The fate of Rohingyas in India – being fought out in our courts

From The Hindu

Senior advocate Fali Nariman, appearing for the Rohingya community, said “in case of any difficulty we will come here”.

But Mr. Mehta put up a stiff resistance to the tenor of the proceedings, asking the court why they should even address the question of deportation at this stage without any reason for such apprehensions coming up now.

“We know what to do… if Your Lordships say anything, it will have international ramifications. No such contingency has arrived so far,” Mr. Mehta submitted.

“Make sure no such contingency is arrived at, in case of which petitioners (Rohingyas) can come (to SC),” the Bench observed.



‘Mechanism mapping’ for policy design

I just finished reading a recent working paper by Martin Williams, titled “External validity and policy adaptation: From impact evaluation to policy design”.

In this paper, Martin tackles the question – how will a policymaker apply evidence available to her to design a policy/programme that will fix a particular problem at hand? He first takes us through the ways in which we think of this currently – primarily by attempts to strengthen the external validity of evaluations – and points out the limitations of these approaches. The central critique is that most of this thinking puts the evaluators/researchers at the centre and tries to devise ways in which the evidence generated by their research can be generalised beyond their specific study samples. This is at odds with what a policymaker (in this paper, a public official in a given country) needs in order to make decisions about how to use evidence from elsewhere to design a policy/programme for her specific context.

The answer, Martin suggests, is ‘mechanism mapping’ – a five-step process where the public official lays out:

Step 1: The theory of change (ToC) of the programme that generated the evidence at hand;

Step 2: The context within which the programme ToC worked;

Step 3: The context at the destination – local factors that will affect a potential replication;

Step 4: By doing the above, interrogate the evidence with the new context, and suggest design modifications; and

Step 5: Iterate, until the gaps are plugged.

Sounds reasonably straight-forward, and would seem to function quite well as a way to break it down for a public official who needs inputs into designing programmes. At the same time, introducing a structured way to do this lends a degree of rigour that will benefit the process.

A point made repeatedly in this paper is that a lot of the thinking around research, evaluation and evidence is focused on the researchers/evaluators. As a result, many of these conversations focus on whether (and how) a certain body of evidence that has been generated would apply ‘elsewhere’, without necessarily specifying a destination for this policy design. Thinking about this from the perspective of the public official ensures that the problem is framed as “what tools do public officials need to apply evidence to their specific context” instead of “how can our evidence be applied in the design of public policy elsewhere”. This switch in perspective allows us to do more than just empathise with the constraints that public officials function within. It enables us to think of solutions that focus on the end-user, even if that might mean trade-offs in statistical rigour.

This brings me to an important factor in how this would work – is the availability of information, and the institutional set-up where the mechanism mapping might take place. How well equipped is a public official in a capital city of a developing country to do this? Who should he consult? Will he? How decentralised is policymaking in the said country, and how does that factor in? My first frame of reference is India, so please pardon my concern for size and complexity. It will ultimately boil down to having reasonable limits to such consultation, and to the amount of information that will be fed into such an exercise.

Another factor to consider is the capacity of public officials. At a time when even researchers hardly fully understand (or bother with) complex theories of change, assuming that public officials will do this on their own requires a certain faith in their capacity. Martin’s core experience of bureaucracy and public management comes from Ghana, where he spent two years working within the Ministry of Trade and Industry. This is reflected in what I think is a key characteristic of this paper – Martin’s ability to think like a public official. Working in a stable state with a reasonably functional public sector, as opposed to a nascent or a failing state, shapes one’s perspectives of state and bureaucratic capacity in significant ways. If your canvas is the former, you are more likely to trust that public officials are reasonably able to competently design and implement policies, and that their work lies within a stable policy context. But even so, public officials will need training and support. And researchers will need to be trained to resist the temptation to turn up their noses at these inevitably ‘messy’ exercises.

