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December 21, 2021

The Role of Civil Society Organisations in Urban Governance

By Isalyne Gennaro, Manavi Dutta

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a spotlight on the vulnerability of India’s urban poor and the role that civil society organisations (CSOs) play when the state is unable to address their needs. The Centre of Social Impact and Philanthropy assessed that three-fourths of their sample non-profit organisations contributed to the relief. The CSOs helped governance efforts but their finances depleted quickly. Bridgespan’s national survey showed that 65% and 35% of small and large CSOs had only three months of reserves. To recover and sustain their efforts in local governance, CSOs need adequate institutional backing and collaborative frameworks.


In Mumbai, up until the end of first COVID-19 wave in October 2020, the CSOs provided relief in the slum containment zones identified by the local government. A containment zone in Dadar, the most dense ward with the majority of the slum population, could have anywhere from 6,600 to 198,000 people depending on its size. These populations stopped earning, stopped accessing transport, routine services, and healthcare such as nutrition monitoring. They needed greater support but World Bank’s senior economist Shrayana Bhattacharya explained that India’s design of social protection benefits distribution would not reach poor migrant workers in urban areas. 


During this period, the CSOs helped the disenfranchised communities in various capacities, beyond providing relief material. For example, Apnalaya, a grassroot advocacy organisation, provided direct cash transfers in the Chembur area. The non-profit Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action helped adapt the Public Distribution System to distribute food. The Foundation for Mother and Child Health (FMCH) used the data collection and decision tree app NuTree to assist frontline workers in counselling and sharing communication material with families. To operate at scale, CSOs collaborated with the government and availed funding from private sources and philanthropy. Apnalaya raised INR 64.6 million (around USD 870,000) from contributors including ATE Chandra Foundation to provide curative health infrastructure in hospitals.


When the second wave hit Mumbai in April and May 2021, the number of positive cases and containment zones had decreased in slums. However, the needs of the communities had changed or deepened. An additional 230 million people in India had been pushed into poverty. CSOs showed they adapt. Some broadened their interventions to combat vaccine hesitancy and increase access to vaccination. For example, through Project Karuna, education CSO Akanksha Foundation distributed hygiene kits to students and their communities as well as sensitized towards vaccination. 


Through Mumbai’s two waves of COVID-19, the CSOs bridged various state capacity gaps in slum governance. Such interventions demonstrated local governance failures to deliver public services and prepare for crises. CSOs play a key role to address these problems but they should not substitute for the government. Their capacities fluctuate based on funding and they are not accountable to citizens the way the government is. CSO and local governments should collaborate to address wicked problems and systemic governance failures in urban slums based on their respective capacities and mandates. We recommend three changes for that.


One, city authorities need to formalise working relationships with CSOs and integrate them in local decision making. This may vary based on sectoral requirements. For example, the FMCH trains and supervises frontline health workers to track the first 1000 days of newborns. The educational organisation Apni Shala develops new pedagogies to improve children’s learning outcomes and well-being in public schools. In a conversation organised by IDFC Institute, public policy experts and CSOs highlight that partnerships between CSOs, government and funders should be structured on a comprehensive definition of social and sustainable impact. Stakeholders should ensure clear communication and balanced participation, and encourage civic engagement. Successful initiatives can serve as models and be scaled up. For example, Jansahas’ Migrants Resilience Collaborative delivers social security for migrant workers. The collaborative has provided relief to around one million workers, partnered with the government to set up desks for them and targeted to reach 10 million workers in five years.


Two, city authorities need to create data sharing mechanisms and use digital tools to work proactively with the CSOs. Data sharing protocols should protect the privacy of slum dwellers while collecting granular information about the communities. Data governance experts cautioned that CSOs need to collect consent and monitor other entities accessing community-level data through them. At the same time, the authorities can develop digital tools to provide real time spatial information on CSOs’ specialisation and capacity per location. Such tools will help monitor and expand future collaborations.


Three, city authorities and the private sector can invest in transforming CSOs’ relief initiatives into sustainable services. In South Africa, the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership brings together the government, businesses and civil society to provide long-term digital financing to maintain community kitchens established during COVID-19 relief. In India, the NGO Society for Empowering Women to Achieve uses market-based approaches to launch digital enterprises of women in the informal economy. To support and scale-up such models, the government should streamline processes for availing funding, and CSOs should be  integrated in the impact investing landscape. 

Beyond the pandemic, the role of CSOs to manage slums must be leveraged, integrated and enabled in urban governance and disaster management frameworks. Ultimately, doing so is critical for the long-term development of India’s emerging cities.


The authors would like to thank Tvesha Sippy and Harsh Pachisia, associate and senior associate at IDFC Institute, for their reviews.

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