Interview – Sheela Patel, Sushma Raman and Mark Robinson: Negotiation among equals

A major beneficiary of the Ford Foundation’s special 50th Anniversary in India $45 million grants round was the Mumbai-based SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres). Typically the projects the Foundation supports focus on one or two programme areas, but the $1 million five-year grant to SPARC cut across most funding areas. Alliance talked to Sheela Patel at SPARC and Sushma Raman and Mark Robinson at Ford to find out what the grant was for and how it came about.

What is the grant for?

SPARC has been working with the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF) and Mahila Milan since the late 1980s. SPARC was set up in 1984 with the express purpose of creating new and innovative partnerships between community leaders of the poor and
professionals. NSDF was started in the mid-1970s by slum leaders from several cities who wished to participate in all policy discussions affecting the poor. Mahila Milan (Women Together) is made up of collectives of women pavement and slum dwellers whose central activity is the operation of savings and credit activities.

Ford’s perspective

Both sides agree that the grant is partly for SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF core costs, to enable them to scale up their activities, and partly to provide ‘seed money’, to enable them to demonstrate that a group can carry out a mapping exercise or build a house and so leverage public money. The alliance works to enable people living in slums in Indian cities to improve their housing and employment conditions. This grant will enable SPARC to support organizations of the urban poor in 40 cities in six Indian states to take an active role in improving their lives in partnership with municipal authorities. Raman/Robinson point out that the ability to use grant funds flexibly will enable SPARC to test out different approaches and leverage support from other funding sources.

SPARC’s perspective

Patel expands on all of this. The strategy of building sustainable community networks through peer learning, knowledge-building, managing savings and credit, etc, was working, but the process was very uneven. ‘While in cities like Mumbai the impact has been substantial, in many others it has not moved much. Stimulating change in other cities was a long-term process that needed some minimum investment. But we didn’t want to be getting the state to give us money to organize if we wanted to get the state to give us land tenure.’

Finding other local and state-level NGOs to work with will not necessarily be easy. ‘NGOs are often intimidated by the equalness of the relationship between SPARC, Mahila Milan and NSDF, and this increases fears about being engulfed by another NGO.’ The reality, Patel explains, is that ‘unlike many donors and NGOs who see the NGOs themselves as the innovators and replicators, our alliance sees the community leadership as the replicators, creators of scale and sustainers of development. We at SPARC are clear that our primary goal is to explore new institutional arrangements that help the poor explore their right to voice, choice and participation. For SPARC staff this is something we have lived with, with some discomfort, since our inception.’

While Robinson and Raman refer to ‘seed money’, Patel talks about a ‘precedent-setting fund’. Almost half of the Ford grant will go to this. SPARC’s own analysis is that it succeeds in building community capacity and convincing large numbers of communities to join federations, and in getting government and financial institutions to work with them, ‘because we use precedent-setting activities to help demonstrate our solutions’. What this will involve can rarely be predicted, so although the items of expenditure would probably fit under other budget heads, ‘we can’t do this at the time we are drawing up a proposal’.

Patel gives an example from Pune, where the city is undertaking road widening and all settlements that are in the way are being scheduled for demolition. ‘The standard practice is to give people “adequate notice” and just ask them to leave. When Pune Mahila Milan came to know about it, they used the NSDF and SPARC senior leadership to set up a dialogue with the Pune Municipal Commissioner to explore a new strategy. On 30 June they set up an exhibition to show politicians, community leaders, press and city officials how a house would look, how much it would cost, etc. ‘This will help the first 1,200 households get land tenure, access to state and local subsides, and loans for their homes.’

How did the SPARC grant come about?

Ford’s perspective

The concept of integrated urban work was being actively considered for about two years within the Foundation’s New Delhi office and a study had been commissioned to determine how to proceed. ‘It was at this point that Sheela approached the Foundation regarding a grant and re-establishing a relationship,’ say Raman/Robinson. The 50th anniversary of Ford’s operations in India provided an opportunity to allocate significant resources on a one-off basis – both for new institutions and projects and to scale up existing programmes. Ford’s renewed interest in urban work, combined with the resources available during the 50th anniversary, proved key to facilitating a grant of this scale and nature to SPARC.

