Social Equity Audit: What it is and what it is not

Social Equity Audit: What it is and what it is not

Social Equity Audit: What it is and what it is not

An exploration into the scope and limitations of SEA

anita cheria and edwin

The tsunami of December 2004 was catalytic in bringing the need for programming and monitoring inclusion in development programmes. There has been considerable excitement in the progress towards this goal. One outcome has been the Social Equity Audit (SEA) process that has brought together a wide set of tools and disciplines to further the goal of inclusion. It is precisely because the process and the outcomes have been encouraging that there is a danger of SEA being touted as a ‘magic bullet’.

It becomes all the more important to review the set of tools and their limitations if only to ensure that expectations do not outrun reality, and that the tool is applied appropriately. While judicious use of the set of tools would yield rich dividends, its inappropriate application could actually be counter productive.

In the first part of this note we will look at what SEA is. In the second we will explore what it is not and what its limitations are at present. It is hoped that this note will introduce those interested to SEA, and help identify the areas where more work needs to be done for its development.

The logical conclusion of the process would be developing a comprehensive set of tools to assess, monitor and rectify discrimination and exclusion and design programmes for inclusion and empowerment; and deepen the process to make even SEA more inclusive.

1        SEA: What it is

1.1        A rapid overview

The Social Equity Audit (SEA) is to enable organisations progress systematically towards social inclusion and equity in their programming and institutional development.

SEA is, at once, both professional and political. The two basic objectives of SEA are crucial and non-negotiable:

·        Maintaining globally accepted standards of professional identification of processes, patterns and structures of social exclusions (‘professional’).

·        Enabling organisations and communities to effectively move from exclusive to more inclusive approaches and processes (‘political’).

It is a value based approach, looking at development though the lens of the most vulnerable, the most powerless and the most helpless to enquire if we are really reaching them. The inclusion of these people in development, and eradication of discrimination against them, is central to equity concerns.

A process that

·        Enables social inclusion and accountability in development programmes.

·        Enables programming to live up to internationally accepted standards.

·        Enables accountability from all stakeholders and participants.

·        Is voluntary, and done on request of an organisation.

·        Is organisation-friendly: rigorous and professional, does not condemn nor condone, but gives concrete, practical suggestions on social inclusion.

A proactive tool to

·        Understand and address structural, organizational and strategic constraints and bottlenecks that prevent/limit marginalized and vulnerable communities from equitable participation and benefit sharing in development programmes.

·        Enable the organisation to ensure the participation of the vulnerable communities.

·        Support the organisation become inclusive in its organisational structure, process and delivery

·        Develop more inclusive and equity based development interventions.

1.2        Inclusion and the role of SEA

Social inclusion does not ‘just happen’. It has to be carefully planned, comprehensively designed and sensitively executed. It needs to be an intrinsic part of the programme, not an optional add-on. Development’, without a careful embedding of democracy and equity, results in the consolidation of prejudice, stratification and social exclusion rather than the reverse.

Most often, organisations take on specific mandates and focus their attention on addressing them through designing necessary programmes. The intention is to implement the programmes efficiently and effectively. For various reasons organisations get identified with specific social groups as ‘beneficiary groups’. In identity-based social structures and systems, cutting across the existing social barriers does not happen in the natural course of events for both development actors and community groups. SEA helps identify excluded stakeholder groups and the barriers that keep them out. It helps the organisation to take necessary inclusive steps both within its own set-up and in designing the programme and implementing it. Within the organisation, SEA would help identify the absence or lack of equity representation and participation of excluded social groups like Dalits, tribals and women in various decision-making and executive bodies in the organisation. It also helps focus attention on the lack of participation or equity benefit sharing by marginalised groups in the programmes. SEA particularly recognises the exclusionary nature of caste-based discrimination in the NGO context and to address it in the organisational structure, systems, policies and programmes.

SEA, as mentioned before, has evolved in the context of disaster relief and rehabilitation programmes. As a professional and participatory tool it can:

·        Help better understand the root causes and the processes of social exclusion and discrimination in the social and community context.

·        Ensure that recovery programmes increase accountability and social inclusion.

