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


NGOs, dont back off – be more political

In my latest livemint column, I argue that NGOs need to be far more political than they currently are, if they wish to really serve the communities they work with. Malicious political masters and their misguided tools such as the IB should not be allowed to dictate the choice of strategies on the ground.

While every organisation must face questions – both from the inside and outside – about its mode of functioning, the response to these questions should be aimed at improving organisational performance

It is easy to brand NGOs as utopian or Luddite as opponents struggle with their conception of public interest. What gives an NGO the legitimacy to pick a particular issue over another? Why is it water and not housing; or watershed development and not skills training; gender equality and not income generation? In making these choices, NGOs either use their own narrative about the situation on the ground, or allow themselves to be driven by needs expressed by communities. One can argue for or against either approach. It is also fair to argue that NGO activity that focuses purely on mounting pressure on the state neglects many immediate needs that communities face and therefore, ignores potential fixes to those problems. It should be evident to anyone who thinks through this that depending on the issue at hand and the context, these are all legitimate questions that must be asked of organisations that are supposedly working in public interest.

Why the traditional model of NGO-led development must end

My latest column for livemint, on how the space for traditional NGO-led development model is shrinking
The 1980s and 1990s were the heydays of the NGO-led development model in India, where significant funds flowed through them into development programmes targeting the poor. NGOs played a critical role in developing model interventions of service delivery and giving a voice to the poor through long-term engagement and institution-building at the local level. Concurrently, powerful networks of NGOs spoke passionately on behalf of the poor at various national and international forums. For many years, NGOs faced criticism that they were taking over the role of the state in providing basic services. Over the last few years, however, we have seen a shift in the way development projects are conceptualized and executed in India. Not only does the state have the largest development footprint in India, it also retains the power to “allow” citizens to exercise their rights and claim their state-granted entitlements; and give NGOs the regulatory space in which to operate while working for the people.
In order to understand this phenomenon better, it is helpful to look at research on “power”. John Gaventa is one of the leading researchers on the subject of “power” and “participatory development”. One of the key aspects of “power” is that of “spaces”. Spaces may be understood as opportunities or platforms for the powerless to participate and negotiate with the power holders. Gaventa suggests a continuum of spaces as closed (spaces from which the power holders exclude others and often have to resist opening up under pressure from civil society); invited (spaces created by the power holders who invite others to participate); and claimed (spaces that exist as informal arrangements that have developed organically through individual or joint efforts by the powerless).
Gaventa’s definition of spaces also shows how these are shaped and transformed through interactions between various stakeholders, all of whom hold varying degrees of power. Often, the spaces that come to exist are a combination of the three types outlined above. Closed spaces may be opened up by invitation and claimed spaces may be institutionalized through legislation. In the Indian context, this gives us a framework to look at the role and reach of the state and that of external agencies, such as NGOs that attempt to work with the state. In earlier decades, NGOs would mobilize citizens to form pressure groups and demand that the state open up hitherto closed spaces.
Over the last decade, the state has expanded its welfarist wings by pursuing a path of “granting” rights. I choose my words intentionally here: in India, the state has “granted” the rural poor the right to wage employment, to information, to education and possibly, to food security. More fundamentally, the decentralization reforms of 1993-94 have decisively opened up these “closed spaces”, inviting people to contest elections and run their own affairs at the local level. At the same time, granting rights to citizens is an invitation to citizens to engage with the state and expand the “claimed spaces” of policy formulation, implementation and holding representatives of the state (both the politicians and bureaucrats) to account. Thus, whether we talk about NGOs that execute programmes or individual/institutional donors that fund or activists who protest, they all function in the spaces created by the state.
Even in their heydays, NGOs suffered from serious criticisms of perpetuating dependency and of their inability to scale up. In a context where the state seems to be constantly redefining its role, NGOs that positioned themselves as the representatives of the unrepresented citizens have had to cede ground to the 3 million democratically-elected panchayati raj institution members across the country. These are 3 million men and women, in leadership positions in their community, who people can hold to account for the delivery of basic services. There is pressure on NGOs on the ground to transform their strategies in order to stay alive and relevant. This is already visible in many parts of the country. While aid funds continue to whittle down, NGOs are increasingly positioning themselves as catalysts that promote and strengthen people’s institutions, primarily through strengthening local government institutions that are meant to represent and serve the people. In terms of facilitating development through equitable access to services for the millions living in poverty, that is not just the best way ahead, it is the only one.
There are no doubt NGOs that are still pursuing the traditional service provider model. They all risk being left behind in the tide of policy evolution, as communities recognise that engaging with the government remains the only way towards achieving sustainable improvement in their quality of life.

