A New Model for Social Change

Lyric Thompson is special assistant to the president of ICRW.

ICRW launches new initiative in urban slums

A new ICRW initiative aims to foster deeper collaboration among organizations working in Mumbai’s slum communities. The goal is to promote shared learning and create lasting social change.

I recently returned from our Mumbai office, where I worked with local partners to develop a new ICRW initiative, known as the Site for Intensive Learning and Action (SILA). The SILA aims to create a different way of collaborating with diverse local partners to “move the needle” on staggering challenges faced by the people we serve in sprawling slum communities of Mumbai. 

Our office is located on the edge of one of those slums, called Shivaji Nagar, which is home to Mumbai’s largest dumping ground. Many of the estimated 600,000 people here make a living as “rag-pickers:” Each morning, I passed women and girls, barefoot and stunted, plucking through dumpsters for yesterday’s recyclables to sell so they can feed their families. The area also has the lowest water coverage in the city. Women wait in long lines at public water sources. Public toilets overflow with waste. In the afternoon heat, the stench from the city’s open sewers is overwhelming. That this reality exists alongside one of the world’s financial capitals seems unbelievable. 

In these communities, our researchers see firsthand what the country statistics tell us about the unique vulnerability of women and girls in India: The 2005–2006 National Health and Family Survey found that 40 percent of married women experienced violence at home. Police often don’t respond to domestic abuse complaints, and girls and women are commonly harassed by groups of boys and men, in what’s known as “eve teasing.” Many parents say they keep girls home from school for their own protection. And girls who don’t go to school are more likely to marry – nearly 45 percent of girls wed before the age of 18, and arranged marriages are still very much the norm. As I wandered the slum’s twisting footpaths, I saw girls everywhere doing wash, cooking and caring for children. Green bangles, symbols of a married woman, jingled on their wrists. 

This is the world ICRW seeks to change. We have studied these communities for years, but now we want to use our research findings to empower people there – traditionally the subject of study – to craft their own solutions to the challenges they face. That is the motivation behind the SILA. 

We plan to achieve this through a partnership model called collective impact. Essentially, the idea holds that like-minded organizations are stronger working together toward common goals – even when their individual approaches or programs differ – than operating individually or competing with one another in the same space. As a model, collective impact promotes mutual learning and a larger overall impact toward true, sustainable social change. 

We’ll use this model to select the right partners working in the slums and hone in on a few priority goals that we will work on together. We believe that adolescent girls are our key entry point; they are among the most marginalized in the community. They are also central to the family and young enough that programs targeted at them could potentially yield a lifetime of benefits. 

To help us lay the foundation for the SILA initiative, ICRW hosted three graduating MBA students from the Thunderbird Emerging Markets Laboratory (TEM Lab) at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, the leading international business school in the United States. The TEM Lab – which will be honored at ICRW’s May 23 gala – gives graduating MBA students a chance to apply their skills in real world settings like the slums of Mumbai. 

 

The TEM Lab students spent more than a month in Mumbai helping ICRW and our local partners design a strategic plan to achieve measurable, sustainable social change in the slums. This included assisting our experts with identifying areas where adolescents are being underserved, and with developing a communications strategy and management structure to monitor the effectiveness of our partnerships with local organizations. 

In a time of dwindling resources pitted against ever-increasing social challenges, our experience with the collective impact model we are launching in Mumbai will provide valuable lessons to the international development field. We believe the approach holds great promise – not only for the lives of adolescent girls in India, but for their communities, too.

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