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Nishant Pandey: “Development is not a quick fix”

Technology has completely transformed the way we lead life today. However, despite all the buzz, there is a vast digital divide in the world. For example, only around 25% of 1 million public schools in India have computers. COVID-19 has shown this digital divide in a very stark way when some children were able to […]

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Technology has completely transformed the way we lead life today. However, despite all the buzz, there is a vast digital divide in the world. For example, only around 25% of 1 million public schools in India have computers. COVID-19 has shown this digital divide in a very stark way when some children were able to switch to online learning, a significant majority of children worldwide could not, leading to a learning deficit and widening of the digital divide. I think there is an excellent opportunity to use technology to leapfrog on some of the biggest challenges we face today. Efforts are being made but not in a coherent, systematic way to put technology to use in eradicating poverty and inequality. Technology itself has become an asset unequally available to people. This needs to change to make sure that no one is left behind as we work towards a world that is free of poverty.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nishant Pandey.

Nishant Pandey is the CEO of the American India Foundation (AIF). In this capacity, Nishant provides strategic leadership to AIF’s operations spanning the US and India.

In his career spanning 20 years, he has forged several multi-stakeholder initiatives involving civil society, governments and corporate partners, big and small, global and local. He believes that in the history of humanity, we have never had so much resources, connectivity and power to make a positive difference to the lives of underprivileged and marginalized women, men and children.

Nishant speaks routinely on development issues and on corporate social responsibility. He has made several media appearances on prominent India channels like NDTV and CNN News18. Most recently, he authored an op-ed on the success of public- private partnerships in the Economic Times and participated in townhalls organized by CNN TV18 on rural healthcare.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Nishant! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a British Chevening scholar pursuing my postgraduate studies in Economics in the UK in 2000–01, the business model of high-street charity shops across the country caught my attention very early on. These are like the thrift shops in the US, but they operate in high-end market areas in the UK. Being a student living on a shoe-string budget, my friends and I relied on buying stuff from some of these charity shops. On one of my visits, I saw posters requesting donations to help the survivors of the refugee crisis in Afghanistan. Upon enquiring, I learnt that the income generated by these shops — through the sale of second-hand goods and financial contributions made by the generous public — helped to run development and humanitarian response projects in many low resource countries. Some of the volunteers who ran the shops I frequented were people with immense experience and knowledge on social development. My interactions with them and further reading helped me better understand and appreciate the interconnectedness, linkages of policies and practices globally and their impact on people’s lives in seemingly remote communities. This macro-micro link really fascinated me!

Like most economists, I started my career as a banker, but I think subconsciously I was attracted to the social issues (perhaps my undergrad degree in Anthropology contributed to it too) and that encouraged me to make the switch from banking to the nonprofit sector. It was not an easy decision at that time, but I have been privileged to serve, learn and lead in many contexts globally because of that decision 20 years back and I have never thought of going back to the for-profit sector.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

After taking over as the India Country Director for American India Foundation (AIF) in 2014, one of my first trips was to some remote tribal villages in India where we were running the Maternal and Newborn Survival Initiative (MANSI). I learnt that several mothers in that area had decided to name their baby girls MANSI, as a tribute to AIF’s life-saving program of the same name! During that trip, I had the opportunity to meet a few babies who were named after the program MANSI. It was an extraordinarily heartwarming and reassuring sign that we were doing something that was seen as a valuable contribution by the community, which otherwise doesn’t have access to quality and affordable healthcare. Sadly, India contributes around 25% of total newborn deaths globally. This has a serious implication on the global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 3 targets if India doesn’t perform. MANSI is our contribution towards the achievement of SDG3 while saving the lives of mothers and newborns in some of the remotest and most under-served communities in the world. If we were to fundraise 25 million dollars, we would be able to reduce newborn mortality by 50% across 10 million tribal populations over the next five years, i.e., an investment of just 0.50 dollars/person per year will reduce newborn mortality by 50%!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made a few embarrassing mistakes early on in my social development sector career as I was learning to hold the ropes. I am not sure if they are funny though, as almost everything you do as a social development professional has some form of impact on the lives of real people. So perhaps these stories can be called embarrassing!

A funny incident happened when I was on a field trip to a village called Her-Her in Armenia, some 15 years back, where we were running a microfinance project. This was in January and very cold with snow all over. At lunch-time, the village head invited us for lunch at his house, an invitation we happily accepted. Upon entering the house, we realized that they had actually set up a generous feast and as per the local practice ‘home-made’ vodka to go with it. The custom was that every few minutes the table head would raise a toast and everyone had to gulp the vodka shot. This being my first exposure to such a cultural practice, I didn’t want to disrespect my hosts and out of politeness ended up consuming more alcohol than I could handle. We must have had at least 10 rounds of neat Vodka shots during that lunch. Although it helped in trust-building with the community, I was ‘out’ by the time we finished lunch. To make matters worse, we had pre-scheduled meetings with the head of the municipality and other authorities after lunch. It was very embarrassing for me to ask one of my colleagues to represent me in those meetings. Next day, I promised myself to be measured in displaying my cultural sensitivity!

