By Oxfam India
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What can companies do to engage communities – voices from IRBF 2018

Panel discussion at the IRBF 2018 was on 'Engaging communities by design'. Read the 5 major points here.

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Is design thinking just a buzzword that is thrown around in discussions about innovation and startups? Can it help companies and communities develop side by side?

Today companies are embracing design thinking as a fresh approach to figure out what their customers really want. Yet few of them apply this method to engaging responsibly with communities they operate in.

Engage communities to shape better systems

Arun Maira, former member of the Planning Commission chaired the session on Engaging Communities by Design at IRBF 2018.

He said, “Good design involves consulting the stakeholders and then conceiving a product or service which would be good for them. Although there is a consultation, the designer designs the product and gives it to the community.”

Arun introduced another parallel concept in the discussion – that of systems thinking, a mindset that looks at all aspects of the system. This approach recognises the creator of the product as a small part of the system. “The creator’s ideas and thoughts are also being shaped by the system,” he said.

“When we speak about social change, there is no product that has to be designed or changed. It is the system that needs to change by all who are a part of the system.”

“By engaging together as a community, we can shape a better system, a better world,” said Arun Maira.

Read: Arun Maira on What is Stopping Companies from Owning their Responsibility

Listen to communities, don’t impose poor solutions on poor people

Chetna Gala Sinha, founder and chair of Mann Deshi Bank shared her experience of running a company by the people, of the people and for the people.

Mann Deshi has generated business worth 150 crore rupees over the last 20 years. It also has a foundation which runs a business school and radio completely managed by women in a remote part of western Maharashtra.

Chetna recounted a lesson she learnt about engaging with the local community. After a conversation with a woman vendor in a weekly market, she realised that the woman was saving money with her bank but taking a loan from a money lender daily at a huge interest rate because the bank had no daily credit available.

As a response to that, Mann Deshi designed a new credit product – a daily loan for women with the possibility of a partial repayment on the same day. The biggest challenges in this situation were the potential reduction in their profit margins and getting the experts and investors to back a product for social returns, said Chetna.

“Listen to your community and design the product for them accordingly, they’ll be ready to pay for that. Never give poor solutions to poor people. They have the right to ask what they want”, she said.

chetna gala


Engagement cannot be top down

It was also interesting how hear how an FMCG company making confectionaries is working within their community.

“Mars has 3 manufacturing sites in India and we are heavily invested in the communities where we operate,” said Andrew Leakey, General Manager India, Mars Wrigley Confections.

Apart from producing Mars and Snickers bars, the company also makes Wrigley’s chewing gum. Andrew said, “We are the biggest consumer of mint in the world for our products. 60% of world’s mint oil is grown in UP. We have a programme running there for small farmers to encourage good agricultural practices, to recruit workers locally and provide education to children.”

He also spoke about one of of the biggest stakeholders of Mars – children, who consume the candy. He said Mars makes “efforts to manage children’s wellbeing through a voluntary code of ethics”. For example, it does not market its products to kids under 12 and neither does it advertise during children’s programmes on TV.

“We look at sustainable business practices as a necessity,” said Andrew. He also spoke of how Mars has “three factories that are certified zero waste to landfill” and the company is “not listed on any stock exchange and yet publishes all its sustainability data voluntarily”.

Andrew also noted that all major people’s movements have started on the ground. He said:

“You cannot drop the idea of community engagement from the top.”

Build the demand for rights in communities

Business and civil society will always differ on how to work with communities. Not everyone on the panel thought design thinking was the best way forward.

“We live in a deeply hierarchical society where the state does not ensure fundamental rights”, said Amitabh Behar, Executive Director, National Foundation for India. According to him, “The moral and ethical framework to treat community as rightsholders is missing.”

He said, “There is a power imbalance between business and community and in such a context, businesses doing design thinking seems very difficult.” He said:

“We need to focus on building the demand for rights in communities.”

Read: Amitabh Behar on How Indian Civil Society Can Ensure Responsible Business

CSR is a distraction

Most corporations show that they are engaging with communities through CSR. But Arun Maira has a different way of looking at it. He said:

“CSR is a distraction – we have to work on our values and ethics. People want to be treated respectfully as humans.”

Amitabh echoed his opinion. He said, “The conversation needs to focus on responsible business and not on CSR.”