We all know that the situation in India’s rural lands is bleak. In the decades since Independence, this country has conspicuously failed to extend development to its villages. Hundreds of millions of rural Indians remain adrift in poverty and isolation. They might enjoy some small scraps from shining urban India—such as a mobile phone, perhaps—but they have never been allowed a true place at the table.
Furthermore, our rural hinterlands will not remain perpetually in the same miserable state. Now we are close to reaching a tipping point. With the combined threats of endemic poverty, climate chaos and insurgencies, the situation in rural India is threatening to get much, much worse.
This 60-year failure of rural India is the combined responsibility of the three sectors of government, business and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). State interventions have failed to make a genuine difference. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) policies have failed also, as have the campaigns of civil society groups. I would like to propose a very simple explanation why. It is because these three sectors have been acting individually, rather than in unison.
Only a unified approach, playing on the strengths and skills of all three sectors, can possibly grapple with poverty and the threat of climate change. But our government still has the mindset that development is its legitimate territory alone. Businesses still believe that their fickle acts of CSR philanthropy can improve India village by village. And NGOs still believe they can change the world by screaming from the sidelines. All are deluded.
Our government holds power and legitimacy but struggles to reach the grass roots of India. It lacks the ability to mobilize the people in the way that countless NGOs can. Businesses have immense resources, but no knowledge of rural poverty issues. NGOs have the knowledge of the grass roots but lack the resources or power. The deficiencies of one sector can clearly be mitigated by the abilities of the others—if only they could learn to work together.
But the relationships between the three sectors are currently marked by ignorance of how the others operate and what motivates them. There is often even open hostility between the three camps. NGOs are viewed as inept and naïve by both the other sectors. Business, of course, is viewed as being twisted by greed, its CSR efforts tainted by self-interest. And government is viewed as closed-minded, aloof and mired in red tape. All these cartoon clichés are inaccurate and damaging. The barriers of suspicion between the three sectors must be torn down.
The concept of trisector partnership involves business, state and NGOs working together structurally, as equals, for development. Trisector partnership might not be exactly what you think it is. It is not public-private partnership (PPP), which purports to unite the two sectors of government and business, but often simply amounts to government sub-contracting. It is not the same as CSR initiatives, which are led by businesses and involve compliant and powerless NGOs.
Trisector partnership can be defined as an initiative between government, business and civil society for the good of us all, in which parity is accepted between the partners, reflecting their respective monetary and non-monetary contributions to a development project. It offers an exciting opportunity to accelerate the rural development process far beyond CSR and PPPs.
If you don’t support the concept of trisector partnerships for India’s future, then I’ll ask you this—what do you propose instead? Rural India’s escalating crisis means that we won’t be granted another 60 years to find the answers.
D.K. Giri is director of the Schumacher Centre(www.schumachercentre.org). Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org