Journeys for Change 5: Saath

This is the last of Tom’s five blogs from the Journeys for Change India adventure, November 2011.

The Saath Saga

‘Of course spirituality is important in our work,’ says Rajendra Joshi, founder and continuing inspiration for Saath, a one-stop integrated services organisation working with 100,000 occupants of illegal slums in Ahmedabad, ‘but it is not the be all and end all’.

Over 18 years Saath has built a co-operative, collective ethos and many cross-sector partnerships. This, says Joshi, is the real key to success especially insofar as leveraging support from donors is concerned. There is no doubt that the outcomes – health and education services, employment and employment skills, industry promoted by microfinance and affordable housing – are creating happier and more sustainable communities.

Joshi, 52, was inspired by the work of Julius Nyerere, whose practical approach to governance in the scientist’s native Tanzania promoted the idea of a broader, less tribal identity. Returning ‘home’ to India in the 1970s and finding he disliked private sector work he joined a slum education programme under the tutelage of a Basque Jesuit priest. When his mentor died in 1986 Joshi resolved to take the cause forward, creating Saath in 1989.

His first strategic decision was to work with, not independently of, local government and the second was to persuade private business to take its first steps towards corporate citizenship. These two approaches delivered vocational training opportunities and electricity to the slums in the first instance with more services to follow.

In 2002, following an earthquake and inter-communal riots requiring the delivery of relief and rehabilitation to 1,200 Muslim households, Saath realised that the old models of government funding for charity action were not going to deliver sustainable solutions. With such funding continually in question and NGOs uncomfortable about growing to any size that could make a real difference a new model had to be found: it was entrepreneurship.

Joshi found that the scaling up of pilot projects was the greatest challenge to his new regime but that through proper planning overhead costs could be reduced by as much as 80 per cent. Thus incentives were huge whilst private partners such as the power companies could still make a profit. Traditional finance was not appropriate for the new models of working but microfinance could make social change and sustainability possible through the new entrepreneurial approach.

Scaling up, he says, is a human resource issue rather than an economic one as the sums are relatively simple. Bright young people are key to Saath’s success as those hidebound to old ideas and ways of working find change most difficult to cope with. Change must be sustainable and gradual, he says; don’t make commitments too early. Educate your funders and donors to understand the process, to be patient and not to interfere unreasonably then funding will follow, he claims confidently. Do not fear failure.

Two years ago he stepped down as the organisation’s chief executive and driving force. The successful integration of new leaders is symptomatic of the broader success of the enterprise.

Saath has won international recognition for its work with neglected communities. Their ‘all for one’ philosophy is a binding ethos whilst their work is overtly secular. But Joshi is adamant that ‘we cannot do everything ourselves’. The alignment of values with partners – not necessarily persuasion to adopt common ones – is at the heart of their success whilst issues like the management of expectation, the process of inclusion and the celebration of diversity are the human characteristics of what is now a very large and effective organisation.

Throughout my stay in India with Journeys for Change we have seen many inspiring projects and passionate and capable leaders. Their achievements in India would cause many western social entrepreneurs to stagger in amazement and rethink their ambitions. Though our visits to Saath’s Urban Resource Centre and microfinance managers were brief, and our lunch with Rajendra Joshi even more so, it is his approach which will stay with me longest and have the most profound affect.

In short, everything I have chosen to believe since establishing myself as a writer and consultant on cross sector partnerships, my commitment to a new vision of a socialised economy, was born out by Saath. The opportunities for empowering communities and individuals that exist through entrepreneurship, the clear necessity of reducing reliance on state funding for services and the need to make available the resources of the private sector through a greater sense of corporate citizenship are all as real in Britain as they are in India.

The Indian government is considering legislating for every company to give one per cent of pre-tax profits to ‘good causes’ such as Saath. This is something Britain has failed to achieve so far voluntarily. Can we learn from Saath and make it happen at home?