In order to bring scalability in a social welfare program, it is important to bring about a behavioural change, especially in a country like India where the traditions and taboos are deeply imbibed in the psyches of the people.
In a 2018 report, “Bold Philanthropy in India,” The Bridgespan Group observed that the barriers to behaviour change are arguably more pronounced in rural India, where “caste, patriarchy, and profoundly ingrained traditions can render communities resistant to social impact efforts, regardless of their level of need.” This makes it extremely difficult for the non-profits and the CSR initiatives to tap into rural India to bring them to the path to development.
One approach that the organisations can adopt to get through to the mindsets of these people is that of engaging with the constituents directly, by enlisting local, trusted peers to investigate cultural norms and elicit change from within the community. The approach has been tried and tested by Tata Trusts and Google in their program Internet Saathi.
Internet Saathi was launched in 2015 which aimed to increase digital literacy among India’s rural women. Back then, women comprised just 10 per cent of Internet users in rural India. The program set up group training sessions for village women in local community centres However seemingly unbreakable cultural barrier proved to be a huge hurdle. The women in the villages were not permitted to travel alone. This caused the turnout for the training sessions to be very low.
The organization needed a different strategy. It was decided that the program would recruit and train local women on how to use smartphones. These “Saathis” (Hindi for “friend”) would go into neighbouring villages and teach other women about the practical benefits of the Internet and how to deploy it in their daily lives.
The Saathis initially had trouble getting women to invest their time and attention, as many remained convinced that the Internet lacked relevancy in their day-to-day lives, but they eventually found ways to connect with likely adopters—often young people—in each community. This set off a ripple effect, where the early adopters, having grasped the Internet’s benefits, began to convert their neighbours. As the ripples of change crested from one household to the next, people began to look past the Internet’s downsides. Attitudes began to soften. Turnout to the trainings increased.
Partly because the push for digital literacy came from trusted female peers, the initiative scaled rapidly, spreading from village to village. As of April 2019, more than 65,000 Saathis had helped more than 24 million women in 18 states vault the digital gender divide.
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The CSR Journal Team