“The definition of good governance is itself nebulous,” says
Rati F. Forbes of Forbes Marshall Foundation & CAP's Chairperson
My interest in governance was aroused by a series of personal experiences, as well as my own family background. My father was the first Commerce Minister of India in the Interim Cabinet of 1946, where ministers were jointly selected by Pandit Nehru and Lord Mountbatten for their competence, skills and ethics. He often spoke of “those times” – where working for the government was seen as the best way to serve the new country. This was a job that carried much respect and dignity. Unfortunately, that has since changed.
Today, governance is much more a part of our vocabulary – largely because we believe that those in government jobs are delivering much less than our expectations. Why is there so much official apathy and lack of accountability? Why do citizens continue to live in such abysmal conditions, without the most basic amenities? Why do our public systems not function the way they should? These are questions we all ask ourselves from time to time. As a response, the social and private sectors have stepped in along with civil society; and a growing number of funders and development agencies have begun to understand the importance of nurturing and supporting them.
Personally, the culture of giving back has been a consistent thread in my life; professionally, our company Forbes Marshall has a strong ethos of supporting social programs in neighbouring communities, particularly initiatives in the education and healthcare space. When we set up our Foundation a few years ago; we decided to work across Maharashtra and reach out to a much larger audience; being mindful of outputs, outcomes, timelines and sustainable impact.
Working now on a larger canvas; more often than not, challenges in the area of local governance seemed to slow down the best-intentioned efforts. A stark example of this was the issues we ran into, while partnering with a local NGO; bringing better sanitation practices to an urban slum community.
While we had effectively galvanized community support to make part contributions for the infrastructure, and worked with local women to help spread the message of eradicating open defecation; it was depressing to find large parts of the “basti” (settlement) had a failing drainage system, corroded sewer pipes, very inadequate water supply and a well-established “water tanker lobby” operating. Working with various local political agencies was the only way to get the project moving; but hugely challenging, frustrating and time consuming, to say the least.
Given these on-the ground experiences as well as our growing understanding of the complexity of India’s problems, we realized that working on social verticals in isolation is incorrect. Rather, the government, business and civil society must work in tandem, to create developmental change.
Entering the governance space with some trepidation about two years ago, my colleagues and I quickly saw the positives when supporting organisations and individuals. We realised that when elected officials are central to any change effort; longer-term solutions arise, benefitting large sections of the target population. We saw this while supporting Swaniti, an organization that encourages bright young people to get involved in governance, by working on projects along with MPs and MLAs in their constituency. Our support, in monetary terms, hasn’t been huge but the impact and change at the constituency level, as a result of the one-year Fellowship has been tremendous.
Among the other lessons we learned along the way is the virtue of patience, and the need to look beyond short-term solutions. We learned that well thought through approaches are worth investing in, leading to sustained outcomes.
On a more cautious note, we have realised that grantmaking in this area comes with its fair share of challenges. The definition of good governance is itself nebulous – should we prioritise decision making, implementation, transparency and accountability, dissemination of accurate information, or some combination of these?
Often, benefits are slow, intangible and hard to quantify; understanding impact and measuring results, as most grantmakers like to do, is therefore difficult. Additionally, with several worthwhile organisations working in this vast space, on very diverse themes; who should be supported, why and how?
Finally and rather sadly; potential grantmakers seem reluctant to support this sector, lest they appear biased or are perceived to be “anti-government”. I once had similar concerns, but they gradually faded away as I met the many fine organisations working in this space and understood their approaches and thoughts. I was inspired, listening to charismatic young people who have given up lucrative careers to work in this system; fleshing out new ideas on how, among other things, they could use technology and social media, to drive social change.
By its very nature, governance is cross-sectoral, which means that when it works well, it is a confluence of best practices from health, education, gender, and other major sectors. Collaboration across themes, particularly in this “sector”, is key to success. Some of the finest examples of impactful giving I have come across are where skills and competence have been shared, where individuals have helped build the capacity of NGOs and government officials. This has produced amazing changes in work output, leadership skills, attitude to citizenry and overall outcomes – with little or no money spent.
Over the last few decades, Indian donors have been drawn towards safer, more traditional social initiatives such as education and healthcare. While these sectors no doubt deserve support, it is vital for us to now direct our attention to governance and plunge into uncharted territories.
We continue to believe and expect our social initiatives to succeed in spite of the government, not because of it. In a country like India, with our depth and complexity of human development challenges, we cannot ignore or work around the public sector – the sector that is arguably the best funded, scaled to design and implement social reform. Indeed, it’s a lost opportunity if we do not put our focus, drive, and not just financial but human resources behind strengthening governance issues and rebuilding our public sector.