An inspiring start to the year

February 8th, 2012 1 comment »

I have been on a hiatus of sorts from this wall. No reasons, really. Just didn’t find anything that inspired me to write in the last few months on this site, even though I have been writing for a bunch of other blogs and such. But somehow, 2012 has started on a rather inspirational note. So here I am.

When social meets business

Among the many inspiring chats I have had in the last few weeks, one would be surely meeting Ramin Khabirpour of Danone. He shared with me the vision Danone has for social business and how they are stitching the fabric of sustainability and social impact within Danone’s regular business. Even if one would pooh pooh much of what he said as superlative marketing, what with Prof Yunus spearheading the whole initiative, the way Danone has structured the Danone communities fund really caught my attention. In my mind, this is really an example of how business can truly contribute at a strategic level to creating large scale social impact. Just imagine if some of the world’s bigger businesses and HNIs were to come together to mentor such programmes around the world!

When social meets fun meets getting a sense of identity

Has it even happened to you that someone you meet over a casual coffee just completely blows your mind?! It happened to me a few weeks back when I met the irrepressible Mel Young at an EBS programme I was co-facilitating. Over dinner, he was this typical Scot with brilliant understated tongue-in-cheek humour. And then he told me what he does- “I run a football world cup for the homeless”, he said, casually. At first I thought I didn’t hear him well. And then the dots connected and I realized that when the power of unreasonable people is truly unleashed how magic happens. The Big Issue, a street paper that Mel started in Scotland has been described as one of the most successful street newspapers worldwide, selling nearly 300,000 copies a week and hailed as the world’s most circulated street paper. One of the main criteria for being a vendor for selling this paper is that they need to be homeless. Selling the paper gives them a legitimate income and gives them a chance to reintegrate back into society. The Big Issue Foundation supports vendors in gaining control of their lives by tackling the various issues which lead to homelessness. Mel told me proudly that one of his “homeless football stars” got selected by the Manchester United football league for an obscene amount of money recently. When I told my football crazy son about this he googled his out and told me that there are more countries participating in the homeless football due to happen this year in Mexico than the regular one! Go figure!

Is the crisis in the microfinance industry teaching valuable lessons?

March 22nd, 2011 No comments »

Social enterprises have been touted as the best thing that happened to the world in a long time. Many of its proponents put forward an ambitious agenda of creating jobs, providing training and developing local services in areas of serious and long-standing deprivation, while holding out the prospect of financial viability rather than grant dependency. Without doubt that the momentum in the social enterprise “industry” has accelerated significantly (I have to add here that yours truly jumped the bandwagon two years ago, and has never been happier!!). But is this growth and attention justified? Are communities and their local economies that are supposed to be the main beneficiaries of these businesses benefitting?

I think one of the issues with the term “social enterprise” is that there are inconsistencies in how people define it. And more importantly, how such organizations in the overarching context of privatization and marketization survive and operate. Are these organizations really a radical alternative model for doing business in a social and ethical way?

The present discourse and debate around the microfinance industry is a case in point. Once the poster child of the social enterprise world, the microfinance industry has come about to signify everything that’s gone wrong with the social enterprise trying to be commercially viable. Why is that? Is it because enterprises that have a social agenda can’t be seen as making profits? Or is it that they are now a force to reckon with and the rest of the market forces are just coming to terms with this new force majeure?

Having known the proponents and key players of both Grameen Bank and SKS Microfinance for a while now, I know for a fact that their intent was never in doubt. Both Prof. Yunus and Vikram Akula are visionaries who dared to dream and give a platform for their dreams to bear fruit. And they proved C K Prahalad’s theory that there is indeed a huge opportunity to do business at the base of the pyramid. So what went wrong?

I inherently believe that any enterprise, social or otherwise cannot be impactful and do justice to its stakeholders if it doesn’t become sustainable. Financially, and operationally. But its also true that this new age financially viable social enterprise is seriously altering existing consensual and sympathetic relationships between the for-profit and not-for-profit service providers. Many people, especially the NGO sector and the polity view this as an encroachment of private sector companies into services previously delivered by the voluntary and community sector.

