Social work’s diminishing returns
Social work in India has reduced itself to almost inaction. The government, the society needs social scientists and not parasites of fictitious poverty. This is a wake-up call and a commentary on a sector supposed to support mainstream economy and stand by the country in its hours of crises. Let us get the comatose third sector back to work because the returns presently are mere shadows of Gram Swaraj.
I would like to draw a parallel between the ‘window of discourse’ and the ‘window of social work’ in India. The Overton window, which is the first name of windows of discourse is the band of ideas around which acceptable public narratives and discourses are construed. The window implies that policymakers desist from venturing into areas uncharted for fear of rejection by the public, their masters. Similarly, social work in India operates within the frame of a window, hitherto unable to mainstream obscure ideas or changing goal posts or even going anywhere near ‘innovations’. The complacency of ‘going with the flow’ is comfortable.
With over 3.5 million NGOs in India, one for every 500 people, legitimately a sector has an enviable reach of at least 3X that of the government (imagine doctor to patient ratio 1:1456 or agri-extension officer to farmer ratio of 1:1162). Each NGO further fissions into many smaller nuclei groups of volunteers and community workers. It is the biggest platform of and for change. Investment in an NGO is by far the best guarantee to bring about mass scale behaviour change, practice reforms and running a self-reliant gram swaraj. The Gram Swaraj or sustainable rural autonomy can potentially weather the onslaught of climate emergencies, market volatility and tricky employment aspirations. An indispensable support to national life and character. With a blend of capital and human capital investments, the return from social work of the NGOs can be the highest ever and highest possible.
But after seventy-three years, the NGOs are primarily implementing agencies, hardly ever willing to jump the windows of discourse. Yet, the sector boasts of relentless ‘activists’. Where is the action or any disruption? What is this activism for? Maybe for self-eulogising awards, but that’s not human development. It is self-development and good for them. The sector is yet to demonstrate the temerity to innovate with the world’s largest population of below 30 and the world’s burgeoning middle class? What are they waiting for?
The civil society organisations (nee NGOs) spend over 90% of their time waiting for the next project announcement by a public service department to apply for a grant. Because they do not have their own programs or if there are, then the programs are designed to be a ‘permanent outcome’ of the public welfare program(s). The fit is perfect. Their scale of impact is directly proportional to their capacities in wooing the existing national and state programs, whether the beneficiaries want them, need them or not. The ‘beneficiary’ is blurred in this case because over 75% of the budget (from the grant) is spent on staff salaries. Who is the beneficiary in this case?
The rate of conversion of specific needs of a demography into a full-fledged, targeted intervention is well below 10% - one in 10 current needs of the community is targeted by the social development programs. Government schemes are well planned but poorly executed because a) NGOs lack basic capacities to implement b) there is no ownership of the schemes c) the Collectors get transferred frequently and the collectorate is ill equipped in terms of professional manpower and skills. The Collector owns a district and s/he rarely get support from NGOs in implementation and feedback.
Community needs change rapidly, but the methodologies have never changed after the late eighties, and early nineties when India embarked upon a slew of health programs with the help of the multilateral and bilateral support. The same flip charts, FGDs, above-the-line and below-the-line approaches and materials are used till date, cornball, unimaginative, and uninspiring. Nothing much has changed since the JNU alumni took to social work. New institutions, ideas get buried below a quick job in CSR department. The young MSWs/MBAs/IITans brim with possibilities but are yet to know the market – the recipients of their models. They learn go-to-market theories in the classrooms and leave them behind.
What happens after ASER is published? Barring a few interventions in states like Rajasthan, Maharashtra and a few others, STEM for example, has not been taken up rigorously as a thrust area. For example, Children need assistance with their psycho-social barriers in learning mathematics and their trepidations. Only giving ICT based, video lessons is tokenism and is not the solution. The future minds of this world continue to wade their way through lacklustre, painful, obscure education. The human touch is absent. No wonder AI & ML are already in the room. Social work has now turned into contract work? Prominent NGOs of India are building houses, roads because that adds to their balance sheet and not to their core strength. Should we expect builders to be NGOs? So then rightfully, the government has decided to make GST compulsory for NGOs.
NGOs should be the laboratories with social scientists along with MSW/MBA qualified program managers. If all will manage, who will ideate? This will soon lead to a BPO wave in social work, without an iota of innovations, barring a few mediocre attempts to create mobile phone apps or data collection spreadsheets in the name of technology interventions. The MSW is expected to help the welfare schemes of the country (the government) to reach the unreached and utilised in tandem with the intentions.
Leakages in welfare schemes have not helped us reduce poverty the way the government has committed to in the SDGs. The livelihoods programs in states like Odisha, Rajasthan, AP, Telangana are doing well with new, unfamiliar approaches. New age social work should bring fresh perspectives to the large sums of taxpayers money being invested in low income groups. An effective deployment of this money will mean reduced social strain between haves and have nots. Is this not the fundamental ideology of the self-claimed activists? But are they helping in the professional development of social workers? The students should realise the significance of social work, their chosen career path – that they can and should function like a professional conduit or a gateway to redistribute income from the young to the elderly, from taxpayers to subsidy recipients and from the rich to the poor.
One rupee spent on social work at one end should deliver an impact of at least 2000X at the other end. They would be responsible for at least 13% of the GDP which is government spending in India with impact at such a mega scale. The economics of social work is by far the most powerful link between an underdeveloped and developed economy. This potential of the sector is squandered. A national social forum like CII or FICCI , with predominantly young social workers, is part of the answer. There is a tragic vacuum in civil society leadership in the country, in thought or action. Civil society is both the universe and the workshop and is much more than only the third sector if you may. Return from any investments here will easily be the highest, unmatched, and limitlessly sustainable. Yet we miss the simple markers. It is the most potent of all change vehicles but is presently antiquated and mostly off road.
Are we here to lament a lost paradise or disrupt and recentre to create an evergreen Eden? the choice is ours. It might be too early for my epitaph but contributions to GDP and GHI is still awaited.
(Charudutta Panigrahi is an author & futurist of India. He can be reached at email@example.com)