·        Pro-actively address issues of social exclusion and negative discrimination affecting the poorest as well as other marginalised communities.

·        Facilitate analysis of complex social and economic relations affecting the poorest and the marginalised.

·        Assess how the principles of non-discrimination and inclusion are operational in the organisation as a whole: in its vision-mission statements, organisational structure, strategies and decision-making processes.

·        Collectively engage in creating appropriate design of programmes to unearth ongoing social exclusion and discrimination.

·        SEA would help the organisation identify best practices and blind spots regarding inclusion, for instance in the staffing pattern.

·        Provide social equity audit capacity to assess the programme’s effectiveness in prioritising the poorest and most marginalised in interventions and ensuring responsiveness and accountability to the marginalised.

·        Share lessons learned to enhance quality of future development work as well as emergency relief and rehabilitation work with the poorest and most marginalised.

·        Engage in only those programmes that will reduce patronage and change power relations between individuals, households and communities, the State, corporate bodies and corporations etc. and avoid social exclusion and discrimination against weaker and poorer categories based on social origin, caste, class, gender etc.

·        As a learning process, SEA is always open to adopting appropriate tools from other existing systems of enquiry and audit and evolving new ones according to the exigencies of the situation.

1.3        The core values

A social equity audit is a value based process, combining professional standards with a strong inclusion perspective.

·        Perspectives of the marginalised.

·        Empowering the vulnerable.

·        Changing the power relations.

1.4        The principles

SEA is an open, voluntary and learning process to help an organisation move towards inclusion. The process is organisation friendly and honest, but not a fault finding or policing exercise. SEA will not condone any gaps found, nor does it condemn any lapse. It is a rigorous process that is professional and supportive at the same time. It is based on mutual respect, an openness to learn, and an understanding of the difficult field circumstances.

In the community SEA would be a participatory process. It would be facilitative and not extractive. All those who have a significant stake in service delivery will be actively involved throughout the audit, from the initial stages of design to implementing community-led solutions.

SEA is intended to focus on system flaws and programme content, rather than on individuals or organizations. However private behaviour which has led to exclusion will be taken into consideration and addressed (e.g. discriminatory delivery of relief). Inadvertent exclusion and negative findings can be framed as a starting point for improvement. Findings will be constructive rather than critical and judgmental.

1.5        The standards

SEA conforms to internationally accepted human rights and audit standards. It commits to

·        Professional approach.

·        Universally accepted tools and standards.

·        Qualified and Trained Auditors.

·        Enhance the capabilities of the organisations and communities.

·        Develop tools progressively and help to evolve programmes for inclusion.

1.6        The basic beliefs and assumptions

·        Social exclusion can be systematically countered, despite its macro links. The ‘larger framework’—structural causes—cannot be excuses to ignore the social exclusions at the programme and community levels.

·        Increasing the participation of excluded social groups in both decision-making and benefit sharing is the means to development, social justice and communal harmony.

·        Formal and informal structures and institutions of the state and civil society have structural/attitudinal biases that make them overlook social exclusions.

·        Increased knowledge of the social exclusion process will help develop appropriate strategies for inclusive interventions.

·        Communities have an inalienable right to their means of livelihood. This cannot be compromised under any pretext—security, tourism, protection or anything else.

·        Being a voluntary process, the organisation will own the findings. This could translate into actual implementation rather than a defensive response as does sometimes happen.

·        The goals are set based on the organisation’s vision and mission. It gives the organisation the space to change at a self-determined pace, if it does want to be inclusive. Being organisation-friendly, it provides the necessary support for such inclusion.

·        Emphasis on inclusion being win-win (and demonstrably so) would help surmount mental barriers, and building capacity would help put in place the necessary skill-sets for ‘inclusion by design’.

2        Realising the potential: The scope and challenges of SEA

The exhilarating creative phase of SEA has now reached a plateau. The direction of the journey ahead is dimly discernable. There is unanimous consensus that SEA must go beyond its tsunami origins,[1] must move from being a ‘post facto audit tool’ to a pro-active planning and monitoring tool, and that new tool sets need to be developed or existing ones adapted.

