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Why Engaging With The Government Is An Imperative


I come across many NGOs and foundations which are inimical to the thought of working with the government. They cite many reasons for not doing so – bureaucracy is stifling; bribes are asked for; government often mistreats you; there is too much interference to the design of your intervention etc. Well, for sure, working with the government has its own challenges. But can a not-for-profit really stay away from working with government?

It would be in order to bring in focus the magnitude of problems the country is facing. Close to 360 million people still live in poverty (though some estimates put it at much higher figures); 266 districts in 11 different states are prone to droughts; literacy rates are still poor; states such as Bihar have low literacy rate as low as 63.82%. Though enrollment of kids in classrooms is slightly better, we are still struggling with learning outcomes across the country. Meanwhile, about 248 districts have an infant mortality rate of 45 or more. There are many Indian states with Maternal Mortality Ratio or MMR higher than 200. Also, close to 30% of children in India are underweight.  Every year 12 million workers enter the market – mostly without much relevant skills. The list goes on. In fact, in many areas, we fare far worse than some of our poorer South Asian neighbours.

Against this background, a key question that any NGO or developmental agency needs to ask itself is – what is it that the NGO is trying to achieve? Is it only striving for creating a pocket of excellence in a sea of depravity or does it care for a wider impact of its work? If it is striving to just create a pocket of excellence in a few villages here or a small town there, it can keep itself aloof and keep working with a ‘touch me not’ mindset. This attitude can be easily justified by the reasons cited above. But if it aims to make a real difference and achieve impact at a scale, it cannot escape engagement with Government.

Why working with government can help address issues at a wider scale?

A government has enormous funds at its disposal; thanks to rapidly increasing revenues of government since early 90’s. Moreover, the government has the mandate to cater to all of these issues. The government is a natural custodian of solutions to these problems and is expected to deliver efficient services. Most often the administration develops schemes around these issues, although implementation and design of schemes leave much to be desired. Likewise, accountability is often limited to if at all, spending money and not to outcomes. Overall funds are improperly used and outcomes are not satisfactory. It is herein that NGOs and other developmental agencies can play a contributing role.

There are two broad approaches that the NGOs can follow to engage with government. With one, they seek state funds so that they can extend their area of work – mostly geographical spread. Many others find the other approach of working with the government in a knowledge partnership mode useful. Herein, key skills are transferred to the existing government officials responsible for the space with handholding arrangement for some time. Both the approaches have their own advantages and limitations.

Why is it that a successful NGO/developmental agency succeeds where government fails?

There are many reasons for it. Most can be located in the processes that successful NGOs follow. Most of such organisations have their interventions designed to real needs of the disadvantaged. They customise their offering after careful diagnostic of the issue facing people. These organisations put motivated human resources to execute the interventions. They bring due to focus on softer issues of development – the issues of social capital, people participation, community monitoring etc. Accountability is built in so that goals that are chased become clear to all involved.

Any meaningful work (measured by the difference it makes to the cause) can only be accomplished when an NGO learns to engage with government and partners with it in ways that leverage its strength. If leadership in NGO has an intention to scale up leveraging government resources, ways and means to work out a relationship are not difficult to establish. However, an NGO or a corporate foundation has no choice but to work with the government if it aspires to make a significant difference.


High Res Pic-Shri JK_miniJitendra Kalra heads the Reliance Foundation as the Chief Operating Officer since 2015. An Ex-Civil Servant, Kalra comes with more than 24 years of rich experience in the Development sector and Indian Civil Services. He also held the position of CEO of Dr Reddy’s Foundation and made significant contributions to skilling and livelihood space. Prior to that, he was the ‘National Expert’ and ‘Focal Point Manager’ at UNIDO and was responsible for the development of various poverty intensive clusters in the state of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu and Maharashtra.

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The CSR Journal Team