But I also believe that its important for social enterprises delivering value to a certain community and stakeholder not to don the halo of a messiah out to eradicate all evils that are prevelant in our society in one sweep. The microfinance industry has done a lot of good in the markets they have operated. But their marketing pitch has been that of “eradicating poverty”. I do believe it was this mismatch between what they do on ground (which is significant and highly impactful in providing those with no access to any finance to become self-reliant) and what they project and are perceived. And when it comes to owning an important stakeholder, which is the “poor”, the biggest owner of them all, especially in a shaky democracy like we have in the Indian sub-continent, the politicians feel threatened. And that really has been the reason why the wings of an increasingly mature microfinance industry have been cut unceremoniously.

It’s a lesson for all social enterprises that walk this tight rope between marketization and the intent to create social impact. We need to be credible and we need to articulate what we do and position our products and services without trying to over emphasize its impact on society . It’s a classic marketing lesson that we were taught in B-schools that have acquired a new meaning in the context of social business. Also, it’s a sign that the social enterprise model is maturing. We are moving on from fledging entities led by the heroic entrepreneurial individual who performs miracles on a shoestring budget and against insurmountable odds and reaching out for an organization built with solid citizens, well-educated professionals that could run important, properly funded local enterprises efficiently.

In 20 years time, when most for-profit businesses as well as voluntary groups have a strong social enterprise subsidiary, our kids would be learning about these times in case studies of how they fuelled the paradigm change!

Love you, my Valentine!

February 13th, 2011 1 comment »

I never really believed in this Valentine Day business. I never had anything against it either, but I could never understand why one needed a special day to tell someone you love them. I have been driving around a lot these past few days, and therefore listening to a lot of radio. And I have to admit I don’t really mind the ads and anecdotes that fill the radio waves these days about preparing for the Valentine’s Day, for it means that much less airtime for the ghastly real estate ads!
There was one that particularly caught my attention yesterday. The ad was for a skin clinic and raved about how beautiful your skin could become, well in time for the Valentine’s Day!!! Painfully commercial I know, but for some reason, it reminded me of my mum. She had the most amazing porcelain skin that was translucent even when she was in her last days battling a relapse of cancer. The most gorgeous hair that she started losing when she started taking her chemotherapy. And a smile that went up all the way to her brown eyes! She was radiantly beautiful while she lived and radiantly beautiful now in our memories. When she hugged me, I felt like the last of my worries would just melt away, and I am glad I never waited for a Valentine’s Day to tell her how much I loved her.
It’s not so bad that this Valentine’s Day blitzkrieg urges one to express the love one has for another person. For if you don’t do that in time, you may realize it’s too late.
Here’s to my gorgeous Valentine, my beautiful mum!

Brandishing THE brand

December 14th, 2010 No comments »

There is a business that is commercial. With all the trappings of a successful global brand. Business heads who have become legends, products that are iconic and survived many decades of cut-throat competition, and employees who would swear by the company than they would with their own families. It’s a business that built India in many ways and managed to retain its profitability and edge in an increasing competitive world for many many decades. It’s also a business that has made it possible for more tribal girls to have access to education and employment in Jharkand than collective governments in as many years. It has been a business that has patronized educational institutions and art, more than many philanthropists and connoisseurs have been able to contribute. It’s been a business that made even naysayers bow in respect for the Tata brand spells ethics in business.

So when this Radiagate issue puts the spotlight on the big man himself, it pains me endlessly. One- everyone in the government and media is pretending that they are hearing the word “lobbying” for the first time. Two- in this instance, there are other business houses involved, and arguably there is greater evidence of the role they have tried to play in managing the system, but it is noteworthy that their actions have received virtually no comment.

Having spent many years in public affairs, I have learnt that every ‘campaign’ that appears publically has a good reason to happen. The only question in this case is- what is the reason why Mr. Tata seems to be getting all the brickbats, while the other more notable users of the lobbying on many fronts are virtually unscathed.

I have to admit that when disclosures of the kind that appearing in the media lately, even die-hard Tata loyalists like myself are a bit shaken. But I don’t want to be stirred. Given that our country has the ominous reputation of being the most corrupt with opaque government and business processes, I would rather err on the side of believing that the Tata’s lobbied for sure but did that to correct biases that exist in the system, which isnt unlawful, and very much an accepted business practice. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with that. And more importantly, we (and especially the media- a section of who has already proved how hand-in-glove they are with wily lobbyists and corrupt politicians) have no right to paint someone guilty even before charges against them have been proven.

