Considering governmental opposition to the foreign funding of NGOs, it is surprising that the present government seems also to be opposed to a public-private partnership for funding NGOs. According to an Indian Express report (‘Modi govt will have to deal with some members of Sonia’s NAC’, June 25), the government is not keen on continuing funding the Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation (BRLF), an autonomous society to provide arms-length funding to rural civil society organisations.
In December 2013, the BRLF was registered by Mihir Shah, a member of the Planning Commission, Virginius Xaxa, an academic and Mirai Chatterjee, an expert in health delivery and head of SEWA Ahmedabad. In its general body and executive council were other well-known names. The BRLF was envisaged as an autonomous public-private partnership to fund grassroots NGOs, replacing the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Development (Capart), a body under the rural development ministry and plagued with inefficiency and corruption. A few months before the 2014 elections, the UPA’s rural development ministry under Jairam Ramesh signed an MoU with the BRLF, making it a funding agency for NGOs across the country, and giving it Rs 200 crore as a first tranche to be followed by Rs 300 crore over the next two years.
The idea of the BRLF was entirely laudable: to raise funds from all sources, public and private, including companies, international agencies, private foundations and, of course, Central and state governments, to provide non-partisan, need-based financial grants to civil society organisations. Professionally staffed, with an eminent chairman not from the government, it was meant to overcome the many objections raised against foreign funding and the deficiencies of government funding, such as red tape, corruption and inflexible grants not tailored to need. It was also meant to insulate NGO funding from the political instability and interference that marred Capart’s functioning. Unfortunately for the fledgling entity, many of the 30-member executive committee were also members of the National Advisory Council under Sonia Gandhi, and reportedly this has brought upon it a review to determine its fate.
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But the mere fact of the association of politically unacceptable people with it should not trash what is otherwise a laudable innovation in funding. A strong civil society is built upon and draws its strength from people who work together for the betterment of that society, without depending on government for everything. But to do that it must have access to an independent source of funds. Decentralisation is important to take democracy and development to the grassroots.
Though over 29 functions were devolved to local bodies, rural and urban, by the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments, a corresponding devolution of resources has not happened. So neither panchayats nor rural NGOs get the money they need for their work. Moreover, although almost Rs 1 lakh crore is allocated annually for rural development schemes, not much is actually spent because the allocation is tied to a specific project that may not meet local priorities. Government funding agencies also lack the flexibility to decide on their priorities, agendas and operations according to local needs.
At the same time, donors other than government — charitably inclined individuals/ families, companies, foreign donors, charitable trusts and NRIs are interested in contributing to development. What is needed is out of the box thinking on funding mechanisms for local development at the district level or even lower, such as the block or mohalla, which would mobilise and pool funds from all sources, and make them available to all development agencies according to a planned strategy. If “untied” funds are provided to NGOs according to need and they are given a free hand to address priority areas, need-based utilisation would result.
Governed by a board of citizens broadly reflective of the communities they are expected to serve, a BRLF-type model can make grants to non-profits to address the emerging and changing needs of the community. With open and transparent policies and practices concerning all aspects of operation, it can be made accountable to the communities they serve, and to the general public, by informing them about its purpose, activities and financial status.
The BRLF appears to be a model which, if left to evolve without political interference, would meet these needs. Just because some individuals associated with it were nominated by a previous government, there is no reason to discard the model. Moreover, the people to whom objection appears to have been taken are experts in their own right. And even if the NDA wishes to replace them with their own nominees, it can do so without discarding an experiment that promises to be a game-changer in government funding.
Sundar is the author of ‘Foreign Aid for Indian NGOs: Problem or Solution?’