Preparing to ‘withdraw’

My latest livemint article is up today

Recognizing that an external agency ought to play the role of a facilitator, it is safe to say that unless an agency has a well-defined withdrawal strategy for self-reliance and sustainability, the main motive for its existence itself is endangered. An agency cannot just contemplate packing its bags when funds run out or when a project is deemed to have finished. There has to be a long-term strategy, outlining in what manner the phased change in relationship is going to take place. The emphasis has to be on placing sustainable institutions in place that belong to people, and are capable of effectively addressing the development needs of communities and putting in place rigorous mechanisms to measure outcomes and impacts.

The editors of Livemint have given it their own spin by titling the column – “Preparing for the moment when an aid agency withdraws” – not exactly what I had in mind, but it does have its own logic. The thrust of my piece is how on-ground implementing agencies such as NGOs need to have their ‘withdrawal’ strategies (irrespective of aid running out). But of course, donor pressure and withdrawal of aid are often the impetus for exist strategies, as I mention early on in the piece itself

With this piece, I am picking up on an old project I did when I was at IRMA, exploring withdrawal strategies with one of my favourite NGOs in India. In the coming weeks, I will hopefully have gathered some more material on the topic of NGOs and development models of the old…

Lessons for the field

  • It is possible to make a difference to lives of people by sustained intervention at the grassroots. Keep in mind, the concept of big and small development – the big can take over the small, but don’t wait for the positive big swell to take you over; and dont worry about the negative swell undoing all of your good work. While you are on the ground, keep chipping away
  • No one out there wants your sympathy, except maybe your underpaid long serving colleagues. But if the communities you are working with see you getting emotional, you are in for trouble. However, admire openly. That usually works.
  • Any change is excruciatingly slow. Patience is key in everything – action and communication. For that reason alone, dont worry about taking your time
  • People usually don’t change because you want them to. They may not be willing to change even if its over an issue you are convinced is to their benefit. They mostly, merely respond to incentives. Understand the incentives involved and try to get them right
  • Some like to be photographed – some don’t. They dont expect you to, but respect this choice.
  • This one was obvious – not all the disprivileged are good souls. Watch out for the smart ones. If you are one, they can be, too.
  • You are never one among them. Keep trying, but don’t claim to have mastered it and even if you do claim so, please don’t believe it yourself.
  • People do not know everything. There is definitely a lot that you can teach them. There is a lot more for you to learn, but thats obvious, right?
  • Approach your job analytically. When in trouble, reflect on what’s going on and what that teaches you about yourself, about development and about how organisations run
  • Start writing – field reports, if nothing else; doesn’t matter if noone is reading. Do it for yourself 
  • Don’t obssess about ‘influencing policy’ – focus on ‘good change’ instead.
  • Learn the language. Works like nothing else can.

Can we ever be completely gender neutral?

Over at The Road to the Horizon, Peter expresses his solidarity with women in the aid sector constantly under pressure to balance their work lives with their personal ones. 

The other evening, I went with E. over all the women we knew. And we tried to flag those we thought had found a good balance between kids, house, husband and career. And are successful in all. We found one. One woman out of the dozens of women we know, we found one. That is a sad observation. And even more sad, when we realized that lady does not work in the humanitarian “business”.