Besides, I would rather support a “perceived” manipulative businessman who has done more for society than many self-absorbed businesses and politicians who paint a holier-than-thou picture of themselves.

every drop maketh an ocean…

October 17th, 2010 No comments »

So mum used to say to me when I was a kid.

Interestingly, as I get involved more with the Palliative Care movement in Kerala, I realise that its success didn’t come from huge donations of money by a few well meaning philanthropists. In addition to a brilliantly concieved and implemented volunteering programme, a big factor in the success of the programme has come from Micro funding or small donations from a large number of people in the community (see www.concernwithoutborders.org).

This also has been a big contributor to bring in a strong element of sustainability and local ownership to community owned programs.

When programs are aided by philanthropic donations by individuals or trusts, or managed by a non-governmental organisations (NGO), generally the implementing agency takes responsibilities for procuring and managing funds and the community is neither expected to contribute nor have any direct involvement in how this money is spent. Community involvement if any is marginal and not intrinsic to the definition of success of the programme. Such programs owned by external agencies suffer from the disadvantage of being unsustainable once the agency / funder decides to pull the plug on the programme.

A programme that has ground-up support and has demonstrated effectiveness can also be more easily integrated with the mainstream programmes run by the government, and impact a larger policy and implementation decision.
For example, in Kerala, the 300 odd palliative care units are organized and supported by Community Based Organizations (CBO). Most are independent units, but some are based in government and private hospitals. The CBOs are mostly supported by local communities and are self-sustaining in terms of manpower, funding and other amenities. In many places, the Local Self Governments Institutions (LSGI) have come forward to work with these groups in providing home visits, outpatient service and free drugs for the poor. Recognizing the need of palliative care as a primary health care and the importance of home care services for patients with long term/ incurable diseases, the Government of Kerala recently brought out a Kerala State Policy for Pain and Palliative Care Services. The National Rural Health Mission (Kerala) has initiated a major project in Kerala this year to facilitate the development and expansion of community owned palliative care services in collaboration with Local self Government Institutions in the state.

In many ways, microfunding is the opposite of microfinancing where individuals take small loans to initiate a small set up to be self reliant.There could be so many initiatives in education and healthcare that could take a cue from the micro-funding model and make a big difference, just like micro-financing has demonstrated.

Eating and Praying to find Love

October 5th, 2010 No comments »

Elizabeth Gilbert is a fine storyteller.

I can quite understand the frenzy the book “Eat Pray Love” has evoked. It makes for easy reading and makes all the right noises about emptiness and the need to find a balance in life- all buzzwords for women who lead stressful lives trying to be superhuman in wanting the best career, the best lover, the best shoes and still be normal! A kind of book one could take on a holiday to the beach or the hills and finish off in one or two sittings. Like I did. And forget about it.

However, to look for an inspiration to find a new meaning in life by reading the book seems a little too far-fetched, despite the superfluous reviews by the likes of Oprah! The captains in Vatican needn’t have wound themselves up in the belief that the book will encourage people to look towards the East for peace and ignore Western religious beliefs, as the book in my opinion was little more than a common Western fetish towards Eastern mysticism and spiritual sensibilities. I did like some of the author’s explanations of how spiritualism really means that one needs to practice flexibility in one’s religion and that really is the only way to finding peace, and to her credit, some of her experiences of struggling with finding that balance did make one relate to her. I also liked her long-drawn descriptions of a simple mozzarella cheese pizza that all but made me drool! :)

But the issue with the book is the author’s obsession with herself and her ability to find perfection even in her explanations about her apparent imperfections. The four months she spends in each location almost always seem to have the perfect prescribed ending, and for someone who seems to be on a pursuit to find a balance and accept imperfections, it seemed a little too contrived and fake. I am happy for her if she managed to sample the best seafood ravioli and the thinnest chewiest pizza in the world and the best wines, learn to communicate in a foreign language, experience divinity, learn to dodge and ignore mosquitoes, and have a fairy-tale ending to her love life all in the course of one year, each part compartmentalized in neatly divided boxes of four months! Do I smell of smoking hot envy? You bet I am! I wish most of us had at least some of that fortune. Especially to have an all-expenses paid year long vacation that is destined to get you the finest food, a brush with the divine, and a too-good-to-be-true lover!

