Interview – Anita Gupta and Sheela Patel

When company and NGO know what they want from each other, a company–NGO partnership can be a true partnership of equals. Caroline Hartnell talked to Anita Gupta of Citibank and Sheela Patel of Mumbai NGO SPARC. SPARC’s success in renegotiating World Bank building and tendering regulations shows that a confident NGO can hold its own with even the biggest players.

‘Why are you making such a silly face to have your photo taken?’ Not quite the remark you expect an NGO director to be addressing to a key corporate sponsor. There is a lot of talk about partnerships these days, much of it lip service, but the partnership between SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) and Citibank looks surprisingly like the real thing.

SPARC’s early years

SPARC was established 15 years ago. As director Sheela Patel explained, the first ten years were basically a hard struggle to build a strong and workable alliance with the local communities. ‘We had taken on one of the toughest issues – urban poverty. To begin with there were no good stories, other than the fact that large numbers of poor people were getting together.’

Funding at this stage came from 20 or 25 different individuals and organizations. Having a large group of funders is important. ‘Nobody gives us more than 20 per cent, now 28 per cent, of our income. We feel comfortable in making choices ourselves and we don’t feel restricted, which is what happens when somebody gives you most of your money.’

From 1995, SPARC began to negotiate directly with bilateral and multilateral organizations such as the UN and the World Bank, approaching these giants with confidence. ‘We have strategies, skills and capacities which are essential to anybody that wants to do anything in cities – municipal government or aid agency. In fact there are very few ways of doing things that we haven’t looked at.’

So SPARC comes to any negotiation with a lot of its own expertise: ‘We don’t come like beggars, we don’t come and say, "Please give poor people money".’
Negotiating with the World Bank

It seems that local government can borrow money or raise capital to build communal toilets, but it can rarely manage and maintain them. The result is that that they become so dilapidated and disgusting that people stop using them in five years’ time. SPARC’s approach is: ‘OK, if the local government builds the toilets with the World Bank loan, and takes responsibility for making sure that the water is available and the drainage system works, the communities will do the design and construction in a way that suits them, and then take responsibility for the daily cleaning, maintaining and so on. We’ll make a small collection to cover the running costs.’

But agreeing this was not an easy or quick process. It involved three years’ negotiations between the World Bank, the Municipality of Mumbai and SPARC. So what took so long?  ‘Every single thing that is stipulated in World Bank procedural manuals has to be changed if you want communities to do the work.’ Take for instance the toilet doors. The Bank stipulates pre-moulded plastic doors but the communities prefer wooden doors. If a wooden door breaks, they have access to recycled materials to mend it with. If a plastic door breaks, it’s finished. And there will be no money to pay for a new one.

The Bank tendering rules also needed to be changed. SPARC wanted a clause to say that if communities agree to do the work themselves with NGOs, they should not have to tender. They should present an estimate and then invoice for the ‘actuals’. Tendering should be for external contractors only. That the World Bank accepted this is quite a triumph, even if it did take three years.

Meeting with Citibank: SPARC’s side of the story

So how did SPARC get involved with Citibank? Sheela Patel first met Anita Gupta, newly appointed Vice President and Director for Corporate Affairs, about three years ago. Money was not what she was primarily interested in. ‘My attitude was, I can get money from some other organization. But I would like access to Citibank’s human resources – financial people, people who deal with housing, and so on. When Anita asked for ‘a laundry list of things we could do for you’, SPARC gave her ‘a whole lot of things’.

After a couple of months Paul Ostergard, head of the Citibank foundation, came to India. By this time everybody Sheela talked to was extremely worried about the prospect of a partnership. ‘Citibank has a reputation as a very tough bank. It had had a lot of bad publicity.’ But Sheela was not to be put off: ‘I focused on the fact that both Paul and Anita were ready to invest in this partnership.’

One stipulation that SPARC made was that Citibank should give a commitment that the senior people would come with her to different events – as Anita was doing at the IFRG conference in Amsterdam where I met them both.

Culture clash

Of course not everything was straightforward. ‘We have really had to work very hard to embed this partnership in each other’s organization, because you are talking about two totally different cultures and work types.’

Sheela identified three main problems. The first turns on time. ‘Our volunteers are some of the most successful in Citibank, so they are really hard pressed for time. I have made the choice to stick with them rather than get people who have more time. They have volunteered in the first place, they are very committed, but they are very busy people. I have to allow a lot of time to get anything done. Initially I had a problem, now it has reduced.’

