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Guest Column

Published on: April 24, 2022, 6:02 p.m.
Time for a rethink
  • Funding for complex issues like poverty, livelihood, infrastructure, economic development lags behind

By Anshu Gupta. The author is Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and Founder – Goonj, a New Delhi based NGO

In its recent weekly analysis, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy pointed out that India has close to 53 million unemployed people as of December 2021. If we were to account for disguised, seasonal unemployment and underemployment, this number would be much higher, reflecting the impact of Covid too. In 2014, India became the first country to make CSR mandatory to ensure that, as the corporate sector rides on India’s trajectory as one of the world’s fastest growing economies, it would also make a strong contribution to address its development challenges. 

While corporate philanthropy is not new to India, the formulation of the CSR Act was a new step. Over the years, though, it has gone through many ups and downs in its interpretation and implementation. The provision under section 135 (5) of the Act is noteworthy, as it provides that companies shall give preference to local areas and the areas around where it operates. Ideally, nurturing and caring for the area near one’s factory/office should be the responsibility of every organisation (beyond the CSR law) while investing in the weakest spots of the country should be the focus of CSR resources.

In practice, this ‘preference’ of the local area has been turned into almost a mandatory by many organisations and that has resulted in siloed investing of CSR funds, largely in areas closer to cities, where corporate offices are located. In a way, some islands of excellence do exist but the consequent neglect of geographically isolated, less developed, resource-starved regions has created a wide landscape of neglect. This anomaly is also resulting in the mosquito-induced malaria problem; there is disproportionate attention and resources to solving the results, but comparatively less on the root causes. 

There is also the ever present issue of quick fixes vs systemic work. While there is a relevance and urgency for short-term measures, some issues, often called the ‘wicked problems’ worldwide, call for a longer term, more comprehensive, holistic approach, that’s often missing in the tightly mandated CSR programmes. That’s why the recent amendments to the act (defining ongoing projects that can be stretched over three financial years) might do some course correction.

If implemented correctly, it will give the much needed space to grassroots organisations to innovate, learn, reflect and then course-correct with adequate time for each step. At the risk of calling out the elephant in the room, I would urge for a deep reflection on the power dynamics in the relationship between the CSR managers and their partner organisations, who often are treated as beneficiaries instead of being treated as experts, which they are.  

The top-down linear approach used in the implementation of most CSR projects often fails to/underscores harvest of insights based learning emerging from the ground. In all this, the nature of the key actors that do the work, play an important role. Data says that 44 per cent of CSR expenditure is spent by company’s own trusts/societies/Section 8 companies, while another 43 per cent is done through various implementation partners.

  • While there is a relevance and urgency for short-term measures, some issues, often called the ‘wicked problems’ worldwide, call for a longer term, more comprehensive, holistic approach, that’s often missing in the tightly mandated CSR programmes

 The ability to fearlessly call out, course-correct and reflect on the programmes is also deeply defined by who is in the driver’s seat. In terms of issues, cumulative data shows that most companies are spending on education and health-related work, through its CSR funds. This limited purview is possibly explained by the more evolved frameworks and clearly laid out impact assessment indicators in these two sectors.

On the other hand much needed funding for more complex issues like poverty, livelihood, infrastructure, economic development and many not so popular but significant issues lags behind. Work on these will call for a strong partnership between CSR agencies and grassroots organisations as the last mile eyes, ears and minds. 

The close relationship certainly has the potential to be the catalyst in filling the gaps and silos to bring equity and parity in our society. It will call for a deeper engagement with the issues at the root, marrying the technology to co-evolve ideas from the ground, respecting and valuing the skills, wisdom and work of the people in the villages of India.

Even today, the farmers who grow thousands of varieties of pulses and rice are called ‘unskilled’, while many of us, writing research papers on that, are called skilled. Before we upskill them to be mechanics and plumbers, for our cities, how can we value what they already know? 

At the core, we as a society also need to rethink our definition of ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled, recognising the narrative that values dominant knowledge and culture while it devalues the traditional knowledge and culture of our country. It’s not either this or that, it has to be a marrying of these two aspects. The world, in its toughest hour, needs all hands on the deck, all stakeholders to show up and all resources to be single-mindedly be invested in this work.

While several corporates are misreading the CSR law, there are many who are doing wonderful work, investing not only their money but also their time, material and employee engagement, etc, to reach out to kill the mosquito at the end of the day. If you are connected with CSR work in your company, take a moment to reflect, which one are you? 

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