Small entities can tackle big challenges
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Small entities can tackle big challenges

A mother holds two children to have them administered with a polio vaccination during the Pulse Polio drive in Mumbai, India.
A mother holds two children to have them administered with a polio vaccination during the Pulse Polio drive in Mumbai, India.

It takes a village to raise a child. But the enormity and frequency of current socio-economic woes require not just villages, but entire towns, cities and countries to raise the lot of humankind.

These challenges include access to clean water and affordable clean energy, biodiversity collapse and a widening income gap that exacerbates social inequalities. These challenges are part of the United Nations' 2015 blueprint of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with the aim to improve on each SDG by 2030. The SDGs are grand challenges. To tackle these challenges effectively, a great deal of coordination and collaboration is required among multiple stakeholders in many geographical locations and on diverse platforms.

The rub about grand challenges is that they often call for such difficult lifestyle changes and trade-offs that they stun stakeholders into inertia. For example, if you want to contribute to climate action (SDG13) by reducing your carbon footprint, you might install solar panels on the roof of your home. Cryptocurrency miners, however, cancel out that energy-conserving effort completely as their work over-consumes electricity constantly.

It can also be unsettling to be told that to ease global warming, one should not fly. Resistance to such drastic changes in lifestyle often culminates in indifference, thus stalling efforts.


Therefore, lingering problems are likely to go unnoticed because organisations and individuals neglect the details of processes which leads to an inadequate understanding of the nature of the problem.

While those challenges cannot be solved easily, they should be mitigated. But the issue is the mitigation approach has been top-down. The top-down approach often leads to a siloed approach, that results in a misalignment between mitigation efforts and on-the-ground realities, leading to an inadequate understanding of the nature of the problem.

For example, few are aware of the impact of food production. Soaring demand for soybeans has led investors and farmers in Brazil to expand farming without looking at other impacts. As a result, more than 1,000 sq km of the Amazon rainforest has been cleared to make way for these farms in the last decade. The scale of such deforestation hit a 15-year high last year (2021), according to a joint study by Instituto Centro de Vida, Greenpeace and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

These silo-approach induced problems could be overcome by public participation at all levels. Stakeholders -- including local communities -- must be included in the process.

Indeed, the root causes of complex societal challenges can be handled by linking stakeholders up and combining their strengths and giving stakeholders more participation as well as cascading resources, expertise and wider-ranging powers and rights to appraise to local community leaders.


To understand how small organisations can tackle grand challenges, Anjan Ghosh, Bernard Leca and I studied the journey of Child In Need Institute (CINI), a non-profit organisation founded in 1974 by the paediatrician Dr Samir Narayan Chaudhuri and the Australian nutritionist Sister Pauline Prince in the slums of Kolkata.

Initially, Dr Chaudhuri and Sister Prince focused on alleviating the suffering of malnourished children, but they soon realised that a child's condition is just part of a larger puzzle.

For example, a mother needs to be healthy and sufficiently immunised to avoid childbirth mishaps and other complications. Post-childbirth, a mother needs to be healthy for breastfeeding, which is the primary source of its nutrition. To take care of children's health, CINI widened the scope of their work to take care of both mothers and children. CINI looks at the problem in the big picture. The organisation understood that the root causes of child malnutrition go beyond a single factor. So, instead of imposing its perceived solutions on others like a hammer looking for nails, CINI began observing and paying attention to conditions within families and listening to the grassroots communities and then learning the actual causes of their predicaments, including a poor grasp of childcare, little recourse to healthcare facilities and scant access to other resources.

Over the next four decades, CINI has collaborated with resourceful actors in communities, regional and national governments, as well as international organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). The joint collaboration led to the designing and dissemination of a combination of standard malnutrition mitigation techniques and local knowledge. We call this approach "double weaving", a recursive process of diagnosing and addressing problems by connecting actors and resources across locations and scales.

In double weaving, CINI managers operated across local communities (scaling out), engaged with higher-scale actors (scaling up), and channelled policy implementation and resource deployment back to the communities (scaling down). With the double weaving technique, CINI broke the vicious circle of malnourished and underweight babies. The group created a care programme for the first 1,000 days of a mother and her baby, spurring mothers on with pictorial calendars and other educational aids. Today, 7 million have benefitted from CINI's double-weaving efforts.


CINI's efforts illustrate how small entities can work effectively across scales and locations to overcome grand challenges. Only by engaging with the malnourished could CINI pinpoint the barriers that impede cooperation between lower- and higher-scale actors and stakeholders. While local stakeholders like community residents know best about the nature of their problems and what the actual causes are, they often feel helpless because of their limited reach in society. Higher-scale actors from outside have resources, mandates and jurisdiction but lack contextual knowledge about local communities. Weaving them together makes it possible to overcome those challenges.

The secret to the success of this so-called "double weaving" approach is based on constant action. If yarn is not fed into a loom, it cannot function, and without a loom, yarn cannot be woven. It is a process in which various stakeholders work together to try things out, see if that works, then invite those at higher levels to intervene, pick things up and use their resources and mandates to try it out in other locations, with other stakeholders. And on it goes, like a relentless process bringing diverse skeins together in a resilient weave.

Arijit Chatterjee is a professor in the Management Department of ESSEC Business School, Asia Pacific.

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