Ankana, a 14-year-old adolescent girl belonging to a nomadic tribe from a remote village in India, was well-versed with the hardships (deprivation, poverty, and injustice) her tribal community faced in their daily lives. Over the years, she worked extensively to support such notified and denotified tribes, one of the most marginalised communities in the country, via her non-governmental organization based out of Madhya Pradesh, India.
However, chronic stigma and the unrecognized stature of these tribes by the government exacerbated her organization’s ability to provide for these communities. Funding crunch, movement restrictions coupled with a constant uphill battle with the system given the sentiments of key stakeholders towards the Indian civil society, were only a few challenges that got amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Arguably, civil society was one of the most hit sectors in India, and that gravely paralysed their ability to reach the most vulnerable, reiterating the importance of being shockproof to continue operations. It is no news that NGOs had a mammoth role to play in providing relief assistance to the most vulnerable, as well as furthering our government’s on-ground implementation measures (vaccinations, awareness, behaviour change campaigns, medical support, etc.) to navigate the pandemic. It was not an easy feat, but is this the kind of shock-proof civil society we need to enable?
Collaboration at the community and ecosystem level and operational nimbleness are fundamental in enabling NGOs to become more resilient.
‘Resilience’ has become one of the most popular buzzwords in the country today. Historically, the system has always advised NGOs to solve chronic underfunding to sustain any crisis. This article shares recommendations on ways NGOs can become more resilient beyond solving for limited financial resources, with an additional perspective on shared accountability that key stakeholders need to adopt. The system needs to acknowledge the importance of this to ensure our NGOs not only survive but adapt and thrive in any crisis.
1. Enable community integration at program design, implementation, and policy level: During the peak of the pandemic, ASHA workers and other frontline workers bore the brunt first-hand which limited their ability to penetrate communities and offer relief. During this time, many NGOs heavily leveraged community-led collectives, self-help groups, and peer-led interventions across sectors like Mental Health, Education, Livelihoods etc. Some of the key initiatives included developing community-led models to destigmatize mental health in light of Covid-19, forming peer support groups to help reintegrate children back into schools, and enabling youth collectives and women cooperatives to unlock income generation opportunities (e.g. Gramin Banks) for communities in rural/hard to reach geographies, recruiting youth/community volunteers to spearhead behaviour change campaigns that demystified covid-19 safety protocols (use of masks, sanitisers), and addressing vaccination hesitancy via distribution of ration, access to mobile medical vans to encourage vaccinations, etc.
Empowering the community at all these three levels with the right tools and skills builds agency and makes them self-sufficient to address challenges, further on-ground initiatives independent of NGO interventions, and push for agendas, and policies with relevant govt. authorities
2. Be agile institutionally and programmatically: Amidst movement restrictions, dearth of personnel and adequate resources, NGOs were pushed to pivot from their existing programs to innovate and reduce dependency on on-ground operations. In one of the surveys conducted by Dasra, of the 51 respondents, more than 60 per cent had already started digital integration of their programs right after the first Covid-19 wave in April 2020. Some examples of how organizations tailored their core offerings in the last two years that led to amplification of their impact despite the circumstances include: utilizing digital infrastructure built during the pandemic to facilitate a shift towards blended learning models for tackling accessibility and quality-related challenges in education, leveraging technology (online support groups and platforms) to create better linkages for farmers so they are more resilient to external shocks, developing and disseminating at-home kits for children to stay engaged and mentally stimulated through the pandemic, creating WhatsApp groups for parents and teachers to stay in constant communication, etc.
The world is changing at a disruptive pace and to keep up with this pace, NGOs need to adapt to this dynamic external environment to influence change at multiple levels.
3. Adopt a collaborative approach at all levels: The Covid-19 pandemic has especially highlighted the importance of collaborations and partnerships to drive interventions (relief, campaigns) at scale. By devising shared goals, open acknowledgement of differing incentives, and the reduction of hierarchy and centralized strategy – organizations have been able to build stronger partnerships in these two years, with an emphasis on action.
The world is changing at a disruptive pace and to keep up, NGOs need to adapt to this dynamic external environment to influence change at multiple levels.
While the above recommendations address key initiatives that NGOs can undertake to become more resilient, it is a collective responsibility of the sector to enable a conducive environment built with trust and support, for them to operate at their full potential. The pandemic saw an imbalance in aid towards relief activities vis-à-vis core interventions, selective support towards rebuilding specific communities with limited to no support for people with disabilities, denotified tribes, and Dalits, highlighting the need for encouraging inclusive support.
In conclusion, collaboration at the community and ecosystem level and operational nimbleness are fundamental in enabling NGOs to become more resilient in the face of any crisis, beyond strengthening financial resilience which, in most cases, is heavily dependent on external sentiments.
Sangeeta Bhattacharya and Gagan Kaur work in the Rebuild India Fund at Dasra.