Emerging Challenges for Civil Society in India

Oct 30, 2008


A keynote speech delivered at the 25th Anniversary of Rotary club in 2008

The Indian third sector – as the non-profit sector is sometimes called, is one of the largest and certainly the most diverse in the world. There are civil society organizations in virtually every area of human endeavour, including community bee-keeping!

As for size, a sample survey of the sector showed that there are about 1.2 million organizations in India, which engage more than 6 million people. And this number is growing steadily as new non-profits get registered every other day.

Civil society remains the vehicle of choice for social change. And in fact, we can safely say that civil society organizations have been very effective on many fronts in India. Not only have they filled social services delivery gaps left by the government, they have succeeded in generating awareness, driving new legislation, uncovering scams and malafide intentions and in fact, done everything that the civil sector –as the conscience and the ombudsman of the nation’s agenda is supposed to do.

In the seventies, there was a sudden upsurge in the setting up of NGOs, perhaps echoing the greater community activism that emerged in the West as part of the green movement and the peace movement. Today, many of those organizations, just like your Rotary, are close to their 25th anniversaries. To name a few, Myrada, Development Alternatives, CSE and TERI and the Narmada Bachao Andolan. 

They all emerged out of a sense of dissatisfaction at the way things were going in a state-controlled economy, and which was not catering to our democratic vision of equal opportunity and a decent quality of life for all.

 Each organization founds its own model of resistance to or partnership with the state in order to meet societal objectives. And each has evolved tremendously over the past two decades, though they began with the traditional idea of working in the community and for the community.

 Arguably, the 90’s saw another great push in the number of civil society organizations. This was a new breed of NPO – and they were in a sense reacting to the increasing presence of the private sector in India post economic liberalization.

 The beginning of this century has seen the emergence of yet another kind of non-profit organization – one that is taking advantage of the new media, the new economy and new technology. Akshara Foundation could be an example of this time of organization as could Janaagraha and e-Governments Foundation all home grown right here in Bangalore.

 The hallmark of these kinds of organizations is that they prefer to work with the government where ever possible, prefer to push the ideals of a modern democratic state, see the market as a possible ally and not necessarily an enemy, and are driven by specific goals and desired outcomes. They use modern management techniques, attract professional talent, and pursue scale through the use of modern technology. These organizations are often funded by the new wealth that has been created by the post liberalization economic boom.

 While it may be a little early to judge their overall effectiveness, they have brought about a whiff of fresh air into the third sector and are being watched with great curiousity by observers around the world.

 And yet, with all these thousands of organizations of all shapes and sizes and beliefs and objectives – all working by and large for the goal of an equitable, effective, sustainable society – we have not yet seen that goal actually being realized. If anything, social commentators are lamenting the increase in inequity in India despite good growth and despite an abundance of material wealth creation.

 So what can civil society DO to increase its effectiveness? What are the major challenges before us?

 I think the first challenge is that of enabling good governance. Most problems in this country come out of a lackadaisical attitude towards governance practices. In whatever field the CSO is engaged in, its work will have a multiplier effect if it can understand and rectify governance issues. For example, in education, taking a look at the BMP primary schools, we were able to show, that in spite of a generous per-student budget, municipal schools were completely insufficient even in the provision of simple infrastructure. How then was the money being used? Who was looking at inputs vs outcomes? Who was responsible if the money was not used properly? How were schools involved in a feedback loop to government and decision-makers? By focusing our attention on these issues we were able to achieve a small degree of success. But that experience emboldened us to take issues of input and outcomes to a larger canvas. This past year, in close partnership with the GOK , we launched the KLP to enable learning outcomes in schools. Using technology, such as GIS, using good tools to collect data at the level of every child and every school, we were able to help the government identify exactly which children in the 1400 schools of Bangalore Urban District needed help with their reading skills. And we were able to help school teachers roll out a time-bound goal-oriented reading programme to get those children – about 75,000 of them to become readers.

We think the success of this programme was in no small part because we created the framework of good governance – such as identifying the problem, the actors, the approach and the finances, and finally mapping the outcomes and rewarding good effort.

 If more CSOs could focus on better governance, I think we could all become more effective more quickly.

 Secondly, the challenge of scaling up. In India, we have a million great examples of pilots and models that have succeeded brilliantly as islands of excellent work. But we have before us in India, in the world’s most populous nation bar none, the very real issue that we need to go beyond pilots and good examples to reach the staggering number of 400-500 million people who still do not have a satisfactory quality of life. How do we reach every last citizen in this country? We need to find ways and means to effectively scale up the delivery of social services in all sectors. Civil society can take up these challenges by focusing on what parts of their work are ripe for scaling up and on the partnerships that would be required to bring that scale. At Akshara, we have tried to use good governance practices coupled with technology to enable much-needed scale. If all goes well, we hope in this academic year to take the KLP programme from 1500 to 15000 schools and then eventually to every single school in the state – 50,000 of them, and make sure every primary school child in the state is competent in the basic skills of reading, writing and math. For this, we are working with many partners and would be very happy if Rotary clubs across Karnataka could play a meaningful role as well.

 The third challenge, I think, is creating effective partnerships. Today the civil society sector operates very often in silos or in isolation from others. There is tremendous polarization in the ideologies of organizations working towards a common goal. One very good example is in the water sector – where anti-privatization groups clash routinely with those that are either pro-privatisation or simply interested in getting things done rather than in who is doing them. This leads to tremendous acrimony and a waste of time which in fact allows business as usual to have a longer run than it deserves.

 Now that the whole planet’s sustainability is at stake, we will have to find common platforms where, agreeing to disagree in some areas, we nevertheless can take the agenda forward. And learning to work with the government, which remains the single largest player in the social sector, is one of our best opportunities to create lasting change.

 The fourth challenge, perhaps, is that of the capacity building of the third sector. How can we train ourselves more, equip ourselves with better skills in finance, HR, admin, communications etc that could help us multiply our effectiveness? Today, many CSOs are trying to tackle 21st century problems with 19th century tools. Ramping up our tools, investing in better training, will go a long way to improve our effectiveness.

 The fifth challenge perhaps, is how to unleash the creativity of the civil sector. We are the the very brink of chaos, at the collapse of the natural resources base. We can no longer afford to think in the old ways. Nor can we wait for the state or the market to come up with ideas. We need to harness the passion for change that is the main driver for all civil society organizations and come up with new ideas to solve old problems.

 And last but not least, civil society needs to turn the torchlight inwards, upon itself. That is also a very big challenge. We preach but do we practice? We want the government to be transparent and accountable and give us information on demand. We want business to be accountable to all stakeholders. We want notions of equity to be the base of all decision making everywhere. How could our own mechanisms in our own organizations? Do we have fiscal transparency and accountability? Are we internally democratic? Are we measuring the outcomes of our own work? I think, if we can get our own houses in order, we may better be able to make the difference out there. Be the change you want to see, as Gandhi said.

 I think civil society organizations in India have been the backbone of this country’s democracy. And I think they are very much our hope for the future. As Marianne Williamson said, “In every community there is work to be done. In every nation, there are wounds to heal. In every heart there is the power to do it.”




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