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Addressing India’s Education Challenge: In conversation with Abhijit Banerjee

A CSR roundtable on education co-hosted by J-PAL South Asia at IFMR and Samhita Social Ventures

Introduction

The Section 135 of the Companies Act 2013 presents companies with a unique opportunity to influence positive change in the development space. Education, listed as one of the core areas under Section 7, is proving to be one of the most popular cause areas for intervention.

However, there is very little evidence which conclusively points to successful programs in education. With so many companies investing in the cause, there is a growing demand to better understand how scientific evidence can influence investment decisions to ensure that funds are directed to projects that will deliver maximum impact.

The CSR Roundtable ‘Addressing India’s Education Challenge: In conversation with Abhijit Banerjee’ co-hosted by J-PAL South Asia at IFMR and Samhita Social Ventures, was designed to help companies and foundations better understand:

  1. How to integrate evidence from impact evaluations into funding or program design strategy
  2. How to use monitoring and evaluation to learn from funding decisions that have already been made

 

Participants

The event was attended by 18 representatives from 14 leading companies and foundations. Companies present were BASF India, Ericsson India, ICICI Prudential, Idea Cellular, IL&FS, Larsen & Tubro, Mahindra and Mahindra – AFS, SBI Life Insurance and SBI Mutual Fund.

Foundations and social organizations were Kotak Education Foundation, Piramal Foundation, Pratham and Swades Foundation.

The roundtable presented perspectives from Prof. Banerjee and Priya Naik and ended with an interactive session where companies and foundations were invited to present their views and challenges.

 

Session 1: Education in India: Ensuring results – Ms. Priya Naik, Founder and Joint MD, Samhita Social Ventures

Ms. Priya Naik, set the tone for discussion by presenting a landscape view of education in India as well as the key findings from a recent Samhita research report that maps the CSR interventions in education of the top 100 companies with the highest CSR budgets in India. The report highlighted the skew towards education, vis-a-vis other causes in a company’s CSR efforts – 78 of the 100 companies surveyed had at least one intervention in education.

Although education is the preferred choice for both companies and foundations, they approach the issue differently. Foundations are usually motivated by impact or theory of change while companies are more conservative in their approach as they have to address a wide array of expectations and demands.

Priya also spoke of companies being geared towards supporting certain interventions such as infrastructure or scholarship. She urged companies and foundations to look beyond such interventions, adopt a long-term CSR strategy and support impact-oriented programs.

 

Session 2: “Addressing India’s Education Challenge”- Maximizing the impact of CSR Investment – Professor Abhijit Banerjee, Director, J-PAL

Prof. Abhijit Banerjee introduced J-PAL as a resource that measures the impact of different types of interventions and the extent that they are able to influence positive social change. He presented learnings from J-PAL’s research in education, identified gaps in the sector, and provided examples of proven successes.

The key points of the presentation are listed below:

How do you identify an impactful program?

In order to affect change within the education sector it is critical to identify programs that drive impact. Impact assessments, randomised evaluations and the utilization of credible comparison groups are some measures that were recommended by Prof. Banerjee. He stressed the fact that measuring impact accurately is important because even educated guesses can be wrong.

What has worked so far?

According to evidence that J-PAL gathered, inputs like the provision of textbooks, lowering student–teacher ratio and doubling teacher salaries do not increase learning outcomes of children.

However programs that incentivized teaching, monitored attendance, motivated parents to send their children to school and structuring classes according to learning levels have consistently improved learning outcomes. The evidence on the value of private schools remains mixed.

Can technology help?

Providing students with computers alone has no effect on learning but technology has the potential to improve learning outcomes as certain programs have shown significant improvements in test scores.

Where does CSR fit?

Given the nature of education in India, Prof. Banerjee believed that CSR could fund education programs in 3 ways. The first would be to fund innovative solutions and experiment with what works. Companies could also use available evidence to implement similar programs in different areas or scale up. Evidence from these interventions should inform future investments and program design.

 

Session 3: Discussion on strategic CSR investments and challenges in implementing CSR

This session was moderated by Krishnan Neelakantan, Managing Director at Samhita Social Ventures. It was designed to engage with the perspectives of decision-makers and understand the effectiveness of their interventions. The conversation addressed key challenges faced while managing CSR programs and best practices.

A changing outlook in the approach to CSR emerged from the discussion. With rising instances of business professionals being involved at the Board level of companies and foundations, institutions are adopting a business-oriented outlook and want to invest in result-oriented programs with measurable impact. Companies are also more willing to invest in innovative programs but want them to align with the strategic goals of their organization.

There was a healthy debate on the credibility of evidence and the costs involved in conducting research versus the benefits. There were also questions regarding the optimal time to conduct a research study in order to understand the effectiveness of a program, and whether one must wait for the results of a study before expanding an existing program.

Discussions also included the role of teachers, the rising expectations of parents, the effectiveness of grouping students by learning ability and the need for improvements in financial literacy programs.

The session concluded with those present agreeing on the need for collaborative interventions and scaling up of programs with evidence of success.

 

Conclusion

The roundtable conference identified key challenges of companies and foundations funding interventions in the education sector. It presented an opportunity to share best practices and sector knowledge among experts and peers. Those in attendance gained a clearer understanding of how evidence can be used to ensure the effectiveness of their programs and why evaluation is critical to achieve impact in the long-term.