Below, is an illustration (this is not from the paper) of how a public official might approach this process, beyond going through the ‘mechanism mapping exercise’ – by considering the combinations thrown up by the interaction between “complexity of the ToC” and “complexity of Context”.  For simplicity, I present four scenarios, and in each, the responses a public official might have in order to move ahead with policy design. The top-right quadrant represents a complex programme ToC that needs to be applied to a complex context – a big challenge, where the response has to be a willingness to experiment and iterate. On the other hand, is the quadrant on the bottom-left, which is likely to be satisfied by technical fixes. Note that this figure does not directly mention ‘information gaps’, although a high level of complexity indicates a high probability of information asymmetries on both counts – in the ToC, as well as in the Context.


Finally, I did not forget to ask myself this – “did we not already know all this?” Like with a lot of the work on ‘adaptive management’ and PDIA, I think the honest answer is that we do, but certainly not enough of it, and not in a systematic manner. Good programmes travel, and policy adaptation is a continuous process – public officials (and other practitioners) learn and adapt continuously. ‘Mechanism mapping’ is a powerful tool to systematise this iterative learning process, and potentially, shorten the learning curve. In a context where the application of evidence to policy design cannot be taken for granted, this paper and its illustration of ‘mechanism mapping’ is an important contribution.

Here is the policy memo. What we need next is a training module for public officials – I hear its coming soon, to a website near you…

Modi needs a revamped National Advisory Council 

Demonetisation failed and the economy suffered, unsurprisingly so — as any dispassionate observer with even limited understanding of the economy would tell you. It is time to face up to the fact that the Narendra Modi government suffers from a severe talent deficit. Key sectors that need serious reforms have been languishing, often for lack of good ideas. Instead, big announcements have taken precedence and policy reforms often being confused with the launch and publicity of high-profile programmes. Some of these fizzle out without much consequence, such as Make in India, Stand Up, Start Up India or Swachh Bharat, but others, such as Demonetisation do significant damage and threaten to derail the entire economy. The GST’s implementation woes have added to the overall sense of doom and gloom in the economy.

This is the consequence of the government lacking a credible ‘brain trust’ — a set of competent individuals whose primary motivations are to all-round development of the country; they possess core sector expertise; and enjoy strong reputations as credible, independent voices. If you scan the premier institutions of India today, you will be hard-pressed to find any names of repute — economists, educationists, sociologists, historians — and the ruling dispensation has a distinctly anti-intellectual air about it. This holds true even amongst Union Ministers and Chief Ministers, most of whom are today drawn from the same pool of political talent, where governance is an after-thought, and in the list of priorities, appears way below socio-cultural brainwashing.

Governments in the past have utilised the services of eminent citizens to complement the strengths and make up for the weaknesses of both the political leadership and the government bureaucracy. Narendra Modi too, announced his intention to dismantle the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog. While revisiting centralised planning is a worthy objective, what one did not bargain for was a body that neither facilitated planning, nor provided quality advice to government. The NITI Aayog does not even function as an independent evaluator. So while there was clearly a gap that an organisation like NITI Aayog needed to fill, it had neither the requisite mandate, nor the talent to facilitate brainstorming on specific policy measures.

The UPA government had experimented with another option — the National Advisory Council (NAC). While the NAC faced tremendous opposition from both within government, and the then Opposition, it was easy to recognise that a lot of the criticism were just a means to attack Congress President, Sonia Gandhi. However, the NAC experience offers important lessons, and should be considered by any government when designing its policy advisory mechanisms.

The NAC was made up of genuinely credible individuals. Its members were a mix of social sector workers, activists, academics, former bureaucrats, and from the corporate sector, and they contributed significantly to some of the most defining legislations of the UPA-era. Perhaps the greatest proof of individual credibility of the NAC members was the fact that they, on occasion, did not hesitate to criticise the government, and the Congress party.

