For India at the cusp of developmental change, the real challenge is to get the government, business and civil society to work in tandem
My interest in governance was aroused by a series of personal experiences, as well as my own family background. My father, Cooverji H. Bhabha, was the first commerce minister of India in the interim cabinet of 1946, where ministers were jointly selected by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Lord Mountbatten for their competence, skills and ethics. He often spoke of “those times”, when working for the government was seen as the best way to serve the new country. Unfortunately, that has since changed.
Today, governance is much more a part of our vocabulary—largely because we believe that those in government jobs are delivering much less than our expectations. Why do our public systems not function the way they should? Why is there so much official apathy and lack of accountability? Why do citizens continue to live in such abysmal conditions, without the most basic amenities? These are questions we all ask ourselves from time to time.
Personally, the culture of giving back has been a consistent thread in my life; professionally our company Forbes Marshall has a strong ethos of supporting social programmes in neighbouring communities, particularly initiatives in the education and healthcare space. When we set up our the Forbes Marshall Foundation a few years ago, we decided to work across Maharashtra in order to reach out to a much larger audience and at the same time be mindful of outputs, outcomes, timelines and sustainable impact.
Working now on a larger canvas, more often than not, challenges in the area of local governance seemed to slow down the best efforts. A stark example of this was the issues we ran into, while partnering with a local not-for-profit, bringing better sanitation practices to an urban slum community. While the non-governmental organization (NGO) and our foundation had effectively galvanized community support to make part contributions for the infrastructure, and worked with local women to help spread the message of eradicating open defecation, it was depressing to find large parts of the basti (settlement) had a failing drainage system, corroded sewer pipes, very inadequate water supply and a well-established lobby of those who supply water in tankers. Working with various local political agencies was the only way to get the project moving. But that was hugely challenging, frustrating and time-consuming, to say the least.
Given on-the-ground experiences as well as our growing understanding of the complexity of India’s problems, we realized that working on social verticals in isolation is incorrect. Rather, the government, business and civil society must work in tandem, to bring in development related change.
Entering the governance space with some trepidation about two years ago, my colleagues and I quickly saw the positives while supporting organizations and individuals engaging in this space. We realized that when elected officials are central to any change effort, long-term solutions arise, benefiting large sections of the target population. We saw this while supporting Swaniti, an organization that encourages bright young people to get involved in governance, by working on projects along with members of Parliament and legislative assemblies (MPs and MLAs) in their constituencies. Our support, in monetary terms, hasn’t been huge, but the impact and change at the constituency level, as a result of the one-year fellowship, has been tremendous.
Among the other lessons we learned along the way is the virtue of patience. We know that well-thought-through approaches are worth investing in, leading to sustained outcomes.
On a more cautious note, we have realized that grant-making in this area comes with its fair share of challenges. The definition of good governance is itself nebulous—should we prioritize decision making, implementation, transparency and accountability, dissemination of accurate information, or a combination of these? Often, benefits are slow, intangible and hard to quantify; understanding impact and measuring results, as most grant-makers like to do is, therefore, difficult. Additionally, with several worthwhile organizations working in this vast space, on very diverse themes, who should be supported, why and how? Finally and rather sadly, potential grant-makers seem reluctant to support this arm of philanthropy, lest they appear biased or are perceived to be anti government.
Once, I had similar concerns, but these have gradually faded away. I am inspired, listening to charismatic young people who have given up lucrative careers to work in this space—fleshing out new ideas on how, among other things, they can use technology and social media, to drive social change. By its very nature, governance is cross-sectorial, which means that when it works well, it is a confluence of best practices from health, education, gender and other major sectors. Collaboration across themes, particularly in this sector, is key to success.
Over the last few decades, donors have been drawn towards safer, more traditional social initiatives such as education and healthcare. While these sectors deserve support, it is vital for the donors in our country to now direct their attention towards governance. I continue to believe and expect our social initiatives to succeed in spite of the government, not because of it. In a country like India, with the complexity of human development challenges, we cannot ignore or work around the public sector—the sector that is arguably the best to design and implement social reform.
Indeed, it’s a lost opportunity if we do not put our focus, drive, financial and human resources behind strengthening governance issues and rebuilding our public sector.
Rati Forbes heads the Forbes Marshall Foundation.