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The Big Handshake: Rebuilding India Through Public-Private Partnerships Even as the Indian development sector grapples with the pandemic and a resource crunch, India's development agenda is benefitting from the coming together of all stakeholders-corporates, government, non-profits, foundations, academia and philanthropists and the full-range of public-private partnerships

By Sudha Srinivasan

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In his plenary address to the audience of Charcha2020 in May this year, Nobel laureate Prof. Muhammad Yunus urged citizens, corporates and governments of the world to seize the "tabula rasa" opportunity gifted to us by the pandemic. Wipe the slate clean—he said, because the past is not what you want to revert to when the pandemic is over.

We now have an unprecedented opportunity to create a future that works for everyone, with nobody left behind. Now six months later, as normalcy starts to take shape, it is apparent that the systems of the pre-COVID era will no longer suffice. Any efforts to restore, or revive the past as we know it will be woefully inadequate for the needs of the future. From education, to healthcare, sanitation to urban housing, there is a need for ab initio solutions that are designed to reach hitherto underserved segments of the population, and for resilience against future shocks.

Social entrepreneurs rising to the occasion

Social entrepreneurs have long been the bridge between government and its citizens. Edtech, agritech, fintech, healthcare, digitized infrastructure, clean energy, climate change and reworking of citizen-state relationships have seen unprecedented innovation, led by social entrepreneurs. As the former education secretary Anil Swarup noted in his NexusofGood blog: "Public-private partnership is the way forward in improving the quality of public (education) systems. Non-profits like Leadership for Equity, Room to read, Right Walk, etc., demonstrate that yet again as they go on to scale their good work after initial experiments through government partnerships." Innovation is the forte of startups while governments hold the key to scale. The handshake of government and civil society organizations with the DNA of innovation has accelerated the pace of solutions at this critical time.

Nudging Corporate Talent Into Public Sector

While the pandemic has pushed the envelope on innovation, it has also demanded a sense of urgency for large-scale overhaul of public systems. At a time when governments have been on an overdrive managing the demands on the health, economic and humanitarian fronts, the added onus of systems redesign and rapid transformation starts to overwhelm on several fronts. Meanwhile India's top professionals who have driven our economic growth in diverse sectors are increasingly looking to apply their talent and capabilities to public good.

Having built muscles for agility at scale, senior leaders from multinational corporations can bring strategic acumen and a results-oriented work ethic to bear, in helping visionary civil servants to leverage the tabula rasa opportunity to create systems that effectively serve the citizens of the country. For example, The/Nudge recently launched the Indian Administrative Fellowship, to bring C-suite technology leaders into an 18 month fellowship with state secretaries to work on strategic programs of state-wide importance.

Corporate India's enthusiastic response to the call for applications—over 1,000 signups in three days—is proof that beyond material success lies the pursuit of purpose.

The role of commercial capital in inclusive development

The last few years have seen a surge in impact investments as well as philanthropic capital (which form 60 per cent of private capital). Post COVID, impact investments in India stand at $11 billion, touching 490 million lives. This has been the wellspring of capital for 11 of India's 17 Sustainable Development Goals, especially the top two—poverty alleviation and zero hunger. Impact investing in social enterprises will continue to grow as needle movers, unclogging the $600 billion needed for India's Sustainable Development Goals. In parallel, corporate social responsibility has come of age. Seven years since the CSR law came into effect as a mandate, we are starting to see corporate India step up to its social and environmental responsibilities and take an active role in improving public systems and funding public goods.

Policy support

Funding policies for non-profits, from corporates and foreign capital pools, have been long subjected to controversy. While regulation needs to be more rigorous on authenticity checks, data protection, privacy etc., the capital bottleneck here needs to be resolved for serious and scalable innovation in the sector. Bringing these key ideas together, think-tanks with all stakeholder groups need to be activated, and then expedited into implementation. We have to underscore the need for more intentional and proactive public-private sector partnerships, to connect global and domestic investor base. The pandemic has inspired government, businesses and civil society organizations to come together and appreciate the role that each plays. This handshake has the potential to forge strong partnerships to rebuild India, the sustainable way.

Sudha Srinivasan

CEO of The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation

Sudha Srinivasan is the CEO of The/Nudge Centre for Social Innovation. In four years, she has helped incubate over eighty social impact startups impacting around 15mn lives, and has undertaken unique initiatives to 'nudge top talent to solve for India's biggest problems, at scale'.  

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