I am now looking forward to reading her sequel to this book…….but before that I need to plan my next beach holiday!!!

Appreciating the beauty of greys

September 24th, 2010 No comments »

So what is goodness? And who is good? Is Robin Hood good? I guess it depends on whether you are a friend of the Sheriff or not!
In the last few weeks, I have been in a space where I had some tough choices to make about people and issues. Should I necessarily trash someone because he has had a murky past even if he has a side to them that fuels a kind of development in society that one hasnt seen before? Or should I learn to ignore his follies and violent past and appreciate him for the side that is positive? Not easy, especially when emotions run high and you are dealing with someone who has been impacted by the gory past.
But I have also realised then the importance of being non-judgemental and taking a stand, sometimes even if is against popular sentiment is important if one has to look at solutions and move on. Because life is always grey. And it cannot always be judged in black or white.
Is Arundhati Roy to be admired for giving a voice to the Maoists who questionably haven’t had any other means but violence to protest against the state’s apathy or be rapped for misusing the freedom the state has given her by cloaking half-truths and presenting only one side of the picture? Should the Mahatma’s murder be condoned just because one group of society felt that he compromised India’s position with the British on the issue of Partition?
The thing is I like Arundhati Roy for her writing. I admire her ability to weave words into sheer poetry and her clarity of thought when she pens an essay. But I can’t stand the fact that she is OK with the brutal murder of human beings just because they have a CRPF uniform on them, in the name of justice. So is she good or bad?
I adore the Mahatma. He was a man like no other. And even after reading his autobiography for the third time in ten years, I never cease to be amazed at his foresight and courage, and get mesmerised by his thinking all over again. But did he delay India’s independence when he agreed with the Brits to postpone the talks until after the Second World War was over in 1939? Perhaps. Would that have had an impact on what India could have been. Surely. Is he a bad leader then?
Maybe not.
The thing I have come to realise is that there is good and bad in everyone, even in the best of men. It’s unfair to be judgemental about people because there will always be another side of the coin that tells a different story. A man like Nobel who gave the worst kind of destructive tools to the world also made it possible for champions of peace to be recognised.
I have come to realise that the beauty of life is in the appreciation of the greys. For every black there is a measure of white. And its ok to have an opinion that is not extreme all the time. That it is fine to hate and like the same person for different aspects that they bring to fore.
Unless of course, it is a Suresh Kalmadi!

Dreams to reality….

September 6th, 2010 No comments »

It’s a beautiful feeling when dreams begin to look real. This week, I spent many “two-hours” smiling to myself just thinking about and experiencing everything that was unfolding around me.
The first round of recruitment of visually impaired guides at the first Dialogue in the Dark centre in India got off to a flying start. The quality of candidates and the enthusiasm that I could feel from the team even though I was many hundred miles away from the scene of action has made me all excited and looking forward to the grand opening in November, 2010. I have often been asked about what’s so special about this exhibition that has made it survive the test of time and impact the millions that it has. I guess it has got to do with the fact that it’s not just about giving the disabled just another job or telling the sighted what it is to be blind. It has got to do with empowerment and respect for the other through a role reversal in a setting that is not preachy and contrived. I have seen the impact this programme has had in many countries where the blind are relatively well taken care of by the state, and I am filled with nervous optimism on what it can do in a country like India. Watch out this space for more updates!
I wrote sometime back about the status of palliative care in the world and how community-driven initiatives like the one run by the Pain and Palliative Care Society in Kerala can be a role model. The EIU report on this subject seems to have generated quite a bit of buzz and spurred an enthusiastic cartoonist to let pictures do the talking. Sometimes, pictures really do the talking, don’t they? http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=13338&id=109063229135563.
Inspired by some of the work that organisations like The Blue Yonder, Ecosphere, Help Tourism, etc. have done for the revival of economy through supporting local community initiatives, I really have come to believe that tourism in many ways can be a change maker in bringing about a paradigm shift in the average citizen of the world by making them more aware on how one can really contribute real time to making the world a better place to live. And it was a blissful day long crash course I had this weekend when the members of Green Circuit, an alliance of a few committed responsible tourism leaders across the Indian sub-continent shared their stories and experiences of how one can bring about sustainable change in remote areas while preserving the local culture and heritage through tourism. A real case study in measuring social impact that has been possible through commercial ventures, and involvement of local communities.

my love affair with words!

