India’s social sector has been evolving in the past decade, with students making drastic shifts from their original streams of engineering, science, literature, medicine, business and so on. The attraction is towards tackling the country’s social issues like gender inequality, poverty, inequitable education, and lack of access to basic amenities among others.
No longer is the social sector open only to the highly privileged or the oppressed when deciding to engage meaningfully with social development. The social impact space is gradually filling with a myriad of passionate and talented individuals from unique backgrounds, bringing with them a diverse skill set.
The last three to four years alone have seen corporate professionals wanting to engage deeply with the social sector, increasingly moving to social purpose organisations. These professionals bring with them specific skills, innovation and experience together with the potential to leapfrog problem-solving in the social sector.
Development professionals in the social sector need to keep an open mind when engaging with communities and their issues, and not be blinded by their value systems. While development organisations have been pulled up for not being equitable to under-represented groups, and asked to relook at traditional approaches to seeking talent, the same might hold for institutions as well.
Research shows that multi-dimensional inequalities still exist in the enrolment rates, be it between rural and urban populations, rich and poor, minority and mainstream communities, men and women, people with disabilities, or those representing varied ethnicities, contexts and knowledge cultures. Higher education institutions responsible for training and grooming these passionate minds to tackle societal evils across geographies and cultural contexts need to first open their doors to a diverse cohort.
Experiencing diversity while studying lays the foundation to becoming comfortable and interacting with a range of individuals with varying points of view. Educational institutions that acknowledge and encourage diversity inside and outside the classroom provide students with a holistic, balanced and enriched learning experience.
A University of Michigan study conducted in 2002 showed that educational interactions among diverse groups resulted in positive learning outcomes where they felt more engaged in class and motivated to study. This study also provided evidence that students from culturally diverse educational institutions had strong critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Indian higher education institutions devoted to the social sector are responding to its needs and taking this call of diversity seriously, not only with their students but their faculty as well. Institutions are accepting students from all over the country, not limiting the enrolment to cities alone but opening it out to towns and villages, offering financial support to those who cannot afford it. Students of varying disciplines who want to switch over to the social sector are also encouraged to apply.
There is a need to bring together renowned institutions, networks and practitioners from across disciplines to build a thriving body of knowledge, with the hope of creating impact at scale. This unifying of myriad talents has the power to enable leaders and managers to build authentic, effective and enduring responses to challenges in the social sector.
Development Management is a unique blend of Development ethics and Management principles that equip professionals to navigate uniquely non-linear complexities across geographies and cultural contexts. This requires students and professionals who are open to listening deeply and reflecting -- willing to unlearn and relearn from those whose experiences are different from their own -- and work together as a team towards promoting social change.
What they learn during their sessions is reflected in the field. Bringing together individuals from diverse cultural and professional backgrounds effectively utilizes the myriad talents they bring to the table.
Elvina Deori, a former Development Management graduate, was employed at PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action), an NGO which enables over 100,000 rural families to develop their own skills and initiatives to build a livelihood. Elvina, who was posted in a Lower Assam village, expressed how even though she was from Upper Assam, she initially struggled in understanding the dialects of the people there as they spoke a unique blend of Bengali and Assamese, very different from what was spoken in her native village.
She shared how even though she had a formal degree in Agriculture, she found herself learning from farmers in the village where she was posted. Her journey involved being open to a different perspective, to learning something new. Elvina fondly remembers her time at the institute, saying, “Seeing through different lenses makes me reflect upon my past experiences. Learning with the young generation is really engrossing! I am amazed by their knowledge. The concept of collaboration is something that makes me ponder. Why didn’t I seek collaboration before? I was so limited and confined to myself.”
Students from diverse backgrounds across the country studying in one institution are constantly challenged to change their preconceived notions on various social issues while interacting amongst themselves. Each one of them brings in their own lived experience, which acts as a small piece to the larger puzzle of social change.
(Ravi Sreedharan is the president of the Indian School of Development Management, Noida. After 24 years in the corporate sector, he switched to the social sector in 2011, joining the Azim Premji Foundation. Sreedharan has an MBA from IIM Ahmedabad and a B Tech from IIT-BHU.)