We were sat in a small room, not too far removed from what many would describe as a concrete cell. The heat was making my Indian made shirt to stick to my back. The women we were meeting were the local leaders from the pavement dwelling slum community. They had been relocated to this new home in east Mumbai, a large tower block of apartments.
I had just asked a question to find out what more could be done for them, now that they have a home made from brick instead of tin sheets and tarpaulin at the roadside. The community leaders described how life is now more difficult. They have moved away from the life that they had built for themselves at the side of the road. They had lost their livelihood, means of cheap transport inside the city and access to the schools and services they knew. The picture that was being painted for me was one of a shifting struggle, with new and unexpected challenges.
I had to know, was it worth it? The change in tone and energy was noticeable; “yes, of course it was worth it” was their immediate response. The simple change in status from an unrecognised member of society to a city resident with a home address was priceless. Yes the first few years were very difficult, but the opportunities for their children that have been created by having a street address far outweighed these challenges. Doors were now open for government programmes; health, education, employment, among others.
A couple of weeks ago I spent a week meeting with slum based NGOs in Mumbai, making the arrangements to partner with five organisations for a Leadership training programme. The programme involves a blended learning approach of virtual leadership learning followed by a week in Mumbai to consult with these NGOs. After this week of consultation, the participants in the programme will go back to the virtual space to work on the challenges faced by their partner NGO.
Embedded in the approach of this leadership programme is this consultative mindset. The needs of the partner NGO are the top priority. These needs are filtered through the skills and experience of the participants to define the scope of their activities. This provides a great opportunity for learning about leadership.
The consultative approach is also at the heart of the NGO I was meeting, and was driving these responses from the community leaders we were meeting. They work with this community to understand the challenges they face and how they can help. The residents themselves had created the design of each apartment; the community took the lead on the provision of social support structures and services. This was a ground up movement with support from a well-funded NGO who had empowered the marginalised communities to change their situation.
Of all the activities I have been involved in that could be called CSR initiatives, the ones which have had the greatest impact upon the social needs of the local community and the participants from businesses, have been those that involve this consultative approach. It is easy to create a quick win by deciding what is best for communities and just going ahead and doing it. These activities often provide a temporary solution by painting over the cracks of the issue and can give a sense of temporary relief. It is also very quick and easy to see and measure the impacts - square metres painted, number of weeds pulled up, number of slum dwellers housed. However, in order to drive longer lasting social change, a community needs based approach consisting of incremental development. It is much harder to demonstrate the impact of this approach in the short term, which is a challenge for NGOs to attract funding and also to sell to businesses trying to live CSR values and develop their employees amongst challenging budgets and timescales.
My own perspective on CSR activities, is that any support is a good thing, even if the result is a temporary fix. It’s still better than doing nothing at all. If there is a desire and drive to make real and long lasting changes for local communities, by following the lead of NGOs and adopting a consultative approach, CSR programmes can create powerful learning experiences and go some way to helping some of the large social issues many currently face. The most difficult part of all of this? Making the decision to go ahead and do whatever can be done to help.
Scott Rose is Head of Consulting, Americas.