Pieces of a Puzzle: How smart collaboration can engineer the future of social entrepreneurship

Across the country, there is more compelling evidence now than ever to point to a serious lapse in the state’s ability to provide for its citizens. As policy decisions at the centre fail to translate into anything concrete at the grassroots, a large demographic in India falls between the cracks of state welfare schemes.

This is where the third sector and civil-society initiatives have classically stepped in. If a recent government-commissioned report is to be believed, India has the largest number of active NGOs in world—about one NGO for every 400 Indians. And this doesn’t take into account international advocacy groups and grants from international institutions for development initiatives.

However, while there are many individuals and organisations working with the marginalised to improve standards of living, that hasn’t kept the bottom from falling out for the country’s impoverished millions. Could greater collaboration between the state and the third sector be key to more successful development initiatives?

Gautam Bharadwaj of Invest India Micro Pensions believes that the state, civil society and the corporate sector all have roles to play.

“Whenever you do something with a social impact you need to have public goods,” he explains. “This is where the government comes in, to fund the creation of public goods with public money.”

Bharadwaj, whose organisation has created a pension scheme low-income workers to save up for their old age, uses the example of Parvathi, a senior citizen on the verge of retirement age.  Her savings are frugal. Even if she were to save Rs 100-200 a month as she approaches retirement, it would hardly suffice to take care of her needs once she stops working at, say, 60. Without a regular source of income, she could fall back into poverty five years later at 65.

Bharadwaj says that there are two ways to approach the problem. One, ask the government to take care of her entirely once she retires, using tax payer money. The other idea, the one Bharadwaj espouses, is involving the government much earlier to help Parvathi build up her savings. For instance, the government could credit her account with Rs. 5000 a year while she is still working. This, he believes, encourages ageing citizens like Parvathi to save for the future as well.

However, the onus is on both the government and the third sector to pull together to ensure that the welfare service reaches the ultimate beneficiaries. A collaborative network, says Bharadwaj, needs to be established. Even as the government tries to create this shift to self-help, the NGO sector must go into the trenches and educate the target beneficiaries about the scheme.

The need of the hour, he adds, with development initiatives is clear thinking at the front end of service delivery. The yardstick of sustainability must be added to every social programme. What’s worse than a service not reaching its target, Bharadwaj believes, is offering that service and then pulling the plug on it after a few years because the different stakeholders say they have no funds for it.

To ensure sustainability, it’s important that social initiatives from the third sector enforce or work with state structures and programmes instead of replacing them entirely. Simon Berry, a long-time aid worker with British Aid, reiterated this idea in a conversation we had over a year ago.

“Aid agencies come and go. When we leave, we take the knowledge and the skills with us, so it's important to empower the local community,” Berry said.Berry found that in the absence of public goods such as transportation infrastructure, initiatives must find creative ways around the problem. Sometimes, this might involve partnering with the private sector, despite the suspicion that the critics reserve for corporate companies.

As he was developing a framework for healthcare delivery in Zambia, Berry found that healthcare schemes often always hit snags because his organisation’s networks were inaccessible to many living in remote regions. So instead of reinventing the wheel by setting up new distribution channels from scratch, he came up with ColaLife, an initiative to distribute medicines across the African continent.

The initiative was created when Berry discovered that, “you could buy a Coca-Cola virtually anywhere in developing countries but in these same places, one in five children died before their fifth birthday from simple, preventable causes like dehydration from diarrhoea.”

Using Coca-Cola’s vast distribution network, Berry’s team dispatches basic medicines such as oral rehydration salts and water purifications tablets in little “aid pods” that are wedged between bottles of Coca-Cola in a crate. The crates are then delivered to local stores, where the aid pods are made freely available to the locals.

“Coca-Cola isn’t doing anything operational—we're simply using their secondary distribution channels,” Berry says. “Coca-Cola has a developed franchise model and we’re working on training local breweries to deliver medicines as well.”

The form of collaboration that Berry describes has universal applicability, but might need to be tailor-made to suit the specifics of the social programme in question. But these concerted efforts, which bring together all the stakeholders involved to collectively troubleshoot, seem likely to have stronger long-term prospects of success than working within isolated, pre-determined and non-dynamic silos.

By Paul Dharamraj