centre stage

‘We want our funds to go a long way’

Axis Bank Foundation (ABF) has strengthened its partnership with three associate organisations of the Tata Trusts to jointly support sustainable livelihood interventions: Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (CInI) in Jharkhand and Gujarat, Centre for microFinance in Rajasthan and Himmotthan Society in Uttarakhand. While these partnerships have run their course, ABF maintains its association with the Trusts through a livelihoods programme led by CInI in Odisha.

Dhruvi Shah, executive trustee and the chief executive of ABF, talks to Labonita Ghosh about how complementing contributions, commonality of vision and agility with funding makes for the best and most efficient partnerships. Excerpts from the interview:

How has ABF’s association with the Tata Trusts been?

Our partnership with the Tata Trusts has evolved naturally. During our conversations we realised that we share a common vision and goals towards the uplift of rural communities. 

This alignment is evident in our partnerships with the Tata Trusts and their associate organisations. We understand the grassroots community issues and we have feasible ideas that can be implemented. This collaboration enables us to effectively manage the communities and sustain the efforts over a long period of time.

Our initial association with the Trusts began in 2018, where we merely acted as a financial contributor to the ‘Transform Rural India Foundation’. However, our relationship has grown significantly since then. In our current and third collaboration, we are not only financially supporting but also actively participating in co-creating the programme with the Collectives for Integrated Livelihood Initiatives (Clnl). While our resources are going directly to CInI, our conversations now revolve around maximising the efficiency of these resources and jointly developing the action plans and mechanisms for rural India and its ecosystem.

What do you see as the challenges in development work for rural uplift and livelihoods?

There are quite a few challenges. There is a significant lack of knowledge and capacity among the people to work towards the future they aspire to. Additionally, limited resources and a lack of access to them, poor healthcare, underdeveloped public infrastructure, and weak institutions and governance cause hindrances in their progress to achieve their goals. Sometimes people know what to do and sometimes they don’t. At times, even if they know what to do, there are no resources available to achieve it.

For example, I need water for agriculture and there is sufficient rainfall in my village, but I lack the knowledge of how to preserve and manage my water resources. At times like this, all it needs is a little thrust from outsiders like us who can bring our willingness, knowledge and resources and put it to work for the community.

How impactful has ABF’s work with the Trusts been?

There are several ways to look at this. First, let’s focus on ABF and the Tata Trusts collaboration to empower CInI. When resources come together they can be deployed to accomplish more. But how these resources can be brought together and used efficiently — that is what we and the Trusts facilitate for ClnI. That’s one level of impact the two funders have achieved together.

The second relates to how this collaboration allows ClnI to expand its efforts in serving the community. Our funds are catalytic and this is another point of similarity with the Trusts. We both have the same approach: to use our money as a catalytic support mechanism. Can we leverage further funds from the government, from the state rural livelihood missions (SRLMs), or even from the community’s own resources? Can we leverage from other, smaller donors whose funds are sometimes fixed?

Last, we need to see how we can use our funding, which is assured, for a long period of time. This long-term assurance of funding that ABF and the Trusts provide gives an implementing organisation like CInI the freedom to focus on their core mission without the constant need to secure financial support. This stability enables CInI to effectively deploy resources, channelise synergies and serve the community better. It gives CInI the time and focus to concentrate on execution. That’s how formal collaborations help bring in efficiency.

A collaboration such as the one between ABF, the Trusts and CInI works exceptionally well due to the combination of our individual and complementary approaches. It also unifies philanthropic and CSR [corporate social responsibility] capital towards a common purpose and a larger goal. This synergy enables us to create a more significant impact in society.

Do you provide inputs on how the on-ground programmes should be structured?

There is a lot of cross-learning which often occurs during our partner meets. These partner meets and cross-learning events serve as a platform for sharing best practices, exchanging experiences and challenges, and collaboratively devising context-specific solutions that can be implemented across diverse geographies. We have 37 other partners and there are ample opportunities for exchanging each other’s learnings and insights.

Does ABF facilitate banking or microfinance through Axis Bank?

We don’t provide banking services directly through our bank but we do facilitate them in collaboration with state rural livelihood missions [SRLMs] and the local bank in the area. With SRLMs and the Jan Dhan Yojana [the central government’s financial inclusion programme] gaining traction, everybody has a bank account today. So it’s no longer just about having an account, but more about having money to put in it, which is where our role comes into play.

Our training and capacity-building programmes enable skill sets and technical capabilities for developing a basket of livelihoods, micro-enterprises and community collectives. Furthermore, our work fosters the growth of community resource persons [CRPs] and promotes women’s leadership, while also establishing stronger market connections that result in greater value for produce and services. CRPs and community collectives serve as the foundation of our interventions.

The focus in your partnership with the Trusts is livelihoods. Have you felt the need to also look at initiatives in, say, education or the environment?

Madhe Gagrai of Rugudipanga village in Keonjhar district has benefitted from exposure trips to nearby villages to learn about farming techniques

It is all inter-connected. We believe that livelihoods, by itself, encompasses a wide scope. We have identified several exclusions in our own work that need to be addressed. For example, our collaboration with artisans has been limited, and we have only recently started engaging with the most impoverished communities. These limitations are not intentional; they occur because of the way a particular project is initially designed.

When your livelihoods strategy revolves around natural resources management, how do you cater to the needs of individuals who are landless and often find themselves left out? Ideally, you take a detour and start bringing them back into the fold by tweaking the design of the programme. But for accomplishing that, you should have the agility to do this.

You may suddenly realise that artisans have no place in your funding model, prompting the need for a change. It is important to incorporate foresight and hindsight into our projects and this can only be achieved by actively listening to the community. Impact needs to deepen and broaden.

Moreover, you cannot just focus on livelihoods without considering water, land and forests, biodiversity and various other ecosystem components. It all happens together. While we don’t talk about climate change as a primary mandate, we actively work on helping communities adapt to its effects. This involves building their capacity for climate adaptation, developing contextual coping strategies and leveraging traditional knowledge to design localised solutions.

Mandoi and Damodar Hansda of Panabahali village in Jajpur district with the trophy they won for having the highest income in the Lakhpati Kisan programme

There is natural resources management, skill building, empowerment and so many other things that, if addressed, will contribute towards creating sustainable livelihoods.