Governance as defined by the Habitat II conference held in Istanbul “is a broader and more inclusive term than government, as it encompasses the activities of a range of groups – political, social and governmental – as well as their interrelationships. Governance is the sum of the many ways individual citizens and institutions, both public and private, manage their common affairs. It is the continuing process through which conflicting or diverse interests and needs may be accommodated and cooperative action taken. It includes formal institutions and regimes empowered to enforce compliance as well as informal arrangements that people and institutions either have agreed to or perceive to be in their interests” (Mehta 1998, pp5). Each of the three actors has a part to play in the development of our country, but our focus in this article would be on the partnerships between non-government organisations (NGOs) and the government towards this end.

Courtesy The principal-agent problem has long been studied in economics. The principal, one of the entities involved in a transaction, engages another to execute an assignment. The principals in our context are the citizens while the agent is the government that has been voted into power to ensure that certain basic services are provided to them. The problem arises when the agent i.e. the government is not fulfilling its end of the bargain by not supplying or only partially providing the goods they are supposed to. This could be traced to the fact that the principals do not have any mechanism by which to redress poor performance, and observation of the agent’s action is next to impossible.

This issue has to be solved by use of incentives i.e. incentives to ensure that the agent realises that fulfilment of the contract (explicit or implicit) is in their best interests. In a democracy the incentives often include the knowledge that performance is linked to likelihood of re-election but in reality it has been observed that this has seldom proved a deterrent to the various malpractices within the government.

It is in this context that we will be examining partnerships between governments and NGOs. Is this a means of increasing the accountability of the State as well as transparency of its operations? Another feature that is being seen increasingly is that with reforms being the buzz-word on the international stage, the government is being forced to privatise certain essential services which have put them out of the reach of the poorer sections of the population. Could partnerships between NGOs and the government enable them to provide health and educational services in a cost-effective manner? In this paper we are going to examine a few examples of such collaborations and what the pros and cons of such associations are.

Rationing Kruti Samitee
3006 fair price shops service the needs of 36,33,904 families in Mumbai and Thane. The PDS is supposed to provide foodgrains at a subsidised rate. But these good intentions ran into a number of problems like difficulty in obtaining ration cards, black marketeering, poor quality grains, adulteration, etc. Though NGOs were aware of it, a systematic partnership between them and the government (Controller of Rationing) did not come about till 1992. The Rationing Kruti Samitee (RKS) was created with the following objectives:

  • Improve quality and access to food grains
  • Aid in instituting the dialogue among the different actors i.e. government, consumers, shopkeepers
  • Reduce corruption and make the process both more accountable and transparent
RKS adopted a three-prong strategy
  • Facilitation of monthly meetings hosted by officers of the department of rationing, both in specific areas as well as for the whole city, which was attended by all the participants
  • Organising demonstrations in case of malpractices
  • Initiating the development of vigilance groups

The incentive structure designed to enforce government compliance for the NGO-determined agenda was the threat of demonstrations and sit-ins if ration supplies were inferior or obtaining cards was cumbersome.
Over the next two years a number of objectives were met i.e. simpler procedure to obtain ration cards, displaying samples of grains to counter adulteration, police raids to deal with black-marketeering, etc. (YUVA et al 1996, Partnerships for a Better Urban Future: A Question of Political Will). This partnership succeeded to a large extent and did achieve what it was meant for. The actors in the model i.e. the NGOs, the department of rationing and the shopkeepers were able to sort out their differences in order to make the whole scheme viable at least for the initial period. In this case, civil society having worked in the community concerned did have a track record with them.

It is this sort of partnership that is most desirable. If NGOs are known to the communities they work in, they are generally able to devote all their energy to ensuring that the government is fulfilling all its obligations. The incentive structure designed to enforce compliance for the NGO-determined agenda from the government was the threat of demonstrations and sit-ins if ration supplies were inferior or obtaining cards was cumbersome. The NGOs, having worked in the community, were able to assess first-hand the needs of the community.

Since the government was not funding the activities of the RKS, the civil society groups were free from any sort of pressure and were able to function in the best interests of the community. Since the meeting of the RKS both at the city and area levels were open to all, it facilitated free flow of information. This transparency coupled with the local vigilance groups ensured that strong accountability measures were in place.

