GBL Access
Shalin Gor

Shalin Gor

August 31st, 2021 9 min read

Asking better questions and listening to learn

“And on behalf of everyone at Good Business Lab, I'd like to thank you for contributing to our new thought leadership platform – GBL Access – where we're on a mission to provide our growing community with research insights from the field and beyond to drive good business action.”

What is ‘thought leadership’? What does this mean for us at GBL? What unique value can we add to our community and partners? What opportunities can we create for our employees to contribute and develop? How can we design this initiative – whatever form it may take – to be sustainable, and not a ‘one-and-done’ as is often the unfortunate outcome of many well-intentioned campaigns?

The months leading up to the enthusiastic delivery of our mission statement by GBL Co-Founder Prof. Achyuta Adhvaryu in conversation with Prof. Ashwini Deshpande of Ashoka University over Zoom, were spent grappling with these questions.

Many ideas were discussed. Some shaped what Access has become today, a few were ahead of their time and will be kept up our sleeves, and a large majority will remain tucked away on archived brainstorms. But from the outset, there was an unwavering commitment to give it a real go. Our debut campaign, we decided, wouldn’t be a tentative toe-dip in the water.

And this excitement to try something new gripped GBL.

Over a third of our employees – from senior leadership to associates – contributed to transforming this idea from a neat PowerPoint deck to a real project. Every ounce of energy spent on background research, partnership engagement, content creation and writing, website development, and, most importantly, camaraderie to keep us motivated through the pains of the COVID waves, was required to make this work.

To do justice to the passion of the team, our grand ambitions for GBL Access, and the existential crises which were devastating the communities within which we operate, our debut series – “But, what about me? I can’t work from home.” – was conceptualized to explore three themes against the backdrop of the pandemic: the impact on supply chains and labor-intensive industries (Rebuilding Resilience), the plight of migrant workers (Life or Livelihood), and the consequences on female labor force participation in India (Future of Women’s Work).

A non-negotiable was that the content would need to be reflective of our ideological positioning at the center of the business, academia, policy, and grassroots change Venn diagram. To help craft our holistic narrative, and tackle each of these mammoth themes, we had the fortune to engage with experts from a variety of leading development organizations.

Joining our three Co-Founders – Prof. Achyuta Adhvaryu, Prof. Anant Nyshadham, and Anant Ahuja – and Smit Gade, Senior Research and Data Manager, for conversations were Katrina Gordon – Manager of Forced Labor and Human Trafficking at Humanity United, and Charles Bodwell – Enterprise Development Specialist at International Labour Organization (ILO) for Rebuilding Resilience; Dr. Divya Nair – Director at IDinsight, and Sharanya Chandran – Associate Director at J-PAL South Asia for Life or Livelihood; and Prof. Ashwini Deshpande – Professor of Economics at Ashoka University, and Dr. Shagun Sabarwal – Director at J-PAL South Asia for the Future of Women’s Work.

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“For me, there are two stand out images of the pandemic,” Smit Gade introduced in conversation with Sharanya Chandran. “The first is of people coming out of their houses and banging their pots and pans. The second, in contrast, is of migrants packing everything they have in their backpacks and walking to their native places.”

This stark imagery, and similarly distressing stories, naturally underpinned most of the conversations. With its domination of international media since March 2020, such scenes beamed a spotlight on the disproportionate economic impact of this crisis on marginalized communities and, in doing so, cemented the pandemic’s role as the unimpeachable auditor of the many long-standing societal issues and vulnerabilities faced by some groups – notably migrants, low-income workers in labor-intensive industries, and women.

“The striking thing about this pandemic is that it took a visible outflux of large groups of people – physically on the move – for us all to recognize the extent of vulnerability of migrants, and also unorganized sector workers in the economy,” Sharanya Chandran added before diving into a discussion on the effectiveness of government welfare schemes for migrants, and the importance of skilling and job opportunities for the youth as part of the Life or Livelihood theme.  

Attempting to unpack the complex web of challenges women face in participating in the formal labor force was as difficult as expected. But surprisingly, the pandemic made it both harder and easier: harder in that the existing issues and divides were deepened and further complicated, easier in that these issues were brought to the fore and provided ample points for targeted conversations.

The decline of the female labor force participation rate (FLPR) in India over the past fifteen years, to 21 percent as of 2019, inspired our Future of Women’s Work theme. The aim ultimately being to further our collective understanding of why this is happening, and to improve the precision of the questions we are asking.

Insightful conversations with Prof. Ashwini Deshpande and Dr. Shagun Sabarwal covered conundrums economists have long been grappling with, including the extent to which the declining FLPR is dictated by the demand for work versus the supply of work opportunities, and the role of ‘social norms’ in deciding whether – or the extent to which – women should work.

But, interestingly, the conversations converged on the urgent need to challenge the fundamental definitions which inform the statistics we readily quote on FLPR.

What type of “work” should be counted as economic participation? What is the definition of “productive” work? How is the “participation” rate being measured? Who are we asking the survey questions – household (often male) representatives or the women themselves?