Around 15 years back, I was in the Hadramout Valley in Yemen on an assignment to design a livelihoods program for the community. I had gone there with a preconceived idea of what we could do as a project, and this was based on the global/national priorities of my organization. But when I conducted a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) with the community, ‘water scarcity’ emerged as the top-most issue that the community expected us to help them with. Eventually, I designed a program based on the FGD; however, it did not fit organizational priorities and therefore, never took off. It was a mistake that taught me my lesson on the importance of `needs-based programming’.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

AIF is a collective philanthropic platform to improve the lives of India’s underprivileged, with a special focus on women, children, and youth. Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon; therefore, AIF works on education, health, and livelihoods, the three most basic, essential and immediate needs of poor people. AIF’s unique value proposition is its broad engagement between communities, civil society, governments and the private sector, and our secret sauce is to do it in a way that it builds a lasting bridge between the United States and India, the two largest democracies of the world. As a secular and apolitical platform, our strategy is to demonstrate proof of concept on the ground and then work with local governments/authorities and the private sector to scale up the impact.

Founded in 2001, at the initiative of President Bill Clinton following a suggestion from Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee, AIF has impacted the lives of 6.7 Million of India’s poor through high-impact interventions in health, education and livelihoods. In addition, over the last 20 years, AIF has sponsored close to 500 young bright future leaders of tomorrow on a 10-month long service-oriented fellowship to work with the most disadvantaged sections of society, building a constituency of people who are ambassadors of a strong partnership between the US and India. With offices in New York and California, twelve chapters across the US, and India operations headquartered in Delhi NCR, AIF is transforming lives across 26 states of India while addressing these issues on a regional, country, and international scale.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

The countrywide lockdown due to COVID-19 and a sudden decision to close schools in March 2020 brought about an unprecedented pause in the education of millions of children in India. A day after the lockdown, seasonal hostels in villages where the children of migrant laborers are accommodated and provided education were shut down. This put migrant parents in a tough situation as they could not return to their villages and to be with their children in these tough times. Children who had neither relatives nor family members to look after them were left to fend for themselves.

15-year-old Doctaren Khadia from Magurpani in Odisha in India is one such child whose family migrates every year on a seasonal basis to work at the brick kilns in a neighboring state. In 2019, her parents Luv and Puspa Khadia migrated with her three older siblings to work, leaving behind 15-year-old Doctaren and her 13-year-old brother Susanta so that they could continue their education. With the closure of the seasonal hostel, Doctaren and Susanta were forced to return to their home. Being the older one, the responsibility of cooking and cleaning fell on Doctaren’s shoulders. This meant that she was not able to attend school regularly. Supported by AIF, the School Management Committee took note of the plight of children like her and helped them to get food rations through the mid-day meal (school meal scheme for preschool children) fund. AIF’s field team simultaneously reached out to the Gram Panchayat (village level local self-government) which then contributed by providing them with additional rice, to ensure that children didn’t go hungry in the evenings. Doctaren’s parents have now returned to their village, and after completing quarantine procedures, they are now home with all five children.

Children rarely get a second chance in life. AIF’s Learning and Migration Program (LAPM) has helped ensure that children of seasonal migrants like Doctaren and Susanta have the option to stay back to study while their parents migrate in search of livelihoods. Failing AIFs interventions, these children would have otherwise migrated with their parents to work in the brick kilns or salt panes or construction sites and be exposed to abuse/risks while at the same time being wholly deprived of an education. Since inception, LAMP has supported close to 584,000 children in 2,279 villages across 13 states of India and saved them from child labor/abuse. Today, close to 200 villages are ‘child migration free’. If we could raise 10 million dollars over five years, we would be able to make 5000 villages child migration free!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There are some necessary but often ignored approaches that

  1. Bottom-up approach: Top-down generic approaches have failed to deliver. The needs and requirements at the ground level are incredibly diverse, and a contextualized, nuanced approach is required to address the same. The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach has never worked. Addressing root problems requires our communities and elected officials to create systems in which those that are directly affected have a voice that is not only taken seriously, but has a meaningful impact on any solution. This requires a commitment to power-sharing from all parties.
  2. Decentralization: By removing the traditional top-down approach we must find processes germane to the problem and the unique communities they affect. This requires democratizing problem-solving and decision making so it is not concentrated solely at the top. To do so the existing capacity of these decentralized bodies must be assessed to enhance their capability with the appropriate tools and understandings to engage in the development process. This converts these bodies into active members with an authoritative voice in created change and not remaining helpless recipients.
  3. Co-ownership: There is a need to dispel the notion that solutions can be provided by the government only. Our experience has taught that consultations with the community and their capacity building not only improve their participation in decision making but also ensures cost-effectiveness of the intervention and, in the long term, positive partnership with the system.

