We have created two parallel sectors, and their distinct approaches towards development are resulting in band-aid solutions to serious social problems.

Amitabh Behar is the CEO of Oxfam India. He is a civil society leader and  the former executive director of National Foundation for India. He is recognised for his work on governance accountability, social and economic equality, and citizen participation. He also chairs the boards of Amnesty International India, Navsarjan and Yuva.

In this conversation he talks about how civil society in India has changed, what the implications of those changes are, and what the future looks like.

You have spoken about how there seem to be principle differences between the older civil society and the one we see today; could you tell us more about what this looks like, and what its implications are?

This is a moment of dramatic and quick changes. One change that has serious implications on the entire development community is the creation of two parallel sectors: one represented by older nonprofits (including the social movements and mass organisations) and the other, by newer ones, located more in the market (in terms of the principles underlying their world view) and in technology spaces. And the difference between them is one based on principles, in the way in which they approach development–a systemic, integrated social science approach versus a techno-managerial approach.

The older nonprofits look at the society through a lens of the systems at play, the complexity of it, the interdependency of the various factors involved. Whereas with the new age nonprofits, we are seeing an attempt to have technical and management solutions to very complex social questions. This really is the primary and most critical fault line. And it’s this shift that is playing out in multiple ways.

When you look at the world through a techno-managerial lens, the real world, which exists in all its complexity, gets left behind. You end up creating a bubble where technical solutions to complex problems seem possible. And the conversation–be it about solutions or about innovation–remains limited within that bubble. Those bubbles get celebrated and more investments follow into the bubble making it bigger, till it bursts and in the meanwhile, move on to creating other new bubbles.

So you look at a set of problems that are ‘solve-able’ and within your domain–and you spend all your money, attention and resources there. It is an almost artificial separation of the problem from its surroundings, systems and location where it is embedded. And you are not engaging with the larger problems of the system/society.

When you look at the world through a techno-managerial lens, the real world, which exists in all its complexity, gets left behind.For example, you may be innovating on sanitary napkins, and reducing their unit cost from four rupees to two. But while doing so, you may not be addressing something like how caste or social norms may impact usage. It’s not that innovating on sanitary napkins is not important, but focusing on that alone not only leaves out the larger problems, it also makes us completely unable to deal with the impact of politics and economics on social issues; which leads to bursts of apparent success but soon it becomes business as usual without any serious change.

This approach essentially creates band-aid solutions; resolving at best, the manifestations of poverty, the manifestations of issues of inequality, but not the causes.

At the end of the day, I think what we need to ask ourselves is, ‘What is the human project?’  If the human project is about food and shelter then the techno-managerial approach might reach there. But I believe it is about dignity and justice, and that requires a wider and more integrated world view. History has taught us that food and shelter has never ended misery, slavery, exploitation, un-freedoms and indignity.

civil society
“One change that has serious implications on the entire development community is the creation of two parallel sectors: one represented by older nonprofits, and the other, by newer ones.” | Photo Courtesy: RaySawak [CC BY-SA 4.0], Wikimedia Commons

Why do you think we are seeing this very distinct shift towards a techno-managerial approach?

Today’s decision makers–be they funders, nonprofit leaders, or government officials–look markedly different from those of the 1950s and 60s. Consider the profile of Indian Administrative Service (IAS) cadre–the most important people in our country in terms of policy. Forty years ago, most of them had a liberal education, where the appreciation of art and cinema, and social responsibility were viewed as necessary dimensions in the pursuit of knowledge.

Related article: The social sector in India has a diversity problem

Even the social sector and in particular, philanthropies, are now increasingly being run by management and technology driven professionals.This is in contrast to the officers in the last 20 odd years. A very large number of these civil servants now come from the IITs and other engineering courses, and have been schooled in technology or management. The current public narrative even privileges this education and builds an arrogance of markets and technology as answers for all issues, including unfortunately our quest for knowledge.

These officers with very limited understanding of history, sociology and caste or gender, do not even use these frames to understand the problems and often think they know how to solve development problems as seen through a technical lens. This shift is visible in all sectors, surprisingly even the social sector and in particular, philanthropies, are now increasingly being run by management and technology driven professionals.

Related article: Funding small nonprofits can be a giant step for development

There is therefore a large shift in the activities that are getting funded, driven entirely by the interests of the newer decision makers. New donors and policy makers are excited about the new nonprofits–the ones that develop techno-managerial solutions because they understand it and believe in it. And they often do not have the patience or even the ability to understand the old systemic way of approaching problems.

