The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

NGOs and governments in India must learn to work together

Despite claims of lack of accountability and transparency on both sides, NGOs and governments at all levels need to learn to trust each other and work together lest basic services for the urban poor continue to go undeveloped. The CEO of Operation ASHA, an NGO delivering tuberculosis treatment, shares his experiences.

Christine Mehta

Christine Mehta

Cities: Delhi

Topics: National governance, Participatory governance, Community organisation, Health and aging

Last week I discussed India's urban poverty crisis and the need for government and NGO collaboration to address the growing need for basic services in urban slums.

Out of the three million NGOs in India, few collaborate with the government. Although the government has the potential to be a vast resource for NGOs, mutual distrust between NGOs and government officials creates major roadblocks in forging partnerships between the two.

For NGOs, skepticism of the government is often justified. The Indian government ranks among the least transparent in the world, given a score of 3.3 out of 10 in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index in 2010. It is extremely difficult for NGOs to negotiate the layers of bureaucracy, and decision-making varies from officer to officer, meaning that dependency on government resources can be dicey at best.

On the other hand, government programs defend themselves by saying that the quality and financial accountability of NGOs is inadequate. NGOs lack transparency, they say, and it discourages local authorities from channeling funds to them. Sandeep Ahuja, CEO of Operation ASHA, speculates that 'a large percentage of NGOs in this country are floated [started] either to make money through government grants or to take undue advantage through tax rebates granted for donations.'

Some NGOs were outraged that they would only receive funds channeled through the government. 'How can we trust that the government will actually provide the funding we need to implement as subcontractors or parners?'

In September, the Delegation of the European Union to India released a call for proposals from urban local bodies in the country. Local and international NGOs and local government bodies gathered in New Delhi to discuss the call. Some NGOs were outraged that they would only receive funds channeled through the government. 'How can we trust that the government will actually provide the funding we need to implement as subcontractors or parners?' they asked. 'We won't see a penny of that money if it goes to the government,' said another NGO representative after the session.

Laurent le Danois of the EU Delegation said he expected many fewer proposals than normal to this particular call. 'So really this is a much more open field than usual. Normally applications have a four per cent chance of winning a grant, but the odds for this call will be much higher.' That may be the case, but how many organisations will actually apply?

Collaborating with the government on tuberculosis

Ahuja discussed the main issues he has when working with the government to establish tuberculosis treatment centres in slums. The majority of his ongoing funding, diagnostic tools and medicines come from the government's Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program (RNTCP), meaning Ahuja needs the local District Tuberculosis Officer to be willing before he is allowed to establish centres in a district.

'Entering into a partnership is not easy,' Ahuja said. 'For example, Madhya Pradesh is always willing to help us, but trying to get into certain states is much more difficult because somebody at a certain level in the chain of command thinks that NGO efforts are not good for whatever reason. But then again, it all still depends.'

The line between which services NGOs provide and which ones the government provides is blurred, especially in urban poor areas where infrastructure and planning is weak. NGOs are necessary, but they are providing the services that should be the responsibility of the municipality. Ahuja sees his work, and that of Operation ASHA as an extension of the government, not a substitution.

The RNTCP collaborates to an unusual degree with NGOs, according to Ahuja. THe relationship is not always perfect, but it is far ahead of other government sectors in terms of utilising NGOs to increase capacity. A former government official, Ahuja is pessimistic about whether or not the government will recognise NGOs' role in the country's development. India has the most NGOs per capita in the world, about 1 per 400 people, reported the Indian Express in 2010. It was the first official estimate of the number of NGOs released in India.

The vast network of NGOs and the government need to work together more closely. That much is clear. However, until government transparency increases and relationships between local governing authorities and local NGOs are allowed to foster, the trust needed for greater collaboration will continue to remain elusive. And in that case, so will stability and basic services for India's most needy.

Christine Mehta is the senior communications and development manager for Operation ASHA, an Indian NGO based in New Delhi. Operation ASHA works with the government-led Revised National Tuberculosis Control Program, delivering tuberculosis treatment and prevention nationally and internationally.