I am no gender expert. But it does seem quite obvious that many of us who work towards a fair gender balance in communities we work with often tend to neglect the same at our own work-places. So this post has some thoughts/questions about organisations, their female workers, and in particular, field workers. I have often paused to think about typical notions that run through some organisations. Sure, there are cultural differences between different parts of the world and I would be in no position to comment on contexts I have not been a part of. (And I am, as usual, stuck on small NGOs)

The following are the most common notions that I (and I am sure most of you) have heard many many times over – 

  • ‘This’ type of job is not suitable for women; they will not be able to travel to/stay overnight at remote rural areas using public transport or a motor-bike (and we cannot afford cars for all field work)
  • ‘She’ cannot travel as much anymore now that she is married/has children
  • ‘That’ community is very aggressive and a woman cannot work with them
  • ‘She’ will get married soon and then will have to move with her spouse. Is it smart to hire her now only to lose her soon after?
  • We should hire ‘her’. She will be good at mobilising communities, especially women for training/health/education/some such soft intervention
So that leaves us with desk-based academics, research or M&E and the whole lot of admin work (finances, procurement, office assistants etc). 

As a result, very few women rise up the ranks of an organisation from the very lowest level, when compared to men who get the opportunity, in the first place, to start work with the organisation. True, some of the notions above stem from social structures in the respective areas. Women may be particularly vulnerable/unsafe in some settings and no organisation would want to put their staff at risk. In such instances, is an organisation being unfair? What about stereotypes – if a woman is assertive, smart and can take care of herself, is she ‘being a man’? On the other hand, if a man is mellow, patient and compassionate, is he ‘not being a man’? I wonder! Through its policies, is the organisation reinforcing these stereotypes? Or is it merely doing the best it can for its staff? 

The other set of concerns stem from prevalent social norms in the respective cultures. In India, I have seen female staff quitting their jobs soon after they get married – sometimes because the family disapproves, or because she has to move to a different city along with her spouse. Why must an organisation invest in a female staff if their tenure is uncertain? Organisation already have limited resources and are affected by high staff turnover. But is turnover actually higher among women than among men? But in the first place, does the organisation see itself as an individual entity or does it consider itself part of a eco-system of organisations/institutions in society? Depending on the answer to this question, one might see variations in some of these decisions… 

In contrast, the chances that a man and woman have comparable career trajectories when they join the middle management (usually out of school with a professional degree) seem much higher. That’s where the professional aid worker comes in. I tend to feel less badly for people at that level. Men or women, they more often than not, get to choose how they want to live their lives and in the long run, have better chances of being on even ground in their chosen areas of work, if they want to… 

On the ground, with the people…

The NGO I was working with in India organised communities to tell elected representatives from the region – ‘if you don’t stand by us when we construct our water supply system, don’t come to us when you need our votes’. It was on one hand, a remarkably simple pressure mechanism that often worked. However, did that slogan overshadow all the other needs that the communities had, but which were not framed and presented to their elected representatives in this aggressive manner, aided by the NGO? It is difficult to say. But in organising the community to bring into play, a simple democratic principle, succeeded in prodding better development politics in the region.

Then again, by leading a water programme, was the NGO letting the state (which was supposed to have installed the infrastructure in the first place) off the hook? By that standard, any NGO intervention that improves access and/or quality of delivery of basic services makes the task of the state easier. The state clearly had the resources and the mandate. But in spite of this, when the state is inactive and indifferent, one of the basic aims of aid is to get non-state actors in motion, to at least alleviate to some extent, the problems communities living there face; all with the objective that the state will be spurred/shamed/forced to break its slumber.

But if politicians could get re-elected just by devoting a part of their constituency development funds and government schemes to a couple of wells, toilets and taps, would that create perverse incentives for the state to ignore problems of poverty and unemployment? And often, it is not as if the state is in deep slumber. It is in fact, very active. There is politics at work, of interests who require status-quo be maintained. There is probably no way to deal with this other than engaging directly with the powers at play.

Should the NGO focus on organising the community to take on the state, in the process, ignoring a group of marginalised poor who don’t seem to show much enthusiasm. What is more important – intra-community power dynamics or that between the community and the state and/or other communities? What about issues of gender and social discrimination in society? Or long-term environmental sustainability issues? What about the mining contract that was just given out in the neighbouring district, that will pollute the air and water in this community forever?

I am now going around in circles. But that is how it often is – on the ground, with the people…