This government can neither bear a strong RBI Governor, nor can it get a credible expert to head the NITI Aayog. It refuses to listen to its Chief Economic Advisor, and when a rare something goes right, only one man can be credited for it all. With just over eighteen months to go for the next Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi has to set this right. The last cabinet reshuffle inducted three former bureaucrats as Ministers of State — an indication as clear as any, that he is conscious of the scarcity of options amongst his elected members of Parliament. Moreover, as we have already seen, switching out one cabinet minister for another is not going to stop trains from derailing. Shuffling ministers around is also not going to improve border security. Bringing on board a half-economist as an Advisor to the Prime Minister is not going to work either. Modi has to demonstrate that he is willing to call upon credible technical experts and public intellectuals to work collectively with the Union Cabinet, and offer sound inputs into policy formulation and design.

The risks in such a move are minimal. The NAC model was criticised in the past as a cabal of unelected people who imposed their views over the government. Today, we have a “strong” Prime Minister who enjoys an unprecedented mandate, and there is hardly any risk that a group of experts will threaten the massive people’s mandate that he enjoys. A revamped NAC (with a different name, of course) is just what is needed.

India is at a critical juncture of its development journey. The opportunities are many, but the clock is ticking away on our demographic dividend. As the economy flounders, it is getting harder to refute charges of mismanagement and incompetence. The ruling party should worry about social media “propaganda”, but also spend time fixing what it lacks — policymaking and administrative talent. But it is unlikely to. Don’t you know why?

Is Liberia’s PSL pilot headed for failure?

I have previously written about how Liberia deserves our support as it experiments to find fixes to its currently-struggling education sector. The Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL) covering about 120 schools will generate evidence, and provide decision-makers in Liberia with the tools to iterate, and reform their largely dysfunctional schooling system. The pilot is accompanied by an independent impact evaluation, carried out by researchers, Mauricio Romero, Justin Sandefur, and Wayne Aaron Sandholtz.

Well, the initial results are in. The main findings from the first round of data collection (one year into the pilot) are:

  1. Student learning outcomes improved significantly (equivalent to 0.6 extra years in school, or 60% more learning) in schools except those providers who were visibly absent from the programme.
  2. Teachers spent more time in the classroom (time-on-task improved significantly); parent and student satisfaction has improved.
  3. Questionable management practices, most prominently in schools operated by Bridge International Academies (hereafter BIA or Bridge). Wider issues of compliance with contract conditions were found, and for some reason, BIA that had unique contracting arrangements remained a part of this evaluation.
  4. Private operators have brought in significant amounts of additional funding to top-up the government grant of $50 per child. Even as it looks fiscally unviable, it may be worth waiting for more evidence.

It is important to note that while schools were randomly allocated to private providers, the entire sample of schools selected for the pilot is not quite the ‘average’ Liberian school. The schools selected were typically better resourced, and had better road and internet connectivity in some cases. The government provided a selected from amongst its best teachers to these schools.

Even in this favourable scenario, the learning gains registered are substantial. The change in management of schools seems to have helped. Private providers and their modified pedagogical methods have yielded learning outcomes. At the same time, how the schools function is directly determined by how they are run, and if private providers are seen to be functioning in ways that hurt the wider schooling system, the chances of their being adopted and scaled up are slim. At the very least, there will be a popular blowback from any such scale-up. Further, the biggest private provider in this pilot, BIA, by sacking teachers, and enforcing class-size caps, indulged in practices that potentially hurt poor children, and negatively impacted the quality of education delivered to children in schools outside the PSL pilot.

As the researchers explain in their paper:

Large-scale dismissal of teachers was unique to one operator (Bridge International Academies), but successful lobbying for additional teachers was common across several operators. This contradicts a core selling point of PSL as we understood it, which was that the program would improve the management and training of government teachers, rather than replace them. Although weeding out bad teachers is important, a reshuffling of teachers is unlikely to raise average performance in the system as a whole… 


…While enrollment increased across all contractors, the smallest treatment effect on this margin is for Bridge, which is consistent with that contractor being the only one enforcing class size caps…in classes where class-size caps were binding (10% of all classes holding 30% of students at baseline), enrollment fell by 20 students per grade. This issue was mostly restricted to Bridge International Academies

While we keep in mind that these are early results, these concerns are important, and makes one worry that the pilot is headed to fail. Surely, some critics will react with “I-told-you-so”, but the nuances of PPP implementation and the mechanisms that yield improvements in learning outcomes merit investing in an evaluation such as this one. So here are a few related questions, to which I hope we will have some answers over the coming months:

  • State capacity to run PPPs: Is there scope for genuine partnerships between the public and private sector? Enforcing contracts isn’t easy for the best of governments, and this is Liberia. If we accept that the government is weak at delivering education outcomes on its own, can it play the role of an effective regulator? How do we work with governments to enhance its capacity to regulate better?
  • Learning: At the end of this pilot, we may well conclude that this is too expensive to scale-up. Private providers would withdraw, citing financial reasons. What then? What lessons can the Ministry of Education in Liberia learn from this pilot? What changes are they making to the way other schools in the country are run? What would they do differently now, and what could they be doing differently if they eventually decide that this programme will not be scaled up?

    Cost-effectiveness comparisons (from the paper)
  • Resourcing: Linked to the above – if Liberia decides that the programme delivered cost-effective results, what are the resources at its disposal? What are the domestic revenues that can be allocated to this, and how much of foreign aid would they be able to attract? Have donors made any commitments? Is there an ongoing dialogue?
  • Finally, on Bridge: Even the government now seems to acknowledge that BIA, by sacking teachers, and enforcing class-size caps, indulged in practices that potentially hurt poor children, and negatively impacted the quality of education delivered to children in schools outside the PSL pilot. If Bridge were subject to the same conditions that other providers had to work under, and the private players at large, could not raise additional financing to subsidise their management models, would they be able to deliver learning gains of the magnitude we see in these early results? And if they do not subscribe to the same conditions that apply on the other providers, what is the benefit of retaining their schools in this evaluation?

Struggling with jobless growth

India’s economy is growing. But job creation is a different story altogether. The Economist explains:

The numbers are daunting. Just to keep unemployment in check, India needs to create some 10m-12m jobs a year. When economic growth is strong, it has just been able to do that: the government’s Labour Bureau estimates that from 2013 to 2015 the economy added 11m jobs a year. A slowdown in the prior two-year period, however, had kept job growth at half that level, leaving a shortfall of 10m jobs. The tipping point seems to be economic growth of about 7%. Ominously, growth has steadily slowed since 2016; in the quarter ending in June it fell to 5.7%, although transitory factors may have played a part in that.

Some of these “transitory” factors are rather well known now. But the job creation issue is a structural one – the poor quality of education, viability of our farms, labour contracts in our factories, the credit constraints that have depressed industrial activity, etc.

On labour laws:

The rules are indeed onerous. In many states, firms with more than 100 employees must seek government approval to fire a single worker. As a result, many resort to contractors to fill their payrolls with temporary hires, a solution that evades red tape but produces neither dedicated staff nor a happy workplace. Other companies simply choose to stay small: some 98.6% of non-farm businesses have fewer than 10 workers. This carries a long-term cost in productivity. Indian garment-makers, for example, tend to be tiny. Small wonder that competitors in such countries as Vietnam and Bangladesh, where giant factories are plugged into global supply chains, now far outpace India in exports.

And of course, automation is here. Automation may well be part of the answer to our manufacturing woes, it is unlikely to help the cause of job creation

Surprisingly for a relatively poor country, their factories tend be more capital-intensive than those of their counterparts in China. For example, at a sprawling site outside the southern city of Chennai run by Hyundai, a South Korean firm, some 8,500 workers toil alongside 530 robots. The fully digitised facility turned out 661,000 cars last year, one every 72 seconds. It ranks second in productivity and quality among the firm’s 34 factories around the world; its engine plant is number one 

The level of apathy is shocking. Skill missions lie abandoned; meaningful education reforms are nowhere to be seen. Restructured small loans are being passed off as job creation successes. It is increasingly difficult to see Indian political parties coming together to effect far-reaching labour reforms. Certainly not in the current climate, where monumental disasters such as demonetisation have set the economy back…


India at 70: democratic accountability is now an endangered species

Democracies are expected to empower citizens to take genuine control of instruments of the state for their development. At the core of this concept is the idea that citizens will participate in governance at the local level, making decisions for themselves, and vote in representatives to legislatures for higher-level decisions. India is an implausible democracy, an audacious experiment, attempting to bring together a billion people with starkly different languages, religions, and food habits. However, the state of our democracy remains perilous, a country hanging on by a slender thread to its claim to being defined a democracy. Like with many other aspects famously considered ‘Indian’, our democracy is a mediocre one, fulfilling satisfactorily, only the most basic requirement of regular (and reasonably free and fair) elections. Democratic accountability in particular, appears particularly at risk, as we the people, have fewer ways to hold those in power responsible for their performance.

Take just the following four aspects:

  • Propaganda rules over facts: Late last year, the central government pulled off ‘Demonetisation’, an exercise in purging cash reserves of the political opposition after ensuring the ruling party’s own reserves were safely parked (or converted) well in time. Manipulation of the press by political parties through direct funding (or proxy measures) continues unabated, as news channels spectacularly out-do the state broadcaster in peddling propaganda. The true extent of damage caused by Demonetisation will never be known – not because we do not have the tools to measure the damage, but because voters are being herded like sheep, not to ask any questions. As a result, the Reserve Bank of India can get away without releasing key data, and the lack of that data need not deter the government from making grandiose statements that go almost completely unchallenged in the public domain. Those who do question, do it with the knowledge that nit-picking on facts is futile.
  • Dissent is anti-national: The state’s response to dissent continues to plumb new depths. Civil society voices have been muted, farmer/dalit protests are killed in cahoots with a friendly media, etc. Those speaking up against the rampant terrorism in the name of the cow, or the fast-receding freedom of the press, are labelled anti-national. Dissent, whether from the grassroots or from intellectuals in society, are continuously demonised by a government that seems to take pride in its own anti-intellectualism, and celebration of mediocrity as evident from the various appointments to institutions of repute. Activists are being silenced everywhere. Today, Medha Patkar languishes in jail, as a government utterly insensitive to citizen protests makes no conciliatory move.
  • Decimation of political opposition: A string of election defeats, poor public image, still quite unable to overcome the ‘corruption stains’, a lethargic party, and a seemingly disinterested leader – it is the perfect storm for the Indian National Congress, and a sign of the times for political opposition in India. This decimation is now fully reflected in the composition of India’s Parliament, and the erosion of checks and balances that the Legislature is supposed to have over the Executive In a parliamentary system. The few states that are not ruled by the BJP get undue attention from partisan Governors and federal anti-corruption agencies. The use of the Governor’s office as a pawn in the hands of the central government must evoke a sense of deja-vu. Politics that seemed to have matured in the last fifteen years or so now lies in tatters.
  • Narcissism and hero-worship: When the BJP government recently completed three years in office, the government launched the MODI Fest – the Making of Developed India festival. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s monthly Mann Ki Baat speeches were released as a book at an event in the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Every government scheme is credited to only one man, and no failures are ever pinned on him. If patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, Modi-bhakti seems to be his second-last weapon of choice.

The point overall is this – to celebrate our incredible democracy, it is not enough to just conduct every five years, and for everyone to accept the election results. That is a very low bar. What matters is the quality of our democracy as measured by how the polity, the people, and the institutions operate once elections are over.