As a result of this fundamental shift, the earlier generation of nonprofits are struggling because they lack resources and are unable to communicate to a new set of decision makers who don’t understand their language of social justice and systems change.

Had we continued to invest in the old civil society in a bigger way, the right wing upsurge that the country is seeing today could have been challenged.Many of our colleagues from the 1970s and 80s were driven by ideas of change and of human dignity. The two fundamental things that old civil society did was to challenge power and create new ideas for transformational change. Both these primary roles are now neglected and today when something like vandalism and vigilantism happens against Padmavati (and all other kinds of rights violations including lynching of muslims in the name of cows), who will stand up and says this is unacceptable? The older guard would probably have but we as a sector have weakened them.

I believe that had we continued to invest in the old civil society in a bigger way, the right wing upsurge that the country is seeing today could have been challenged. There is a principle political contradiction between civil society and the ethos of any right wing force. And we have contributed to this shift where our ability to protect and nurture the biggest wins of the last two centuries–namely, freedoms, rights and human dignity–is far weaker, while we think in a bubble of ‘solving and fixing social problems’. People’s ability to think critically and ask these fundamental questions is shrinking.

What does the future look like, for our sector and country?

It’s not all gloomy; there is reason to be optimistic. The optimist in me says that we are on the verge of people recognising that this thinking cannot last. If history is any guide, in the last two hundred years whenever the madness or exploitation has reached these levels, there has been serious change. I am fairly confident that alternatives will emerge and they will gain traction. As Martin Luther King famously said ‘the arch of history is long but bends towards justice’.

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Devanshi Vaid

Devanshi Vaid

Devanshi is Co-founder and Director at IDR. Prior to this, she worked at Dasra, a strategic philanthropy foundation. As a part of the advisory research team, she conceptualised, planned and implemented their first comprehensive dissemination strategy. She was responsible for new media partnerships and was closely involved with the organisation’s efforts on digital content. Prior to Dasra, Devanshi was a news producer at Times Now, where she co-produced The Newshour–the country’s leading prime time show. She holds a BA in English Literature from Bryn Mawr College.

Smarinita Shetty

Smarinita Shetty

Smarinita is Co-founder and CEO at IDR. She has more than 20 years of experience leading functions across strategy, operations, sales and business development, largely in startup environments within corporates and social enterprises. Prior to IDR, Smarinita worked at Dasra, Monitor Inclusive Markets (now FSG), JP Morgan and The Economic Times. She also co-founded Netscribes–India’s first knowledge process outsourcing firm. Her work and opinion have been featured in The Economist, Times of India, Mint and The Economic Times. Smarinita has a BE in Computer Engineering and an MBA in Finance, both from Mumbai University.

6 Comments

  1. Gagan Sethi Reply

    The comments till now also prove Amitabh’s premise of a schism in civil society. However i may add that religious fundamentalism and politics of identities and section of civil society investing in that paradigm is today the third and very powerful culture making force and civil in definition. Its ability to build strong cultural narratives of one nation is equal to a mono theistic approach to nationalism pushing it to military nationalism. Supporting hate crimes based on identities be it Dalits, Muslims , vigilante groups of young are some manifestation of this third civil society groups in action. I thought the difference between civil and uncivil were promotion of civil values . Other than JUSTICE would also include love, compassion, celebrating diversity, tolerance of differences and rooted in equality . Will Indian philanthropy be guided by these values in their role of nurturing civil society . What and how will they invest themselves in this space are some corollary to Amitabh’s article.

  2. Agree with EVERY WORD Mr. Matthew has written ! The likes of Mr. Behar are seen only in elite circles “ennoble-ing” themselves by talking of oh-so-pitiful and downtrodden segments. There is a huge gap between the said and the acted-upon. Hats off to Mr. Matthew for being bold enough to bring this creed to light.

    It isn’t “bitterness” Ms. Mehta. It is frustration at how some people ride upon the social issues to promote themselves (people get carried away too). Ask them to let their mind, heart and hands do the working, instead of rendering speeches in flowery language.

  3. “When you look at the world through a techno-managerial lens, the real world, which exists in all its complexity, gets left behind”. Interesting . Mr Behar thinks he knows the ‘real world’. And what is this ‘real world’? It might be good for him to read the book ‘Homo Sapiens,’ by Yuval Noah Harari, a thinker of the modern times. It’s time to question all this, so called ‘reality’, seen through social, political, historical and’ human right’ lenses. And maybe, accept, that all of us are living in our own bubbles of imaginary worlds which we consider to be real.
    This is not to say that Mr Behar and his work should not be appreciated. His achievements and his contribution is commendable. But his ‘attachment’ to his imagined ‘reality’ is something that he should beware of.

