India’s development journey has been rife with high peaks and lower troughs. While there is remarkable success in alleviating poverty, for example (with over 271 million escaping poverty over the last decade), there is also a commensurate realisation that the growth is unequal, and benefits of social welfare don’t reach all. This is where philanthropy in India had also just started to come of age, to patch these gaps and give impetus to development at scale.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has bought India’s jagged development journey to a hard stop. Concerns are mounting world-over that the pandemic could backtrack decades of progress on the development agenda and might lead to an upsurge in poverty for the first time since the 1990s. In India, specifically, it has presented itself in ways that expand the gulf of deep-seated inequities and has sent millions of Indians back teetering around poverty lines. Some 200 million Indians fear poverty, displacement and loss of livelihood in the face of an ever-peaking active case count.
To deal with the immediate blow of the pandemic and its consequent fallouts, everybody from the governments to corporates, civil society and even individual innovators crowdsourcing efforts, all came together in a way that was unprecedented ever before, to the common call of humanity.
Companies and nonprofits alike jumped to assist the government in identifying hotspots, deputing volunteers for the vulnerable, elderly and persons with disabilities, providing shelter to the homeless, and setting up community kitchens so that no one goes hungry. The innovation ecosystem bolstered support like never before as parliamentarians and governments extended an open call for breakthrough ideas that can help contain the virus. Cheaper tests, PPEs, ventilators etc. were all made possible in a matter of weeks.
In the process, all stakeholders – civil society, markets and the government – ushered a new respect and recognition for each other’s role and the value of collaboration and collective action. This was a marked departure from the business as usual for those of us involved in the development sector; for the first time, it demonstrated that the contours of the ‘development’ sector can expand beyond some social enterprises and organisations to include all actors that are key in the multi-sectoral work that is development.
Why it never happened before is merely because there was no space for it to happen, even though there might have been motivation. Academics would talk to governments, or governments to philanthropies, or private sector to nonprofits, but not all them together, and not always with adequate appreciation for the other’s contributions. COVID-19 has ushered a reckoning that systemic change needs a collective development ecosystem.
It is imperative that the collaborative spirit and systems of a COVID-19 world extend much beyond it as well. This requires a constant and decisive effort to tear down the silos – of the sector, generation, geography and capacity. Globally, platforms like the experimental 17 Rooms convened by The Brookings Institution and The Rockefeller Foundation bring people who’ve spent their lives working on some aspects of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals together in informal round-the-clock conversations to design ambitious roadmaps for the respective goals.
In India, ambitious convenings are common, but they struggle with breaking all silos, especially one of geography, even though India’s development discourse is a multilateral affair. The/Nudge Forum, an event that happened for 24 hours non-stop on India’s 74th Independence Day, is a step towards seeking to overcome this and act as a catalyst in collective action towards inclusive and sustainable development.
In the past, unusual partnerships have led to disruptions like mobile data collection for welfare, digital identity and even last-mile energy access possible, and it is hoped it continues to do so for the journey to ‘building back better’. This is all the more critical for India with a growing youth population left behind global peers by an education system yet to catch up to the requirements of today; threats of malnutrition affecting another generation permanently; widening gender gap; and the vulnerability to climate change are all population scale problems, but also the advent of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 with transformative potential.
No one solution or institution will suffice to address these needs. Innovations from businesses can help to accelerate solutions in education, healthcare, sanitation and other areas of development while government policies need to fast track the scaleup of these solutions through public systems. Between all this, the role of philanthropy – both domestic and international – will be critical to extend the benefits to the most marginalised communities who are beyond the reach of markets and government programmes. Working meaningfully together can still enable the achievement of the 2030 Development Agenda.
Deepali Khanna is the managing director of Asia Region Office of Rockefeller Foundation and Sudha Srinivasan is the CEO of The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation.