Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Role of NGOs in the development process

It has been some time since the Non Government Organizations (NGOs) have joined the public and private sectors as partners in the development process. More than a million NGOs operate in India, covering all the development sectors. But unfortunately, their impact, measured in terms of final outcomes, have been marginal and disproportionately lower than expectations. Only a handful of NGOs, and that too in a few sectors, have made an impact and significantly influenced the course of development process.

Unlike a few years back, when there was an acute scarcity of development funds, today we have an abundance of resources. But the problem remains one of spending the available resources, and spending them effectively and within the designated time. Getting the biggest bang for the development buck is the challenge! This is where Government institutions and systems fail miserably, and where the non-profit sector is uniquely positioned to assist.

The reasons for the government failings are numerous and is not the concern of this post. I will try to identify a few ways in which NGOs can increase their influence on the development process. So here is a laundry list of prescriptions for how NGOs can improve their performance. (some of them are inter-related)

1. Too many NGOs, especially the smaller ones, are involved in themselves running small schools, clinics, anganwadi centers, watershed projects, Self Help Groups (SHGs), child labour schools etc. Many of these NGOs are in turn funded by large aid agencies and foundations. While most of these institutions are undoubtedly run well, they are a small drop in the vast ocean of such activities. It is common place to find 20 to 30 good primary (even secondary and high) schools run by NGOs in each district, as against a few thousands of Government run schools.

In most of these cases, they are well run because of the immense personal effort and attention put in by a few dedicated individuals, and not the result of any radical systemic or institutional innovation. Given all the aforementioned are scarce commodities, it therefore becomes difficult to replicate and scale up. In fact, it would be more appropriate and efficient if these valuable human personnel are utilized on a larger canvas, rather than being confined to a few schools. In other words, we have an inefficient utilization of scarce, committed human resources.

Apart from being examples of well run development institutions, they have limited utility. Of course there are significant learnings from these examples, and many Government programs and policies have indeed drawn important lessons from them. But such examples are too many in number to draw any more meaningful inferences, but are too small to make any significant dent on the problem at a macro level.

2. NGOs need to complement and supplement the efforts of the Government in all their activities. But too many NGOs start running operations parallel to the Government and in competition with it, most often even without the knowledge of the local district administration. The perception that Government machinery is corrupt and inefficient may be the predominant reason for NGOs hesitating to associate with the local administration. But this fails to acknowledge the reality that there are severe limitations to their independent role, and the reality of Government role cannot be wished away.

NGOs need to be partners in assisting the local administration in achieving development goals. Instead of remaining stuck with pilots and small demonstration examples, NGOs need to be actively involved in the implementation of on going Government welfare programs. The local administration can leverage the strengths of these NGOs in effectively implementing major programs like the SSA, NREG, SHGs etc.

3. NGOs are more likely to have the expertise and knowledge to conceptualize school curriculums; affordable and appropriate construction designs for housing; rural transport systems; low-cost irrigation structures; identifying and adopting indigenous technologies after appropriate modifications and so on. NGOs can become an invaluable location for Government departments and agencies to source such expertise. NGOs can specialize in a specific sector, and become best practices resource banks for that sector. Such best practices need not be confined to technologies or materials, and should involve processes and work practices.

4. One of the biggest problems facing our field level development administration is the virtual absence of any comprehensive program for training functionaries working at the cutting edge. NGOs can play a vital role in preparing training material. They can also directly assist in the training of teachers, ANMs, community health workers, anganwadi workers, agriculture assistants, veternary assistants, community activists helping SHGs etc.

If one major NGO or corporate group can fully adopt the training requirements of primary school teachers in a district (say), that can make more meaningful difference than running a hundred schools. And all this will cost much less.

5. Government agencies are severely handicapped by the absence of adequate systematic process support. This deficiency manifests in the poor progress and quality of implementation of works and programs. NGOs and corporate groups can give a qualitative filip to the implementation of Government programs by helping put in place independent third party quality controls, independent program monitoring systems (software etc), carrying out impact evaluation studies.

Therefore it would be invaluable if NGOs assist local administration in such process support for programs like NREGS, SSA, PMGSY, NRHM/NUHM, welfare pensions and the numerous state government welfare programs.

6. NGOs and corporate groups can help Government agencies implement internal process improvements. For example, Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in India are grossly inefficient and do not have any established and standardized accounting systems. NGOs and corporate groups can assist in the development and implementation of financial accounting softwares for double-entry accounting or revenue collection in ULBs.

In fact, this is an ideal example of how corporate welfare and development objectives can be reconciled. While the corporate group can make its money out of selling such software, albeit at a lower profit, the ULBs benefit by way of having access to a single stop software solution to their problems. Similar internal software support useful for Government offices include work-flow automation, file management systems, bill management/tracking systems, citizen grievance redressal softwares etc. While there have been too many local experiments in such systems, most of them have been unprofessional and have suffered from lack of standardization. Such software support increases the efficiency of government services and helps in containing corruption.

7. Another area where NGOs can be of great value is in helping adopt low cost solutions and technologies to many development problems. In recent years, construction technolgies and processes have undergone a massive revolution and we are constructing hundred storey buildings and grand civil engineering marvels. But on the other side, we are yet to have reliable, low-cost, pre-cast housing technolgies or models that can be replicated in a mass scale.

The Government of Andhra Pradesh is building 2.5 million houses for rural poor in three years and the Government of India is proposing to build another 10 million housing units to providing housing for poor. These are massively ambitious construction challenges and cannot be implemented along the conventional lines, and will require substantial pre-cast inputs so as to ensure their completion in time and with good quality.

Low cost irrigation solutions, electrification of remote and interior villages are examples of areas where non-profit sector can contribute in making a meaningful difference.

8. One of the most fertile areas for non-profit sector intervention is in awareness creation or Information Edication Campaigns (IEC). It has been well documented through numerous studies that one of the most important reasons for the poor implementation of various government programs is lack of adequate awareness among the stakeholders. Development also involves bringing about changes in the attitudes behaviour and perceptions of the stakeholders on many social issues.

Regular government programs and agencies do not attach much importance to this critical dimension, that is vital towards sustaining the change. Non-profit sector and NGOs have greater expertise in conceptualizing, preparing campaign materials and even running such IECs. In fact, effectively communicating social and other public interest messages would require borrowing techniques and processes from corporate communication strategies. Further, professsional communication strategies are important for effectively communicating critical reform issues to stakeholders.

9. Finally, Public Private Partnerships (PPP) are a more sustainable and mutually beneficial strategy for NGOs and private charitable foundations to become involved as active partners in the development process. There is enormous potential for mutually beneficial PPPs in agriculture (extension services, storage, and marketing facilities), micro-finance, vocational skill trainings, health care, education, sanitation and public health etc.

The PPPs, when suffused with a reasonable public service dimension, can deliver basic services of good quality at affordable cost to the poor. It is surely the way of the future and is also the most effective way to bring in the private sector into being active partners in the development process.

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