In the light of these developments, it is appropriate to take stock of the progress so far, and to draw out some lessons. Some of these are known gaps, but are reiterated in the interest of completeness.

2.1        From Audit to Planning: Comprehensive and proactive

Indicators for a city

·        Average life expectancy.

·        Hospital beds per 1,000 people.

·        Per-capita state expenditure for education.

·        Average class size in primary school.

·        University-educated people as a percentage of total population.

·        Sulfur dioxide in the air (ppm).

·        Dust/suspended particles in the air - micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3).

·        Average monthly rental per sq meter.

·        Ratio of housing price to income.

·        Sq meter of parks and fields per capita.

·        Vehicles per km of city road.

·        Existence of a mass transit rail system.

·        Number of movie theatres per 100,000.

·        Unemployment rate.

·        GDP growth.

·        Annual urban inflation rate.

·        Vacation and public holidays per year.

·        Criminal cases for every 10,000 persons.

·        Convictions for crimes by and against them.

·        Number of telephones per 1,000 people.

·        Average time taken to commute to work.

·        Number of TV sets per 1,000 people.

·        Percentage of population with sewerage.

·        Percentage of population with piped water.

·        Average income.

It was realised even during the pilot audit that SEA needs to go beyond tsunami and disasters for general programming, to being a proactive planning tool, not just a post facto audit. Acting on this insight has been tardy. SEA needs to be developed into a comprehensive Project Management Tool for Inclusion, right from need identification to monitoring, evaluation and feedback systems—keeping in mind the participatory, empowering ethos to be promoted.

To this end, it would need to either design anew or adapt existing tools. It could begin with modifying PRA for need identification; then building the planning and monitoring tool sets. The monitoring will need to be both on the delivery and quality aspects and the equity aspects. One option is the Internal Learning and Monitoring System, ILMS.[2] It is picture based—so even illiterates can use it—and 100% doable internally. It is not extractive and follows from the participatory aspect of PRA.

Where existing tools are being tweaked, they will need to be enhanced to factor in the inclusion aspect. The idea is to have a comprehensive set of tools from which specific ones can be chosen according to need, to assess and rectify exclusion.

2.2        The urban challenge

Sometime within the next 15 years, the majority of Indians will live in the cities. Within the next 10 years, the majority of Indian poor will live in the cities. Urbanisation brings with it new challenges. With less that a quarter of citizens in cities, there are sprawling slums in every city—essential for its survival, but definitely out of sight for provision of services.

Though cities do give better opportunities and upward mobility, they are also centres of growing inequality.[3] There is a myth of urban spaces destroying or at least diluting caste.[4] But caste is resilient. While some of the old forms of discrimination are not present there are new ones being created.[5] But there are other forms of discrimination or denial of service.[6]

Despite being ‘profit centres’ and ‘islands of prosperity’[7] cities have a large army of homeless or those live in crowded tenements, or slums. Most have inadequate water, sanitation, healthcare, and schooling. Their ‘opportunity cost’—the price they pay for migrating from the slow starvation of the village to the magic of urban growth and opportunities—is extremely high. Exploited by slumlords, politicians, police, and criminals they pay high economic costs for renting a room or bed and for water, healthcare, and transport.

At the core are powerful corporations, real estate interests and politicians that oppose most of the needed changes—for pollution control, adequate wages, better working conditions, land for housing that low-income groups can afford and realistic charges for water, sanitation and electricity. New ideologies and frameworks are formulated for denial of service, discrimination and exclusion such as ‘user fees’ and ‘service charges’—while conveniently denying the decades long (and continuing) public investment in the support infrastructure in middle and upper class localities of the same cities.

Ironically, simultaneous with the growing unacceptability of discrimination based on caste is the growing acceptability and even assertion of the right to discrimination based on economics and class—human right or not, if you cant pay for it, you cant have it. The growing trend of defining only the consumer as a citizen—and a larger consumer as a better citizen, the only citizen deserving of civic services—is the emerging face of discrimination, with its own orthodoxy (neo-conservatism), priesthood (neocons), temples (the Breton Woods twins IMF and WB) and chosen people (the conspicuous consumer).

