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

Space of civil society in operating environment has gradually shrunk

By Jayant Kumar
Published: Tuesday 19 April 2022
Is civil society suffering from ‘dependency syndrome’? Here is the way forward Photo: iStock

Civil society in India has never experienced the scale of confusion and anxiety as it has experienced in the recent past. New restrictions, advisories and directions — read Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act — are breathing down the neck even as it risks a break in its traditional bond with the poor and the underprivileged.

Those who have been a part of this glorious journey of the civil society are testimony to how lack of synergy between the State and the civil society is gradually restricting the latter’s role in pursuing a transformative agenda. 

Civil society-led institutions have a record of serving the poor and actively participating and being instrumental in a large number of pro-poor policy changes. It serves a very large number of poor who, by and large, remain unserved by government delivery mechanisms. It has been consistently recognised globally as being responsive to the needs of the vulnerable communities.

These engagements have been instrumental in addressing issues like poverty, dignity and human rights, ensuring an institutional delivery framework and participating through a rights-based approach in the critical areas of development through institution building and livelihoods.  

In the last decade, it has gradually witnessed significant changes (shrinking of space) in the operating environment. This relates not only to changes in acts and regulation to control, such as FCRA Act (which allows an organisation to receive foreign funds), information technology laws, societies registration, but also in its inherent societal relationship. 

Consequently, these significant changes have severely impacted the civil society organisations (CSO) making survival of its significant chunk a massive challenge. 

An analysis of these changes also indicate a trust deficit between the State and a section of the civil society, especially those who are pursuing rights-based development agenda and are largely dependent on foreign funds. This trust deficit has also created confusion amongst general masses about the civil society organisations. 

It is important to mention that grey areas do exist as far as the debate over civil society is concerned, but the reach and the delivery by CSOs are undeniably good. This must be based on pragmatic considerations from the State and not on occasional appreciation. 

This reflects in the long and delayed FCRA renewal process. Now, if we see the current data, out of 30,000-plus registered FCRA organisations, the number has come down to approximately 12,000. 

There is a significant decline in resources received too. It is likely to go down further. The data is available in the public domain. 

The challenge here is that there is a certain gap in understanding of rights, human rights and political rights between the State and a section of the civil society. There is a need to bring in synergy on such issues, but the difference of perception on rights-based activities is clearly visible. 

So, what is human right activity for civil society is a direct political engagement with support of foreign funds for the State. The message is clear. The CSOs should reset themselves and be strategically aligned for the purpose of continuing the struggles of the poor and marginalised. 

Possible way forward

It is important to also look into some of the critical challenges within the organisation / CSOs. The purpose of this article is not to criticise any stakeholder but to look inwards and find ways of diluting the impact of the phrase ‘foreign-funded’ and setting off the process of self-sustaining at different levels of engagements of CSOs. 

This is the only way out to multiply and synergise social capital indigenously. To discuss some critical challenges from a strategic perspective, the biggest challenge is the “dependency syndrome”. There is too much dependency on external resources, which brings along with it huge restrictions and application of laws and thereby, distrust, harassment and intimidation. 

Are there ways to reduce this dependency? The organisation will have to find ways and means to localise and indigenise the resource base. There are various successful examples and we need to identify and harness resources available. 

It is not only finance; a holistic approach to reducing / eliminating dependency is necessary. There needs to be extensive debates on this. Different experiments will lead to different models.

The next important challenge is the “formal and informal” nature of organisations / institutions. The formal institutions attract support but they also attract contingent rules and regulations. The more you grow as a formal organisation, the lower your ability to pursue your mission and goal. So, “informal structures” need to be explored and “informal ways” of working need to be institutionalised. 

Further, bureaucracy is a function of size. Generally, the larger the organisation, the larger the bureaucracy, larger the inefficiency and lighter the impact.

This is a key question to avoid larger eco-systems and to facilitate informal, smaller sub-eco systems for better management and impact. Informal small ecosystems are impactful in a large number of cases.

“Leadership” has been a big challenge for the sector as the current leadership grows old and gets entrenched in transfer of power issues and power struggles. How do you create new leadership bringing young minds and transfer leadership?

Transfer of leadership is a huge challenge for survival of the sector and for providing new leadership to movements and is critical at this juncture. 

Creating culture of “pro bono” and “voluntary” work is a very challenging but fascinating area. Is it possible for civil society organisations and its leaders to engage and enlighten youth willing to take risks, be engaged in such activities and thereby, provide leadership? 

In India, we are witnessing a huge growth of entrepreneurships and start-ups, and the environment seems to be very conducive for collectively brainstorming to draw youth from different strata to the sector without the employment orientation. 

Attracting volunteers from different segments of the society is key to the leadership of CSO. Also, the engagement of experienced “pro bono” contributors, along with multi-dimensional skill-oriented people, is necessary. 

A good “governing board” is rare. A majority of the governing boards at various stages and sizes are only meeting formalities and do not bother to know about the institutions. They also lack in providing critical leadership and guidance. 

Even the large so-called “enlightened board” is unwilling to take risks and provide opportunities for creating mechanisms that can present a transparent multi-stakeholder view of the organisation to the board. 

This has led to huge dissatisfaction among the so-called well-organised, well-functioning institutions.  Dependence on single leadership or chief functionary promotes control and one-sided view.

“Raising local resources” through local mapping is very important. There is no dearth of resources at the local level. It is only the overheads of the organisations which require large money.

Local resources should not be considered only in terms of cash but in kind and time as well. There are examples of very successful local resource mobilisation at the micro eco-system level — the community level. 

Also necessary to explore up-scaled meso and macro models. The building up of strong local institutions and local leadership is strongly connected to local response and mobilisation strategies. They are the pivot of taking forward challenges, asking questions and demanding their rights and privileges. 

Hence, it is important that CSOs continue to re-work on their strategies to enable people to continue to challenge and demand their rights and ask questions.

If the civil society movement has to sustain, these are some of the areas where focus needs to be shifted in the next decade, so that not only the aspirations of the people are met but also the democracy and democratic institutions are sustained.  

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

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