Saturday, February 4, 2012

Exploring an Idea - crowd sourcing activism: NGO 2.0

"For every beneficiary of a court order enforcing RTI, NREGA or RTE, the lawyer is entitled to a sum of money from the NGO. "

Priya is a hardworking 12 year old girl in a small village in central India. Her family lives below the poverty line. Yet she has a sparkle in her eye when asked about her future. She wants to grow up and become a reporter. She wants to spread awareness about the issues affecting her village and the surrounding ones. Priya walks 4 kilometers every day to her school in a neighboring village. The school has just one classroom, no toilets and student to teacher ratio is 1 to 60, that is if all the teachers show up on a day. It would be nice if Priya had a decent school in her village with proper classrooms, basic amenities, good teachers and low student to teacher ratio.

Raj is a 30 year old man in the same village. He is planning to migrate to Mumbai for the next 8 months, leaving his kids and family behind. He is a hardworking honest man and does his best to take care of his family. There is no work for him the village and hence he must stay away from his family for 8 months every year, living in a slum in Mumbai and earning his living. The village always has a shortage of water during the non monsoon season. This means a lot of agricultural activity grinds to a halt in that period pushing people out of the village in search for work. Digging a pond and harvesting the rain water would go a long way in solving the problem, but no one has the resources to undertake this project. There is little trade or other means of employment at the village even though it is close to a town with great demand for fresh produce. The reason behind this is that the village does not have a good road linking it to the town- making it hard to transport the produce. A road linking the village to the town would help but again there are no resources.

Just next door from Raj's house lives Radha - an 80 year old widow with no children to take care of her. The old lady lives in a decrepit house which provides little protection from rain or sun. She lives on the kindness of the villagers to have one meal a day. She is a perfect candidate for many government schemes - old age pension, below poverty line housing and health care, and food at discounted price from the public distribution system. Yet she gets none of it as the village official demands a cut in her benefits for certifying that she is old and below the poverty line.

What would be the best way to tackle all these problems at a scale of hundreds of millions and with limited resources?

Many people look for an out of state solution. This is born out of disgust for state's practices and neglect of the welfare of its citizens. Many people rather form Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) to solve the problem with little help from the government. This works well for a village but never scales up to 6 million villages all over in India. The state regularly comes up with schemes and laws designed to solve the massive socio- economic problems of India - but the schemes which work perfectly on paper leave no mark on the ground. There has been a recent addition to the hundreds of tools for social and economic transformation of the country. Three major acts deserve mention here:

  • Right to Information Act (RTI) - it gives a citizen a right to any information (public or pertaining to the person) from any government office in a time bound manner. In case an officer does not furnish this information, the law prescribes action against the officer. 
  • National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA)- it gives any person in a village the right to employment in his/her village. The person must get work within 15 days after applying for it, else the person should receive an unemployment allowance. 
  • Right to Education Act (RTE)- it empowers every child in the nation to get quality education in his/her village or town. The state must provide for each child, a good school with proper amenities and ample number of qualified teachers. 
These three laws stand out from the rest of the efforts of the government to better the state of affairs in India. These laws give entitlements to the citizens which can be enforced by the courts. Yet the change has not taken place at a pace we would like. Very few of the affected have the necessary means to get their rights enforced in the courts. NGO's provide some help to a few - but they are out of step with the new opportunity. NGOs work on the same old model - having a small group of dedicated people working in a small area to improve conditions of a few people. Thus NGO's end up spending a lot of money with little impact. The answer to this problem lies in moving away from the model of tapping into the tiny pool of social workers and incentivize a much bigger, larger and more suitable pool of persons for the job - the lawyers. 

India has a large number of lawyers - too many compared to the demand. This demand-supply imbalance has created large pool of lawyers who are willing to work at lower wages. Only a few well acclaimed lawyers charge exorbitant fees - the average fee for lawyers is not too high. Many in this large pool of lawyers are capable of wielding the tools of social transformation given by the state to the citizens - all three acts stated above have redressal mechanisms simple enough that any educated person can use them (thus lawyer in this sense means any person with or without a law degree arguing for enforcement of these rights). All we need is an incentive:

"For every beneficiary of a court order enforcing RTI, NREGA or RTE, the lawyer is entitled to a sum of money from the NGO. "

This mechanism will help Priya become a reporter, Raj get an employment in his village, and Radha get her due. In addition this will help improve the infrastructure of the village in terms of roads, schools, ponds, etc., and also be a meaningful source of income for the hundreds of thousands of lawyers seeking work in a country full of violations of citizens' rights by the state. Since the payment is based on the end result- it ensures efficiency and makes sure only successful lawyers are paid. The large pool of lawyers will ensure that the sum paid to each lawyer per beneficiary will be small. The price paid to each lawyer can be decided in a fair manner by an auction or a market mechanism to ensure that the price paid is not too small that no one comes forward for the task, and is neither too high that the mechanism becomes inefficient.

This mechanism will ensure that the impact of  money spent by the NGO does not depend on the motivation and honesty of the few workers on the ground, and ensures a much wider impact for a smaller amount of money with much better accountability for each buck spent.