Whistleblower, a channel of expression for the oppressed, innovator of scientific and cultural solutions — a social sector employee can don many hats
I have spotted a pattern in my interactions with people in the social sector — most of us have firm reasons for our personal existence in this sector, but only a few have actively thought about the overall reason(s) of existence for the entire sector.
In his book Managing Non Profit Organizations, Peter Drucker stated the primary role of the social sector is to create “changed human beings”. For a private actor, when a good is sold and payment made, his job is done. However, social sector has to delve deeper and look at ways to change the way members of the society think, act, cooperate and come to realise their potential.
This makes social sector’s role exciting and difficult.
Several actors in the social sector do not like to identify themselves as engaged in “social work” (for the fear of sounding less professional). The young people in the NIRMAN program that I work with prefer to identify themselves as ones involved in “social problem solving”, “social change-making” and “creating social impact”.
These phrases probably give the feeling of being involved in activities that are more rigorous and analytical. But irrespective of the vocabulary, the question that still remains: Why social sector?
I propose a six-dimensional overarching framework:
First is serving people with essentials where markets won’t and governments can’t operate. Reaching the most vulnerable sections of the society and providing them critical services is a crucial work of the social sector.
Markets won’t do that as they are not profitable enough and governments typically find it hard to solve the last-mile problem with quality due to the difficulty of getting capable and committed manpower and creeping losses.
This is where social sector needs to play its role with its ‘seva’. The ensuing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic brought to light various such necessities where it the voluntary action by various social organisations and citizens helped the vulnerable.
The important thing while engaging in ‘Lokseva’ is that we “do service” and don’t “provide a service”.
The latter fits the mental framework of private sector better. The former is the one expected of the social sector, something that Gandhi would refer to when he would urge to engage in serving the poor (Daridra Narayana) as equivalent to service to the God.
Second is empowering people and contributing to human development: Both private and government sectors tend to hold on to power — monetary or bureaucratic power — and concentrate it more and more in their own hands. They are usually not interested in the real human development work, and instead want to keep them as consumers / voters or mere beneficiaries of schemes.
Thus, an important role of the social sector is to reduce this imbalance of power, to decentralise and democratise power and to ensure human development. This is the essence of the real outcome of social sector.
Third is experimenting and innovating various social, scientific, technological and cultural solutions to pressing social problems: Being closer to community, not being constrained by red tape or the pressures of quarterly profits.
It should be used for developing innovative pilots, creative experiments and personalised solutions to important social challenges. However, the rigor of evidence must be established before claiming something as an effective model, else it might be misleading and ultimately hamper the credibility of this sector.
Fourth is being a whistle-blower wherever there is injustice or oppression or corruption to fight for the rights of people.
Fifth is functioning as a channel of expression for people’s desire to contribute to community. Helping others is a natural instinct among people. A vital role of the social sector is to serve as an organised platform to deliver and actualise this desire, whether its people who work full-time or part-time or volunteer their services or donate money or become supporters of any other kind.
By making it easy for people to fulfill their sense of responsibility and contribution to society, social sector institutions serve as vehicles of altruism.
Celebrated evolutionary dynamics professor at Harvard, Martin Nowak, has done pioneering work to show how cooperation and altruism prevail in nature. Out of the five major mechanisms proposed by Nowak, social sector is a great example of the mechanism of ‘indirect reciprocity’.
By doing so, social sector performs a critical role for all those who invest their time, money and energy in this sector.
Sixth is upholding values and morals through actions and role models that elevate the society. Social sector entities might be involved in a variety of activities, but one of the most important aspects is the values that those activities promote.
Their impact is larger than the immediate benefits of the activities alone. There are quite a few values and morals that human society and civilization considers important (for example courage, sacrifice, benevolence, simplicity, justice, liberty, etc.).
During the usual course of living, society often loses sight of these and needs a reminder from time to time. It needs role models of people, organisations and actions that serve as a beacon of these values, restore community’s faith in these values, and elevate the moral height and aspirations of the public at large.
This is why we need a Gandhi, a Martin Luther King Jr, an Anna Hazare or a Greta Thunberg. This also is a great opportunity and responsibility for the actors in the social sector regarding how they decide to live their lives and what sort of message they give through that. The work-life distinction that’s popular in the corporate sector (and now creeping in slowly in the social sector) is not to be viewed lightly. People in the social sector are held accountable (at least passively in the eyes of the community) also for their personal lives and the values they reflect.
That also is a great source of influence. That’s why a 75-year-old Anna, who may not give eloquent speeches, can still affect a large number of people with his simplicity, dedication and the message that he won’t give in to the corrupt and the powerful.
The above six overarching purposes are the raison d’etre for the social sector. They are cause agnostic, broad enough to encompass variety of initiatives and yet specific enough in the approaches to give us a pointed direction to think about our own work and the work of others in this sector.
India has a long history of state-controlled economy and welfare. Since 1990, the forces of globalisation and free market have also entered forcefully. The Indian social sector is stretched between these two ideologies and often does not clearly know its position on this spectrum.
It needs to reassess and solidify its philosophical foundation. The continuous mantra of ‘scale’ and ‘sustainability’ that the social sector grapples with these days is also an indication of wanting to become more like the government or the private sector.
However, we must question whether that’s the core DNA of this sector and should that be our primary aspiration. In a mammoth country like India, any amount of scale achieved is inadequate from the perspective of reaching 1.3 billion.
So, should achieving scale be the main motivation of our sector? If at all, we should aim for the scale of impact and not so much the scale of operations and infrastructure.
In that light, the sixth dimension of influencing values and morals might be the best bet for social sector. For the other aspect of sustainability, a business is also sustainable only up to the limit that consumers keep on buying the products at a profitable rate.
Today’s performance is no guarantee of tomorrow’s sustainability. A business has to keep on convincing consumers that it is worth paying money for the products or services. In case of the social sector, it has to keep convincing its supporters (and beneficiaries when they pay up part of the cost) that it is worth donating money. So as long as organizations in both the sectors can keep income equal or more than the expenditure, they are sustainable.
The stamp of (future) unsustainability is not for social sector alone. Even in the corporate world, customers can stop buying products, a rival can outperform a company and it can go bust in myriad other ways.
With the society around us changing so rapidly, social sector does need to reimagine and clarify its goal and investigate the role it would be playing to avoid the feeling of being lost.
Instead of becoming more like the government or private sector, it needs to reflect deeper on its own core purpose. That’s vital for our continued survival, relevance and success.
Note: This article assumes social sector / development sector / impact sector / civil society / NGOs / NPOs / social movements as entities falling in the same large bucket and to be used interchangeably.
Amrut Bang is program lead, NIRMAN and member, Executive Committee, SEARCH
Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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