    And of course, Mr George Matthew’s comments cannot be ignored. Mr Matthews says that ” But even to this day, will Behar and his gang hit the streets to take on the rightwing face on? When was the last time he ever courted arrest or lived on square meals a day? He wont. None of his ilk will ever do that”
    Such bitterness! Mr Matthew believes that gathering steam and then bursting into a revolutionary new spring is the answer to social problems. Again, such a short sighted vision. Which ‘Revolutionary Spring’ hasn’t given way to a Bitter Winter and a Scorching Summer? The Human Society that we know is always moving , never static. So living in the imagination of a ‘revolutionary’ spring that is permanent , is itself a question that begs to be answered.
    Imagine your ‘real ‘ worlds. But don’t force that imagination down other people’s throats.
    From my little ‘imagined ‘ world, I believe India is seeing a natural progression of the lower middle class seeking a space in the power structures of the nation. It was time for that. The next progression will be that of the abject poor to occupy the space left free by the lower middle class. And all this movement between the social classes is cyclic, dynamic and in constant flux. That’s the way I look at reality. Constant change.

  4. George Mathew Reply

    Behar represents the civil society elite in Delhi. I cant think of a forum or an NGO platform where he hasn’t got his hand into. He is a specialist on everything – from sex-selective abortion to global trade – he is seems to be in every platform. And he is not alone, there are several of these players in the Delhi circle who have made IHC their home and carved a career out of people’s poverty. Look up their passport and count the visa stamps to see to get a sense of what I am saying.

    and he is as much a technocrat as the ones he seems to be cynical about. So it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

    “Had we continued to invest in the old civil society in a bigger way, the right wing upsurge that the country is seeing today could have been challenged.” – In malayalam, my response would be – ‘koppanu’.

    In hindsight everybody is wiser. But even to this day, will Behar and his gang hit the streets to take on the rightwing face on? When was the last time he ever courted arrest or lived on square meals a day? He wont. None of his ilk will ever do that. They are all happy holding consultations in IHC, IIC etc, cornering DFID and other funds and running ‘projects’ that seem to do nothing to peoples lives except making a few NGOs and their bosses richer by a few lakhs.

    They helped take the steam off several number of people’s agitation with their ‘balance and nuance and compromise’. All of it not to the people’s benefit – but to keep their shops running. One could see his angst when in 2014, the centre was cracking down on FCRA license. The livelihood of these chaps were at risk. [I am not endorsing that fascist crackdown, but in many ways it also exposed some of these ‘players’ in Delhi].

    The bane of Delhi civil society is people like him. Who fly between chicago and delhi and endlessly debate about how capitalism crushed the world. Well it did, but nothing that you do seem to be in line with your critique Mr. Behar.

    The new order – of technocrats – are a problem in itself, but at least they don’t try to usurp every space that is available for ‘social experts’ to grab.

    Here are a few questions to Behar. What is your net worth? Where do you live in Delhi? Where did you send your children for schooling? How many ‘Boards’ are you a member of? Have you ever accepted money from DFID for any of the organisations that you are linked to? What are you smoking?

  5. Dr Prabhakar Reddy Tada Reply

    As rightly pointed out by Amitabh Behar techno-managerial approach to human problems and challenges is not the answer while there is social science approach which is based on social relationships and linkages etc. There is a need to take into cognizance that there is a vacuum in nonprofits which follow the second approach except few and realise the importance of rights based development that addresses the poverty and inequality which is on the rise. The Civil society need to adopt process oriented approach instead of project mode and spend the money whatever little available for the development which is going to be sustainable thanks to small donors. I am confident that alternatives emerge out of problem driven approach in research which would provide solutions and answers.

  6. Sanjiv Bhamre Reply

    Surprisingly, this problem is not just present in social domain. It is also ‘rampant’ in commercial domain too. Every problem is embedded in social context, the context of beliefs, habits and behaviours that are prevalent in that group. When techno-managerial solutions are implemented in this commercial domain, people resist it. But as the resistance is not allowed to be expressed, overt resistance is replaced with covert resistance. It takes years to gain the benefits of ‘techno-managerial’ solution. Meanwhile everyone suffers. Bottoms feel like victims, middle layers feel that they are not heard, while top layers feel that the entire organisation conspires against them. Behaviour is so toxic that everyone wants to jump out.

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