Committed to social change but not at all enterprising! What may happen?

First published here:

As part of the practice-connect initiative of Azim Premji University , we have looked at recently two organizations that creates/supports the self-help groups (SHGs) of women. First one – X – is highly successful in one perspective – it sustains 10000 SHGs, creates 1000 per year, and ensures that almost all these achieve 100 percent repayment of loans. Banks are very eager to provide loans to these groups. The organization has used innovative ways to ensure that its reputation is not affected even if one SHG fails to pay back loans on time or when one member dies without paying back the loan. The interest rate at which its members get loans is nearly equal to the bank rate, and that is an attraction for its lakhs of members and this number is increasing on a weekly/monthly basis. The organization does not take grants from governmental or altruistic sources and it is financially self-reliant.

However the focus of this organization is on its operational efficiency and the need to grow with its `limited’ purpose. I am using `limited’ here in the sense that it does not focus on many other social issues – even those which aggravate the indebtedness among people – which encourages the organization to create and sustain SHGs. One important reason that compels people to take loan is the increasing expenditure on marriage (including that for paying dowry). Social actions are needed to address this problem and it cannot be solved by enhancing access to loans. The organization has not focused on these problems. On the other hand, it is very enterprising in terms of its core (but narrower) objective – that is to create more and viable SHGs.

The other organization – Y – is a little different. It started as part of a social movement and is connected to progressive political formations. At some stage in their social action, they have felt that it is important to address the `practical needs’ of people, and that is the genesis of this organization that creates/supports SHGs among women. The leaders and employees are conscious of its root and character as a social movement. In the meetings of their SHGs, they would start with songs that highlight the importance of awareness, women’s rights and progressive social change.

However the organization is not that enterprising in the work with SHGs.  The number of SHGs and members (which are less than one-fifth of X – the first organization) have been stagnating for years. The interest rate is substantially higher than that of X, since it could not convince or work with banks to lend to SHGs directly. Because of this higher rate, it has to compete with other organizations and micro-finance companies (which are only interested in profits) to attract members.

Though Y has roots in a social movement and has progressive goals, the allegiance to these ideals has become somewhat ritualistic. They are not able to reflect on the current social situation in the light of these ideals. This is not unknown to its leaders. One founder has told us that the employees have started focusing on the completion of tasks (related to the savings and borrowings of SHG) and often neglect the larger social purpose. Members start seeing the organization as a means to get loans. Social issues that compel them to take loans such as wasteful expenditure on marriage or dowry are not reflected upon adequately.

In summary, the second organization has started with a strong commitment to progressive social change but it is not that enterprising in terms of meeting the practical needs of people. Its vibrancy as a social movement too has toned down and its loyalty to the ideals of social change has become ritualistic. On the other hand, the first organization is very enterprising but does not think that much on social change.

This long story of two organizations reflects a general problem. It is not politically correct to talk about `enterprising’ in the debates on social movements and social change. `Enterprising’ (which means innovative, inventive, resourceful, imaginative, go-ahead, and so on) is associated with private entrepreneurship. Yes, it is true that successful private companies which are interested in enhancing their profits or market value have shown a higher degree of enterprising ability.

However `enterprise’ as a concept is not that acceptable for a progressive social movement. What may happen if an organization which aims at social change is not enterprising? This question is important for political organizations too. Let us think about the status of the communist parties (CPM or CPI) in Karnataka or Tamilnadu or many such states in India (barring Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura). These exist, probably without any dilution of their ideals or ideology, but without any growth and without making any serious impact on the political scene of these states. The top office bearers may be getting some satisfaction due to their continued loyalty to the core ideals and objectives, and that may make them a bit arrogant, but these organizations are becoming insignificant day by day. There are party meetings, celebrations of certain days, conferences, where the loyalty to progressive goals are chanted like Mantra. They can continue to do so in the next 30, 50 or 100 years without impacting the social context around.

All political parties are not of this type. These communist parties were able to be make a significant change in its organizational capacity and the social situation in other contexts. The way Aam Aadmi Party has grown and captured power in Delhi within a few years is remarkable. The way Narendra Modi has activated the BJP to come to power with a majority of seats is also remarkable even if one may not agree with his political ideals.

A commitment to social change without a go-ahead attitude to make a significant change happen, is problematic. People may think that it is OK to have a small impact. However in reality, this impact may become smaller and smaller (and negligible) over time. A non-enterprising social organization or movement, even if it remains committed to social change, may become irrelevant day by day, mainly due to the ways (both desirable and undesirable) by which the world around it is changing very fast.  This could be due to some fundamental issues in the dynamics of an organization.

One reason could be the way individuals see their jobs or careers. There is a tendency among many individuals to see their `work’ as something that is to get an income so that they can have a `life’ (outside the work).  Or the `work’ does not become a desirable part of the life. Even if it starts as a desirable part, it may transform into a set of tasks to be completed somehow and get out to be part of the `life’. This is reasonably OK for a middle or lower-level employee of a for-profit organization where he/she can complete the tasks which are assigned to him/her even with a contempt of the objective of the organization. However such an attitude may create problems for an organization with a social purpose.

Good individuals who want social change are driven by their inner needs of `correctness’. There are situations where there can be a genuine conflict between these inner needs and the imperatives of larger social purpose. One situation is when there is a need to scale up actions. Small-scale actions and experiments and their controllability (and hence the ability to achieve a higher level of correctness) give a lot of comfort to their proponents but the uncertainty regarding the impact and the higher probability of mistakes while scaling up may discourage them to do so. It may reduce the social effectiveness of their actions.

The individuals may get certain joy or happiness from the perception that they follow the way that they consider the most appropriate one (or their `pet ideas’). When they focus too much on such a joy, they may become less concerned about the impact of their actions on the material and subjective circumstances of people at large. This has a number of implications. It may lead to the rejection of information (or to `information avoidance’) that one’s actions are not making much positive impact. It may work against the adoption of strategies that may enhance the social impact. It may discourage them from expanding activities since that may necessitate the adoption of other ways (and not only one’s own pet ideas).

Social actions in India – probably driven by its Brahmanism – waste substantial energy and time/effort on the debates on theory, concepts, ideology, etc. and the actual time/effort that is spent on making the change happen is very little.

There are two ways of making social change happen. A desirable change is possible, say, even when a corrupt politician start schools (in places where there no schools) due to his interest in making money. The deficiencies of this route are well known. The social change is possible through the actions of sincere social activists and altruists. However, there are possible pitfalls in this second type too.

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