Last month, my colleague Rudresh who leads one of our initiatives in Surpur block of Yadgir district in Karnataka gave a talk on how he mobilised youth to bring to book the corrupt gram panchayat president and some influential leaders who had misused funds under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme. As I listened to Rudresh, I recalled interviewing and recruiting him exactly ten years back to the day, with fire in his belly and a steely determination to stay the course. But this story is not about Rudresh’s courage and social activism.
Rudresh joined one of our programmes that motivated schools to move from rote learning-based assessment to meaningful assessment of a child’s understanding of concepts. Three years later when that programme concluded, Rudresh moved to another programme, an intensive engagement with every school in Surpur block, where we were hoping to bring holistic change in school and classroom, and demonstrate communities’ involvement in their children’s education.
Ask Rudresh, what was the essential difference between the way we ran the first programme and the latter and he will tell you: We ran the first programme with classical implementation rules, a pre-fixed duration with “withdrawal strategy” in place. The second programme, too, began with a three-year time frame; but by then we were more experienced and we extended the duration by three more years. Now, we see ourselves in Surpur even a decade later — hoping to show that the quality of education in the block has improved in a sustainable manner.
This need to stay the course however long it takes and to be less respectful of “withdrawal strategies” is explained in a very provocatively titled essay called “Seduced and Abandoned”. In a nutshell it says that when civil society institutions go to places where they want to create change, they must commit themselves till they see sustainable change; it cannot be as simple as a defined period to demonstrate certain processes and practices, the benefits that accrue, train some people and move on.
The effects of abandoning a community after initiating change are actually more harmful and painful. The community tastes the benefits briefly, but as the external agency packs and goes away, the community realises that they have neither been able to internalise these practices nor had time to develop any lasting capability to sustain the change. Things stall and then collapse; only the bitter memories of a mirage remain. The next time someone comes along, “offering to help”, they will be on guard, wary, resistant.
The other awful jargon is “catalyst of change”. Ten years ago you could often hear that phrase when even well-meaning organisations described their work on the ground. Communities actually deeply resent the “catalyst” approach and my colleague Anant Gangola described this rejection at a seminar thus: “If you have come to help me, you may go back. But if you see my struggle as part of your existence, we can work together.” In that one sentence Anant captured how senseless and insensitive it is to think that one can ever be a catalyst of change.
How can one ever assume that we can create change without changing ourselves? The notion of “we know what you need” will disappear if the word catalyst is dropped from the social change lexicon.
Hard as well as great lessons are precious milestones in the journey of every organisation engaged in social change. One lesson is that doing a pilot is fine but a good meaningful pilot will morph necessarily into a very long-term commitment. If not, change will be ephemeral. I have a painful example from our own work to substantiate this.
We ran an extremely promising programme to retain and sustain in school, children who had hitherto been out of school but were enrolled through enrolment drives. We ran that programme for two years through a team of volunteers. Precisely after two years, we handed it over to the government without taking into account their readiness to implement such a programme. Had we not had our “time-bound withdrawal strategy” blinkers we would not have done that. We never again committed the mistake of withdrawing merely because an artificially agreed date was reached.
Another lesson is that if we want to take a “successful” programme to other territories we must be fully aware that such expansion is much more than merely scaling up and replicating a model. One of the most committed organisations in Karnataka in school education is Sikshana, run by some fantastic people. As their programme creates impact in some blocks of Karnataka, they are driven by the desire to expand this to other states; and while doing so they are fully cognisant of factors such as the pressure on resources, complexities of franchising operations elsewhere, the challenge of different languages and the sucking up of management time. The third lesson, in a sense, is the flip side of the second lesson. There will be a tide in the life of a good programme, when it must be expanded. For us the move to take some of our initiatives across many states was based on such a judgement. Sometimes one wishes the Hoshangabad Science Teaching Project popularly known as HSTP — inarguably India’s finest science teaching initiative — could have expanded and caught every state in its full and wonderful potential.
Ultimately, any initiative in social change is a long-term commitment. While there will be programme and project management principles with timelines, milestones and metrics, yet by the very nature of the work, it will not unfold like a time-bound new car project. That is why social change initiatives will flow with a life of their own. Let me conclude by quoting the colleague who has spent 25 years in tribal development, school education and India’s national literacy programme: “Each passing day I see a new person in the mirror, hopefully more humble, hopefully more respectful of the people whose lives we intrude into…”
The author is registrar and chief operating officer of Azim Premji University.