated Factors in Third and Fourth Grades”UNESCO, 2001 “Learning in Latin America”, Lavinia Gasperini, 1999. “The Cuban Education System: Lessons and Dilemmas”, World Bank.(all of these available at http://members.allstream.net/~dchris/CubaFAQ403.html, 23/05/2004)

[7] OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 1983. “The Right to Food) (http:// members.allstream.net/~dchris/CubaFAQQuotes.html, 23/05/2004).

[8] The role of women’s agency is equally important in Kerala. Sen (eg., 2000) particular, has forcefully argued this case for Kerala as well as other countries. Note that this is true in most cases.

[9] For a more critical examination of  public action including its possible downside, see my new boo (Tharamangalam, 2006).  Srilanka provides a case in point where social mobilization and public action did lead to considerable gains in human development, but also eventually to civil war. Hence the importance of democratic accommodation state-society synergy as exemplified especially by Kerala in contrast to Srilanka.  



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__________.1999. The Labor of Development: Workers and the transformation of Capitalism in Kerala, India. Ithaca, NY,: Cornell University Press.

__________. 2000. “Social Capital and the developmental State: Industrial Workers in  Kerala” in Parayil(ed.). op.cit.

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Table 1 Comparisons of Kerala, Cuba and some Selected Countries


Human Development Indicators









Sri Lanka


South Africa



Costa Rica









Human Development Index (2001)

























GDP Per Capita (UDS – PPP) (2001)














Human Poverty Index (2001)













Value (%)












Adult Literacy Rate (15+ in %) 2001





































Gross Enrollment Ratio for primary, secondary & Tertiary (%) 2000/01





































Life Expectancy (years)






































Infant Mortality Rate (per 1000 live births) 2001













Under 5 Mortality Rate (per 1000 live births) (2001)













Total Fertility Rate (births per woman) 2000-05














Sources: HDR, 2003,Government of Kerala(GOK), Economic Review, 2002,  UNDP and GOK. Kerala Human Development Report, 2005


Table 2 The great divide: human development and basic services in Kerala and Uttar Pradesh: latest available data, in percent unless otherwise stated (circa 2000)





Uttar Pradesh


Infant mortality rate (per 1,000 live births) 




Total fertility rate (per woman)




Sex ratio (women per 1,000 men)




Female school enrollment rate (age 6 - 17 years)




Male school enrollment rate (age  6 - 17 years)




Rural girls never in school (age 10 -12 years)




Rural women never in school (age 15 - 19 years)




Immunization coverage rate (age 12-23 months)




Skilled delivery care (%of births)




Rural population in village with:




   A primary school




   A middle school




   An all-weather road








Medical expenditure per hospitalization in public facility (Rs.)




Women Reporting:




   Health care provider respected need for privacy




   Health facility was clean




   Skilled attendance at delivery is unnecessary




Poorest 20%of households that prefer a public health facility





Source: WDR, 2004, p. 44





















































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