So far it seems that this partnership was ideal – accountability was ensured; the quality of products sold at fair price shops was ensured with measures to combat adulteration and black-marketeering and ration cards were easily obtained i.e. efficiency and effectiveness was certified; since the whole exercise was carried out in order to secure the interests of the poor, it made certain that distributional equity was maintained. However, on the last count i.e. sustainability, the whole project failed. The Controller of Rationing for Mumbai was supportive of it, but the enthusiasm of the government for the scheme waned after his transfer. The communities, on the other hand, were not equipped to continue with the scheme.

Swayam Shikshan Prayog, Latur
See earlier profile of Swayam Shikshan Prayog

Following the earthquake in Latur, the government, in association with the World Bank, instituted a vast project to rehabilitate affected people. The programme was intended to be driven by the local people themselves. Towards this end, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), an NGO, was appointed as consultant by the government. Over 200,000 houses were damaged and the affected families were given entitlements in the form of cash, cement, steel, etc. worth Rs 17,000.

They began with various forms of awareness and training programs for both the general public and community groups. The basic strategy was to build up local skills to reconstruct their houses both within the budget and according to their requirements. To convince sceptics they started off with two pilot villages to allow local innovations to be incorporated into the project, and encourage local capacity to be created and utilised. Since government-appointed staff would not be able to manage on their own, community organisers and women’s collectives were set up to assist them in managing and speeding up construction, dealing with government officials, and incorporating feedback from house-owners. In the process they helped change the government’s impressions of their ability to cope with the process of reconstruction. (Women’s Eye-view, SSP)

The actors in this instance i.e. the government, the World Bank and SSP, all came together with the objective of rehabilitating the earthquake-affected people of Latur. SSP were sub-contracted by the government to act as consultants in the process. This is not the best sort of partnership in many situations, especially when the NGO has no prior experience of working with the community. It often leads to a conflict between ensuring that the interests of the people are taken care of, while attaining it in a way that is acceptable to the government. And in turn, this often leads to the NGO watering down its commitments to the community. Accountability then becomes an issue because we are back to the citizens not having the means to ensure basic services are provided.

But in this instance, the government participation does seem limited to the financing and providing technical expertise in the form of engineers, raw materials. The people themselves were organised into groups to monitor construction and ensure that their requirements were met, with the resources available to them. Women were involved in the whole process in a big way and were taught how to create plans of houses, stone masonry, making mud-blocks, etc. Hence the agenda and execution by the community with only finances coming from the government meant that both sides were satisfied.

Synergy is too potent a development tool to be ignored by 'development theorists'
By and large, all the measures for a successful partnership seem to be fulfilled in this case – accountability is ensured through the inspections carried out by community groups and women’s collectives; construction groups consisting of locals themselves maintained efficiency and effectiveness through institutionalisation of innovations during the pilot phase and by working on the houses ensured that quality was maintained; distributional justice was inbuilt though one wonders about the wisdom of allotting uniform sums without taking into account the quantum of damage to the house. On the flip-side, discretion on the amounts to be paid could set off rent-seeking behaviour. The most praiseworthy component of the project seems to be the emphasis placed on building up local capacity to deal with such problems in the event of their recurrence.

Government-NGO partnerships cannot be easily summarised in an article of this length, but they are instruments that have to be used in meeting the development needs of this country. Peter Evans expressed similar sentiments when he said, “Synergy is too potent a development tool to be ignored by development theorists” (Evans 1996, p 1130). We have focussed on just two of the many kinds of partnerships, all of which yield substantial benefits in the appropriate context. Civil society in India has been emerging as a force since the late seventies as a result of the growing importance of participatory governance and democratisation.

The greater availability of funds from donor agencies and multilateral development institutions has contributed to the progress of NGOs in the country. These organisations, having worked at the grassroots, have a better perspective of the requirements of the people and the approach to be adopted. However, to leave everything to the NGOs would not work. One should not discount the contributions of the government. There are inputs which only the State can provide to complement the contributions of civil society in achieving greater outputs and utility to all.