The role and status of rural development NGOs in India have been coming under increased scrutiny. A recent report flagged the working of NGOs under a general umbrella, and the perception is that they could pose a threat to national economic security. Social activists and NGOs have been perceived as a destabilizing factor in projects and an adverse influence in shaping policy debate. The more accurate reality is that India requires robust civil society organizations to deal with a range of challenges and effects of unequal development.
In India, where poverty is overwhelming, correcting climate change through organic farming and clean energy can seem irrelevant. A vast majority of Indians, particularly in rural belts, grapple with the harsh reality of being bereft of a roof over their head or food on the table.
NGOs are important agents in the development process in India in terms of humanitarian relief, long-term development, policy formation, and political advocacy. NGOs have a distinct advantage in
- Reaching and mobilizing the poor and remote communities.
- Empowering poor people.
- Working with and strengthening local institutions.
- Promoting sustainable rural development in India.
As such, NGOs are a permanent feature on the development landscape. NGOs also serve as supplementary channels for development resources from external sources such as donor NGOs and other philanthropic and humanitarian organizations. Thus, given the role of NGOs and their increasingly prominent role in the development sector, the need is to appreciate their professional and depoliticized nature in promoting long-term structural change.
Complementing Roles of Rural Development NGOs
Aligning with SDGs
NGOs play a crucial role in SDG implementation. They help build capacity, design and implement projects, monitor and review policies, provide expertise, and support government initiatives. These organizations build traction and strong foundations in reaching the SDGs. So what role do NGOs play in SDG implementation?
1) Accountability and Advocacy, NGOs specializing in sustainable rural development are important vehicles in furthering the vision of the government in realizing the specific goals of addressing the SDGs. Advocacy and accountability through progress monitoring, identifying problem areas, and lobbying for the inclusion of SDG-specific policies are important. In addition, NGOs act as facilitators for mandated CSR activity by corporates.
2) Enabling an Environment for Policy Implementation. NGOs play a pivotal role in the implementation of policies and projects aimed at SDG targets through their expertise, manpower, and understanding of the local communities. Enabling feedback is key to the smooth functioning of SDG initiatives. NGOs act as the last-mile connections in this process.
3) Dissemination of Information and Creating Awareness. NGOs are instrumental in creating awareness in the community concerning policies and initiatives aligned to SDG goals. Raising awareness leads to empowerment, encouragement, and a better response to the policies by citizens.
Contribution of NGOs to Society at Large
Rural development NGOs are innovative and grassroots-driven. They have the desire and capacity to change the face of development to one that is participatory and people-centered. NGOs step in to fill gaps in the system and address the needs of marginalized citizens.
NGOs continue to play a vital role in shaping the future of India. Over past decades, NGOs brought about a holistic change in the socioeconomic landscape of India. The change in the lives of “backward” communities and the underprivileged has been visible as India takes the next step to be an economic superpower. Their work to eradicate poverty and hunger through sustainable, value-based holistic community development is seeing the fruits of a rural India coming out of the shadows of stagnation and neglect. While the contribution of NGOs to civil society is multifarious, some of the key areas are:
1) Promoting Sustainable Rural Development. NGOs have been advocating for sustainable rural development. They support government bodies and empower local communities to move toward a sustainable form of living. The idea is to help present-day communities without affecting the opportunities of future generations.
2) Eradication Of Poverty. NGOs run awareness, sensitization, and development programs to tackle the roots of poverty. Some of the key areas they have made a stellar contribution are in sanitation, housing, education, healthcare, and nutrition. All are vital for holistic and inclusive rural development in India.
3) Healthcare Access And Information. Ensuring healthy lives and well-being are preconditions for, and an outcome of, sustainable rural development, eradicating poverty, and achieving gender equality. NGOs, through their community projects and awareness campaigns, play a stellar role in a healthcare system that is still in its nascent stage. Disease prevention and treatment of disease reduce poverty and thus create a healthy and vibrant society. NGOs form the bridge with the underprivileged and ensure that a healthy environment is an outcome through a wide spectrum of services such as promotion, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and palliative care.
4) Gender Equality And Empowerment Of Women. Gender equality requires equality for women in access to socially valued goods, opportunities, resources, and rewards. In a patriarchal society such as India, gender inequality leads to exclusion from equal access to opportunities as well as physical and sexual abuse. NGOs play a crucial role in supporting gender equality in health, rural education in India, social protection, and labor. They reduce disparities between men and women and across population groups in areas such as access to family planning and reproductive health services, promoting gender parity in education, providing social safety nets, and aiding women in acquiring needed resources and skills.
Collaboration to Further Social Good
Gaps in expertise and the need for resources stimulate the rural development NGOs in India to establish collaborative relations with each other. NGOs tend to prefer to collaborate with other familiar organizations to draw on their mutual strengths, capabilities, and the ability to contribute in a mutually successful collaborative relationship.
The agglomeration of NGOs is breeding cooperation rather than competition. One key area of fundraising is a domain in which NGOs cooperate with others with the relevant expertise to deliver the desired outcomes of development initiatives.
This role that NGOs collaborate with corporates, and with implementing agencies is creating a collective impact that goes beyond individual efforts. Collective NGO interventions can complement each other and spread across geographies, and as such the impact of the programs can be more widespread and focused despite limited resources.
NGOs need to maintain a balance in public support and the relationship with government if they are to play an important role in society. NGOs can work together effectively on a range of issues involving campaigns, programs, and joint fundraising. Combining skillsets results in an effective delivery of programs through entrepreneurial solutions and innovative approaches to new challenges.
In a constrained economic scenario, new forms of NGO collaboration will only safeguard values and shared missions and be financially prudent.
Collaborating in Practice for Change in Rural Development
MatiKalp: A low-cost solution for safe drinking water
S M Sehgal Foundation in partnership with CAWST (Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), Canada, has been working on a pilot project, “WASH for Healthy Homes,” in the Vaishali district of Bihar, where obtaining safe water is the biggest challenge for the most-vulnerable population, poorest of the poor, and daily-wage laborers.
The project changes this vulnerable community’s WASH behaviors by building access to safe drinking water by promoting the adoption of a low-cost water filter, MatiKalp, a type of ceramic pot filter. This low-cost water treatment technology removes microbial contamination and turbidity and improves water quality at the household level to help abate the prevalence of microbial and iron contamination that causes gastrointestinal problems. Sensitization and awareness-building on WASH behaviors are integral parts of the project in household clusters selected based on economic level. The people are sensitized about the need and benefits of safe drinking water and best hygiene practices.
A small behavior change can create a great effect on society. People in Vaishali have adopted this new practice and have access to safe drinking water. They are now creating awareness among others to follow simple practices of safe drinking water.
Grassroots linkages mean that NGOs are more than just alternative service providers. They offer a route to empowerment by allowing communities and disadvantaged groups to articulate their needs in program design and implementation. Rural development NGOs in India are an important part of civil society and create a balanced relationship between governments and citizens. The call of the day is to optimize resources through a conciliatory and collaborative approach that will eventually lead to the percolation of benefits to the community at large.