Dasra Philanthropy Week 2015: From Good to Great Governance


Shalni Arora


Good governance can be said to exist when the government is transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs of the people, and when citizens trust that the day-to-day functions of running a country are being carried out. India, the world’s largest democracy, fails to deliver even the basics of a decent life to its citizens.

Despite, a record 66 per cent turnout in the 2014 elections, Indians do not have faith in the system they are voting for. India lags behind on all aspects of human development and India’s rating has declined on the World Governance Indicator. To achieve development goals, including those in health and education, requires a more transparent and accountable system that serves its people.

Good governance is the responsibility of three stakeholders, the market, the state and civil society. In response to this, Dasra launched its Good Governance Programme in Mumbai last week, at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2015.

It’s a risky venture for Dasra, but a much-needed one for the country. The most popular philanthropic causes in India according to the Bain report are education and child welfare. It will take a particularly sophisticated group of donors to understand and support such an initiative, but with the well-chosen portfolio of NGOs working in the governance space at the conference, Dasra was able to make significant progress.

The Vodafone Foundation launched its cleverly named ‘Rule of Thumb’ report on m-governance. M-governance uses mobile technology to provide access to governance services and provide information anytime anywhere. For example, India spends close to 4 per cent of its GDP on welfare schemes and subsidies. Mobile technology can be used to collect data to make sure money is well spent, increase accountability, and give a platform to report corruption and create awareness about rights and entitlements. If you think about it, most oppressors are within the vicinity of their victims, and mobile technology allows you to disintermediate and bypass the oppressor.

This doesn’t mean that other forms of communication are ineffective. NGOs make tremendous use of print media to ensure communication in rural areas. One of the highlights at the conference for me was hearing about NGO-run newspaper Khabar Lariya. Produced by a collective of rural women journalists, it targets rural audiences in media dark zones. Rural populations have limited news coverage and poor access to news, which often means that people lack the information to access their rights and entitlements. Through the paper, government bodies are held accountable for inaction over local issues and citizens are empowered with information to advocate for their rights. This has led to roads being completed, schools being built, and those eligible for entitlements filing claims due to more information being available. Their unbiased content drives government accountability.

In the local governance space, the Hunger Project has trained more than 100,000 elected women in Panchayats, giving them the skills and know-how to drive local development and social change. Trained elected leaders become the change agents, but as the passionate talk from an elected leader from Rajasthan demonstrated, their battle begins at home with their own families and within their own communities – and in her case in the face of domestic violence. These women become more empowered and effective, but it is a constant struggle not an overnight fix as significant change and acceptance at a social level is also needed.

Not lost on me was the number of NGOs focusing on empowering women and ensuring they know their rights, all of which makes sense in the governance space as women are typically more inclined to invest in community issues such as health and education than their male counterparts. Hopefully the overlaps with India’s current debate on gender equality, which was trending at Mumbai fashion week, will not detract from the great work happening in the governance space.

Dasra will find motivating action in this space challenging. Urban India, perhaps the more middle class and better educated part of the citizenry, did not vote in numbers commensurate to rural India in the last election. The upper and middle classes do not see governance as an issue affecting them. In fact historically they may have been part of the problem, and recently have abdicated their responsibility as they do not use the infrastructure, health or education systems.

Convincing philanthropists from this community to donate to NGOs working in this space will take time. The impact is not as immediate as building schools and hospitals. And even when funding is secured, scaling up of NGOs may lead to a dilution in their effectiveness. Staying small allows them to achieve excellent outcomes on issues that need constant monitoring, lobbying and deeper understanding, within a particular geography. Dasra has embarked on a journey but it’s a long road ‘from good to great governance’.

Shalni Arora is a director of Savannah Wisdom, chair of the British Asia Trust North West and a trustee of Transparency International UK.

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