“All across the world, what allows people to participate in ‘productive’ work is the fact that women take the bulk of the so-called unproductive work within the home,” Prof. Deshpande noted, to be one of the “world’s biggest social safety nets” and an example of how women’s economic contributions are inadequately reflected in traditional labor force participation metrics.

And regarding the parameters on which participation is being measured, Dr. Sabarwal warned, “If we don't figure out how we measure women's economic empowerment right, not only do we run the risk of not understanding the barriers and the constraints, we also may be blindsided into thinking certain programs don't work because our measures are faulty and not picking up the variation. That, to me, is the more scary part.”

Dr. Divya Nair, Director and lead of IDinsight’s COVID response team in India, also shared how, based on her team’s experience of struggling to reach and engage with women while conducting household surveys over the phone in the pandemic-induced shift to remote field work, the pandemic has highlighted the deep digital gender divide. 

“Just to give you a very simple example,” she began in conversation with Prof. Nyshadham, “the fact that we're using phone surveys means – to your question on why we do not have specific insights on women migrants – that there is a bias in terms of who we were able to access on the phone. We're conscious that when talking about finance and digital inclusion, there is a constraint that women just don't have access to the phone. For example, very often in the household the man takes the phone with him to the field and there is disparity in phone access in terms of talk time. Similarly, therefore, there are access issues in terms of the services that are provided by the phone, so that itself is a first order constraint. I think it speaks to fundamental issues of empowerment and women's agency.”

Our conversation with Dr Nair covered the impact of the pandemic on the migrant workforce, access to government relief, and digital and financial inclusion – building on our project partnership with IDinsight where we evaluated the impact of training sessions on digital remittance behaviors of female garment workers in India.

Garment manufacturers were particularly devastated by the pandemic. And with the bulk of our research in India being in partnership with Shahi Exports, one of the country’s largest exporters of ready-made garments, the industry was the focus of our Rebuilding Resilience theme.

Forced closure of factories during strict lockdowns left the livelihoods of their workforce who did not have the option of working from home at the mercy of the firm’s financial stability – which, due to its position as supplier to, and reliance on, international brands, tied their fate to consumer spending decisions. And many, including myself, drastically cut fashion spending from their pandemic budgets which triggered a down-stream domino effect on the fashion supply chain.

ILO acted swiftly to protect labor interests through the crisis. They spearheaded an industry call-to-action on behalf of suppliers to force brands to make true on their order commitments – the initial cancellations of which sparked international outrage. ILO also provided expert advice to help firms stabilize their operations and support their huge workforce. 

“The ILO Business Resilience guides for garment manufacturing firms came about by brainstorming in our team and trying to decide how to help factories.” Charles Bodwell explained in conversation with Prof. Nyshadham. “They needed immediate assistance. They don't need a training program to be built up when dealing with a disaster response. There are different needs at different points, and over the last year it was really about survival. How do we make it through this period of dramatically reduced orders, or the other things we are dealing with, and how do we do that quickly?”

As the industry moves on from survival mode to rebuilding operations with what was hopefully the worst of the pandemic now past, Mr Bodwell hopes that the lessons learned by firms on the fragility of supply chains and importance of worker wellbeing aren’t forgotten. “There's a lot of ‘back to business,’ a desire, of course, by everybody to get back to business. It would be nice if it was back to a better business, from business to business prime: the one where we have better relations and we have better health and safety.”

“Good management, good labor practices, and good environmental practices go hand in hand. A well-run factory looks at all of those, it optimizes for its resources; and people are a primary one in a labor-intensive factory,” he concluded. 

As a global nonprofit working on worker rights and agency, Humanity United was also quick to aid their partners and organizations fighting on the front-lines. “So in 2020, we had a $2.3 million fund that was allocated to about 50 organizations and also was able to serve as support to a number of other organizations in non-financial ways,” Katrina Gordon recalled in conversation with Anant Ahuja. 

“But we were able to give either sponsorships or general operating support grants with minimal formal reporting requirements for grantees. I think we learned a lot through the engagements that these are organizations that are on the ground doing the work. And so, as funders, the more we could allow them to do the work and engage in other ways other than with formal lengthy reports and extra conversations, the better that would be.”

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Research insights for good business action.

That’s the tagline. The mission statement. Our promise to our community, partners, and, ultimately, to ourselves. And as we wrap up the external-facing element of our debut season of GBL Access, internal reviews are already underway to assess whether we achieved what we set out to do.

Having the clearance to take on this project wide-eyed and full of ambition has presented us with infinite points of reflection, with the toughest question being: have our research insights-driven good business action?

Hopefully. That’s perhaps as definitive the answer can ever be with thought leadership. While this process has undoubtedly created opportunities for us to collaborate with our partners, and engage with people who we might otherwise not have reached, what evades us is how we can track if our content has directly inspired somebody to take action, or trigger a new line of thinking.

We can just hope that our insights have challenged people to think differently, to ask better questions, and to listen with the sole purpose of learning something new.


Article written by Shalin Gor, Marketing & Transformation Manager at GBL. Visit the GBL Access webpage to view all the partner interviews and articles. Send an email to access@goodbusinesslab.org for partnerships and collaborations.


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