One cannot turn a blind eye to this changing world order which has not only impacted the economy but also attuned us to a whole new lifestyle. In such a scenario, solutions are unlikely to come if everybody is working in silos. The fight against COVID-19 needed as many hands as are available. And while the middle and upper classes complain, in general they are able to manage. It is the low income households, the marginalised in the cities, and groups like senior citizens who are really suffering. And it is for such groups in need, that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in different parts of the country have responded swiftly, helping in every way they can.
Today, there are over 3.4 million NGOs working in a variety of fields ranging from disaster relief to advocacy for marginalised sections and play an important role in bringing social transformation. For several years, NGOs are actively involved in combating challenges related to the environment, education, health, poverty, women empowerment, child protection, social justice, and human rights, etc. Thus, when the pandemic hit India, NGOs given their deep connect in combating various socio-economic issues; have been natural partners in this endeavor.
An article in India Today highlighted that NGOs provided meals to 3 million people in the first few weeks of the lockdown. Even the government has recognised the value NGOs and the CEO of Niti Aayog, Amitabh Kant, had appealed to them, knowing that there is nobody better placed than them to understand the pulse at the grassroots and engage closely with communities. In no time, thousands of NGOs engaged with district administrations across the country, joined in to combat the situation. Since then, NGOs have been working relentlessly on the ground and providing critical services to vulnerable groups of people.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached India, the focus of NGOs and CSR funders has been rightly on addressing immediate relief measures, from providing essentials to people in need to now facilitating mass vaccination drive on ground. However, this near-term work may have an unintended adverse long-term impact on NGOs, especially those with significant CSR funding.
Most NGOs are resuming business-as-usual after the lockdown is lifted. While they recognize that it may take some time to get back to normal, they broadly expect to engage in the same activities that they conducted before the lockdown. But just when they need more support and funding, they could be facing headwinds that could affect their work in the coming months and years. A significant amount of support comes from corporates, who have a long history of supporting the NGO sector. This support increased significantly after 2014, when the government made it mandatory for large corporates to spend 2% of their profits on social development. These CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) funds, were estimated to be around Rs 13,000 crores in 2017-18. NGOs are concerned about their CSR funding for the years to come now. Although fundings backed with agreements shall flow in for some more time, apprehensions about non formal agreements shall fall in oblivion.
Calculations by various studies suggest that funding for traditional CSR activities – which are not linked with COVID-19 – in this fiscal year have reduced by 30% to 60%. That is a significant portion of what NGOs would have got. A number of these CSR funders had signed agreements with their NGO partners for the current fiscal year (April 20 to March 21), but many of them will not be able to fulfil these commitments. In addition to cuts in total funding, even the funding that is available for the NGOs is being prioritised towards activities related to COVID-19 (for example, partners focusing on skilling for migrants who have returned home may get money over those focusing on improving primary education).
Also recently, the parliament has proposed some amendments to the Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA), 2010. According to the government, these amendments aim to bring about transparency in the working of NGOs. However, these new regulations put onerous conditions on NGOs, educational and research institutions that have partnerships, including of a financial nature, with foreign entities. Thus, many civil society groups question these amendments, especially at a time when the country requires robust civil society organisations and networks to deal with a range of challenges including the detrimental effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
CSR funders need to show their solidarity towards their long term NGO partners in these unprecedented times. There are numerous important causes that CSR funders have supported over the years which may not seem to relate to immediate COVID-19 needs and recovery. Deprioritising these may have devastating long-term implications for NGO partners who have developed expertise and resources in these sectors with investments in terms of money and time. The CSR funders know their partners well, and so they should work with them to find ways in which their capabilities can be used in the COVID-19 context (for example, supporting maternal and child health, mental health, or initiatives against domestic violence are all invaluable in the COVID-19 context); second, they could also provide targeted financial support to the NGO partners to help them maintain their core capabilities during these challenging times so that they can ramp-up their work again when the funding situation improves.
Also it is important for NGOs to start thinking about what steps they need to take to make it through this change swiftly. Their strategy could include aligning their work to the COVID-19 context so that their CSR funders can fund them through this window, and conserving funds or even cutting costs to maintain core capabilities. It is important to start thinking about how to significantly reduce costs while maintaining key capabilities, so that the work in core areas can ramp up when CSR funding returns. There may be a need to rethink delivery. With an added term of social distancing, sudden digitization and paradigm change in the domain of investment, NGOs need to brainstorm, rethink and redesign their people, projects and policies.
With the continuous deteriorating Human Development Index Ranking of India, (India dropped one spot to 131 among 189 countries in the 2020 human development index, according to a report released by the United Nations Development Programme), it is far more essential to understand the role and importance of NGOs, working relentlessly towards welfare of people. The deep and well meshed network of resources developed by NGOS shall be a game changer, if utilised in the development recipe of India. While it’s imperative to put a check on unprincipled NGOs, the credible ones needs to be credited, supported and felicitated. Government, Corporates and Individual philanthropists should support the cause; these NGOS have taken up over the years, which are going to create long term effect on India stature globally. The fecund partnership of Civil Societies, NGOs, Administration, Government, People and Policy shall surely be catalyst in making India the trillion dollar economy soon.