In June 2005, I went for a month long internship at an NGO called Pradan. Pradan works towards enabling livelihoods of rural people and are active in several states such as Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. I happened to be in Jharkhand, shuttling between the towns of Chaibasa and Hatgamharia (yes, they exist, and you get awesome Papri Chaat in the former).
My intentions of undertaking this exercise was to see first hand what village life was like (and as per my friends – they were seeing first hand what resume building was like – though agree that there is some truth to the latter). Anyway, while my misadventures in that place were many, this post isn’t about those. This post is about what I felt is a dichotomy between what NGOs are trying to achieve and how they are being enabled thus.
An NGO, especially one like Pradan, not considering the ones involving themselves in unethical practices, largely operate this way: They get funds from external bodies both national and international (such as AID, Red Cross etc) which they in turn use to carry out development work. Thus typically, you would have a ‘sales force’ for an NGO who is selling all these bodies the idea that they can put their money to better use.
As a result, they are inevitably dependent on such organisations for all their needs. My question is – why ? NGOs create immense value. I remember I was shocked to see the sheer amount of work that professionals at Pradan do. They wake up at 6:30 in the morning are off to faraway tribal areas accessible through the worst possible roads and are at work till as late as 8:00 in the evening. And this is done on rickety bikes with insufficient nutrition notwithstanding a scorching sun or pouring rain. A man such as myself who never woke up before 10:30 when at IIT (and that was early by the way) had to wake up at 7:00 and do the same (but I think it was the food bit I rued the most). Yet what do they earn? A measly 5000 bucks a month – and this is for the NGOs which pay well.
Obviously, working for a NGO does not figure in the key career choices for most of our qualified youth.
What NGO’s need is to reinvent their business model. One example could obviously be that they could operate on a profit sharing model, however, villagers earn too little to start with, so sharing that with an NGO is a faraway and impractical dream. Yet that could not be the only solution. Someone needs to come up with a better business model, which rewards NGOs for the value that they are creating.
I had thought about this long ago, but could not come up with any potential answer. I recently came across a for profit company who has developed their business model around the needs of the rural Indian population called Drishtee (featured here). It was founded in 2000, and they operate this way: They set up Internet kiosks in rural areas operated by some villagers themselves. The kiosks cater to the rest of the village population which pays a small fee to use the services of the kiosks. Drishtee takes a small percentage of that fee.
While Drishtee is not involved in development the way NGOs are, they have a sustainable business model, and their activities will affect the rural areas they are working with in a positive manner.
Thus ends this post with me sitting here thinking about, and hoping for innovation in the NGO sector.