Civil society organisations should count on their huge social capital and invest it into future actions

Civil society organisations are often targets of political interference and manipulation, which can limit their ability to operate

By Jayant Kumar
Published: Monday 27 February 2023
Civil society fears that the new FCRA laws aim at throttling their voice and ending the scope for popular global causes. Representative photo: iStock.

The challenges that the civil society organisations (CSO) in India face are new and enduring, ranging from the new Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) induced shrinking of resources to lack of clear governance structure, techno-managerial dominance over volunteerism, to misconceptions about non-profits and many more.

The situation has led to confusion, conflict and dilemma at multiple levels within and outside civil society. Civil society seems to be living with the ambiguity of unknown scope and urgency, wherein all the stakeholders suspect one another and gradually become displaced, misaligned, or scattered. 

Also read: Is civil society suffering from ‘dependency syndrome’? Here is the way forward

The major contour in all the discussions around civil society is its love-hate relationship with the government. Time and again, both complemented each other in providing a broad plank to improve the lot of the poor and the marginalised and in creating policy frameworks on the issues confronting them. This relationship shows contrasting features.

This trust deficit has opened up fissures which are difficult to close in the current scenario. While the government has a whole set of unexplained reasons or suspicion, civil society fears that the new FCRA laws aim at throttling their voice and ending the scope for popular global causes such as environmental issues (more specifically climate change), ensuring rights for forest dwellers or capacity building of most marginalised. Advocacy-based institutions are most likely to be hit by new laws. 

The contentions of civil society against new changes in the law seem to have little impact. As things stand now, the matter has already gone far beyond the ethical pitch that individuals and organisations have a right to form free associations. The government has one reason or the other to blur this argument. The fallout is obvious. 

Thousands working in the social sector, particularly in grassroots organisations, have already been rendered jobless as the ban on sub-granting has caused resource starvation for these organisations. 

The donors legitimately suspect their capacity to handle direct funding. There are also talks doing the rounds that civil society should collectively challenge the new laws.

But most of them are wary of fighting this long battle legally as many of them who have lost their licenses have already drained their resources and are finding it difficult to pay the pending salaries of their staff. 

Role of people’s organisations 

It is high time civil society stopped brooding over the recent legislation and resource crunch, which left it wounded and reflected on its strength and social capital created in all these decades.

I believe civil society need not panic and instead count on the huge royalty it earned in terms of leadership and institution building and invest it into future actions and strategies.

One of the areas it can focus on is people’s organisations which were created decades ago and are still functional without any external support.

Also read: 50 million a step away from starvation: Civil society seeks urgent funds

In the current context and situation, which is fluid and tricky, civil society can bank upon these collectives, which gave a huge impetus to a rights-based approach catering largely to the marginalised sections of the country. Devoid of any formal structure, people’s collectives have substantial freedom and flexibility to take up challenging issues. 

I can give numerous examples of sustainable models created by these organisations whose journeys must be explored and studied well to slot them into new ideas.

The micro-level local resource management models (LRM) created by these organisations are simply exemplary. The immediate task of social leaders and institutions created by them is to strengthen the abilities of people’s organisations working at the grassroots and help them plan and manage resources in a way that could make them more resilient. 

Challenges are far beyond FCRA

The importance of these community-owned people’s organisations could be seen in the backdrop of the ecosystem for civil societies, which is changing rapidly. So is the relationship within civil societies.

If one looks at C20 (an engagement group under G20), a new trend could be seen emerging, where the civil society challenges are no longer limited to FCRA or compliances.

In the current scenario, the prominent challenge is localisation. The initiation of the fight for rights is strongly rooted in the factors at the local level. It requires local leadership.

Therefore, in the face of challenges pertaining to localisation, we must find ways to sustain social movements. These movements have always been central to advocating for policy change.

The governments should also realise that some of its prominent acts or laws, such as the Right to Information Act, The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act and the National Food Security Act, among others, will remain relevant if the foundations of civil society are strong.

Any attempt to disturb civil society will be tantamount to diluting these laws. Any stringent measures would also adversely impact the monitoring of the implementation of various government schemes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, etc.

Recently, the government has warned CSOs against using representative visuals for fundraising activities concerning development issues such as malnutrition. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) issued a directive to non-profits not to depict vulnerable children. So, every new directive is a new challenge for civil society.

Many CSOs need to ramp up clear governance structures and policies. Without these structures, it can be difficult to maintain accountability and ensure that resources are used effectively.

The competition among organisations for resources creates a challenging environment. Many feel this is because the social sector is becoming too big to handle. Many CSOs lack the skills and resources to create and maintain professional management systems.

This can make developing effective strategies and managing staff and programs difficult. But the biggest challenge has been the misconceptions about civil society. CSOs often face misconceptions about their role in society.

This can hinder their ability to gain support from the public and donors. CSOs are often targets of political interference and manipulation, which can limit their ability to operate.

Beyond CSR

Post new FCRA laws, many organisations have already started looking up to local resource mobilisation (LRM) and are largely focused on corporate funding through corporate social responsibility (CSR).

While for some, CSR funds are like apples hanging at the top of the tree, for others working on rights-based programmes, corporate funding is a myth as no corporate will provide funds for popular global causes mentioned above.   

Civil society should explore how to encourage more collective giving, a form of charitable giving where groups pool their donations to create larger funds to tackle problems.

Civil society should focus on joint action to open up trusteeship to people from different backgrounds. There is increasing awareness that increased use of data and digital technology can make charities stronger and even better at what they do. But charities are taking time to adopt opportunities.

The collectivisation of national-level forums for supporting marginalised communities through the articulation of their needs, empowering identity or voices and deconstructing the old arrangements that have failed in performance and ideation is the way forward.

Collectivisation can be done geographically, where societies unite over common social challenges and unite their resources to address them.

Civil societies can leverage the networks and identify strategies that can help them access resources available with the units of their network. The roadmap has to come within the networks.

Today, civil society is at a crossroads, searching for new ways and strategies amid an invisible tussle with power. The question is much bigger than oft-repeated harangues on the need to reflect activities through CSO management, fundraising, digitisation, compliances, reporting and documentation and communications, leadership or capacity building.

For some, the current scenario could lead to more complexities and for others, it offers new opportunities to revive the true spirit of volunteerism and grassroots organisations which have the potency to defy all odds, legislative interventions included. But surely, as its long history in India suggests, civil society will survive these difficult times.  

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Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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