August 5th, 2010 4 comments »

Words are beautiful. They can evoke such an array of emotions, have life-altering effects, kill people or elicit crazy laughter. The first word that I fell in love with, was the word “enhance“!! I must have been in middle school and had always been a voracious reader. But my love affair with words started then. I had never used the word „enhance“ all that much in the past….and when I heard a classmate use it in a debate, it struck me how apt that word was in that context. And since then there have been numerous such flings I have had…some short-lived, and others that have stayed with me.
I look out for words that convey the meaning they do in ways more than one. In the way they sound, and the reaction they evoke…. Diffuse for eg….you can almost sense a blue ink seeping through a glass bowl of water! Or Nebulous ..a word that brings to mind visions of a bulbous amoeba like structure…or Tingling!!!
By the same yarstick, there are words I hate…..everyday words like Which…and not-so-everyday words like Hackeney. No apparent reason, maybe they were used in a context that brings up unpleasant memories! The best part is that a word can have this ability and the power to affect one in any way they want. Just that we dont realise it most of the time!! This is one of the reasons I love words.
Like my fellow lover of words, author Bill Bryson puts it…“Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman’s apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.“

And then there are words that have kept changing meanings over a period of time, which is why perhaps they dont evoke such a passionate response in one as do the others. Brave, for example, once implied cowardice — as indeed Bravado still does.

A word that perhaps describes this best is Nice, which is first recorded in 1290 with the meaning of stupid and foolish. A century later, it was being used to mean lascivious and wanton. Then at various times over the next centuries, it came to mean anything from extravagant, elegant, strange, slothful, unmanly, luxurious, modest, slight, precise, thin, shy, discriminating, dainty, and eventually in the last few centuries — pleasant and agreeable. Perhaps, that is why when someone says „you are nice“, one doesnt really know what exactly they mean!!!
That was a nice long blog post…………

where end-of-life care provides a reason to live….

July 21st, 2010 3 comments »

If someone had asked me at the beginning of this year as to what “Palliative Care” meant, I would have perhaps balked! Other than the dictionary meaning of the word palliative- which means to soothe or sedate (associated with a drug, usually), my knowledge of this field of medicine was grossly poor. Despite having lost my mum to cancer many years ago, and having seen her endure extreme pain towards the end of her life, I didn’t realize there was this entire science behind how terminally ill patients could also be cared for. That is until I heard of Dr. Suresh Kumar and his brand of community driven end-of-life care. When we started chatting over cups of hot tea on a rainy evening in my house, and he started telling me about the work his organization, the Institute of Palliative Medicine in Kerala , and the society he set up, Pain and Palliative Care Society, he filled me with hope and energy about how scientific expertise when combined with local culture and a strong community participation can drive social change. What he has built with his team of 30, 000 (yes, 30, 000!!) volunteers, trained in administering end-of-life care to patients, in the districts around Calicut alone can be a wonderful case in point.
The recent Economist report on palliative care is a wonderful study that compares the end-of-life care indices in different countries and while India is at an abysymally low 40, in a list of as many countries, what stands out that one of the best recognized cases of community-driven palliative care as opposed to a hospice based care is also ironically from India. The system of training volunteers to provide dignity to the dying and the incurable, is based deeply on the culture where the neighbours and family typically take care of those that need attention as opposed to an unfriendly strange hospice. Isnt it a pity that depite WHO recognizing the Pain and Palliative Care Society’s brand of community driven programmes as one of its only kind in the world and conferred on this society, the title ‘Demonstration Project’, when Indian media, chose to report on the Economist report, they chose to ignore even a brief mention of this, only focussin on the negatives. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/India-worst-in-end-of-life-care/articleshow/6174380.cmsThe power of community based programmes like these is that they have the potential to become a movement and a catalyst of change, impacting positively many other associated issues in the community, even though providing palliative care could be the main driving force. As Dr. Suresh tells me, in North Kerala, whatever the volunteers work on, be it supporting hygiene education or cleaning up the environment, in the minds of the local people-everything is “palliative care”! I firmly believe now that what this organization has started in Kerala can be emulated in other parts of India and the world on one hand, and using this as a platform, there is a strong potential to rope in a wider net of concerned citizens around the world who wish to be a part of this movement. Any naysayers?