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Queen Mary Global Policy Institute

Pandemic, CSOs, and Collaboration - Perspectives from India

Dr. Feroz Khan, Abhishek YadavDr. Sadananda Sahoo explore some of the key collaborations that CSOs in India have established during the COVID-19 pandemic.

CSO member distributing masks in India. Credit: Anurag Singh

CSO member distributing masks in a village of Uttar Pradesh, India. Credit: Anurag Singh

The nationwide lockdown in India announced on 23 March 2020 has reinforced the importance of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in governance. While the nation was under lockdown, it was the third sector that played a critical role in minimising adverse impacts of COVID-19. The third sector's role is immense in this respect and this blog aims to give an overview of the sector’s vital functions during the lockdown.

Let us first define CSOs. As per the Asian Development Bank, CSOs can be defined as “non-state actors whose aims are neither to generate profits nor to seek governing power,” but have a presence in the public domain and strive to unite people for advancing shared goals and interests. The extraordinary strength of CSO is to unite like-minded people to work towards certain goals which they consider important. Globally, CSOs have assisted local, state and national governments in the past in eradicating diseases, such as polio, SARS, measles-rubella and smallpox through community mobilisation initiatives, thereby filling the void where the government finds it challenging to act in a timely fashion.

The same happened during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in India where CSO played a very crucial role in tackling the challenges emerging out of the health crisis, as we discuss in our research project. The relevance of CSO during such an unprecedented crisis becomes more important as they are simultaneously representative of grassroot societies, first responders to any adverse challenge, and watchdogs of democracy to keep a vigil on government directives.

Collaborative Potential of CSOs in India

While the nationwide lockdown variably affected different sections of society, 'invisible workers' (informal workers) were disproportionately more affected than formal workers. Informal workers account for a large section of India's workforce involved in every kind of occupation – from daily earnersdomestic helpers to casual workers. The halt in work and temporary closure of markets left many of these workers jobless and without any social securities. Only people from a few sectors and skills managed to work online, while most workers were left with confusion and insecurities. Many of these informal workers encountered issues with regard to securing food, medicines, and room rent. Unhygienic living conditions increased the risk of infection. Moreover, the lack of access to technology pushed children out of school.

The role of CSOs became more significant due to their widespread presence and diffused social networks in the affected regions. The work of CSOs In India can be seen at four levels in collaboration with - other local organisations; government agencies formally or informally; local people; and transnational actors.

Collaboration with Government Agencies

Recognising the strength of the CSO, National Institution for Transforming India (NITI Aayog), Policy Think Tank of Government of India, has partnered with around 92,000 CSOs/NGOs to “harness their strengths and resources, expertise in key social sectors- nutrition, health, sanitation, education, and extensive reach in the community”, in order to face the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally many CSOs collaborated with various governmental agencies, including disaster task forces, officials assigned to distribute food, law enforcement authorities, transport department officials and many more, which mutually benefited both parties in providing relief to migrants.

Collaboration with Local Organisations

The multiple challenges thrown up by the lockdown meant no CSO had the capacity to tackle the adversity of the situation single handedly, and collaboration with local organisations became the need of the hour, as discussed by the representatives interviewed for this study. The pandemic has created the space for many new alliances between civil society groups, humanitarian organisations, religious communities, and faith-based organisations. Such collaborations helped in efficient functioning and organisation of relief work and have the potential to develop the sector in terms of capacity building, mentoring and advocating effective mechanisms resulting from their efforts to counter the impact of the pandemic.

Collaboration with Local People

CSOs also collaborated with local people and many youth self-help groups. This helped CSOs in timely delivery of humanitarian assistance but also channelised the energy and potential of youth towards positive impact. In the long-term, collaborations with future leaders and locals can help in building public trust with communities, which is essential for CSO work.

Transnational Collaborations

Migrant and diaspora organisations became prominent transnational actors by collaborating with Indian and foriegn governments in managing the impact of COVID-19 on migrant populations. Several diaspora organisations played an important role in information management, resource mobilisation, and providing other necessary logistics to facilitate the 10 phases of the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) billed as one of the largest civilian evacuations of its kind during the pandemic.

Our report indicates how across these four types of collaborations, CSOs effectively helped migrant communities. They also helped in providing information related to quarantining and public awareness of COVID-19. In the initial days of lockdown, they provided food, medical facilities, money for room rents and hygiene kits and later on organised transport and resting stops for returning migrants. There are numerous challenges migrant labours faced due to language, food, resources, networks and so on during the pandemic. The dynamism of CSOs in responding to these challenges indicate how they work in the social gaps created by national governments and multilateral agencies. The relief provided by CSOs was also immeasurable in providing psychological comfort when the air was rife with fear and insecurity to those affected.

Envisioning A Better Future

In terms of challenges, the closing of civic spaces and restrictions on movement hampered the potential of collaborations. A stagnant economy created a situation for many CSOs whose funding sources were either substantially depleted or stopped completely. Severe financial constraints can trigger a collapse of the third sector unless the underlying issues are addressed through institutional policy measures.

Through our research we observed many CSOs diversifying their areas of work so as to help a larger number of migrants through collaborative efforts. The crucial understanding that the pandemic is all about the "human versus virus" battle and the threat is common to all of us provided the moral premise for collaboration. Going forward, government efforts to strengthen CSO must look at how by the sheer force of collaborations we can create a more humane society.

Migration, Pandemic and Responses from Civil Society Organisations: Lessons from Brazil and India, is a collaborative project that explores the role and work of civil society organisations working with migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil and India. Funded through Queen Mary’s Global Policy Institute’s Research England QR Strategic Research Priorities Fund, the project is led by Professor Parvati Nair from Queen Mary’s School of Languages, Linguistics and Film and Dr Marcia Vera Espinoza from Queen Mary’s School of Geography. The project's report will be launched on April 21st 2021.


Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licenseYou are welcome to republish this blog post which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.



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