By this measure, India’s democracy has a long way to go. The systematic destruction of institutions, which need to function with a degree of competence and independence, will eventually kill our democracy. In the last three years, our institutions have shown themselves to be utterly incapable of protecting themselves from a government with authoritarian tendencies. The power that we have to hold public officials and politicians to account is directly proportionate to the credibility of institutions of governance. The way the Reserve Bank of India has folded in the last nine months should be serious cause for concern. The repeated attempts at politicising the military forces, the bellowing nationalistic media, our sanskari cultural guardians, and the uber-patriotic people’s representatives – together foretell a scary future for India.

The immediate casualty has been democratic accountability. No one seems to be responsible for the sluggish economy, now showing alarming signs of slipping into deflation. Similarly, no one seems responsible for breakdown in public services that the government is responsible for, nor is anyone held accountable for the questionable and inconsistent foreign policy decisions. Neither national security, nor corruption or cronyism seem to be topical any longer. Vigilantes break the law with impunity, as representatives of government hail them as patriots.

It is a great tragedy that after completing seventy years as a proud independent nation, our democracy is faced with such an existential crisis. If you are a liberal progressive Indian, this spectre should concern you.

The shape of India’s non-profits in the 21st century

India’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been in the midst of a brewing crisis for sometime now, which goes well beyond questions over technical competence or efficiency of delivery, to questions over their existence and their legitimacy. It is pertinent to examine the reasons for this crisis, and set out ways in which NGOs can restart swimming against the tide.

NGOs trace their raison d’etre to the twin failures of state and markets. In the latter half of the 20th century — the heyday of NGO action in India — there were vast swathes of population who did not have access to basic services, mostly living in areas that were geographically not served by the state, typically in rural areas. The private sector, particularly prior to 1991, was largely state-controlled, and had an even more limited reach.

Where basic services reached hitherto neglected regions, sections of population were left out owing to usually their social background. NGOs swung into action to fill this gap. Funds flowed in, as did public-spirited people, either helping extend government services, or providing services of their own. NGOs became a sector.

Evolving context

More recently, particularly in post-liberalisation India, with significantly enhanced penetration of the market, and superior tools of governance available to the state, the situation is quite different. India’s urban population went from 11% in 1991 to 31% by 2011. Pockets of severe deprivation remain, but the story of the average rural person is significantly different than before.

As much as 77% of the bottom quintile of the Indian population today owns mobile phones and 87.3% of all households reported having access to electricity. At the same time, nearly 7% of the bottom quintile of the population also face catastrophic health shocks that wipe out over 20% of their annual household income. All said, the poverty line for per capita income remains at Rs 32 per day in rural areas and Rs 47 per day in urban areas.

The changing role of the state has been one of the most notable factors affecting the role of NGOs in India. On the positive side, health, education, and a host of other government services reach a far greater section of the population than before. Governments have enacted key legislations that created a legal framework for local governments, and introduced a wave of rights-based entitlements. Several NGOs had key roles in conceiving and piloting activities that culminated in these laws.

Shifting landscape

Projects that used to rely on NGOs for last mile delivery have gradually moved towards local governments, or networks of self-help groups established by government programmes. The political impetus for this, in no insignificant measure, came from the proliferation of identity-based politics in the post-Mandal era.

In terms of the negatives, governments have tended to pit empowerment and entitlements against each other, and even as entitlement-based legislations are in place, the current political narrative doesn’t appear to be in its favour. The same goes for rights activists, who have suffered from a crackdown on funds and their freedom to dissent.

The basic rights framework built over several decades of struggles (education, food, employment, information, etc.) is increasingly being challenged, and key legislative measures to ensure these rights are being diluted through a combination of executive orders, amendments that erode their core characteristics, or by allowing bureaucratic apathy to rule the roost. Also, while local governments now see more funds passing through their bank accounts, there are several reports that their scope for intervention and discretion has been significantly curtailed.

Problematic response

As the external environment evolved, NGOs responded, but in ways that in the long-term weakened them as institutions, and the sector as a voice of the poor and marginalised. NGOs allowed their mandates to be dictated by the nature of funds available. Several other development sector entrepreneurs adopted the social enterprise model, taking to heart, for instance, management guru C.K. Prahlad’s bottom of the pyramid thesis.

