The Things I’ll Never Say
A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri – May 2017
I moved from Delhi to Mumbai in 2014! This is not exactly New York to Jhumri Telaiya (or, before I offend anyone, the other way around) – nonetheless, it takes some getting used to. Looking back, the three biggest culture shocks I faced were 1) I have to refrain from questioning the virtue of my opponents’ female relatives while playing football, 2) the right to scratch my testicles in public places has ceased to exist and 3) in social sector meetings, I am invariably the jholawallah in the room.
Many of you, my dear readers, would empathise with the debilitating effects of the first two shocks; it is the third that requires some articulation. Social sector meetings are typically meant for NGOs and left leaning academics to ruminate about the state of the world, where the opinion on the corporate sector is akin to what President Trump’s would be on a cross between North Korea and the New York Times. These are supposed to be alien spaces for the likes of me who represent large conglomerates; we are the barbarians at the gate, good only for signing cheques to make up for the harm that we inflict upon society, the ones subjected to whispered pejoratives when our backs are turned (and more voluble stuff once we leave the room) – you get the drift. In Mumbai, things are a little different – such meetings are genteel affairs attended mostly by middlemen (usually consulting firms masquerading as NGOs), where the corporate sector are the good guys and the discussion is focussed on money, returns and visibility. My opinions are solicited, and my jokes are laughed at. But not many people in the room have worked directly with the community, and critical (for me) questions such as ‘have you discussed the need for the project with the proposed beneficiaries?’ elicit responses similar to that of the Taliban when asked about the need for women’s agency. All in all, good fun!
More boring are my meetings with recent converts to the social sector (Mumbai for some reason has a lot of them) – usually people who ‘know someone’ and therefore who I am not able to politely fob off. Most of them have me glazing over within three minutes (my normal in meetings is ten), and scoring goals for Brazil or Real Madrid in my mind while waiting for the torture to end. The reasons for this are threefold.
The first is the predictability of the conversation, which is invariably a long and boring monologue in three acts; what I call ‘the great sacrifice’, ‘the grand vision’, and ‘the brilliant idea’ (in order of temporal precedence). In the first act, the person expounds on his/her qualities, qualifications, and corporate experience, describes the epiphany and subsequent move into the social sector while not neglecting to mention the likely exalted position and earnings s/he would be at but for this, and conveys how fortunate we all are that s/he has taken this step. The second act is an articulation of the need for extreme poverty to be eliminated or some other similar objective achieved, to which the person is going to devote him/her self towards. And the third act is a much more mundane plan by which all this is going to happen – often something like a self-flushing pre-fabricated toilet that my employers should pay for. Common across these are a focus on self, a declining level of detail, and no time left for me to respond with my thoughts (which is probably not such a bad thing).
The second is the liberal use of jargon during the spiel. ‘Bottom of Pyramid’ usually crops up in minute 1, often in acronym, and is then repeated every other minute. Other high frequency stuff is ‘optics’, ‘metrics’ and ‘impact investment’. More recently, I have been zapped with ‘adaptive leadership’ and ‘capital plus approach’.
The third is what is not said but is assumed, along with the erroneous presumption that I share the view – usually that the beneficiary community is just a dumb bunch of dole seekers, that the government does nothing, and that the sustainability of the proposed project will be assured by poor people paying for costly services once they see their efficacy – all of which are rarely supported by hard facts.
I am, however, occasionally, very occasionally, confronted with a neo-convert who is not an unadulterated waste of time; who is looking to learn rather than to teach, who sees the community as a resource rather than as a recipient, and who has an open mind on what it would take to make a difference. Official meetings are not conducive for giving unsolicited advice but, if I could, this is what I would say to this lot.
One – go to the ground, do something, and then talk! Nobody is interested in what you are going to do unless it has a basis in what you have already done. Learn about the communities you wish to work for, understand their strengths and aspirations, and base your proposed work on this. Don’t take short cuts! Test your assumptions!
Two – lose the halo! Within the social sector, it is a sure sign of a charlatan. If you really think that you are making a sacrifice, for God’s sake go back to selling soap or investing money or whatever it is that you are moving away from.
Three – work for the poorest and most vulnerable! If the poverty line is at 26 percent, work for those in the 0-10 percentile, they are the hardest to reach and effectively do something for, and are therefore the most worthy of your efforts. Leave the easier stuff to others. And know that market-based solutions do not work for this section.
Four – understand the importance of institutions! Widespread change doesn’t happen because an inspired individual takes on a system, this only happens in Ayn Rand novels and in the PR material of those with self-anointed halos. And recognize the role of existing institutions, governmental and others, in what you propose to do.
Five – know that poverty is more than the lack of this or that, it has a relational element and is also about access to rights. Giving someone a cow does not convert him/her from poor to non-poor (as the government’s flagship Integrated Rural Development Programme discovered in the 1970s). Addressing the structural aspects of poverty, the barriers caused by caste, gender, et al, is far more difficult than doling out benefits, but it is this that may bring about lasting change.
I would like to benignly conclude by stating that Mumbai is a great place, dynamic and inspiring, but its NGO sector is not. And don’t feel too bad for me, I am paid reasonably well for the time spent being bored by these guys. But I have a darker set of alternative conclusions – that the world is changing, and I am that dinosaur from Jurassic Park expecting discussions with NGOs to focus on the community, rights and participation, that the people described here and their new age rubric is the way of the future, and that maybe I should learn from instead of laugh at them.