Written by Abha Thorat-Shah, British Asian Trust

Ever since our birth in 2007, the British Asian Trust has sought to deliver high-quality programmes across South Asia.  Driven by the vision of leading members of the diaspora and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, our aim has always been to play a substantial role in ending inequality and injustice in South Asia by using new, innovative approaches. The entrepreneurial spirit of both HRH and our British Asian supporter base has run through our DNA from the start, meaning that we have always been incredibly ambitious, we strive to make impact at scale, we seek to achieve great value for money and we are prepared to take risks to achieve great results.

 By 2016 we had changed the lives of more than three million people across South Asia and established excellent programmes with a range of brilliant local partner organisations.  We were pleased with this, but not satisfied, as we knew we had the potential to achieve more.  Driven by the ambitions of our Board, we considered how we could drive even greater scale and impact in the region.  We were also aware of global discussions calling for more funds to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, and whilst we support the need for more funding we have always felt that the funds already in the system could be made more accountable and more impactful. 

 The decision was therefore made to expand our work to embrace social finance. From our substantial experience of working in South Asia, we knew that philanthropy by itself can be incredibly positive, but it is not enough.  Embracing social finance approaches can complement and support philanthropy by driving a much greater focus on measurement and outcomes.

 In parallel, our partners in South Asia were also experimenting with such approaches with success. Educate Girls had just started work on the world’s first Development Impact Bond to bring girls back into school and ensure that they were able to aspire for quality education. And partner organisations such as BRAC in Bangladesh and Akhuwat in Pakistan were already years ahead with approaches to social businesses and micro finance.

We were inspired and ready to dive in!

Together with like-minded organisations, most especially the UBS Optimus Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, we developed plans for the largest education Development Impact Bond in the world – the aim being to enable 200,000 children across four States of India, to not just attend school, but learn the skills that would allow them to change their future.  And then we convinced other organisations, from the private sector, foundation world and NGO sector, to come on board, leading eventually to an amazing collaboration of 15 partner organisations. 

Embracing social finance has proved to be a huge turning point for the British Asian Trust’s programmatic work in the region.

 We began aligning our core principles to those values that make Development Impact Bonds so impactful. Today, we look to draw a clear link between our aspirations in the development sector and what might be evidence-driven outcomes. Monitoring and evaluation is put upfront and is at the heart of everything we do. We chart out design and strategy by first identifying what we want to achieve and then developing an appropriate measurement indicator. We look for data, identify evidence, focus on outcomes and use our partnerships to scale the manner in which we deliver impact. The evidence and learnings generated from our work will enable others, including governments, to effectively deliver on their development agenda.

 This new approach has transformed everything we do at the British Asian Trust and the way we think about development. Meanwhile, we have also grown as an organisation, moving from being on the sidelines of development discussions to now being a thoughtful player within the sector. The biggest testimony to which was our ability to swiftly change and pivot our work, as the word began to grapple with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

 The support of partners such as BT, Comic Relief, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Mittal Foundation, the Larry Ellison Foundation and Tata Trusts have been invaluable during this journey. They have acted as supporters, advisors and enablers to help us deliver on our vision.

 No-one knows what the future holds in a post-COVID world.  But what we do know is that there will be less funding available for a while, so all funding must be accountable and as impactful as possible.  We know donors will want to see more data and greater evidence. We know that local organisations will achieve more if they are allowed to flourish.  Social finance will be at the heart of this – unlocking new funding, ensuring greater accountability of those funds and working with great local partners organisations to bring about real impact at scale.  Despite the challenges ahead for South Asia, it will be hugely exciting for the British Asian Trust to be at the heart of these developments in the years to come, hopefully playing a role in ensuring we change the way that development works for the better, for ever.