The second problem concerns volunteer attitudes. ‘A lot of them just want to do good. They’re used to much more traditional philanthropy work. Our organization is not used to dealing with honest middle-class people who come in to teach us. We have our own style of working, we learn as peers not students. There is a sort of misfit.’

The third difficulty is that the number of people who want to volunteer far exceeds what the organization can harness. ‘When you set up a volunteers programme you need to have somebody who does nothing but look after the volunteers. But our organization is very small. Citibank has embedded the SPARC relationship so deeply in its thinking that when employees undergo their assessment they have to say how many hours of community work they have done. So there is a combination of real interest in volunteering plus a push from the top. That has created a bit of frustration.’

Citibank in India

Citibank’s involvement with SPARC arose out of a deliberate attempt to change the bank’s image. Citibank had been in India for almost 97 years. According to Anita Gupta, it had always been perceived by customers and the general public as an innovative, technologically advanced bank but not as a socially responsible corporation.

Over the last five years the bank has been developing an ’embedded bank strategy’ for the emerging markets. Essentially that means embedding itself in the local economy, widening its customer base to include local companies and lower-income groups, and changing its image. It wants to be seen not as a multinational but as a foreign bank with a strong local culture. To do that it is essential to be seen as committed to the national agenda of the countries in which it is doing business.

The bank therefore looked at its sponsorship strategy over the years: ‘We had basically supported a fair number of causes, but it did not add up to a corporate image.’ An employee satisfaction survey also revealed that employees wanted to contribute to a philanthropy programme at a corporate level.

‘In searching for the corporate theme we looked at the major issues that concerned India as a country. We were quite clear that the programme would have to be urban-based if we wanted to use Citibank employees as volunteers. So we looked at areas in which Citibank as an organization had skills and experience. Whatever programme we launched, we wanted it to be credible in the eyes of the public and not just perceived as a public relations exercise. We felt that financial management was indeed a tried and tested skill that we could transfer to society.’

Meeting with SPARC: Citibank’s side of the story

Just as SPARC was looking for a company that offered more than funding, so Citibank was looking for ‘a special kind of NGO’. ‘We met with several NGOs,’ said Anita. ‘Some were not sure that they would like to embrace the culture of a bank. Some said it was fine to receive funds from us, but they didn’t want our intervention in their organization. We were quite clear that we wanted an organization that was innovative, that was looking to becoming self-sustaining in a short time, that was hungry for management expertise that would be very expensive for them to acquire. We were looking for an NGO based in Mumbai and dealing with urban poverty.’

SPARC fitted the bill in every way. It was small, innovative, very interested in Citibank technology. Most importantly, it was keen to benefit from Citibank’s management and financial skills. ‘So that is really how the relationship and the marriage took place.’

The marriage has of course had teething problems, especially for the volunteers. ‘We needed volunteers to go out and see the real world, which up till now they had no experience of: even in their capacity as individuals, they would just write out a cheque. But to actually deal with a slum, to sit on the floor among a women’s cooperative and then go back home to a very different kind of lifestyle, that required great courage for Citibank employees.’

Citibank also learned, perhaps surprisingly, that SPARC had financial expertise it did not have, in the area of microcredit lending. ‘The most important thing that we as an organization have learned is to deal with them as equals.’ If Anita makes a suggestion and Sheela says, for example, that it’s not ‘politically correct’, that’s that.

‘It was not a handout we were giving them, but rather a hand up.’ It seems that SPARC has also given Citibank a hand up: a recent survey of clients and potential clients shows that the bank’s image has indeed improved.

The partnership in practice

The most ambitious joint venture so far is the Dhavari slum development. SPARC and the Rajiv Indira Housing Cooperative together designed a scheme to build homes for 76 slum and pavement dwellers in Dhavari, Asia’s largest slum. Citibank provided a loan of $900,000, with the loan terms designed by Citibank volunteers. The UK-based Homeless International deposited £100,000 with Citibank (London) out of its loan guarantee fund as a partial guarantee of the loan. Development of commercial ‘for sale’ apartments for middle-income households will subsidize the development and enable the loan to be repaid.

Financial support is a small part of what Citibank offers SPARC – between US$30,000 and $50,000 a year out of a total annual income of $500,000. Citibank volunteers are currently designing software to store data for the microcredit scheme, while the Citibank CEO regularly makes the case in the finance sector for providing banking services to poor people.

For further information about SPARC, contact Sheela Patel on +91 22 309 6730 or at!
For information about Homeless International, contact director Ruth McLeod on +44 24 766 32802 or at

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