The invisible elephant at the bottom of the pyramid


What can civil society do to achieve the SDGs?

For achieving the SDGs, the global focus is currently on financing and the role of governments, private corporations and donors. In the process, the capacity of the cutting edge players, viz., the citizens, households, communities, religions, NGOs, local governments are often sidelined or relegated to the background. They are more seen as ‘agents’ and not as co-achievers or co-producers.

SDG achievements can be fast tracked only when the households and civil society at large are brought to the central stage and encouraged to drive a more proactive and co-creative change. Simple citizen interventions like adoption of handwashing and improved hygiene practices at critical occasions could save millions of lives. Women self-help groups, micro- livelihoods, community schools, responsible consumption and reduced water /energy footprint, environmental sanitation, post-harvest technologies and knowledge and use of Oral Rehydration Therapy for childhood diarrhoea, are all SDG solutions where civil society can lead for results.  Well-designed strategic civil society engagement at grassroots level can also reduce transaction costs, inequity, improve access and quality of service delivery.

At the bottom of the pyramid

The base of the pyramid, however, is a risky terrain and can make you win or fail. Traversing the landscape requires locally designed tools and instruments facilitated by well meaning and committed catalysts having a nuanced understanding of the grassroots.

A large segment of the vulnerable at the base are in poor health, illiterate, hungry, lacking water and sanitation and there is no demand for their skills in the market. They are generally voiceless, faceless and hidden. The real challenge is to empower them to achieve extraordinary results, as leaders, decision makers, co-producers, consumers and value creators.

It is easier said than done. Not that the public expenditure is too little, but the services are failing the poor. In Nepal, 46 percent of education spending accrues to the richest fifth, only 11 percent to the poorest, and this is the case in many developing countries. The process demands careful handholding and change management going beyond the conventional mandate, driven by a deeper understanding of the motives, processes and bottlenecks. When we see communities as co-producers, they make the micro-economy vibrant, inclusive and generate multipliers by way of income, employment and growth.

The change agents, be it government, private companies or NGOs, need to continuously redefine their scope, innovate instruments and de-clog channels to nurture conducive ecosystems. Potential change at individual and community levels can happen only when private and public values are simultaneously created in a circular micro-economy creating win-wins to answer, ‘why should I change’?

Civil society to take action

What can civil society do to achieve the SDGs? Inter alia, as part of a holistic strategy, the following mix of tools and instruments at household and community levels can accelerate SDG achievements:

  • Stitching the social fabric and strengthening social capital: Investments in strengthening social capital is critical for peace, development and SDGs in urban and rural settings. The magic has been working where the interventions are well intended.
  • Decentralise: Decentralisation based on the principle of subsidiarity and innovative local financing is central to achieving the SDGs, as most of the indicators can be effectively programmed at local level and create platforms for institutional ownership.
  • Barefoot champions and community achievers: Recognise, encourage, and incentivise local champions and create more leaders in the process. Resulting in a local movement that encourages leaders to attain rapid progress.
  • Community schools and Knowledge Hubs: Promote community schools and Knowledge Hubs on SDGs as a platform for testing, innovating, learning and sharing.
  • Community SDG Accelerator: Test and scale up solutions through community SDG Accelerators and local incubation centres linking citizen science and financing beyond budget.
  • Last-mile infrastructure and supportive institutions: The trending now is for large infrastructure, leaving little or no finance for last mile small infrastructure, such as construction of high cost national highways without rural connectivity denying access for the large rural population. The ‘Saemaul Undong movement’ in South Korea was a movement that addressed the growing urban-rural divide. The government set up communes and distributed materials, empowering communities to build local infrastructure in a cost-effective way and manage it themselves. It led to a drastic rural transformation and reduced poverty.
  • Application of science and technology for SDGs, will nudge and incentivise citizens for behaviour change; for example, sensor-based water quality monitoring; cloud-based early warning systems, time and cost savings for water and sanitation services. Advocacy and awareness campaigns for the SDGs need to evolve along with the growth of society and encourage informed decisions, as information asymmetry is the bane of inclusive development. Civil society should work on improved knowledge, attitude and practices (KAP) and empower access to services, for example, the poorest are effectively deprived of access to universal health insurance.
  • Focus on the ‘last mile’: The bulk of the deprivation occurs in the lowest segments, people who live on less than US$ 1 a day should be targeted with differentiated strategies and programmes.

These interventions have been used intermittently in development, but are mostly disregarded or sidelined during the implementation phase in the ‘honey trap of hardware’. At the bottom of the pyramid, there is scale, ownership, and sustainability. What is needed is contextual and strategic acceleration at the cutting edge, by citizens as co-producers and co-achievers.

This guest blog has been written by Dr. Kurian Baby