We must bust myths around the social service sector

 Many participants, from donors to CSOs, claim that they work for change in systems but such claims are not based on a realistic assessment of the small part of the vast system they actually contribute to.
Many participants, from donors to CSOs, claim that they work for change in systems but such claims are not based on a realistic assessment of the small part of the vast system they actually contribute to.

Summary

  • False notions of sustainability, scaling up, systemic change and ulterior motives need to be tackled. The real onus is on philanthropists, donors, academics and policymakers to escape the grip of untruths and face reality.

Myths have a strong grip over the imagination of many actors in the social sector. From philanthropists and donors to civil society organizations (CSOs) and policymakers. We must bust these myths and face reality to become more effective at work and to improve the lives of people. So, to begin this New Year, let’s explore a few pervasive but problematic myths.

The myth of sustainability: This is not about environmental sustainability. It is the notion that changes and improvements happening in a community can be self-sustaining. Whether it is a village or a large state system, the myth is that after a while, the CSO can disengage because the desired changes have been made ‘sustainable.’ The belief is that the good that occurred can be integrated and embedded wherever it has happened, eliminating the need for external support or intervention.

Every experience in the social sector tells the same tale: Nothing sustains on its own. Communities, systems and societies are buffeted continually by internal and external forces—political, economic and cultural. Some are purposeful forces and some just play out by chance. Not to talk of the tendency of systems to become disordered. In this fluid and dynamic human theatre, whatever has been achieved needs continuous nurturing and energy from somewhere, else things slide back or drift in other directions. For example, in a few panchayats, significant work has been done to ensure that no child marriages happen or that no one is discriminated against on the basis of caste. After some time deemed sufficient in the estimate of the donor, the work of the CSO is stopped. These panchayats are fully embedded in the larger society, from where forces will always work against this progress and unwind it, unless countered continually. The reason for this myth of sustainability is because donors, policy- makers and even CSOs influenced by them want to withdraw from the work and move on. This is just wishful thinking. The battle to sustain good outcomes is relentless because everything is ephemeral, even more so the good.

The myth about scale: Can human relationships be scaled up? Can social and cultural ties be scaled? We know that the notion of scale is not relevant in these contexts.

Almost all the work in the social sector is about human beings—their relationships and the political and cultural dynamics that constitute the life of the community and society. These cannot be scaled because of the particularity of context and the basic human element. So, it should be obvious that scalability is a chimera in the social sector.

Yet, this notion drawn from an industrial imagination continues to have a grip because it appears to promise quickly changing fortunes across geographies and populations. The principles of good work in one context are often useful in another, making it possible to learn and use them in other places, but this is not the same as scaling, which involves repeating the approach and solution across larger numbers. Why is it so hard to accept that humans are not machines and communities are not factories?

The myth about system change: A ‘system’ refers to an interlocking set of institutions, structures, norms and more. The word is used so often now that we lose sight of the complexity and vastness it denotes. Many participants, from donors to CSOs, claim that they work for change in systems. Such claims are not based on a realistic assessment of the small part of the vast system they actually contribute to.

Awareness that such work in itself will not lead to any systemic change, and just result in a few steps forward in one part of the system, will nullify the notion. However, in too many instances there is an explicit or implicit declaration to make systemic change happen; often by a bunch of smart people sitting in some central place and ‘orchestrating’ policies, administrative action and on-the-ground work. This is plain hubris and all such claimants need to honestly consider the track record on systems change—not just of CSOs and philanthropists, but also of highly effective states.

The myth of bad CSOs: Once upon a time, CSOs were thought to be paragons of virtue and stellar examples of how people could dedicate their lives to the service of society. Over the past two or three decades, this belief has gotten inverted. There is a widespread notion that—other than a small minority—CSOs are inefficient, ineffective and corrupt, or some combination thereof. This is plainly false. CSOs are no more corrupt or ineffective than any other kind of enterprise in our society. Academic institutions, state organs and businesses are all similar. All of them have a distribution of effectiveness and probity in the context of their work and size. It is the same with CSOs. The myth not only does a great dis-service to lakhs of people who do a competent and honest job helping our society improve, but also goes against their work.

While many civil society organizations may be complicit in the creation of these myths, the real onus is on philanthropists, donors, academics and policymakers to escape the grip of these untruths and face reality. India will be better off if these myths were laid to rest once and for all.

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