Lessons for the new philanthropy from the experiences of the past

Lessons for the new philanthropy from the experiences of the past

At the time of independence, India was extremely poor, both economically and in terms of modern institutions. The context then was the aftermath of two terrible human tragedies—the Bengal famine, which claimed an estimated 1.5 million lives, and the partition.

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International philanthropic support in the 1950s and 1960s from institutions such as the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations was significant at this time not so much in quantitative terms by today’s standards, but in terms of appropriate, timely and quality inputs. The direct impact of such assistance cannot be easily quantified, but it laid the foundations for accelerated growth in the years to come. Examples include the impressive growth of the microfinance industry in South Asia, which can perhaps claim its origins from a seed research grant to Prof. Yunus from Ford in Bangladesh in 1970, and subsequently grants to a large network of other organizations and associations. An important lesson for angel investors in the social sector is to back innovative ideas, not all of which will succeed, but which might otherwise not see the light of day.

Another success story is the breeding of high-yielding dwarf wheat and maize by Norman Borlaug in Mexico with funding support from the Rockefeller Foundation and the transfer of such technology to rice in India averted famine for a generation of Indians. But second- and third-generation problems have come to the fore, forcing donors and implementers such as the network of centres belonging to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) to undertake a major reform in the way programmes are funded and implemented.

In spite of several successes, the glass is only two-thirds full. One-third of our citizens live in conditions of abject poverty, with dismal social services, especially for health and education.

The UN Human Development Index puts India in the lowest third among nations, and India will be unable to meet most if not all of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. There is a shining part to the India story and a dark side. Why should this be? Resources are no longer such a constraint as before but there is need for more given the scale of the challenges we face.

India has the technical expertise to meet the challenges and is also well linked to the globalized world. Perhaps, the lessons learnt from the past can help improve the design, delivery and sustainability of new interventions.

An important point for new philanthropy to note is that they need not venture out alone but might be more effective in a collaborative effort. Four major US foundations—Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford, Rockefeller and MacArthur— launched in 2000 the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, supporting universities to transform themselves. A similar kind of a collaborative initiative is Climate Works. Indian institutions of higher education can certainly benefit from similar support as well.

Finally, with the growing role of the market and a paradigm shift in the offing from a welfarist social policy to a more market-based one, there is also scope for socially responsible investing. This has been termed as impact investing, described as the emerging hybrid of philanthropy and private equity. If India can get its act together, there is no reason why we cannot have a shining India in our lifetime.

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