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Nandan and Rohini Nilekani; A Conversation with Badr Jafar

Strategic Philanthropy | Jan 11, 2021

This is an edited version of an interview with Nandan and Rohini Nilekani on the Business of Philanthropy. In conversation with Badr Jafar, they discuss some of the golden rules for strategic philanthropy, how technology is changing the philanthropic sector, and how Covid-19 will impact India’s ability to achieve the SDGs by 2030.

I have been working in the philanthropy sector for almost 30 years now, and while it looks like I’m trying to do a little bit in so many areas, what holds my philanthropy portfolio together is one simple but powerful idea – the continuum of the state, society, and the markets. My entire focus is on strengthening society or Samaaj because I truly believe that markets and the state have to be responsive to society. To ensure that the state and markets are accountable to the largest public interest, we need very strong leadership and societal institutions to make that happen and to collect and coordinate ordinary people’s efforts so that they become part of the solution rather than victims of the problem. So whether I’m working in education, environment, water, or arts and culture, it’s all about finding institutions, individuals, and ideas that strengthen the Samaaj. That’s the common thread in my work, and the rest of it is based on my passion and opportunities for many different things. On Nandan’s part, one of the big areas he focuses on is education and EkStep is the largest part of that. He supports many institutions, including the Indian Institute of Human Settlements and eGov Foundation, both of which he has founded. He’s also the president of NCAER, India’s preeminent economic think tank.

Takeaways From the Pandemic

The current pandemic has had and is continuing to have a devastating impact, in terms of pushing people back into poverty, and the gains of the last few years are actually getting unwound with lack of jobs and income for many people. Especially in India, it’s pretty heartbreaking because so many people have just lifted themselves out of poverty in a stable way. If we are to achieve our SDG goals by 2030, we have to work harder, faster, and even more at scale to make up for what it has meant in terms of progress. We need private philanthropy now to step up and underwrite a lot of risk, so that the next time – and there will be a next time, whether it’s a climate change-related crisis or another pandemic – we are much better prepared. We need people who can invest, to assess what has happened in the last nine months, figure out what worked in different countries, do rapid studies, do some scoping, and then support institutions who will be able to come together for a rapid response next time around. The government is too busy right now to do this, but private philanthropy has the space, the time, and the resources to do it. So that’s one thing in terms of Covid and philanthropy. And as Nandan points out, perhaps the nature of this pandemic and its impact has made people more receptive and flexible to new ideas and innovations.

What we have learnt so far is that we must focus on society and communities. Who were the first responders all over the world? It was citizen’s groups, people who knew the neighbourhoods and could reach the last mile, or rather the first mile as I like to say. Of course, the government came in, health workers came, but the first responders were civil institutions. Strengthening those and building networks of trust well in advance is a big learning that I have taken away from this pandemic.

We have also seen a rise in the acceptance of digital technology and at EkStep, we are quite taken aback. Luckily, the government had already asked us to help with setting up a national infrastructure to train teachers to create content and also allow students to come online to get a lot of learning resources. But the kind of rapid uptake we saw in the last few months has staggered our own teams as well. We have tried our best to also watch out for those on the other side of the digital divide, and a lot of innovations have flourished there as well. So this uptake of the digital, the knowledge that citizen’s groups are the first responders, and the ability of philanthropy to take new risks with a new imagination so that we are better prepared next time, seem to be the takeaways from this pandemic.

Technology With Good Intent

The role of technology in philanthropy has gained a lot of importance in these Covid times because everything has been digitised including the way we deliver things to people, and we believe that it enables scale, as Nandan says. If we really want to solve the problems of a billion people, we need technology underpinnings to reach everyone. It enables speed, a common platform, and the ability to deal with the diverse changes that are required across the world. Unlike Nandan, I am by no means a techie, but I’ve understood how using technology appropriately can actually amplify our good intent. There are of course dangers that come with technology, so how you use it, taking the power of your intent and building a grammar around that intent through good technologies is a very important thing. Philanthropists need to now start thinking about how they will support civil society with more technology tools to be able to participate fully in the digital age.

Civil society institutions, especially in India, have been a little technophobic, thinking that technology and power get woven too intricately against the interests of the masses. But I think it’s now crucial for them to enter and participate fully in the digital age, and to democratise the digital age so that whatever problems we have to solve about technology can be solved together. Rather than shunning technology, we need to accept the digital age and improve the way technology serves society. For philanthropy, it’s important to understand how to support civil society institutions to be technology-enabled but not technology-led. As a non-techie, I can honestly say that good technologies will amplify good intent and we must now use them.

The Future of India’s Philanthropy

For both of us, achieving impact at scale is very important. But along with scale and speed, diversity is also important because one solution does not fit all. It is patently obvious to all of us that you cannot solve issues in silos. If you’re interested in having impact at the scale of the problem and not just in a much smaller way, then you have to work with Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkar. This is certainly easier to do with areas like education where there is a moral undeniability to it rather than something political. So starting with issues that are common to everybody’s welfare, it’s easy to draw in the state because it is their mandate to provide basic services. We have found that governments have been pretty open to coming in as partners and helping them reach the last mile. Of course, there are setbacks but it’s possible to find champions inside the government. On our part, we have to clearly articulate the common goals and communicate them. Even in terms of the markets in India, by law they have to share a portion of their profits with society through our corporate social responsibility laws. So they are very eager to participate.

Throughout our work in this sector, we have held certain philosophies and ideas, about how to increase access to services. For example, with the kind of work I do in the water space, how do we increase access to those services, or to opportunities like education in a country where a large part of people are unable to participate formally in the economy due to a lack of education and access. So how do we bring these people into the fold and help them improve their lives? The work that we have been doing for so many decades now has led us to come up with a slightly more structured way to address these questions by reducing the friction to collaborate between state, markets and society. We call it ‘societal platform thinking’, a framework underpinned by a few very fundamental values such as being technology-enabled but not technology-led, being people-led, problem-led, and to create a unified but not uniform solution so that multiple people can engage in their own context to solve their own problems. This is something we hold very dear because using this, the government and markets can come in, the civil society can thrive, and individuals can also find a way to build back agency. This is what we are trying to achieve.

Over the last few years, there’s been a tremendously increasing awareness and interest in philanthropy. All the wealthy people of India have come to the conclusion that we have to give forward and there are now many structured opportunities to do so. Whether it is through the India Philanthropy Initiative, or the many business bodies in India and informal networks that we have been able to work with, we have seen an acceleration of the intent to cooperate among the Indian philanthropists, which I find very heartening. We’ve had several conversations and meetings on this and I’ve been lucky enough to also see a flourishing of international cooperation. Looking eastwards from India, the Asia philanthropists have come together in several fora and we have been exchanging a lot of information. There are certainly cultural similarities between us so coming to understand a new way for Asia to come together is very exciting. Of course, western philanthropists have also been part of those discussions. In addition, global collaborative platforms like Co-Impact and others have me hopeful about this interesting point we’re at, but we need to take advantage of this momentum and push forwards to a better future.

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