2.3        A community based approach

Despite the present stratification of traditionally egalitarian communities, wholesome communities still offer the most security for individuals. Institutional care has been proven to be more harmful to the individual than the family and community. There is increasing acknowledgement of the role of ‘social networks’ in ‘social security’. The more robust of these ‘social networks’ are the family and the community.

In traditional forms of community organisations, such as those of tribals, there is division of roles but these do not necessarily translate into hierarchies, nor lead to discrimination. They are more democratic, inclusion and consensus based within their limited frameworks.

SEA tools need more work for application to these communities. The tools need to be such that they build on community strengths and includes more of the community,[8] rather than destroy the community institutions and coherence in the name of inclusion and justice. Disintegration of the community does not help anyone, and the costs are disproportionately paid by the most vulnerable—the very section SEA is meant to help. Strengthening the community may be its only chance of protecting its members from the ravages of globalisation.

There is a need for stronger tools in this aspect, right from stronger frameworks on community inclusion (rather than just individual service delivery as at present) to specific tools for equity and inclusion analysis. At the moment PRA is used, but it needs more customisation. Many of the tools developed by SEA and all the tools used in the process are rigorous and ‘paper trail’ based. The data collection formats are capable of being independently interpreted.

The ‘format based’ rigour of data based paper trails is not present when being applied to traditional forms of community organisation. Though developed in the context of the tsunami and fisherfolk, this is a glaring gap in the tool set of SEA. Here SEA still depends on the perspective and judgement of the auditors. The question ‘are we missing the woods for the trees’ is one check, but again is subjective and depends on the auditors.

2.4        Process issues

Some process issues that need to be addressed are critical to the success and continued momentum of SEA as a process. Among them are

·        The horizontal expansion of SEA

·        Engaging others such as the organisations of the marginalised and the excluded (Dalit, tribal, differently-abled, sexual minorities, children, senior citizens, women…) if necessary by bringing them into the core group.

·        Sharpening the tools by having more audits.

·        Training more auditors.

·        Embedding SEA within grassroots organisations as the preferred PME tool.

Some of these have been identified by the SEA process early on, but there has been insufficient progress in filling the gaps. The mechanical application of the tools without the process could also result in less than optimal results and ‘compliance’ attitudes. It might be worth the effort to have another creative bust to retain momentum or at least to ensure that the process does not run out of steam. To paraphrase Robert Frost, the grand old man of American poetry, the road SEA has travelled has been exciting and fruitful, but ‘we have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep’.

3        End notes



[1] The SEA at MSSS was to be a pioneering effort in this direction. In the absence of a review of the process by the auditors and comprehensive feedback from the audited organization, lessons could not be drawn from that effort.

[2] ILMS is being used by ASA Trichy and KROSS Bangalore. Both have the capacity to train other organisations.

[3] Parts of this section are adapted from David Satterthwaite, When people live mostly in the cities, http://www.hindu.com/2007/01/18/stories/2007011805261100.htm

[4] It was based on this assumption that Ambedkar wanted to have rapid urbanization, and the destruction of village India.

[5] For instance, separate taps are a reality, and separate wells don’t exist in urban areas so by their very absence they cannot be points of discrimination. Consequently, one form of discrimination has been wiped out, not because of social justice, but by the dynamic of ‘development’. But Dalit areas are supplied water after the dominant castes even in Bangalore. Water and sanitation infrastructure are practically non-existent in areas where the demographics show predominantly oppressed habitation. The justification is often ‘scientific’, ‘logistics and infrastructure’, or economics, but discrimination nonetheless.

[6] The notorious ‘are you vegetarian’ question is used to deny housing to a majority in urban areas, even if they can afford it.

[7] Bangalore contributes about 50% of Karnataka’s GDP and has the largest number of salaried millionaires in the country. Mumbai alone pays more income tax than many states.

[8] One example that readily comes to mind is the NGO ‘empowerment’ of women by giving them boats, without knowing the fishing economy. Another is the ‘all-inclusive, consensus based’—but male only—tribal decision making bodies. The approach would be to include women in decision making based on the same ‘all inclusive, consensus based’ values, rather than mechanically including women into the all male decision making bodies.

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