Companies should approach CSR the way they approach their businesses
Close your eyes and picture a young girl tending goats in a field. This is the fate of millions of girls in rural India today. Keep your eyes closed and now picture a girl in a blue and white uniform, seated at a desk and learning. This is where we need to get to and where to date our education system is falling short.
India has made phenomenal strides in universalising primary education. However, India’s achievement of 96.9 per cent enrollment across rural India masks the sheer number of children still out of school or dropping out after enrollment that runs into millions. Girls, in particular, and children from excluded communities, like scheduled tribes and castes, are a hidden population, currently being failed by us all. Beyond the out-of-school children, the picture for children in school is also dismal, as learning levels either stagnate or decline.
Against this backdrop, the largest portion of csr funding is spent on education. $419 million may be a tremendous figure; however, it is just a drop in the ocean, when the annual funding gap to reach sdg 4 is $175 billion, and only $51.3 billion of that is provided by the government. If the budget is tight – then we have to think more creatively about how it is spent and herein lies the problem.
If corporate India wants to see a more employable work force, then it has to step up. However, I can quite understand the apathy and reluctance when, year after year, more money is not translating into improved learning or a closing of the gender gap in the remote villages. Indeed, the economist Karthik Muralidharan concludes that, in primary education ‘the inefficiencies are so large that there is almost no correlation between increased expenditure and improved student learning outcomes…. A business as usual approach will no longer work’. Ask for Results.
The problem, as I see it, is that csr funding does not seem as worried as it should be about the lack of accountability to results. csr funding seems focussed on rupees donated or ‘lives touched’ rather than measuring the change it is setting out to achieve.
A simplistic ‘inputs-outputs approach’ shows that companies tie funding to activities rather than impact. Companies have chased a ‘tangible’ way of linking funding to things like buildings, desks, textbooks and toilets rather than social change. Training teachers is a step forward, but if that training is not linked to the children’s actual learning then even that is wasted funding.
Would a company see success as how many cars it manufactures? Of course not, the goal is how many cars are sold. Likewise, csr funding needs to see success as improved learning, rather than the number of books distributed or toilets built.
The other major issue is that too much funding is tied locally, with companies giving back on the doorstep of their business or factory. We should really be supporting the best ideas to be adopted at scale and for that the ngo sector needs support beyond just funding. Companies have talent that goes beyond their staff having an annual day trip to paint a school or plant trees. Companies should think strategically about how their talent can be best used to build non-profit capacity and infrastructure that will underpin growth and social change.
At Educate Girls, we have been the beneficiaries of strategic and innovative corporate engagement, where needs have been identified and companies have done what they do best – whilst translating their know-how to an ngo environment with our help.
Educate Girls has had our hr systems overhauled and our incentive structures improved, we have had a government advocacy approach implemented, strategy consultants help build our five-year growth plans and technology companies help us with both soft and hardware. All made possible by corporate partnerships. We have been left to adapt at the field level, change to ground realities and put the communities we are serving first, rather than being tied to stringent budgets and activity plans designed in a corporate office. This approach has meant that we now work across 21,000 government schools and have enrolled 200,000 out-of-school girls back into the education system in partnership with the government.
With companies listening to ngo’s and allowing flexibility in their grants, long-term, multiyear funding and matching their talent to ngos’ needs, we can start to shift the status quo. Companies need to be bold and move into the spaces left by the government. As funding shifts to skills and tertiary education, primary education – the foundation on which everything is built – will start to suffer. If companies act now and approach their csr with the same levels of efficiency and accountability to results that they approach their businesses then perhaps we can avert the national education disaster that is looming.