Akanksha Sharma works with MNCs and helps them partner with governments, NGOs and civil societies to contribute towards development.
When we talk about sustainable development, India stands at a unique position. According to the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals – India, comprises 18 percent of the world’s population, but has a mere four percent of global natural resources.
About thirty percent of India’s 1.2 billion population is today living in extreme poverty, and of this, 50 percent individuals do not have access to modern cooking energy.
India ranks 110 out of 149 nations on the sustainable development index, despite its impressive economic growth over the last decade and a half.
To bridge this gap and contribute towards nation-building and development, the government, in 2014, institutionalised companies as critical stakeholders in the nation’s development through a mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) provision.
The government prescribed activities that qualify as CSR, which include eradicating hunger, poverty, promoting education and skills, gender equality, ensuring environmental sustainability, protection of national heritage, and protection of armed forces veterans, rural sports, setting up technology institutions, and also contributing to the Prime Minister's Relief Fund.
However, a Goodera report reveals that out of the 100 NSE companies listed under CSR, the top 10 companies spend 50 percent of the total fund allocated into these activities.
With an aim to align the national CSR policies with the UN’s global agenda, Akanksha Sharma has involved herself with companies and is actively working with them to achieve this goal.
An acclaimed CSR and sustainability expert, Akanksha says she was always been sensitive towards social causes. She holds an MBA degree, and specialised in Social and Environmental Business Management from the World Bank Institute.
Akanksha believes India Inc is yet to align its developmental priorities with the global development agenda of the United Nations.
“We should build bridges and not walls. Here, I’m talking about nearly Rs 15,000 crore of CSR funds that can be resourceful in helping India inch towards the global development goals,” she says.
She has worked with the UNICEF in collaboration with the Rajasthan government to address the social issues at grassroots level.
She has also been recognised by the World CSR Congress as one of the ‘100 Most Impactful CSR Leaders Globally’. Further, she has also been recognised as a ‘Young CSR Leader’ by India CSR, and has won the ‘Sustainability Leadership Award’ by the World Sustainability Forum. She is also a Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum.
YourStory talks to her about the key initiatives taken up by her, the challenges she faced, what motivated her to take up the CSR cause in India, and other issues. Edited excerpts from the interview:
YS: Can you take us through some of the key initiatives that you have undertaken as part of the CSR responsibilities over the years.
AS: I have worked with UN organisations, multinational companies, and consumer brands, helping them with their business responsibility.
I got the opportunity to design and implement a range of community development programmes that focused on poverty alleviation, skill development, nutrition, education, health and sanitation, farmers’ development, and other issues in rural and urban geographies of South Asia.
YS: What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced in this journey?
AS: I firmly believe that the pressing situation we are in, and we have been dealing with, cannot be solved just by the UN or the governments or NGOs/civil societies or companies. I am talking about a multi-level partnership approach to create a shared future, without diluting the unique role of each of these institutions.
YS: You talk about ‘Building Bridges through Investment for Social development.’ What does this mean?
AS: We are in a situation when the gross domestic product (GDP) of our country is being compared to the gross revenue of multinational enterprises. I work with MNCs and help them partner with government, NGOs and civil societies to contribute towards development. Therefore, I can say that companies should be considered not just as development contributors through CSR or philanthropy, but should be placed in the very center of the development space.
YS: What motivated you to take up the cause of CSR in India? What were the early challenges?
AS: It was never planned. I believe that making a career in the development space cannot be an exercise in portfolio-building. I always advise aspiring professionals to never lose sight of the issues they came into this career to address. If you are clear about the problems you want to solve, the path to those solutions will present themselves in the form of very interesting and challenging job opportunities.
YS: What is the potential of CSR in India? Since the policy intervention, what value has CSR delivered to help social and development work in India?
AS: The contribution by companies through CSR is really progressing after the mandate. But CSR is merely a contributor.
I believe that the answer to the so called big social problems do not lie with any individual, organisation or institution. And that’s exactly the reason why I’ve raised a petition on the policy change.
We are not making much progress to deal with social problems. The fundamental problem is the lack of resources and their optimal channelisation for self-sustaining scalable solutions. We are making progress and improving results, but we are not making large-scale impact on major social problems.
The reason we are not able to scale is simple - governments and NGOs do not have sufficient resources. Businesses have it, but they are not considered as problem-solving development agents. This calls for a perspective change.
YS: Do companies agree to go beyond CSR?
AS: Companies actually got trapped into the conventional wisdom that they should not worry about social problems. We're now seeing companies embrace this idea. But we also have to recognise that companies are not going to do this as effectively as the NGOs and government working in partnership with companies.
The new NGOs that are really moving the needle are the ones that have found these partnerships to collaborate. The progressive companies are the ones that have found ways to enable shared value in business, rather than see companies as the only player that has to call the shots.
YS: What measures are needed to ensure the companies follow the mandated two percent CSR rule?
AS: It has been three years since companies have been mandated to spend on CSR activities. However, the pattern of spending these funds has not changed as most of the companies splurge on education and healthcare. It is also found that out of the 100 NSE companies listed for CSR, the top 10 companies spend 50 percent of the total fund allocated.
In the very first year, it was found that 266 companies did not spend the prescribed amount on CSR that is almost Rs 2,444 crore in unspent amount. A lot of companies tend to spend more on the promotional aspects than the sustainable implementation of the initiative and efforts.
A basic understanding of societal issues is required, which can streamline the expenditure of CSR. A company cannot just throw money at a cause just because they are mandated by the government to do so. Considering the problems, the spending can be channelised towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
YS: Why did you choose to focus on the link between CSR and SDG? Where does India stand in the Sustainable Development Goals as envisioned by the UN? Why is it that we have failed to achieve the targets?
AS: Companies and the government should work in coherence to help the country optimise impact towards the Sustainable development Goals and this alignment is required at all levels.
We need to pay attention to this indignation and understand it as a desire for a new model. We must realise that if we respond to it with just mollifying words instead of concrete actions, it will find solutions in populism.