Monday, February 13, 2017

Aamir Khan as a social entrepreneur

Celebrities have a lot of power .  Because of the adulation which they attract , they are often used as brand ambassadors to lead social campaigns. They have the power to do a  lot of good because their actions catch the eye of the public.

Lots of people are quite cynical about some of these celebrity endorsements. They believe these "go-good" activities are used by them as vehicles to improve their public profile and popularity. Every once in a while however, you come across a celebrity who uses not just his face and his goodwill, but also his brains to be able to do something to make the world a better place.

A great example of this is the work which Aamir Khan is doing with the Paani Foundation, which is battling the water shortage in Maharashtra by systematizing watershed management.

Watershed management to tackle drought has been around for many years. What makes Aamir's initiative praise-worthy is that he is leveraging his public persona intelligently.  He realises that the impact a celebrity has can be quite transitory , which is why the Paani Foundation insists that the villager do the work themselves - they need to take ownership of the solution if the changes need to be long-lasting.

He has tied up with his friend, Satyajit, and they make a great team. I learned more about their unique model at fundraiser hosted by Motilal Oswal on 8 Feb 2017.

For one, they've decided that their foundation needs to self-destruct ! They believe that if they do a good job, then the Paani Foundation will become irrelevant in five years. Secondly, they're not disbursing any money to the villages themselves, which means they have stayed away from a potential source of corruption and allegations of favouritism.

They are creating competitions , and awarding prizes to the villages which do the best job at water harvesting and conservation - an excellent example of gamification ! They are using Marathi TV channels and the government to create awareness, and invite villages to compete for these prizes.

Their role is to educate villagers about  what needs to be done, but I love the fact that they're not doing the work - they are getting the villagers to do it themselves. This is what makes their model so magical - it can be scaled up exponentially ! They propagate watershed management knowledge - and then it's upto the villages to implement this themselves.  This way, even if the villages don't win prizes, they still end up as winners because they have more water than they had in the past.

Equally importantly, they're tying up with the Maharashtra government, because they realize that  this movement needs governmental support. The government has far more muscle, far more reach, and far more money - and the Foundation is amplifying this very cleverly by using Aamir Khan's clout to attract villagers to take part in these competitions.

Since the villagers themselves need to do all the work, they are the ones who need to take the initiative to fix their own problems - the Foundation only acts as a catalyst.  It is this sense of ownership which makes the Paani Foundation so unique. If the villagers create the check dams , bandhs and tanks themselves, they are fully  invested in making sure they remain functional, which means they will continue to maintain them year after year.  This is in sharp contrast to projects done by the government, which typically decay over time because of a lack of ongoing support and follow up.

Also, since the villagers are intimately aware of their local geography, they are much better informed about what  needs to be done and where it needs to be done, as compared to a government engineer who is on a 4 year posting.

Far more importantly, this movement has the potential to become a great catalyst for social change. Because all the villagers need to get together on a single platform, they need to be able to overcome their local differences and unite - something which can be surprisingly hard, given the barriers which have characterized traditional Indian society for so many centuries.

Once they taste success, villagers get a sense of empowerment -  We did it ourselves ! This can then be the first step in a long line of social changes, because they have now learned that they are not helpless - they can do lots of for themselves if they get together. This can set off a positive virtuous cycle.  Once they have enough water and don't have to fight drought on a regular basis, they will have enough food, which in turn leads to an improved economy. This will then allow them to address their other social needs, such as education and health , without having to depend on government largesse.

What's great is that it's not just a top-down approach or a bottom-up approach - it skillfully combines both  !

It's not been an unalloyed success, and they have had setbacks and failures. I like the fact that they are dreaming big, but starting small. They're not in a rush, and are deliberately being systematic and slow , so they can grow properly and organically. They're making mistakes, and have the humility to acknowledge these , so that they can learn from them. They are happy to partner with funders , NGOs , geologists and water management specialists, so that they can scale up successfully.

Interestingly, they're not raising money for themselves - Aamir is independently wealthy and they have enough to run their Foundation. They're raising money in order to help villagers to accomplish stuff  which they cannot do for themselves. For example they need machines to do some of the heavy duty  construction work, and the donations they are raising are being used to hire the earth moving machinery for the villages. Also, since they do not want to handle the money themselves, the funds are being routed through an NGO , which has been certified by TISS as being eligible for CSR funding.

I like their thoughtful approach. They have been designed as a learning organisation, and are agile enough to deal with the problems and pitfalls they may encounter.

While many funders are happy to throw money at them, so they can replicate their work in other states of India, they have remarkable focus - as proven by their ability to say No to these requests. They don't want to bite off more than they can chew, and they want to be sure that their model is sustainable and scaleable . They are happy to share their SOPs with others, but don't feel they have the bandwidth to venture outside the state, because they don't want to dilute their impact.

Do you want to help ? They do have a list of scientific and technical problems they need help with tackling ( for example, using technology to map aquifers) , and your insights would be welcome !

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