Home / Opinion / India’s job challenge requires collective action

It is no secret that India has a massive jobs challenge. We need to create roughly one million new jobs per month whereas the net rate of new jobs creation has been quite negligible. Moreover, India will be one of the countries most affected by automation with nearly two-thirds of all jobs—including those in the information technology sector—potentially disappearing in the next two or three decades. Jobs may be the single biggest social and economic challenge we face. There is no silver bullet to solve this problem. In fact, technology is rendering the very idea of jobs obsolescent and we need a redefinition in terms of livelihoods and a living wage. It will take a multi-dimensional approach and most of all, an active partnership between businesses, government and civil society to scale the necessary solutions. This is termed “collective action".

Of course sound economic policies can go a long way towards creating new jobs. Accelerating economic growth, massive infrastructure investments, revitalizing manufacturing, reforms that reduce the friction for businesses to operate and so on are clearly foundational. But 90% of people work in the informal economy. India is still largely a country of self-employed people and micro enterprises and will remain so for a long time. So we need to apply thought to how to bring this population up to a living wage.

The good news is that there are a number of organizations and companies that are innovating and demonstrating the contours of the future. Marketplaces ranging from UrbanClap to Babajobs are boosting wages as they move workers from informal to semi-formal jobs. Organizations such as DeAsra Foundation and Hand in Hand are successfully attempting to grow thousands of micro entrepreneurs who may employ a few people each. Others such as Head Held High, Nudge Foundation and NES have effective models to skill people and place them in jobs. Organizations like Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Rope Foundation, GoCoop, Fabindia and IndusTree have demonstrated the ability to boost the income of artisans and craftspeople by connecting them to markets. Yet others such as Vrutti are doing extraordinary work in enhancing incomes of large segments like farmers.

The challenge is how do we identify such organizations and help them scale massively so they can improve the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people. There are many reasons why organizations in the social sector struggle to scale but the single biggest factor is that the ecosystem required to support scale-up is fragmented. Each of the major stakeholders operates largely in a silo. Government policies and schemes, bottom-of-the-pyramid initiatives of companies and their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes, priority sector lending by banks, and the agenda of big donors and impact investors such as Omidiyar Network or Rockefeller Foundation do not align in a way that makes it easy to scale. As a result every one struggles to meet their objectives, frustrations and disappointment are high, enormous resources are wasted and big problems remain unsolved.

An emerging idea is that solving tough problems like education, sanitation or livelihood requires collective action. Collective action is based on the idea that social problems arise from and persist because of a complex combination of actions and omissions by players in all sectors and therefore can only be solved by the coordinated efforts of all those players ranging from businesses, government agencies, donors, lenders, civil society and most of all the people whose lives we are trying to improve. Only such coordinated effort will change how the system functions. There is a growing amount of anecdotal evidence from around the world and India that when relevant parties come together, examine the data and evolve end-to-end solutions, the whole systems flips into a new positive state.

In particular I have been very encouraged by pilots by Rockefeller Foundation in an initiative called Yieldwise designed to drastically reduce post-harvest losses in Africa. By bringing together the entire ecosystem around a particular combination of foodchain and geography, for example mangoes in Kenya, impressive results have been achieved. In effect, in this case, Rockefeller Foundation has served as a platform that brought together the ecosystem around it to solve a persistent problem.

The Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions offers another successful example of collective action focused on youth employment. The key elements of success are someone with the convening power and trust to get the whole ecosystem “into the room", embrace of a common agenda and definition of success, use of data and design thinking principles to evolve the solutions, dedicated staff to provide ongoing support and governance of the mission.

On 19 January, in Delhi, stakeholders relevant to the challenge of job and livelihood creation are coming together under the “Million Jobs Mission" of Social Venture Partners. Fifteen carefully selected organizations with proven models ready for scaleup will have the opportunity to present their work to a room filled with representatives from 50 companies, banks, foundations and government. The idea is to coalesce the ecosystem around the scaleup of the impact of these 15 organizations to improve a million lives by 2020. It is a brave large scale experiment in advancing the idea of collective action and impact.

The idea that it takes every one of us to come together to solve the big problems of our time is at once simple, compelling and appealing. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Ravi Venkatesan is the chairman of Social Venture Partners India.

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