Rohini’s Comments at SVP, Bangalore All Partners Meet

May 07, 2020


This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s comments at the SVP, Bangalore All Partner’s meet.

This pandemic has taught us a lot about ourselves, our communities, and our governments. We’ve learnt about the positives and the negatives of our public systems, and our activistic fears are being revived. But our empathy has also been stirred. I think we have all really internalised the mutual dependencies and interconnections of our world, and that functions as a kind of invitation to get away from our conditioned mindsets of avoiding difficulties. Now we can turn these difficulties into opportunities for positive change. Our governments have responded the best way they can, but private philanthropy has really picked up. Corporations and philanthropic foundations have gone out of their way to rethink their portfolios and create a rapid response. In addition, individual giving has picked up – I was a part of a fundraiser that collected $7 million in four hours. So people are really reaching out and it’s a great opportunity to achieve something incredible before donor fatigue sets in.

The Need For Societal Platform Thinking

Through our philanthropy, Nandan and I have pooled all our thinking and experience together to form something that we call ‘societal platform thinking’. The idea is that societal problems are so complex that they cannot be solved by any one sector alone. Neither Samaaj, Sarkaar, nor Bazaar on their own can provide a solution. We need all three to play their part in response to any complex societal problem. Societal platform thinking offers a way to reduce the friction to collaborate between Samaaj, Bazaar, and Sarkaar, since these sectors are not usually able to collaborate easily. By reducing the friction to collaborate, we mean that we keep some questions and philosophies close to our heart. We see our work as creating open digital public goods that allow people to participate to solve complex problems. We believe that we need to be technology-enabled but are careful not to be technology-led because technology is not the solution in itself, but part of a complex process.

Authority cannot simply come from one side of the spectrum, so we need to set up systems so that people can continue to build their own agency. Instead of always trying to push a solution down the pipeline, how can we distribute the ability to solve? How do we design a digital infrastructure so that we can distribute agency and the ability to solve rather than pushing one solution? Often, when we think of scale, we think of cookie-cutter models, however the scale we need to think about is scaling up diversity, because most problems are best solved in their context. So we need to allow contextual solutions to emerge, and think of scale in terms of diversity at scale. That is what our tech platforms try to enable. We also want to allow data to come out as an exhaust wherever actions are happening, so that this data is useful at all levels rather than just at the top. Observability, searchability, and discoverability must be spread through the entire network of the platform.

These are some of the design principles that inform the way we are working. With the EkStep Foundation, our goal is to enable 200 million children to have increased access to learning opportunities within five years. We are close to the end of that deadline and we think we will have met our goals, thanks to the platform that we helped the government to design, called DIKSHA. Through this, we have reached millions of teachers and children around the country. EkStep has been an instantiation of societal platform thinking.

Designing A New Normal

The pandemic has given us an opportunity to design a new normal. We shouldn’t be working towards going back to our old ways, because the old normal was not very just or equitable for millions of Indians. In order to think through this, we should keep three keywords in mind – responsibility, responsiveness, and resilience. Until now, our Samaaj sector focused on responsibility. Over the past few decades, we have created a whole regime of rights and have put into place policies and laws that address issues of the underprivileged and vulnerable. A thriving civil society has emerged around these ideas, with a mission of justice for all. This has led to a focus on system responsiveness. We have all these laws, but how are they going to get implemented? Where is the gap and how effective is the system? States and local governments have responded, but there is still a gap that remains because of the revolution of rising expectations. Consequently, new civil society institutions and funding organisations have emerged to increase the responsiveness of the system.

Finally, as issues like climate change came to the fore, people realised that it’s not just one kind of responsiveness that is going to work. We need to design for resilience and if change is the only constant, then we need the skills to adapt quickly and innovate through the change. Now the debate is centred around how to build resilience. I’m a strong believer in community resilience. In the context of this journey from responsibility and responsiveness to resilience, what is our responsibility post-COVID? For example, are we now going to think of societal responsibility as universal basic income, because partial solutions like NREGA will no longer suffice? We have to start to think differently because problems are growing exponentially and we can’t have linear responses. Our mindsets have to become more flexible and urgent. Things are being set in motion now, ripples that will have far-reaching consequences. We know that the first 1000 days of a child’s life are so important. If that is getting neglected because of the pandemic, that child loses two years that we can’t get back. So there are numerous things at stake, and if we don’t stem the tide now, these ripples can turn into tsunamis.

We are lucky enough to have the world’s best digital infrastructure and I’m both proud and humbled to say that Nandan has been a part of this. Earlier I used to argue with him about privacy and surveillance, but now I realise the advantage. While America is still trying to put cheques in the mail, we have been able to carry out hundreds of millions of cash transfers in the last two months to help vulnerable people, thanks to our digital infrastructure. This kind of infrastructure allows us to build some forms of resilience. We need to begin to make it pivot towards creating this resilience, because this is not the last crisis that we are going to face. Climate change is already upon us, who knows what other catastrophes are waiting. We must think about how we can enable the social sector and the state sector to build more resilience.

