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Sharing is beautiful

Sharing is beautiful
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First Published: Mon, Sep 28 2009. 10 14 PM IST
Updated: Mon, Sep 28 2009. 10 14 PM IST
Sreelatha Menon dedicated her column in the Business Standard on 27 September aptly to the Joy of Giving Week that commenced the same day. Her opening salvo was even more apt. She wrote that the Joy of Giving Week (conceived by Give India) wove together thousands of small efforts at charity to make a big difference.
She was right. Small charitable contributions meant for many thousand small efforts make a big difference. In the last several weeks, I have been reflecting on this very topic. Earlier this decade, I had “graduated” from small charitable contributions to helping a small-and- micro-enterprise venture fund come to life. From there, the next milestones in the “public (policy) impact journey” were supposed to be funding and founding a public policy think tank. Then came the realization that op-eds did not bring change (see Bare Talk on 26 May).
Then, Jagdish Bhagwati in his recent lecture in Singapore reminded his audience that public policy impact could take decades to achieve. So one has to keep plugging away without impact. Of course, in some cases, it might be good not to have an impact, especially if one’s thinking is flawed to begin with.
The Undercover Economist gave that reply to a reader who wanted to know how to make as big a contribution to society as possible (http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/the-undercover-economist-answers-your-questions/). Tim Harford wrote that it would be great to make federal policy better; but without proper impact evaluation, one could actually be contributing to making it worse, and that many in Washington, DC, were engaged in doing exactly that. In addition to this warning, he also gave a positive suggestion in favour of modest projects because they gave tangible progress, were easier to evaluate, made us feel better and encouraged us to keep going.
Anil Gupta of India’s National Innovation Foundation reinforced the case for small efforts in his characteristic forthright manner in a recent Wall Street Journal interview (http://online.wsj.com/ article/SB125376926792036847.html). He said that scale should not be made the enemy of sustainability.
What he said further is important: “In other words, if some solutions don’t diffuse, do they become less legitimate? Are problems of small communities less important than problems which affect a large number of people? Sustainability doesn’t mean that the same solution applies everywhere, because nature is essentially diverse. But we are trying to remove diversity by scaling up solutions… By treating it as such, it creates more problems because what was not uniform is being treated as uniform, which means the dissimilarities and variabilities became more manifest.”
This is important for public policymakers and thinkers. India’s size and the scale of poverty that remains to be tackled, combined with a Western fascination with scale efficiencies, make many of us suggest blanket nationwide efforts and interventions. They might make for neat Power Point presentations, but they mostly do not work. That is what many consumer marketing companies discover when their national marketing campaigns boomerang in some locations.
Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work on a pan-India basis confirm that small and context-relevant interventions work. Such interventions help to build evidence on what works and what does not. The recognition of this reality gave birth to Poverty Action Lab (www.povertyactionlab.org), housed at the department of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Gupta suggests that under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), villagers could be required to set up a village knowledge register. If the 250 million people covered by NREGA spend a fraction of the 100 days they are paid wages on this, the ideas that could be documented and disseminated throughout the country would run into billions. There would be cross-pollination of thought and action.
This is where Give India, which provides a portal for donors to contribute to social organizations that have gone through some screening, could take the lead and set up a mechanism for NGOs to interact. In fact, they should insist on it. Similarly, foundations (see, for instance, www.khemkafoundation.org) give awards annually to best social intervention efforts. They should make it obligatory on the part of awardees—whose work has clearly succeeded and has made an impact—to share their intellectual property with fellow social entrepreneurs.
Until now, this has been more of an exception than a rule. For most NGO heads, over time, the cause becomes secondary to their persona. Anxiety to guard turf and territory drives action and the original mission is lost. In other words, all the ills that pervade the for-profit world afflict the not-for-profit or non-profit world too. It appears that one of the well-known NGOs in the country—Goonj—is an exception. It is about to put up a “replication kit” on its website, throwing open its knowledge and experience for others to adopt.
So, in this Joy of Giving Week, Bare Talk salutes small and sustainable efforts and hopes that they too discover the joy of sharing and giving.
V. Anantha Nageswaran is chief investment officer for an international wealth manager. These are his personal views. Your comments are welcome at baretalk@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Sep 28 2009. 10 14 PM IST