Saturday, September 21, 2013

Problems with 'Smart' people in the social sector

Let me start by explaining my use of the word 'smart'. There are a lot of large and not-so-large social sector organizations that seek (and get) validation because they hire 'smart' people. Usually, this means that they have people from the urban upper middle class, having elite university education, who have (or could have) joined the traditional higher-paying corporate jobs. Even if we ignore the dubious quality of university education in India, we are still talking about people who have little experience with the problems at the grassroots - be it the urban slums or the rural poor. Normally, they also don't have the relevant experience and certification in the particular social sector field. This leads to a lot of problems and resource wastage.

The title is a little more provocative than what I really feel and the post is not a rant. There are a lot of really good people working in the social sector. They have adeptly avoided the issues that I am going to talk about. Also, I have mellowed down with age.

First of all, some people carry the their socioeconomic background and elite education with arrogance. I am sorry, but just because someone graduated from IIM Ahmedabad in finance and worked in Private Equity for 5 years does not make him/her an authority on maternity healthcare or low-cost housing or primary education.

Almost 3 years ago, I was visiting a slum in South Bombay with a bunch of graduate students from Harvard Design School. They were here to look at slums for a few hours for a few days and then present a design for restructuring housing construction of that area. We traveled through two slums, met a few people, went inside one house, saw a community toilet from the outside (they wouldn't go in) and asked about sewage. Towards the end of it, the problem they identified was the lack of drainage construction in the area. This prevented every household from having a bath and toilet. So drainage must be built. And then, people must invest a considerable sum of money in having their own bathrooms. Hence they were stuck since that could only be done by uprooting the whole area and digging drains in it first.

This is a good example of the lack of understanding of people disconnected from ground realities. I am not sure if people living there really thought about having their own toilets. Did they want private toilets? Is it a priority for them? Were their complaints about lack of hygiene of community toilets or lack of private ones? Could we not just focus on ensuring maintenance of existing community toilets and maybe build additional few of those so that accessibility and rush is improved?

That can be the problem with foreign experts and consultants. India is not Germany or Japan. Upper-class Indians also have the same problems. The class difference is so wide that a lot of us have no clue about life on the other side of the fence. A person working in the social sector needs to have expertise in the field as well as a thorough understanding of the people. The people that they are working for (sometimes with) have grown up differently with different mindsets.

Then there are the financial constraints. Normally, salaries will not match up to the salaries 'smart' people were previously getting or would have gotten. It translates to lowered earnings throughout their working period. This leads to a few problems -

One is the 'charity' feeling which leads to a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. 'Smart' people get accolades from friends in 'regular' jobs about their tremendous sacrifice. It almost feels like being a messiah to the people in need.
Mandatory Anurag Behar excerpt from another brilliant and polite article
"... but a significant minority seems to believe that they are doing a favour to society (or me) by even considering such a movement and the mere idea of the material sacrifices that they will make in such a transition entitles them to a “leadership” role. Do I need say more about such people?"

This 'charity' feeling gives rise to another problem. Some 'smart' people don't push themselves hard enough. After all, they are not getting paid as much and they can take it easy. They can work long days and weekends to draft that report selling underwear to partners but it's alright to give sub-excellent service to many children because they are doing this to feel good about themselves.

High attrition is the third problem. A lot of people think that they are not getting as much money as they can or deserve (very questionable). Some people think of it as time off to do something that makes them feel good. Young 'smart' people do this for the 'experience' before they can join the regular higher paying jobs. At some point of time, however, family and peer pressure gets to a lot of them. After all, who will marry you if you are not earning enough? Hence, these organizations struggle with retaining 'smart' people who go for greener pastures and MBAs.

The problem for organizations is getting the money. The donors are rich corporate businesses and the like. They like to give money to people like them and organizations who are hiring people like them ('smart' people). After all, 'smart' people need more money to work for these causes. Add in buzzwords like 'technology', 'measurable outcomes' and you have an entire fundraising campaign.

I strongly feel that people who have the problems should be involved in solving it. Instead of throwing money and hiring more 'smart' people to provide complete solutions, communities should be involved. 'Non-smart' people should be trained and empowered to make changes which they seem right. And if these people were given the same salaries and training, we would have 'smarter', purposeful and happier workers in place of the inexperienced 'smart' people who are 'compromising' on their lifestyles and careers.


Anonymous said...

Really awesome article! You wrote the precise content that I had on my mind in this context.

TV said...

Prachur, beautiful post. Was recently speaking to Vipul Saha from 2009 who said he'd begun to look at problems in Ed more as a social scientist than just an Ed player. Made a lot of sense. I do think fellowships do a good job of pushing more people through the'let's think about social problems' pipe and that is good. But I agree that mastery in content, depth, empathy, understanding etc is lacking. However, Harvard grads not the best example to quote. They do live a very different life... are other institutions better though?

Reisender said...

Harvard was just to make a point. It could be any elite institution or company. The basic problem is the mindset and lack of cultural understanding.

The Illuminator said...

Thoughtful!! We would all be lying if we say that these thoughts never crossed our mind being in the "smart" category that you so beautifully define. However, I also think that such experiences itself form a start of something new - the smart ones who do stay back in the field to understand the problem in greater depth do find ways to channelize those who experience the problem towards solving them.