Rules of Engagement: Best Practices for NGO-Government partnerships

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It’s already been 3 years since the global community adopted the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and we need to move a lot faster if we want to pull 767 million people out of poverty by 2030. The sheer scale and ambition of the SDGs underscore the need to work together, and SDG 17 highlights this by pushing for global partnerships and cooperation. Across the world, unpredictable alliances across sectors have become critical for accelerated social change.

Closer to home, India’s development challenges are compounded by diverse cultural needs and regional interests. Consequently, while the government has the economic resources to drive long-term change at scale, government officials often lack the social context and technical expertise to implement social welfare programs. On the other hand, social organizations that are able to develop innovative interventions for service delivery often lack the resources and the support required to create lasting and far-reaching impact.

Experts recognize the need to develop government-civil society partnerships, however, there is limited guidance on how best to develop these relationships. This post leverages learnings from the panel ‘Partners in Change’ (comprising experts ranging from government officials, non-profit leaders to funders) at Dasra’s Collaborative Action Forum to share the following 5 practical pointers for non-profits who want to engage effectively with government.

Build evidence: Government stakeholders tend to be risk averse, this is understandable because their efforts often come under public scrutiny. Officials across departments such as health, education and skill development usually only work with credible organizations with a proven track record. Non-profits that wish to partner closely with government need to develop robust M&E processes. For instance, SEARCH’s new-born care intervention was only adopted by the National Rural Health Mission, once ICMR’s rigorous evaluation proved the efficacy of their model.

Work within existing systems: Non-profits that plan to eventually work with government should tailor their intervention to fit the landscape of existing government led initiatives. This is not only more cost-effective; it also makes it easier to build a case for government funded scale-up in the long run. An organization interested in improving health outcomes could consider strengthening government-run primary healthcare centres, instead of setting up a parallel chain of healthcare centres. Organizations like C3 use this approach to engaging with government; instead of building their own work force, they train elected women representatives to improve reproductive health outcomes in Bihar.

Gather your allies: For organizations working in advocacy, it’s almost impossible to shape policy without the support of other like-minded organizations. To bring a social concern to the front and centre of public agenda there is a need to build traction around the issue. This can be achieved by convening interested activists, academics and organizations around a shared vision. Such efforts increase their collective ability to push for reform through engagements such as government conferences, meetings and other state-led platforms. For example, policy efforts by the White Ribbon Alliance in 2008 led to legal amendments in India that allowed auxiliary nurse midwives and nurses to administer lifesaving drugs during delivery and post‐partum.

 

Stand your ground: It is useful for non-profits to have an exit strategy but parachuting into a community doesn’t work for long term change. The role of the organization within a community does evolve over time – from implementer to facilitator to consultant. However, they need to ensure the sustainability of their programming before exiting a space. Since government stakeholders look to non-profits for a deeper understanding of the social context of the region, they prefer to work with organizations that have made deep inroads with the community. Organizations like CINI have leveraged their community knowledge to build relationships with government.

Keep it simple: Government representatives recommend that when an organization wants to enter into a memorandum of understanding with state authorities, they need to keep their proposals short, crisp and avoid jargon. Even from a programmatic perspective, the aim should be to design a project with a clear focus and distinct, limited outcomes rather than trying to execute complexity at scale. Such efforts are more likely to receive positive responses from government officials.

Government-civil society partnerships are never easy. There are a variety of challenges ranging from red-tape and delays to ambiguity in scope of work caused by changes in government and transfers of government officials. That being said, these efforts can be rewarding as well. Like any collaboration, all parties involved need to acknowledge failures, share learnings, move past setbacks, course-correct where required and keep an open mind.

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Sindhura is part of Dasra’s Knowledge Creation & Dissemination team. She works closely on issues of democracy and governance in India and has a background in law. She steered the research, writing and scoping of organizations for Dasra’s report ‘Tipping the Scales: Strengthening Systems for Access to Justice in India.’ She brings research insights from her experience in the development space and expert engagements across stakeholder groups including non-profits, funders, academics and government.