Should India be receiving aid as well as giving?



Alison Adnitt

Alison Adnitt

In many meetings recently I have gained a lot of traction when I have explained Dasra’s strategy of building local philanthropy in India.  There is a real appetite for foundations and philanthropists to support, at least in theory, the idea that an exit strategy for their funding in the next 10 or so years could be a vibrant local Indian philanthropic market. This topic is all the more important with the recent confirmation in the press that India is scaling up its international aid, meaning that globally the question will be asked – does India still require bilateral donors’ and philanthropists’ focus?

The Indian Agency for Partnership in Development, to be modelled on USAID, made the papers in the UK just a week after the August riots. The announcement has therefore met with a feeling here that perhaps we need to focus our funding on our own fractured society and needs. However, I beg to differ.

India has had an international aid policy for years, so the gasps of amazement at the recent announcement should really be hushed. International aid is not a new item in the Indian government’s budget, but the agency is a new centrally managed entity that will improve governance and streamline India’s overseas aid assistance − a good thing in the light of all the recent corruption scandals and Anna Hazare’s hunger strike. That being said, the budget has increased and to givers overseas the $11 billion figure will make many of our contributions into India seem like they pale into insignificance.

Should we criticize India for spending on international aid when there are so many people still living in poverty? Let’s be honest, international aid is not purely motivated by the ‘love of mankind’, it is part of a country’s licence to operate in the world economy, and a vital part of globalization, security and cooperation. So can we deny India a place on this global stage of influence and exchange? I don’t believe we can.

The government of India has huge budgets for poverty alleviation; in fact it has one of the largest poverty programmes in the world. Programmes are, however, not always effective, well governed, or well enough funded. Philanthropy and international aid bring different things to the table, such as a freedom to take risks that the government cannot. Development is not just about the money. Overseas aid and philanthropy bring with them skills, networks, experiences and best practices that can have an equally powerful impact on developing solutions to the most pressing problems as funding does. A fully ‘homegrown’ pot of funding is not the answer to the issues that face India’s development, and that pot is not yet big enough. 

In India the numbers speak for themselves. If there are more people in 8 states of India living in poverty than in 26 countries in sub-saharan Africa, we have to still see this as a global problem and not say ‘sort it out yourselves’. Our rioting youths are socially poor, not materially poor − they planned their attacks using £300 phones. The issues here are deep rooted and that of course requires substantial funding. However when 128 million Indians have no access to clean water it can’t come down to an ‘either or’ decision around funding. 

India’s ‘pockets of poverty’ require a geographical focus that the government’s pan-India approach cannot always support to the required level. Government can be expected to look at policy, at education, healthcare, basic security. However, when it comes to innovation, livelihood development, developing a more market-based approach to poverty etc. and when programmes require a geographic and culturally unique focus, the risk-taking ability, particularly of private philanthropy but also of international aid, has a very important role to play. And if there isn’t a vibrant, funded civil society in India then who will keep the government accountable?

I suppose what I am calling for is a strategic approach to philanthropy.  Not necessarily more funding but better funding. Here is an example of what I mean. The organization SNEHA, which Dasra works with in the Dharavi slums of Mumbai, is making dramatic inroads into child and maternal health issues, and specifically malnutrition – a hidden disease that costs the Indian economy millions of dollars each year in loss of productivity and costs the lives of about 3,000 children each day. The Indian government sees itself as a service provider, a supplier, and there are a number of schemes run by the authorities that slum dwellers can access to tackle malnutrition. However, the government cannot create the demand for their services, and cannot change behaviour in communities to encourage people to avail of these life-changing programmes and services. That is where the non-profit steps in and where philanthropists’ funding plays a crucial role.  

SNEHA creates a model that works deep in communities to influence help-seeking behaviour and train community link workers to ensure vital nutritional and antenatal support is sought and delivered.  The government could not work at this level and does not know communities well enough to work out how to create demand. But a philanthropist’s funding can take the model that SNEHA has developed to scale and ensure that the government’s funding for services is spent effectively. SNEHA is not alone in this and others − such as MAMTA, BPNI, Mobile Creches – have programmes that desperately require our funding, but are working through highly efficient and effective programmes to scale alongside government.

This weekend Dasra has brought together 10 donors, the majority from India, but one or two overseas, to choose one of the above non-profits to support to the tune of c. £400,000 over three years as part of Dasra’s second giving circle. A great example of an approach that is fostering collaboration between local and international philanthropists and ensuring funding is strategically allocated to programs that work with government.

I will remain a staunch advocate of funding to India – I’ll probably make myself unpopular with friends shocked by the riots here, blaming the cuts and calling for more of a budgetary focus ‘at home’. But I will continue to promote strategic funding to India, in the knowledge that philanthropy in India is on the rise, and that improve non-profits and social businesses are able to access assistance to improve efficacy and work towards more equitable growth in India.

Alison Adnitt is director of investor relations at Dasra

Tagged in: India International aid UK philanthropy

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