Myths around the Social Service Sector

GS Paper II

News Excerpt: In India, it is necessary to bust the myths, face reality, and observe more effective work to improve the lives of people.

About Civil Society Organizations (CSOs):

  • According to the World Bank, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are a wide array of organizations, community groups, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations.
  • Further, they are different from the non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Civil Society is a broader concept.
    • NGOs are a part of civil society though they play an important and leading role in activating citizen participation in socio-economic development and influencing policy.

A few pervasive but problematic myths about CSOs are:

1) The myth of sustainability: 

  • ‘Social sustainability’ is the notion of the changes and improvements happening in a community. Whether it is a village or a large state system, the myth is that after a while, the CSO can disengage because the desired changes have been made ‘sustainable.’ 
  • Communities, systems, and societies are buffeted continually by internal and external forces—political, economic, and cultural. Some are purposeful forces and some just play out by chance. 
  • In this fluid and dynamic human theatre, whatever has been achieved needs continuous nurturing and energy from somewhere, else things slide back or drift in other directions. 
    • For example, in a few Panchayats, significant work has been done to ensure that no child marriages happen or that no one is discriminated against based on caste. After some time deemed sufficient in the estimate of the donor, the work of the CSO is stopped. 
    • These Panchayats are fully embedded in the larger society, from where forces will always work against this progress and unwind it unless countered continually. The battle to sustain good outcomes is relentless because everything is ephemeral.

2) The myth about scale

  • The notion of scale is not relevant in contexts of human relationships and social and cultural ties.
    • Although, most work in the social sector is about human beings—their relationships and the political and cultural dynamics that constitute the life of the community and society. 
    • Yet these cannot be scaled because of the particularity of context and the basic human element. So, it should be obvious that scalability is a chimera in the social sector.
  • On the other hand, this notion of scale drawn from an industrial imagination continues to have a grip because it appears to promise quickly changing fortunes across geographies and populations. 
  • The principles of good work is most useful in making it possible to learn and use them in other places, but this is not the same as scaling, which involves repeating the approach and solution across larger numbers. 

3) The myth about system change: 

  • A ‘system’ refers to an interlocking set of institutions, structures, norms, and more. Many participants, from donors to CSOs, claim that they work for change in systems. Such claims are not based on a realistic assessment of the small part of the vast system they contribute to.
  • Awareness that such work in itself will not lead to any systemic change, and just result in a few steps forward in one part of the system, will nullify the notion. 
  • However, in too many instances there is an explicit or implicit declaration to make systemic change happen; often by a bunch of smart people sitting in some central place and ‘orchestrating’ policies, administrative action and on-the-ground work. 
  • This is plain hubris and all such claimants need to honestly consider the track record on systems change—not just of CSOs and philanthropists, but also of highly effective states.

4) The myth of bad CSOs: 

  • In the past, CSOs were thought to be paragons of virtue and stellar examples of how people could dedicate their lives to the service of society. But over the past two or three decades, this belief has gotten inverted. 
  • There is a widespread notion that CSOs are inefficient, ineffective corrupt, or some combination thereof. However, this is false seeing that CSOs are no more corrupt or ineffective in our society. 
  • The myth not only does a great dis-service to Lakhs of people who do a competent and honest job helping our society improve, but also goes against their work.

Way Forward: 

While many CSOs may be complicit in the creation of these myths, the real onus is on philanthropists, donors, academics, and policymakers to escape the grip of these untruths and face reality. India would be better off if these myths were laid to rest once and for all.

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