Over the past 10 years, as I have become more engaged with social issues, largely with trying to help improve school education in India, I have come to recognize a few important things. Let me share these, with the hope that perhaps it may be useful for some whose primary area of work is not the social and development sector, but business.
First, many (perhaps most) people that I know do think of how they can contribute to the society around themselves. Some act on these thoughts and some don’t. Those who do not act are not short on desire and commitment. They often do not act only because either they do not know what will make for genuine impact or are apprehensive of some stumbling blocks. I have learnt that one route around these issues is to start small, and commit some personal time to your effort. This is not some blinding insight; it’s the logical thing to do. The important bit is about the commitment of time, i.e. personal engagement. It’s only this that gives the confidence and the learning to try and do more.
I feel that our society needs all these contributions. We cannot be bystanders and ask the government to deal with all social issues, and also pan the government for all its ills. We have to act with the basic and deep recognition that this is our society and our government—improving both is our responsibility.
Second, as we act on social issues, we must tread with caution and humility—in many ways, but most importantly in one specific way. We must not foist our agendas and our purposes to social issues. This is a nuanced point, and I have learnt that one has to be very alive to this all the time, to be able to not get trapped by it.
Legitimacy of social purposes and directions can only come through the democratic process.
We as civil society participants have an equal right to influence these purposes and directions by participating in the appropriate processes. But the pitfall is in the reality that often, well-respected people and large organizations, may have a disproportionate influence on these purposes and directions, without having any real democratic and social accountability. There is no simple solution to this issue, because we must try to influence towards what we think is good, but we must be deeply responsible with our influence.
Third is a set of realizations about “working” in the social sector vis-à-vis the business sector.
The first of these realizations is that patience and tenacity are the two greatest friends in the social sector. Things do not change and improve quickly, and when they do, they can unwind for unknowable reasons. People from the world of business can find this exasperating, but this is indeed the reality. One must not lose the sense of urgency, but one must be prepared for this reality.
The second realization is that there are no clearly defined, demarcated arenas of work, which can themselves cause lives of people to change and improve. We may think of education, livelihood, ecology, health, governance, culture, etc. as distinct arenas of work. But all these work in a complex interdependent manner, and thus influence communities.
This kind of complexity is unknown to business, which is used to simple measures of success, and fairly defined arenas of work.
Let me give you an example. When we work on school improvement in a particular village, let’s say, focusing on learning outcomes, we have to be conscious that drinking water conditions affect learning outcomes. If the water conditions are poor, it leads to a poor health situation in the village, which in turn affects attendance in school, which in turn affects learning outcomes.
Indeed, one can’t attempt to work on all issues. Though, factoring in this complex reality into the planning, and trying to work through it, perhaps with the help of like-minded partners, is important.
The third realization is that methods and learning from the business sector, the corporate world, have limited application and use in the social sector. Most of such methods can have their uses, but they have to be modified, with sensitivity, to suit the context. And we have to be prepared that it will certainly not have the same kind of effect as in the corporate world.
I have a simple analogy for this. If you are a good football player, you do build skills and abilities that can be useful for playing cricket. Then you play cricket, and you insist that not only will you use the skills and abilities gained in football, but will also play it exactly like football—on rules, tempo and objectives. Such a game won’t go far, nor will the player.
I am almost scared of corporate organizations and business people who come with the notion that they can use their techniques and “fix” the issues in the social sector. Such action is almost in the image of cutting the Gordian social knot with the sharp swords of the corporate world.
Thoughtfulness, sensitivity and humility in abundant measure are the only solutions to this problem.
Let me end with a reiteration of the point that I began with. I think that all of us must engage with social issues, and try to contribute in a meaningful manner. If we do this with tenacity, humility and responsibility, it has the best chance of being effective.
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