Cover story

Standing by the strategic

For Apoorva Oza, chief executive of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), the measure of any social development work is the actual impact the effort has on people and communities. The protocols and procedures that come with the territory are, he believes, a distraction at best, and a handicap at worst.

An alumnus of the Institute of Rural Management (Anand), Mr Oza is also the former chairman of the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell, established jointly by AKRSP, the Tata Trusts and Ambuja Cement Foundation, to tackle saltwater ingress in regions along the Gujarat coast. A former mechanical engineer, he opens up in this interview about philanthropies and partnerships, what works in social sector initiatives and what does not. Edited excerpts:

Apoorva Oza
Apoorva Oza is the chief executive of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme

The relationship between the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the Tata Trusts has been a longstanding one. What explains the chemistry?

The chemistry has worked principally because of a deep alignment on values. There are three strands to this relationship: the first is a shared ethos on nation-building, the second the common credo of putting the community at the centre of social development; and there’s the desire on both sides to be open and respectful, equal and complementary while executing partnership programmes.

All of the collaborations between AKDN and the Trusts have been built in that spirit. The two institutions have a clear understanding that they cannot, on their own, do all that is required to be done for India; they see the value in partnering each other to achieve a common set of goals.

When and how do partnerships involving different entities, especially the government, work well in social development initiatives?

If you consider the government and a particular objective — providing drinking water to all citizens, for instance — there are so many factors involved in making this dream a reality: financial capacity, human resources, technology etc. There is a sense of humility at the government level that it cannot do everything; that it needs institutions who bring different strengths to the table.

A crucial component in any collaboration is the modalities involved. This should reflect mutual respect and mutual dependence. You will fall short if the relationship is one-sided, where one is a giver and the other is a receiver.

What sort of challenges do you face while dealing with the government as a partner?

It is a challenge, and mainly so if you have a tripartite partnership involving a philanthropy, a field NGO and the government. Timely allocation of funds can be a problem for a variety of reasons, and you need to get creative and find solutions. The priority is to get the work done.

Governments can be erratic; that is their nature because they are subject to change — ground personnel may change, officers may change, ministers may change. And every new person taking charge could have his or her own ideas and proclivities. We have to account for that.

What about NGOs, the implementers on the ground?

The NGO is a critical partner in the Indian context in community development. It is the final cutting edge, the organisation that makes things happen on the ground while also providing feedback from the community. Unfortunately, we now have an environment where NGOs are subjected to a huge amount of compliances. We have to consciously give them the space to do their work, which essentially is serving the community.

I believe the grant-making process involving NGOs needs to change. It has to accommodate not just what I call direct costs — for project implementation and all the related stuff — but also the indirect costs associated with overheads, compliance and the rest. The NGO supporting you will struggle to stay afloat if it isn’t reimbursed for the time and effort its staff spend on coping with tasks unrelated to its core work. Grant-making organisations have to be mindful of this.

Have collaborations between philanthropic organisations and NGOs grown significantly over the last 10-15 years? Also, what’s the potential here to execute better work across a wider canvas of communities?

It has grown to some extent, but the truth is that the number of NGOs in many grassroots areas is diminishing. The smaller ones have been badly hit by regulatory changes, and many of them have been left with no option but to shut shop. That said, the quantum of partnerships in the social sector has increased and the diversity of causes has also increased. There is now an entire range of philanthropies working on niche projects in India.

I think the potential to do more is fairly large and this can be fulfilled if, for one, we spend more time with the designing of programmes. I remember a great grant given by the Tata Trusts, one related to an initiative in a tribal area. We had found that non-tribal NGO staff tended not to stay on for long with the project, and we had come up with the concept of having tribal youth take on their work.

The wrinkle was that these tribal youth, despite being educated, did not have the requisite qualifications and the finishing skills for the task. We had approached the Trusts to start a certificate programme in development management with help from outside, and get tribal youth trained and exposed to the NGO sector.

The Trusts agreed, with a suggestion: expand the scope of the programme and include an entrepreneurship component in it, so that those who did not fancy development work had an alternative option to pursue. It was a brilliant idea and it got realised with minimal procedures and processes. The flexibility built into the grant allowed us to secure three times the result we would otherwise have.

Many philanthropies are getting into implementation work directly, sometimes by bypassing NGOs, sometimes by co-opting them. How is this approach playing out?

I don’t think it’s a good idea per se for philanthropies to get into direct implementation. The point is that many of us think greater value lies in implementation: it gives you eyes and feet on the ground and, crucially, it gets you much more attention and visibility. What it inadvertently does is increase the cost of your development work.

Philanthropies, by design, are more strategic in nature, they have staff of a different order and calibre (mostly located in large metros), and they end up paying more when they start hiring people for direct implementation. And you do this without any discernible enhancements in efficiency. The direct implementation tack is another reason civil society and grassroots organisations are slowly disappearing from many areas.

There's also the matter of losing the cultural connect that NGOs typically have with communities. Now that's not to say that philanthropies do not have competent people in direct implementation initiatives. But understanding caste, gender and similar issues at the village level comes easier to NGOs with deep roots in the community.

Yet another downside is that philanthropies pursuing direct implementation, risk forfeiting the wide-angle view of their work in social development. The bird's-eye picture is what enables them to have a broader perspective, to develop successful strategies and influence policymaking.

Why, then, do philanthropies keep pushing the direct implementation envelope?

One obvious reason is that as organisations and as individuals, you want more recognition and credit for the work being accomplished. You could be supporting a programme financially for five years, but the people in the targeted villages are more familiar with the NGO doing the implementing than the philanthropy providing the funding.  

A second point is about the perception that efficiencies are lower at the grassroots, and so are capabilities, which are inevitably linked to salaries. NGO personnel are not paid a lot, so they probably are not all that good — that's the assumption — and hence the feeling that the philanthropy's own people will do a much better job.

People in the development sector are not in it for the money they get paid or the power they wield. Their real reward is impact on the ground. Usually, in large philanthropies, staff members are dealing with so many projects that they don't see, first-hand, the difference their endeavours make to the communities involved. Gratification, it appears, comes fastest with direct implementation.

A final reason is that grassroots NGOs are just not present in many rural regions or in some specific themes. You, as a philanthropy, are in a hurry. You see your project as important and you don’t have the time or inclination to seed or nurture new NGOs. That’s when you say, 'Okay, let’s do this directly' - there is legitimacy in this point of view, but then you should be doing the implementation bit separately.

A farmer from Zapodar village in Gujarat’s Amreli district, one among many who have benefitted from the partnership between the Tata Trusts and the Aga Khan Development Network
A farmer from Zapodar village in Gujarat’s Amreli district, one among many who have benefitted from the partnership between the Tata Trusts and the Aga Khan Development Network