By Joe Phelan, India Country Director
Change is afoot in India, as the debate on the role of business to support inclusive growth shifts from theory to implementation.
The new landscape is one where companies are mandated by government to spend a proportion of their profits on CSR initiatives while major aid agencies are scaling down development funding for NGOs in the country. India remains home to a third of the World’s poor.
Against this backdrop, business and NGOs are seeking each other out in a more concerted way. ‘Partnership’ is the heading under which these interactions take place. But too often conversations are more like a high-powered game of top trumps*.
Held in higher regard in India for their impact on social issues than any other country, companies take the high ground on efficiency, and bemoan the lack of credible NGOs to work with. This is the ‘NGO management competency paradox’, where NGOs are cast as inefficient and unrealistic, while at the same time requests from NGOs for funds to support management, measurement and reporting are seen as an unnecessary diversion of resources.
The classic trap for NGOs is to take the moral high ground, resort to trading on an emotional appeal and seeking authority by speaking for India’s poor. This only exacerbates corporate perceptions of needy NGOs, and ignores the fact that people in companies live in the same world too. No one has a monopoly on caring.
We need to get past this unhelpful discourse.
For twenty years my colleague Ros Tennyson has been making the case for partnerships based on equity.
“What does ‘equity’ mean in a relationship where there are wide divergences in power, resources and influence?” she asks in The Partnering Toolbook, the seminal resource for those creating and sustaining partnerships. “Equity is not the same as ‘equality’. Equity implies an equal right to be at the table and a validation of those contributions that are not measurable simply in terms of cash value or public profile.”
In practice, some equity can be given, some has to be earned, and this was one of the messages that came out of a business-NGO dialogue I attended last week organised by SOS Children’s Villages of India.
“Too many companies keep quiet about their work with communities”, says Rajiv Tikoo of oneworld.net, “As a journalist it is hard to know what’s going on.”
Akshay Singh of SOS Children’s Villages says “investing in proper measurement of the impact and effectiveness of corporate money must be seen as a common need, not something that is nice for the NGO.”
In fact, India is the source of some of the best thinking and practice on cross sector partnerships in the world. The Tata Steel Rural Development Society has pioneered cross sector approaches to development for more than 30 years. The ICICI Foundation for Inclusive growth is another model of long-term investment in cross-sectoral approaches to India’s development challenges. MCX and Ballarpur Industries are two other examples of building deep, equitable partnerships to support business goals and achieve development outcomes.
It’s time we understand that power to influence outcomes and create change comes not from playing at well-known roles and pushing worn-out buttons, but from engaging properly with potential partners, listening to their perspectives and being honest about our own.
India is unique in having strong national and moral motivations for corporate investments in communities. Vivek Joshi, an advisor to a major state owned company, says for example that these PSUs have “the conception of responsible social behaviour embedded into their system, and are expected to support the State in welfare activities”.
Joanna Pyres, from The Partnering Initiative, India says “If these motivations can drive a strategic approach, supported by sound partnering skills, honest communication and a genuine desire to learn and problem solve, then India can not only transform domestically, but also position herself as a global leader of Social Innovation”.
It’s time for companies to accept that community engagement requires specialist skills and these are often best found in NGOs. Where they aren’t, companies can strengthen the capacity of NGOs through targeted investments or, says Joyatri Ray of ING, “by transferring management skills through employee volunteering”.
And its time for NGOs to accept that companies have the same right to be motivated by a desire for social justice as anyone else, come down from the moral high ground and instead assert the need for proper funding of measurement and reporting as a means to creating better outcomes.
In the end, we are all after the same prize.
* Top Trumps is a card game. Each card contains a list of numerical data against different categories. The aim of the game is to pick a category where your card has the highest value in order to try to trump and win an opponent’s card.