Ushering Transformational Change Through Real World Partnerships

Karon Shaiva

I once visited a remote tribal village near the border of Maharashtra and Gujarat to undertake a Needs Assessment Study – an oft used tool to understand the issues of a group we were  planning  to  work  with.  In  the c o m m e r c i a l w o r l d , p r o d u c t development and service delivery is designed based on the needs of a “consumer”. This is equally followed in the social development sector, where an “intervention” is planned based on needs of the “beneficiary” or as I would prefer to say – “user”. I always thought this was a practical approach until this young girl asks me during our interaction that “Madam, aap humare saare samasya dhoor kar sakete hain?” (Madam, will you solve all our problems?).    What   could  I  honestly answer her? I knew that while I may understand all the problems in that remote village, would I truly be able to find a Corporate or donor who would be prepared to look at every issue as part of a larger problem – “disadvantaged communities”? A question that has plagued society for centuries. How do we  bring  together  varied  interests   to jointly address a society’s development?

Problems Aplenty

As has been reinforced in the Companies Act 2013, most Corporate organisations have specific CSR mandates – be they sectoral or geographical. The same holds true for donor agencies who have  single point agendas. As best practices go, this is good as these bring in significant focus and assets to tackle the issue, for e.g. HIV, WASH, Waste or Livelihood, plant vicinity or specific States. I am not sure if economies of scale kick in, but overall, we know that it does not quite work out that way. Most issues are interconnected, if one is a consequence of another, then the other results in yet another issue!

Let us take the example of education of a girl child. It starts with the basics – roti, kapda aur makan. If the girl is undernourished, or does not have a decent uniform or goes to a school that does not have sanitation facilities, she is not very likely to be a regular student, leave alone an educated one. Male students from backward classes have similar issues in accessing education. It is not surprising that the highest dropout rates from the education system is at Standard Five, a time when the girl child is entering puberty and the male child is beginning to contribute to the household income. Education then is interlinked to issues  such  as  nutrition,  health,   sanitation, gender bias, caste discrimination and more.

If we look at livelihood programmes, the bedrock of financial independence and progress of a society, a similar story exists. When contagious diseases are the norm due to open defecation and abysmal waste disposal, chances are slim that a person will be able to put in the required days of work to earn a decent living, be it in a manufacturing plant or in a micro-enterprise. Even if they do make it to work, they need to decide how to spend their meagre earnings – medicines or food for themselves or their family members. Yet, these scenarios need not be the standard. Integrated development and holistic solutions needs not be clichés. It is possible, provided we join hands to leverage our strengths and resources.

Models for Impact

There is much to be gained from partnerships – opportunity to learn from previous efforts, new perspectives developed, leverage platforms created, explore emerging markets and non-traditional   channels   to   improve development outcomes. Collaboration and co- creation have become buzzwords in recent times with Public Private Partnerships being touted as the model to be emulated. This is not an article on PPPs, so I leave that for another time! However the fact is that, successful, long-term partnerships are few and far between.

Alliances exist around sectoral issues but not much is known of their impact on the ground. The reason is not so difficult to spot. First is the problem of a natural owner. In a multi-stakeholder group, there is no leader; it is projected to be an equal partnership. Arriving at a consensus is therefore a long and arduous task, fraught with tension over individual egos and organisational priorities. Third party associations try to broker solutions but are more often than not driven by their own private agendas. Even where there are success stories, no one party can claim credit in the interest of being fair or bound by policy and therefore remain untold. What then does it take for successful joint initiatives and how can they be replicated?

First and most critical is the need for greater engagement of stakeholders, including private sector, indigenous service providers and qualified development practitioners. We tend to work in silos with a narrow, and in some cases, laser focus in our areas with minimum interest in what others are doing, leave alone understanding the intersecting   points   of delivery and potential synergies. The term being used is Convergence though many regard it to be a euphemism for dilution and delay. Alliances (loose arrangements or agreement-based) succeed when stakeholders are prepared to operate within the strategic framework of a transparent plan with an overarching umbrella covering the community. This more often than not requires current partners to look beyond their immediate projects, as to what the target groups really need and when. While this may seem obvious, sadly it is not always true – it requires both timelines and activities to be driven by the bigger picture. Not to mention, financing of aspects not budgeted for. Hence it helps if an alliance is prepared to broaden the scope and bring in new partners, fresh ideas and resources. Activities should be linked so as to reduce gaps and accelerate improvements. Test and strengthen existing systems and infrastructure. Above all, monitor progress and measure success. Is this theoretical or can this actually be carried out for real?

The answer lies in an eco-system approach that measures capabilities of all stakeholders and the challenges of market-based solutions. Research and identify potential areas to pilot models with low-hanging fruits and short-term gains. Select partners based on shared values that will drive joint objectives. Have open discussions on potential conflict  of  interest  issues.

Determine feasibility  and approach of interventions that address the community’s needs. Outline work plans – model, scale, impact. Let each partner do what they do best in the area or village they are most comfortable with. Identify, set up, support and institutionalise local mechanisms and entities to foster sustainable solutions. Catalyse government officials for the    i m p l e m e n t a t i o n o f s c h e m e s . Favourable regulatory environment always helps. Build capacity of local institutions to carry out myriad tasks and services. Design a toolkit for monitoring and evaluation. Create a dedicated platform with a non-partisan secretariat, interface cum implementer. Technology can be a great enabler. Document and disseminate results so all can celebrate the success. Empower the alliance to learn from failures.

So can this be standardised and scaled up? Yes it can! It needs an attitude change and vision that the way forward is collective impact! While I did not have a satisfactory answer for the little girl that day, she did give me a something – a purpose!! Ironical, how, when we go to give, we instead return receiving… Ditto Partnerships!

Karon Shaiva is the Founder and Chief Impact Officer of Idobro, a social enterprise that hosts the annual RISE Summit facilitating cross-sectoral dialogue, capacity building and collaboration with and within the sector.