As an example from the Nuapada district of the state of Odisha in India, where intensive investments done by AIF in the past, on building capacities, are yielding results. During the year 2019–20, community contributions for the upkeep of 15 Learning Resource Centers were 20,300 dollars (which is a decent sum in that context) and 178,733 dollars were leveraged from the Gram Panchayat (local self-government) budgets for school infrastructure development for 107 schools.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I subscribe to the belief that leadership can (and should) take different forms in different situations (what is often called as situational leadership). Therefore, for me, what is more, important is why I am taking a particular action or responding in a certain way than what action/response I choose to make. What guides me, therefore, are values and the three most important, universally applicable values in any situation are sincerity, integrity and commitment.

In my personal experience, leadership is about achieving the right balance — between here & now and setting a futuristic agenda, between the needs and interests of different stakeholders, between idealism and pragmatic realism and, between reflection and action.

In the resource-constrained world of nonprofits dealing with seemingly stubborn social issues, it is also useful to have the mindset of maximizing, to be thinking creatively about value-creation and to role-model resilience and perseverance.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Development is not a quick fix. It is an incremental process, sometimes frustrating but often rewarding! Many issues we are trying to address are intergenerational (for example, attitudes towards women/girl children) and take a long time to change.
  2. People-in-need have a solution to their problems; however, they may not have the means to solve them. As development workers, we need to listen to them and act as facilitators. My learning from the Yemen story mentioned earlier attests to this.
  3. The causes of poverty are complex and multidimensional, and therefore intersectionality in development practice is very important. Poor education leads to poor income, poor income means limited finances to access health services, which in turn contributes to poor education and so on. That’s why at AIF, we follow a multidimensional approach to addressing poverty and do not just focus on a single theme.
  4. Social work is hard work with long hours, limited resources, emotionally draining etc, unlike popular perception. Some people join non-profits in the expectation that it will not be demanding. Nonprofits demand more effort because most nonprofits are typically resource-constrained organizations.
  5. There exists a trust-deficit between nonprofits and the general public or between nonprofits and the governments and therefore strong systems on transparency and accountability. When I took over as the CEO of AIF, we put in the effort to improve our ratings, and today I am proud to say that AIF is a top-rated charity by both Charity Navigator and Guidestar, the two largest global nonprofit rating agencies.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Technology has completely transformed the way we lead life today. However, despite all the buzz, there is a vast digital divide in the world. For example, only around 25% of 1 million public schools in India have computers. COVID-19 has shown this digital divide in a very stark way when some children were able to switch to online learning, a significant majority of children worldwide could not, leading to a learning deficit and widening of the digital divide.

I think there is an excellent opportunity to use technology to leapfrog on some of the biggest challenges we face today. Efforts are being made but not in a coherent, systematic way to put technology to use in eradicating poverty and inequality. Technology itself has become an asset unequally available to people. This needs to change to make sure that no one is left behind as we work towards a world that is free of poverty.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

The Bhagavad Gita, the famous Sanskrit treatise from ancient India has a verse that reads

“कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन। मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते सङ्गोऽस्त्वकर्मणि॥”

“Karmanyev Adhikaraste, Ma faleshu Kadachana. Ma karmafal hetu bhuh, ma te sangah astu akarmani”

This can be literally translated to

On your duty only, you have the right. Not on the fruits of it ever.

Never, for the desire for fruit should you perform. Nor let your attachment be to inaction (in performance of your duties).

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

As I said before, non-profit work can become a little serious and a bit intense since we are dealing with issues of injustice, inequality and poverty. It is therefore important to keep a sense of humor and be able to communicate serious subjects lightly without losing impact or being frivolous about it. I am very impressed by the way someone like Trevor Noah articulates serious social issues in such an engaging, humorous style, and I would like to understand how he does that and perhaps learn a trick or two from him. I don’t take breakfast but would love to have the opportunity to have a private lunch with Trevor.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I would warmly welcome your readers to connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter @nishant_AIF and follow AIF on our social media channels (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram) or simply subscribe to our monthly newsletter on www.aif.org.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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