There are numerous examples of NGOs who have grown rapidly to essentially become large-scale contractors of the government, or have adopted a set of targets and management practices that erode the social core of the organisation. In doing so, a common casualty is their ability and willingness to engage with the political economy, which is often at the heart of protecting or furthering the interests of people they work with.

The other direction some NGOs took was to move away from implementation. This was a direct consequence of the state expanding its reach, and arguments being raised in favour of NGOs withdrawing from areas where they had been working since long. Some NGOs took up research and advocacy, and settled into a role where they intended to be watchdogs of government programmes, and a few influential NGOs (as research agencies, think tanks and advocacy units) have been successful.

However, even the larger (and more influential) NGOs failed to come up with a widely accepted accountability framework. The sector demanded self-regulation (in terms of activities, and results, not funding), but was unable to put forward a coherent framework that could be used to measure them. Attempts to arrive at sector-wide standards were defeated by ego clashes, and some of these attempts were viewed as siding with the government.

NGOs also were guilty of not putting in place sound systems, especially in human resources, and to a lesser extent, financial management, at times driven by donor pressure to cut administrative expenditure.

What next?

First of all, one needs to acknowledge that a simple narrative of state and market failures will no longer work. Gaps exist, but of a different nature. NGOs have to not only frame the new narrative around how these failures manifest themselves in our world today, but also demonstrate an ability to design, pilot and implement bespoke responses to these failures. This calls for reforms, both to the NGO’s mission, and in its organisation.

NGOs should focus on innovation and learning. NGOs are far more valuable for their ability to experiment with approaches, and promote learning from both success and failure, not just at the organisation level but also at a sectoral level. The accountability framework that is currently missing needs to take shape. By doing this, they can seek to re-occupy the moral high ground without having to hide behind altruism when questioned on impact.

By cultivating space for experimentation, learning, innovation, it will continue to create models that a scale and optics-hungry state and the efficiency-seeking private sector can adopt in future. From the early days of micro-watershed development, biogas, community healthcare, micro-enterprises for rural livelihoods and sanitation, there are examples of this phenomenon. NGOs have also had significant success piloting and advocating initiatives that resulted in pro-poor legislations — whether in the area of women’s rights, or rural safety nets — and that reveals ways in which NGOs should seek to achieve long-lasting impact.

Scaling caveat

An important caveat is in order here. NGOs are regularly questioned on their ability to take programmes to scale. This is a red herring, and one that NGOs must ignore, or at least, rethink. Scaling up is not the responsibility of any one NGO. They will have to not only implement, but also focus on transferring the design and implementation capability to more local, more cost-effective implementation teams on the ground — whether they belong to local governments, or other smaller local community-based organisations. Scaling solutions require robust networks of organisations on the ground.

Refusing to be distracted by political pressure and lucrative funding opportunities, and instead focusing on a well-defined core mission requires strength of character and the stamina to stick to a mandate. It will require a strong coalition of NGOs and donors built on mutual respect and openness. If this implies a deviation from what the priorities of government, mainstream philanthropic foundations and donors are, there will be fewer, or perhaps a different set of financial resources to work with.

Moving along this path will also help the sector redefine its human resource models. While high quality professionals come at a price, knowledge and capabilities will have to be made more open-source if NGOs are to be successful in promoting external networks of learning and implementation agencies. Internally, for professionals working in NGOs, it is important that a clear career path exists right from the beginning, and NGO leaderships should demonstrate that these professionals growing up the ranks could occupy the corner rooms in NGOs.

This is part of the way ahead. NGOs in India, seeking to adapt to the shifting landscape of India, need to work with the state and markets, and at the same time, retain its difference. This is a critical reform or perish phase for NGOs as we know them. It will be interesting to watch how many NGOs today are up to this challenge.


This blog first appeared on VillageSquare