The grant clearly involved some negotiations within the Foundation itself. Raman describes how they wrote a note to all programme staff explaining how the grant fitted in their respective areas. ‘Sheela didn’t want to have to justify how it fitted within eight budgets. The other programme officers needed to know what they were supporting and why, without imposing too much on SPARC.’

SPARC’s perspective

SPARC first sought a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1988-89. The $200,000 grant was to provide support to the NSDF leadership over three to five years to reconnect with the federations in eight cities and to explore the potential of SPARC, NSDF and Mahila Milan working together. Although this process was acknowledged as being innovative and exploring new horizons, ‘it somehow didn’t fit with the evolving priorities at Ford,’ explains Patel. Rather than negotiate to try to fit the process within that framework, SPARC decided not to seek continuation of the grant.

Later, SPARC began to be aware of the focus on governance issues in the Ford Foundation. ‘We decided to explore a reconnection to look at the linkage between support to organizations of the urban poor and urban governance, etc. My first contact with Mark Robinson was soon after he came to India, but it was almost two years after that that we actually began to discuss the possibility of a grant.’

Why is the grant unusual?

Ford’s perspective

‘First, the intended scale of this project is unique,’ say Raman/Robinson: $1 million over five years to enable SPARC to expand its work in 40 cities with tens of thousands of slum dwellers and their federations. ‘This is a substantial grant – one of the largest made during the 50th anniversary process.’ Also unusual is the fact that the grant will support federations and associations that are led by slum dwellers themselves. The SPARC grant is also ‘one of the few that was made in an integrated manner across various programmes within the Foundation’s New Delhi office’. As a cross-cutting grant, it will benefit from having multiple perspectives from these different programmes.

At the time the SPARC grant was being considered, the Foundation was going through an internal reflection process based on lessons learned from 50 years of work in India, ‘and some of these lessons informed our work with SPARC: the importance of participatory approaches to planning and development, the need for a multi-faceted approach to address the problems of poverty and exclusion, the interplay between local and external ideas and networks, the need for work at both grassroots and policy levels.’

Why did the grant take so long to negotiate?

The grant took a lot of negotiation and many conversations and visits between Ford and SPARC staff. Why did it take so long?

Ford’s perspective

Raman/ Robinson cite several reasons here:

  • the sheer size and complexity of the grant and activities to be covered;
  • finding a balance between SPARC’s priorities, the programmes of the Foundation, and the interests of a range of other funders;
  • the lengthy consultation process between SPARC, NSDF and Mahila Milan;
  • the quality of SPARC’s proposals, which did not always reflect the scale and details of the proposed activities. Nor did the budgets link with the work to be accomplished.

SPARC’s perspective

Patel doesn’t disagree with any of this, but explains why SPARC found it so difficult to draw up the proposal. ‘Most “projects” have a three-year cycle, with clear inputs and outputs and indicators,’ she says, ‘but we have great difficulty in putting things in these frameworks. Time and again our processes have yielded powerful outcomes in a range of ways, but it’s hard to make exact predictions about where and when and what the outcomes will be. Stuffing all this into a proposal, and coming up with something that made sense for both Ford and SPARC, was a major challenge for us.’

Negotiation among equals?

Asked what they learned from this process, Raman/Robinson reply: ‘The ongoing process of interaction with SPARC staff, Mahila Milan leaders and slum dwellers reinforced for us that we were partners in this process. It also reinforced the importance of approaching such partnerships with an open attitude, humility, and an interest in learning.’

Sushma Raman and Mark Robinson are programme officers at the Ford Foundation’s New Delhi office. They can be contacted at and (From autumn 2002, Mark Robinson will be at IDS Sussex, where he can be reached at

Sheela Patel is Director of SPARC. She can be contacted at

For more information about SPARC, email or visit the website at

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