There has been a lot of pressure on civil society institutions over the last few years. There is much more government regulation, which is often unfair regulation. Many foreign funders have moved out and Indian philanthropists are not as generous as they need to be. So the social sector has been under stress. But during this pandemic, we have seen how they rose to the occasion. They have been the first responders because they reached the first mile. It’s been most gratifying to see how the Samaaj sector holds the trust of the community.

The first thing that philanthropic institutions must do now is to start again from a point of trust with civil society institutions. As of now, some of us have pledged that for the next few months, we will be much more flexible in the kind of reporting that needs to be done. We will give more choice to CSOs to deploy the funds. Being more trusting and allowing flexibility to CSOs is necessary because that’s what helps them build the resilience that they need. We need to create these networks of trust before the next crisis hits so that when it does happen, we can do a rapid response much more effectively. Within our portfolios, we need to look at our institutions and catalogue the assets that our CSO partners have. Some of them may be very good at one particular thing like finding people who need loans or matching livelihoods to geographies. Our job should be to help them to make that a horizontal across the portfolio so that everybody learns from each other. For example, as part of Co-Impact, Nandan and I are funding an organisation called ECHO. One of the things they do in India is guided mentoring. They have a rigorous process where every week nurses, doctors, ASHA workers, and whoever is responsible for certain healthcare activities, meet digitally and exchange notes in a very rigorous process. What they say and what we have learnt is that we need to move knowledge, not people. That’s a very important thing across all sectors. We can’t have millions of doctors going into every village, nor is it wise to move all the patients into a city hospital. It’s crucial to create that shareability and discoverability, and build these networks and nodes which allows other responses. This is why we need to have to start thinking about digital platforms.

Opportunities For Change

With all the changes that the pandemic has brought on, perhaps it’s time for us to reimagine the idea of livelihoods. Migrants have suddenly recalibrated their sense of home and what they need. This gives us a chance to reassess the rural-urban question and think of more regenerative, sustainable livelihoods in the rural economy. We need to be doing more and innovating more, in order to support entrepreneurship there. We are going to see a sea change in the way cities are going to be run, so it’s a new opportunity. We are also going to see the world moving to the digital space in ways that we could not have imagined in December. Already we are seeing massive increases in digital transactions of all kinds. What we need to focus on is ensuring that this is done in an inclusive way – this is going to be India’s digital challenge. How do you not further the digital divide?

We know what we need to do in order to address many issues of inequity, but we seem to be in “the big stuck” as Lant Pritchett calls it. It’s a flailing state, so anything we can do to build state capacity is going to give us the biggest bang for our buck. We need to think about investing in advocacy institutions and trying to be part of the solution rather than simply complaining about the problems. In addition to this, we must invest in commissioning research to find the gaps. There are intermediate organisations like Reap Benefit, Sattva, etc. that are able to connect with citizens, which builds strong feedback loops. We should use data, commission research, and meet these bridging organisations who have the reach to get the feedback loops and know where the gaps are.

In the 45 days that Bangalore has been on lockdown, we have seen our lakes getting cleaner and the Vrishabawathi river flowing clear again. The amount of sewage has not changed in the city, so that means that it’s the industrial effluents that have been making the city’s river frothing and black. This moment allows us to at least imagine living in a European cities with a clean river flowing through it. Just having that vision is something that we could not dream of for decades. So now the onus is on the Samaaj to hold the Sarkaar and our institutions accountable. Otherwise, in the name of restarting livelihoods and the economy, we will be throwing away all our environmental norms and asking for the next crisis to hit us sooner than it otherwise would.
Now is the time to support institutions that are willing to be watchdogs and demand to know why there is so much effluent going in our water bodies. There are laws, institutions, governments, and governance structures who must be held accountable. The idea is not simply to blame anyone, but think about what can be done to help the polluters mitigate that pollution. All of us have to hold people’s feet to the fire now, if we want better, cleaner air, water, and surroundings.

I had written an article called “The End Of Secession” a few years ago, in which I pointed out that air pollution has finally taught us that the elite can no longer secede. What we’re seeing now, between air pollution, the pandemic, and climate change, is that we may be sitting in our air-conditioned rooms but we can’t escape reality. The only way is to really understand that we are all in this together and we can get out of it together. In a way, it’s helpful to go through this process of fear, especially adaptive fear. Fear is a useful tool, but the minute our fear turns into negative rather than adaptive, we’ll just give into the panic. Over the last few days, two things have centred me – “Karmanye Vadhikaraste” and “Vaishnava Janate.” If we think about this, we get some capacity to remain centered in the eye of the storm instead of getting blown away. It’s an opportunity for all of us to really dwell on the power of intent, and seriously focus with joyful responsibility on the grammar of that intent because intent alone is not enough.



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