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Scaling Social Impact in the North East with Ashoka Fellows

Parvathi Menon's picture

In Calcutta a few days before Christmas, December 2011, Ashoka India brought together Fellows from the North and North East around a thematic workshop with Innovation Alchemy. The theme was ‘Scale’. The issue of increasing the IMPACT of the work that the Fellows are implementing through their diverse initiatives.

The two days of engagement was a quick immersion into the complex Development world of the North East. The region is perceptibly isolated from the rest of the country, politically, geographically, economically... A brief research of the core challenges in this part of the country points to porous borders, leading to migration, infiltration and huge demand on a weak economy. High degree of ecological instability and recurring natural disasters repeatedly impacting livelihoods, increasing displacement and further reducing opportunities. Adding to the complexity is a feeling that ‘the Central Government does not care about the North East‘.

Combine all this – human rights struggles, cross-border violations, weak economy, limited opportunity and lack of any strong progressive policy frameworks – and what you get is a situation ripe for human conflict.

In this context a strong Civil Society can be a major pillar on which new ideas, sustained human intervention and support can be crafted.  Ashoka India has elected some remarkable social entrepreneurs and development professionals over the last 2 decades who are leading the change. Over 20 of these Changemakers and Ashoka Fellows came together for the thematic session because the subject of Scale is troubling them as much as it is any other social entrepreneur in India.  The crux of the scale question for the nonprofit organization is  – HOW CAN WE GET SIGNIFICANTLY MORE PEOPLE TO BENEFIT FROM OUR PROGRAM, AT THE SAME TIME FIND WAYS TO BECOME FINANCIALLY SUSTAINABLE, and ALL THIS WITHOUT ADDING MAJOR COSTS TO OUR BOTTOM LINE?

The core of the discussion stayed around the deconstruction of the approach to scale. Debating weather the route to scale needs due consideration or should it be a natural serendipitous evolution. Is it even possible to scale purely non-profit models and if so how. The real challenge is to increase the impact of a programme/ initiative, without the resources or bandwidth available to increase people, capacity or infrastructure. And therefore this becomes an opportunity to really apply innovation thinking to the problem of scale.

Also under discussion was the very real concern with funding. While a lot more market-based venture funding is being made available to social entrepreneurs across India, the scenario in the North East demonstrates a classic need for blended funds. The ‘market’ in that sense is not nearly able to pay for the nature of challenges being addressed. What is needed is a combination of strategic long term institutional funding, Government support through programme funding for implementation and a need to fund capacity building of the teams working on potentially sustainable market based models. Foundations and CSR initiatives probably need to adopt some of the core capacity building areas under development in this region – especially related to ecology and its sustenance, allowing social innovators to find breakthroughs that combine development with economic returns.

Debating frameworks, routes and methodologies for scale, the discussion is a start point to some of the Fellows adopting a ‘by-design’ approach to significantly increase the impact of the work they are doing. Here is a sample of the Ashoka innovators and entrepreneurs who joined the scale discussion.

Babloo Loitongbam has designed a human rights curriculum that equips traditional village institutions to organize themselves and simultaneously internationalizing grassroots responses to human rights issues and violations.

Binalakshmi Nepram is the Founding Secretary General of the Control Arms Foundation of India, and focuses on grassroot efforts of disarmament. Bina works primarily with women affected by gun violence in the region. She also began the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network.

The region is known to be disaster prone with cyclones and high rainfall. Floods are common and waters have been known to rise up to 30 ft effecting over 10,000 villages every year. The impact of these turbulent weather conditions is high levels of displacement and poverty, the agriculture and farming sector of the region suffers greatly. Unregulated deforestation, pollution, indiscriminate fishing, and a lack of community involvement are depleting the region’s biggest asset.

Ravindranath is institutionalizing a civil society model in which villages and communities in flood-ravaged regions are better prepared to predict, confront, and cope with floods, turning a one-time calamity into opportunities for people to create new and alternative livelihoods. A service that facilitates healthy Pig breeding and farming is one such direct opportunity.

The region shares borders with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh and these poorly monitored borders have become a hub for human trafficking, narcotics and illegal arms trade, leading to more violence and strife amongst the people of the North East. Tourism is a significant source of income and livelihood in the region but the industry has suffered due to widespread ethnic conflict and violence.

Ashoka Fellow and inspiring social entrepreneur Hasina Kharbhih has developed the well known Meghalaya Model, a comprehensive tracking system that connects the state government, security agencies, legal groups, media and citizen organizations to combat cross-border trafficking of children and women. She is now on her way to developing an idea to rebuild the community of local handicraft connecting to national and international markets.

A market-based model that is making headway has been developed by Ashoka Fellow Pranjal Baruah. Farmers are put in control of their produce through his land-to-lab strategies, training and support – transforming the farmers into “mushroom entrepreneurs.” This results in new livelihood opportunities for thousands of unemployed youth and landless families in Assam. By federating farmers, Pranjal is creating systems that aim to put an end to farmer exploitation in the northeast region. We were treated to the taste of the highly coveted Oyster Mushrooms, a delicacy grown in the Hills of the North East – now cultivated in an organized manner through Pranjal’s initiative  :-)

The Ashoka Fellows have been selected carefully, for their innovative work in livelihood, human rights, empowerment, environmental awareness and conservation, all subjects of great significance in the North East. In comparison to several market based social enterprise models we (Innovation Alchemy) engage with in States like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujrat  – the models in the North East continue to stay strongly within the non-profit paradigm – and understandably so.

 Makes it even more compelling to have an innovation strategy that can help them leapfrog into a sustainable, high-impact mode in the next few years.

This article was originally published on http://www.innovationalchemy.com/.