Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Development through Charity?

Over the last couple of decades, globally, social sector has emerged as a fast growing field aimed to create societal/economic value on a sustainable basis. According to some reports, it is also perhaps the only sector that is creating gainful employment worldwide.

It is therefore, not surprising that recent years have witnessed an increasing flow of resources, in terms of professional talent and funds, to this sector. An indication of this emerging trend was the donation of $37bn by Warren Buffet to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which made headlines across the globe. Corporate philanthropy, it appears, has come to age. In a way, such developments indicate a healthy and increasing collaboration between the private/corporate donors and social sector not-for-profit organizations.

Heartening as this trend is, it also has some wider implications for development, which often get ignored and need consideration.

Firstly, social sector has traditionally attracted sincere individuals whose personal values and ideologies motivated them to “do something” for the marginalized segment of the society. It is this commitment, which sustains their efforts, even in the face of failure and adversity.

Easy availability of large funds (which the donor has already committed to spend though not-for-profit organisations), on the other hand, also has the potential of converting the social sector into a “money-spinner” for those who are merely looking for a secure source of employment and income. The phenomenal growth of the number of organizations registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) during last decade or so, is an indication that this may already be happening.

Secondly, most of the private/corporate initiatives have their own pre-set agenda, schemes and methodologies for development initiatives. For the social entrepreneurs, this reduces the scope of “collaboration” to merely roll-out of these initiatives. In a way, this makes the role of the not-for-profit organizations to merely that of “contractors” to these schemes.

While there is nothing inherently inappropriate in helping and partnering in the roll-out of a developmental scheme, the top-down nature of these initiatives can (and often does) make them vulnerable to many undesirable consequences. Often such blanket initiatives neglect the local issues, and divert the attention to more symptomatic solutions. For instance, a drip irrigation scheme may be advocated as a solution, while the actual local problem is the lowering ground-water level due to its extraction by commercial interests. Similarly, an AIDS prevention program can neglect that the larger causes of death are due to hunger and not disease. Often these initiatives can (and do) also become the vehicles for dumping of obsolete technologies and harmful drugs, or even in empowering non-democratic power-structures at the grass root level.

Lastly, and more importantly, these widely, and often overly, publicized funding (by private donors, or corporate under their CSR initiatives) inadvertently and unfortunately create a myth that private initiatives can replace what is otherwise the duty of democratically elected government. In a way, by perpetuating this impression, in the public mind, they tend to absolve the governments from their responsibilities. This is an unfortunate (even if unintended) consequence, since the very purpose of social sector initiatives is to strengthen the democratic processes at the grass root levels.


Note: I had written this article for a magazine "Small Change" a couple of years back. Unfortunately, the magazine does not exist now (though not because of my writing for it :0)

No comments: