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“Discomfort Is A Proxy For Progress”

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By Tanaya JagtianiRachita Vora

Jacqueline Novogratz is the founder and CEO of Acumen, a global nonprofit that invests in social enterprises serving low-income communities across South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the United States. Currently, she also serves on the boards of the Aspen Institute and 60 Decibels. Jacqueline is also the author of The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap between Rich and Poor, and more recently, Manifesto for a Moral Revolution. In 2017, Forbes listed Jacqueline as one of the World’s 100 Greatest Living Minds.

In this interview with IDR, Jacqueline speaks about the idea of moral leadership—what it is, why we need to cultivate it, and how it enables us to navigate the tensions and complexities of working in social impact.

Jacqueline Novogratz
Picture courtesy: Jacqueline Novogratz

IDR: You often speak about moral leadership and why it is critical to building a better world. Could you tell us a little about this idea?

Jacqueline Novogratz: Over the years, I have observed that the world we live in has raised too many leaders with a definition of success based on money, power, and fame. And the more of these we get, the more insecure we get; we start to see the world as having scarce resources and feel that we have to keep things for ourselves.

The idea of moral leadership challenges this. Moral leaders are those who are constantly asking what’s good for other people, not themselves. The way I have tried to define moral leadership—and moral revolution—is not as a prescriptive or righteous set of rules. Instead, it is grounded in the recognition that, in an interdependent world, a moral leader has little choice but to navigate competing belief systems and tools, in order to make the kind of change that’s needed.

As social entrepreneurs, one of the big tensions we have to hold is between the world as it is—which can be ugly and messy—and the idealism and audacity to imagine what the world could be. And it is within this tension that it becomes important to operate. We have to constantly navigate existing unjust, broken systems while at the same time reimagining them. That is extremely hard work and where moral leadership can play an important role.

IDR: How does one begin to do some of this work?

Jacqueline Novogratz: In my experience, the most effective social entrepreneurs begin by clearly articulating the problem that they are there to solve. That might sound like an obvious thing to say, and yet, it’s actually quite rare. I often meet people who are incredibly well-intentioned, but they aren’t able to identify what their Northstar is; what’s really driving them. They say, “I want to make the world a better place” or “I want to help women”. These are wonderful sentiments but it is very hard to create any kind of business or operational plan when you define the problem you’re solving in this manner. Instead, you need to say, “I want to provide access to reproductive services for low-income women.”

Once you’ve identified the problem that you’re solving, then you have to really tear it apart to understand what role the market might play in providing a solution, so that people have opportunities for choice. There are some areas, for example, primary healthcare, where markets can play a role, but they certainly will not be able to deliver quality goods and services to the poorest. As moral leaders, we need to have the humility to recognise where markets work, and where they fail. And we have to come to this understanding not with ideology, but with curiosity.

Then, as you start to build your business model or your operating model, know what role you can play in the process and what role you need others to play. This is where you have to learn to partner with humility and audacity. None of the enterprises we have funded at Acumen would have really gone to scale without an element of the partnership, especially an element of partnering with another sector, be it government, corporations, or philanthropy.

IDR: What can leaders do to balance the needs of their organisations, with those of the communities they seek to serve?

Jacqueline Novogratz: As I mentioned earlier, navigating and making sense of such tensions is the realm of the moral leader. If you see yourself as an entrepreneur, but also as a seeker, you won’t come into the community with a set of solutions nor a concrete set of assumptions. You have to have the inquiry and curiosity, combined with a willingness to change.

Jacqueline Novogratz

We have to constantly navigate existing unjust, broken systems while at the same time reimagining them. | Picture courtesy: Saumya Khandelwal

It’s too easy to say that the community always knows what it needs and what it wants. Many communities have issues of gender, religious hierarchy, political hierarchy, and class hierarchy, and so who decides for the community becomes a critical moral question. As a social entrepreneur, it is your job to understand this, not from a place of judgement but with the humility to see the world as it is.

When I was starting the first women’s microfinance bank in Rwanda, back in the 1980s, my assumption was that the community would know what they want, and all I had to do was go into the villages and speak with them. At the beginning, I was very confused because even though I was building a women’s bank, the men were the only ones who ever spoke. Even when I proactively asked the women what they want, if there was a man in the room, they would either not answer, or answer in a way that I knew wasn’t true. Finally, after I had built a lot of trust, I sat some of the women down and asked them, “What is going on here?” They responded saying that if a man is in the room, they don’t have a voice.

This was never in my set of assumptions, partly due to my own privilege and worldview. Once I realised that to build a women’s bank we need to have only women in the room to make decisions, it was a game-changer. But slowly, even within these groups of women, I started to understand who the power players were and who the moral leaders were—the ones listening to others in their community and making decisions on behalf of the community in a way that the community valued.

But all of this can be hard to do, especially when you’re young and just starting out. Often, society celebrates those who are doing the easy thing, not the right thing. Those who have figured out a way not to listen, but to speak the language of listening; who don’t necessarily understand the community, but can be very righteous in saying that the community knows everything. They’re the ones who often end up raising grant money because they’re saying everything that donors like to hear. But to me, that’s not the definition of success, because it’s not about building community.

Related article: What it takes to be an ‘Abundant Leader’

IDR: We’ve spoken about moral leadership in the context of solving problems on behalf of others. What does this look like within marginalised communities who experience systemic oppression? 

Jacqueline Novogratz: From what I have seen in my work with more than a thousand social entrepreneurs, I think the most important thing is having one person who believes in you and who is in your court. That goes a long way in building one’s confidence. With the Acumen Fellowship, I’ve observed that sometimes people from marginalised communities may come in with a lot of anger, because they’re fighting against oppressive systems. And they don’t believe that people want to give them a seat at the table. If you sit at the table with your arms crossed and your chair pushed back, you’re also sending a message that either you don’t want to be at the table, or that you don’t believe the others want you at the table. This creates a standoff, and everyone has to do the work to change.

Personally, and at Acumen, we have had to learn a different kind of courage to speak up, not only when the system is getting in a person’s way, but also when they are getting in their own way. What helps in doing this is having a cohort—a loving and supportive community where we can learn these skills together. Here, by ‘love’ I don’t mean blind, unquestioning support. I mean real love, to hold each other accountable, to say the hard things, and to be a mirror to each other.

Privilege plays an important role here, and it is important that we recognise that access to something is only part of the solution. As Amartya Sen would say, if a person from a marginalised community doesn’t have capability or the confidence to make use of the market, then it doesn’t matter if they have access to it or not. In the same way, those of us with privilege can help others to take on a problem without solving it for them, give them confidence, walk beside them but not in a way that solves their problems, not in a way that has that saviour thing of “I will help you and feel good about myself”. But in a way that enables others to be their best selves.

Related article: This is what is holding social entrepreneurs back

IDR: Lastly, what does it take to cultivate some of these qualities and become a moral leader?

Jacqueline Novogratz: I firmly believe that leaders aren’t born. Nor do I believe that as human beings, we’re born with character—we learn it. The work that it takes to develop your own moral compass requires, first and foremost, quieting yourself to be self-reflective. It involves learning to listen to other people in a deep way, including how they see you. And that can be incredibly painful since it requires you to put yourself in situations with people who might disagree with your beliefs and how you operate. But if we’re willing to be uncomfortable, and if we can see that discomfort is a proxy for progress, I think it can be a little less painful.

All of the things that I’ve mentioned—listening, immersing yourself, paying attention, treating communities as true participants rather than as passive recipients—are not just principles, but practices. The more you practice them, the more you become them. For instance, courage is something that takes longer to cultivate for some of us, because the world has more than a thousand ways of taking our courage away. But if we practice saying our truth, even when our lips are trembling, and learning to say them in ways that other people can hear, then you start to build those things inside of yourself that no one can take away from you. And then you know, you’re on the path.

Moral leadership is a verb, it is a practice. The best we can do is to be on the path of becoming a moral leader, and for this reason, I would hesitate to name a living moral leader. I also don’t think we should worry about whether we’re being called a moral leader or not. We should worry about whether we’re moving further along the path, or if we’re falling off. And if we do fall off—and some do—we must find a way back on. Finally, I would say that I feel the same way about moral leadership as I do about heroes. Even though I have many, I don’t think we need another hero right now. We need millions and millions of heroic acts, which is why this kind of moral leadership has to be all of our work, not just some of our work.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the authors:

Tanaya Jagtiani is an editorial analyst at IDR, where she manages curated content, in addition to writing, editing, and sourcing content. Prior to this, Tanaya interned at Coram Beanstalk, Samhita Social Ventures, and ActionAid India. She has recently completed an MSc in Globalisation and Development from SOAS, University of London and holds a BA in Sociology from St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.

Rachita Vora is co-founder and director at IDR. Before this, she led the Dasra Girl Alliance, an INR 250 crore multi-stakeholder platform that sought to improve maternal, adolescent and child health outcomes in India. She has over a decade of experience, having led teams in the areas of financial inclusion, public health and CSR, and functions across strategy, business development, and communications. Rachita has an MBA from Judge Business School at Cambridge University and a BA in History from Yale University.


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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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