India’s strong economic growth over the past decade needs no introduction: from the IT boom in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune to the bustling financial capital of Mumbai, the country’s economy has grown at rates of 6 to 12 percent annually. However, as the corporate sector grows, there are still widespread social problems in the country: from extreme poverty to poor infrastructure and institutions to corruption. It is no wonder, then, that India is home to over 3.3 million non-governmental organizations (NGOs), many of which seek to address these problems. And perhaps most importantly, many Indian corporations have a specific interest in contributing to a solution to these social problems. Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a new but quickly growing field in India: of the few companies that have CSR programs currently, over 45% of them have started them in the last decade. And CSR sits at an important perch--it is a means for the flourishing middle class and corporate sector to contribute to and invest in the masses who have been largely excluded from this economic growth. I am therefore excited to explore the Indian CSR sector with a keen eye towards launching a CSR strategic advisory.
Before coming to Brown, I spent a year working in marketing for the Parikrma Humanity Foundation in Bangalore India, which provides high-quality English-medium education, health care, nutrition, and comprehensive family care to children from the streets and slums. Each day I would spend part of my lunch break either playing soccer with the older boys or swapping stories or riddles with the girls, and it took me no more than one day to realize the true potential of these children. Nominally, we all agree that financial resources or family condition do not determine a child's potential in life, but while there, looking into the bright and eager eyes of these students, I finally understood what that statement meant for these children. It was a powerful image for me, and I was not alone. Part of my work involved managing several corporate partnerships, and I constantly met with the young middle class workers in the booming IT sector who were of the same mind; they too wanted the best for these students and to be more active in addressing all of India's larger social problems.
In January of 2013, I will be meeting with the CSR decision-makers of many different companies to understand their interests, pain points, and values regarding CSR. I'm not entirely sure what to expect: my heart expects an overwhelmingly positive response from everyone I meet and a willingness for all to pledge to make CSR an integral portion of their business, but while this expectation may reflect the anecdotal evidence I have from my previous time in India, But my head knows not to rush to conclusions. After all, I am there to gather data that will speak for itself. Ultimately I am there to understand the sector I am in and the people I hope to help, and for that I will start by undivided listening.
It is heartwarming and inspiring to see the recent excitement and progress in the sphere of Corporate Social Responsibility in India. Over the course of three weeks, I sat down with over 15 CSR decision-makers at various for-profit companies in India to understand their values, their CSR programs, the problems they face in doing CSR effectively, and their future plans. Companies large and small, from Gurgaon to Bangalore, in sectors such as beer brewing and steel manufacturing, seem to have a new energy about them. “Businesses in India will soon realize that in order to stay competitive, they must start caring for more than just their own profit,” one energetic executive told me.
This newfound energy could not have come quickly enough. For every conversation that I had, after leaving with a sense of optimism and full of ideas, as I walked out with the high-rise business complexes behind me, immediately in front of me would be streets crowded with emaciated adults and children alike, begging for money. The ongoing developmental and social justice problems in India need no introduction, and today they remain all too real. For this reason, I felt so strongly about helping leverage the booming corporate sector to address these developmental problems. But a good idea is just one thing; using it to truly help and empower those in dire need is another. And for every day that I spent traveling, interviewing, and even a bit of touring of the places I visited, hundreds of millions of people in India alone continued to starve, or die slowly from treatable diseases, or live in destitute conditions. The energy and the resources were there—could we not just start mobilizing large companies to start feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and curing the general ills of development? As much as I wanted to say yes to the starving child or the impoverished cobbler, I knew this was not a good idea. What would we spend the money on? How would we ensure the sustainability of these programs? How can we convince the for-profit companies that doing so is in their interest? How do we ensure that what we do actually addresses, and does not worsen, issues of development and social justice?
These were the very questions I had set out to answer, and, in my three-week flurry across India interviewing companies, non-profits, and research organizations, I can happily say I have started to answer them.