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India at the Crossroads

Civil Society | Apr 28, 2015

This is an edited version of a panel discussion with Neera Nundy, Rikin Gandhi, Tim Hanstad, and Rohini Nilekani on Social Entrepreneurship: India at the Crosswords, at the 2015 Skoll World Forum.

India is clearly at an inflection point. There is global momentum, true economic incentives, and real desire to achieve social and economic progress in this evolving country. However, social entrepreneurs and funders looking to work in India face a unique operating environment: rapid modernisation, lingering poverty, regional and religious distinctions, urban and rural differences, complex laws that vary state by state, and competition with millions of nonprofits. The key to success has been identifying local staff and partners to help navigate this tricky landscape.

Never in human history have there been changes at the scale that we are seeing in India today. 1.2 billion people across economic classes are being brought, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. There’s a lot of progress happening at the grassroots level, but there are also obvious problems as well. As Neera Nundy mentions, we are the world’s largest democracy, a global leader in technology, one of the leading importers of weapons, we have had a mission to Mars, and we are the third largest economy based on purchasing parity. On the other hand, we have some of the worst development outcomes in the world in terms of malnutrition, maternal mortality, and access to water. We now have a huge opportunity for a country of this size, with problems of this nature, to really innovate and ensure rapid change at scale and for the right reasons. Entrepreneurs in India today have great ideas, passion, and optimism. They are energized by both the challenges and the opportunities for solutions.

In Order to Scale, We Need To Work With Governments
When I started working in the education sector through the Pratham Network, I helped set up Pratham Books which has become India’s largest nonprofit children’s publisher. Arghyam, my foundation, works on issues of water and sanitation all over India. In addition, I have been focusing on governance-led initiatives and helping to increase the scope of philanthropy and spotlighting the role of the wealthy in India. Through my years working in the social sector I have realised that in order to scale, the only choice we have is to work with the government and try to influence the way it rolls out public services. If we look at water, health, education — with most societal issues, we need to figure out ways to partner with the government in order to scale. In my experience the government has been relatively open to adopting new ideas at all levels, from the local to the centre, if someone is willing to innovate and work with them. But as anyone who has worked with the government knows, for every two steps forward you get pushed one step back. Sometimes you have to start over again because the government is not one unified entity, but different departments and people working in silos. It’s tough, but it’s necessary if your aim is to scale something.

Rikin Gandhi notes that the challenge for governments is that they don’t always have flexible resources to innovate and improve their existing programs. So investments from philanthropists are catalytic, to actually demonstrate proofs of concept and evaluate whether those will be able to provide impact that the government can then take to scale. The government knows how to put a lot of resources behind something. Once it decides on a course of action, it can roll it out at a kind of scale that is impossible for any other body or organisation. When you innovate outside the government, you need to keep the goal of scaling in mind because the government cannot scale in the same way as civil society can. Often what happens is that the pilot succeeds but the scale up fails. So we have to get better at innovating in a way that the government processes can adopt effectively. For example, there are certain things that are more amenable for civil society actors to do, involving moral leadership and bringing communities together. Governments can’t do that sort of thing.

Civil society organisations in India also exist on a spectrum, including groups that remain outside the purview of the government and are often antagonistic towards the government. That is a legitimate role too, to protest and show a mirror to the government and say, “We will not work with this government.” It is an understandable position, especially when the goal is to bring certain issues to the fore. On the other hand, some organisations prefer to take problems to the government and work together to help solve them. These are all legitimate options for civil society actors to choose. We should be clear about what we expect the Indian government at all levels to do, what should remain with the civil society, and what should remain with the markets.

