By Gaurav Shah, co-founder of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM):
Collaboration, not competition, is the emerging philosophy in the social development sector. However, given the celebration and glorification of the benefits of competition, especially in the corporate sector, and the competitive culture imbibed in us by our schooling system, it has become almost impossible to change our philosophies and ways of life.
We are constantly being told that competition exclusively leads to innovation and is also oriented towards generating outcomes and outputs. It is also often said that it helps improve efficiency and brings about human progress. But, is it really true in all contexts? Does everything need to be a ‘zero-sum game’?
Let’s try and explore the need for collaboration and a collaborative work-ethic, especially in the social sector:
Nearly 30 crore Indians still live under extreme poverty. According to Labour Ministry data (2016), about 1 million Indians join the workforce every month, looking for means of sustenance. Despite increase in enrolment, in 2015, only 48% of Indian students (in the fifth standard or above) could read textbooks meant for students of second standard (or even lower). In 2013, India’s infant mortality rate was 40, which dropped to only 39 by 2016. Even in 2017, India was ranked 131st out of the 188 nations on UN’s Human Development Index. In 2016, India was ranked 97th out of the 118 countries on the Global Hunger Index.
These numbers are staggering. The humongous scale and magnitude of the issues clearly denotes that they cannot be solved either by individuals or organisations working in isolation.
In India, the development sector largely works in an ‘issue-based’ manner with organisations, focussing on sectoral interventions (for example, in education, rural development, health and environment) to bring about improvements in societal and human conditions.
This happens partly because of the availability (or lack thereof) of financial resources and technical expertise. While we agree that every sector is important, where do we get the money and the knowledge to deal with the different issues in the various sectors?
However, human beings and their lives cannot really be ‘split’ into sectors. The same person needs an education, health and livelihood. Therefore, it’s imperative that different organisations working on different issues in a particular area or location come together and pool their physical, financial and knowledge resources. Only in this way can a holistic model be developed and delivered.
Working in this kind of a collaborative ecosystem would be more sustainable and amenable for scaling the issues, challenges and obstacles. It would also help deal with the ‘wickedness’ of these problems. For instance, working only on education in a rural area without creating meaningful means of livelihood, might lead to excessive migration and the abandonment of social structures in the area.
When dealing with social issues, it’s important to clearly define and understand the family of stakeholders being effected by your actions. Who are the various people/organisations which might be directly or indirectly effected by this intervention, and thereby, might want a say in how it’s designed and implemented?
Such an understanding helps in viewing issues from a broader systemic standpoint. This, in turn, may lead to the designing of interventions which are more inclusive, based on a wider dialogue, accepting of the concerns of a larger system of stakeholders and thereby having a larger chance of success. Interventions like these would require a deep understanding and appreciation of the need to collaborate and move forward with the various people involved.
Work in the development sector requires a social construction of knowledge, because there is a need for collective and contextual meaning-making. While there may be a broad ‘theory of change’ about a particular thing, it will shaped only by what people make of it. Management development plays an important role in the facilitation of this meaning-making process, and in ensuring that the appropriate, contextually-relevant outcomes are generated.
Besides the more obvious instrumental reasons for collaboration, one should not overlook the basic intrinsic reason behind encouraging this work ethic. A collaborative society would potentially be a more peaceful and harmonious society, based on the efforts of all human beings!
It is therefore clear that the need for collaboration is based on practical needs and conceptual underpinnings on how to drive sustainable and long-term social impacts on development issues. I am not even sure if collaboration is an ‘option’ any more. If we are serious about improving lives and social conditions, then it’s imperative that we join hands and collaborate. Otherwise, we risk becoming an irrelevant, self-perpetuating society or ‘sector’, that may lose its reason for existence!