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Shashank Shah, left, at a field visit in Lucknow

Shashank Shah, left, at a field visit in Lucknow

For the past 18 months, Shashank Shah has been the Project Director for the SAI-Tata Trusts project on Livelihood Creation, which has just concluded. SAI spoke to Shah about the project and lessons learned.

SAI: Why did this project focus on the theme of livelihood creation? And how were the three tracks chosen?

Shashank Shah: Livelihood is a very big issue in India, given that India has largest population of people below the age of 35, and hence, skill-building and livelihood creation are primary issues and priorities for the government of India. They have reached out to corporations to help in this effort because they have the capacity to contribute, and they are the levers that fuel the economy of the country.

Given the expertise of social entrepreneurship by Professor Tarun Khanna [Director of the Harvard South Asia Institute], they thought it would be the best focus area for this project.

The two focuses of livelihood creation are skill building and social entrepreneurship. Skill building will give jobs to people who need them, and social entrepreneurship will lead to opportunities for self-employment, and also lead to positive social outcomes.

We identified three tracks: First, Rural livelihood creation in the Indian craft sector. This industry is the second-most employing sector in rural India, after agriculture. Rough estimates indicate that around 200 million people depend on the handicraft sector directly or indirectly. So we thought our project could try and create some kind of intervention and would benefit a large number of organizations. We had expertise in Professor Mukti Khaire.

The other focus has been science and technology-based social entrepreneurship. Science and technology-based entrepreneurship has been recognized as an important area where corporations can contribute. Under the new act from the government of India, for corporate social responsibility, investments in science and technology-related research are permitted as a CSR feature. So it’s something that the government is encouraging.

The third track, women’s empowerment, was taken up because Professor Jacqueline Bhabha and Professor Martha Chen hold a lot of expertise in this area. These are issues of educational, social, and economic empowerment in India. Under this track, we selected the Champions Project and tried to scale it up from the work SAI has already done. We also focused on grassroots work, in terms of empowering organizations.

SAI: In terms of impact, what have you seen? What are you most proud of?

SS: The thing I’m most proud of is that we were able to directly help, through the workshops, grants, mentorships, and webinars, a very large number of organizations. At the workshop itself, we had about 125 organizations across the three tracks. These were selected from over 500 appplications, so we’ve bene able to tap the best organizations working in these fields, including social entrepreneurs.

Another thing is that 15 organizations received 5 million rupees as grants, and along with that, they were given mentorship, one-on-one interactions with faculty, webinars, and field visits.

We were able to touch the hearts and the minds of people at the lowest rung of the ladder. We especially worked with leaders at organizations who are running large social enterprises with large outreach. We were able to make a small but substantial contribution to these organizations. We worked with them over 6 months. Now we are documenting the work in publications, and featuring them at events in January.

We have received great feedback from the organizations.

SAI: What is difficult about creating livelihoods? What surprised you while working in the field?

SS: Many organizations lack the right kind of network. What surprised me most was that many organizations were not aware of groups that are doing similar work in other states. When we conducted the crafts workshop, we had 50 organizations from 18 states of India. All of them were doing things relevant to heir states, but by and large their models were similar. This workshop provided a platform and a synergy where they could identify and meet with people who are like them with a similar cause. The outcome is that the organizations have gotten together, and in January, we will launch the India Arts Alliance, which is a combination of all these organizations working in the craft sector to have a platform to work together and share best practices.

Another challenge was that many of these organizations had poor documentation skills. They have done work for 20 or 30 years. They are working in silos because they weren’t properly documenting their work and couldn’t get grants. Through the women’s empowerment track, we have provided skills for them to document the work they have been doing for so many years.  Our publications focus on organizations that have done great work, coming out as case studies.

SAI: What lessons have you learned? What should be done moving forward?

SS: The lessons are many. One lesson I have learned is that organizations are already doing a lot of good work, and have been doing it for many decades. What they need are simple ideas to help improve the quality of their work, and the scope and scale of their work.

India is the NGO capital of the world. There is an NGO for every 360 citizens – much more than the number of schools and primary healthcare centers. There are so many organizations doing so much work at the grassroots level. What is important is making their work more efficient and outcome-oriented.