Challenges and Changes in India
There have been rapid changes in the way outside investments in India have been made in the last decade. As a consequence, a lot of the work that philanthropy or investments from outside were doing in spaces like governance and human rights cannot be done anymore. The government is coming down hard on foreign money coming into India in these sensitive areas. But while those opportunities have changed, others are opening up. Organisations like Omidyar, the Gates Foundation, and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation are investing in for-profit and nonprofit spaces in India. The innovative work that’s being done, especially by new social entrepreneurs, does require capital, and that’s where we will be able to bring best practices from somewhere else and scale them up. In India, when we talk about pilots, we are talking about 500,000 people to begin with. That gives us the opportunity for really large evidence creation and there are many spaces that we can begin supporting or start working in, whether that’s data, ecology, education, or health. So many areas are ripe for innovation and collaboration and the opportunities are immense. Rinkin points to international perspective as well, where the Indian government can work with other countries to share best practices and apply creative solutions.

If we look at government data, we have lifted 300 million people out of absolute poverty in the last 15 years. There’s no doubt whatsoever that a lot of change and progress is happening on the ground. However, there are also new kinds of poverty coming up — we are seeing the feminisation and urbanisation of poverty. India is now a country on the move, and we have 150-200 million people migrating within India looking for livelihoods. That’s creating a lot of change. With government planning and schemes for structurally changing the way people access services, I think we will see absolute poverty decreasing over the next 10 years. Unlike countries like China, we progress at a slow pace. But that also means that we don’t make large mistakes very quickly, so there are trade-offs to that. Our democracy and diversity allows us to cope with many complex challenges in locally relevant ways. I have great faith that things are changing for the better in India. There is a lot of evidence for this on the ground.
As a foundation we are seeing this as well. Our partners in water and sanitation around the country have very relevant, contextual answers to local problems. We’ve been supporting exciting solutions in groundwater and participating in groundwater management. We have learnt from the people that we’re supporting, and my big takeaway is that we need to support local creativity, innovation, and commitment.

The Role of Social Entrepreneurs
We are seeing a lot of entrepreneurs coming into the public service spaces, whether it’s water, sanitation, health, housing, education, or energy. The government has not been able to provide these services, so the market players have started coming in and getting some investment and support. But it’s tricky because there isn’t much clarity in India on the role of markets in these spaces. So far, either civil society or governments were expected to deliver public services. Now we are seeing a shift, and we need to be aware of how that shift is going to play out and whether it can scale. There’s a lot of ecosystem build-up to be done around it, in terms of policy and capacity. However, the issue of the gap in capacity that Rinkin points out, affects not just organisations of social enterprises, but even governments or the private sector. That is where social entrepreneurs can have a larger role to play, by building out the capacity and thinking about how our programs can be more comprehensive and easier to scale.

For example, the agricultural extension services used to be in the government domain, however now there’s almost no extension services left on the ground, which presents us with an opportunity to work with the government and enable them to use a certain model or framework to roll out effective programs at scale. Another example is in India’s energy policies, which will influence other spheres not just in the country but in the world. It will be interesting to see what decentralised off-grid solutions we can create because I don’t see how we are going to reach everybody with the centralised grid. We need a basket of energy solutions, and we are closely watching that space, because the kind of mega power projects that are planned by the government is going to incite a lot of conflict as well. I hope we can innovate an energy solution for India that is different. We cannot follow the path of the rest of the world, we just don’t have that luxury. There are many entrepreneurs in that space so we need to invest in it.

In terms of trust in the government and its reputation of corruption, I think the solution is more transparency, and organisations are working towards that goal. For example, the ASER Report that Pratham has been doing for 10 years, has allowed people to know what’s happening in the education sector. Through the Right To Information Act, there’s a lot more transparency around government actions. Many new entrepreneurs are setting up data sites where they make government data visible and accessible to people, using graphics and visuals. So there are many innovative ways in which corruption is being tackled, and funders are beginning to support these initiatives. There is a demand to know how the government is functioning, and this increase has come with creative solutions.

We are at an inflection point of sorts, and a lot has been already invested by many actors across different sectors in India. It feels like the time is ripe for big things to happen. If we don’t get it right though, it won’t just be bad for India, but for the entire world. So we need to work on these problems and innovate our way, while also building social capacity. The future lies in investing in people and communities. In spite of all the challenges, I genuinely feel optimistic that things are going to get better.

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