What do NGOs actually do? All you need to know!

It appears that the idea for demonetisation came from a relatively unknown NGO called Arthkranti Pratishthan. Many inconvenienced by the note ban must be tearing their hair out and wondering what NGOs have to do with currency recommendations? We thought it was a good time to revisit our understanding of what NGOs do.

Here is the simplest way to go about it. We can start by looking at the systems, services and people we take for granted in our own lives. Competent doctors to cure us when we are ill, education that allows us to participate in better quality employment, employers who provide fair conditions of work, even wages that meet a basic standard of living. In a nutshell, NGOs try to recreate these very systems to help the poor and underprivileged. All NGOs are performing one or more of the following tasks :

  • Service Delivery 
  • Behaviour change 
  • Policy Advocacy

Most of us are familiar with ‘Service Delivery’ NGOs. They supply the most urgently needed and basic necessities. Akshaya Patra Foundation serves 1.6 million mid-day meals a day to schoolchildren, many of whom count it as their only meal. Goonj… provides emergency relief to communities who have lost everything in disasters. Aravind Eye Care has performed over 3 million low-cost or free eye surgeries for people in need. The service could even include mobilising volunteers who distribute food, teach, and perform other roles.

Behaviour change refers to the subtle but no less important work NGOs do. Many underprivileged people are held back not by a lack of money but social biases held by others. For many years, it was not possible for a person with a physical or mental disability to dream of full-time employment. Today software giants like SAP hire people on the autism spectrum for software testing, technical writing and system administration. Other common topics including addressing people’s attitudes towards child marriage, domestic violence, technology and more. A small change in heart can mean a world of difference to a young girl who gets to go to school instead of staying at home!

Advocacy is a little trickier to understand. It does not address any single beneficiary directly. Instead, it involves working with policymakers, government bodies and elected representatives to advocate on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. These NGOs’ ultimate goal is to create or change laws and policies to accommodate the concerns of those in need. Arthkranti’s stated mission, for instance, aims at fixing flaws in India’s economic systems to reduce black money and improve the access to capital for all citizens. It is not driven by a desire to improve the personal fortunes of any of its members. 

  • Bangalore Public Action Committee (B.Pac) aims to increase good governance, infrastructure, services etc for residents of Bangalore by increasing people’s participation and engaging with political parties
  • People for Ethical Treatment of India (PETA) lobbies to improve the treatment of animals.
  • Change.org accepts and forwards online petitions from citizens and their supporters to elected representatives of their country
  • Greenpeace is a global organisation that pushes governments to reduce carbon emissions, divest from fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
  • Amnesty India campaigns against human rights violations all over the world.

Advocacy NGOs fall into a mighty gray area, especially because their work asks us to support a world we cannot imagine. Their work can pit them against governments and existing laws of a country – Greenpeace and Amnesty International have both been hauled up by governments in India and abroad for ‘meddling’ in internal affairs of a country.

However, there are other more shadowy lobbies, think tanks and special interest groups that also fall into the ‘NGO’ bracket because they are non-governmental entities. They claim to represent public interest but may actually speak only for their donor base or one segment of society. Questions are raised about vested interests, and whether this work actually represents people in need. These organisations also tend to stay away from the public eye, unlike others that try to rally support from individuals, businesses and even government officials. A closer look into their finances, staff and mission is required to better understand their world.

Credible NGOs also make an effort to state their mission, finances and programmes in the public domain.

This article first appeared in Equitymaster.

Education for a Better India

India's public school system reaches 250 million children through 1.5 million schools. The outcomes in education are demoralising as demonstrated by Teach for India and an annual primary school report (ASER) conducted by Pratham. The numbers are shocking:

  • 40% of children in standard 3 cannot recognise numbers till 100
  • 52% of children in Standard 5 cannot read Standard 2 text
  • 76% of students don't make it to a higher education system!

The consistent inefficiencies of the school system that result in unemployable youth, and huge dropout rates do nothing to encourage the appalling enrollment figures. But there are many who have dedicated their lives to tackling the problem from several angles, and you can help.

For migrant workers across the country, enrolling their child in school is a logistical challenge, besides being unaffordable. Sunbeam Trust helps provide education to these children so they can continue to learn while their parents continue to work. For other families, food and shelter are barely affordable, let alone the costs of schooling. Isha Vidya is working to change that by awarding scholarships to those who cannot afford it covering tuition, books, and health supplements for an entire year.

You might ask though, what about the skills that can't be taught in schools? Children in metropolitan cities have the access and resources to learn a musical instrument, play a sport, visit a planetarium, and gain experiences that enrich their mind in a way that classroom learning cannot. BREAD Society recognises this need, and has set up more than 750 libraries that reach 3.5 lakh students a year. Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyalaya celebrates the role of arts in learning, and incorporates musical education into the curriculum at their school in rural Karnataka.

Yet, many obstacles stand in the way of these children and suitable employment that will help uplift them out of poverty. Vidya Poshak provides financial assistance and also helps develop communication skills for children to seek employment after their tenth grade and pave their way to a brighter future.

There is a long way to go, and everyone could use your help – the children, the organisations working for their development, and the employers who would benefit from their skills. You can choose to lend your support to the cause you think will have the most impact. If all of us join hands, there might come a day when a child from a Mumbai slum and an elite Delhi school have access to the same opportunities.

Banking for the Poor

Demonetisation has led to many debates about whether the poor are worse affected by the cash shortage than the rich. Many in the middle class complain volubly at being forced to stand in line for their money. Yet for many low-income groups, this represents their routine frustration with formal banking systems. In 2014, India, China and Indonesia accounted for almost half of unbanked adults across the world. (India has since brought more people into that banking system with the Jan Dhan Yojana.) As it turns out, the 'unbanked' tend to entrust their money to moneylendersco-operative banks and other non-banking associations.

So why do the poor1 not use banks? Many banking conventions (address proof, proof of education, employment, collateral, etc) are designed for formally educated, salaried professionals and retrofitted to the needs of others. Banks profit more from lending than through savings services. When deposits are small, as it is with low-income groups, it leads banks to look at more profitable clients.

However, we all share social mores that assume that poor people's time, money and work is not worth much thought. This contributes towards the general apathy that banking systems demonstrate towards the poor. We have a simplified notion of poverty, and of the needs of the poor. Surely, some poor people idle away their time without participating in any productive work. But as Muhammad Yunus ('banker to the poor') realised in Bangladesh, people worked hard and engaged in complex forms of work. Yet they remained poor "not because they are untrained or illiterate but because they cannot retain the returns of their labour. They have no control over capital, and it is the ability to control capital that gives people the power to rise out of poverty."

As experts have found, poverty is not just a lack of money, but the lack of access to systems that help the poor get of debt, grow their assets and protect their earnings. The good news is that some have worked to rectify it. This is the story of Shree Mahila Sewa Sahakari Bank (SEWA Bank), a financial system that was built to cater to the needs of low-income women.

"She said she been selling at Rs5 a kg, but could now afford to drop the price to Rs3. When I asked her why, she gave me an amazing explanation, which had to do with having covered her fixed costs and now being able to earn a profit at variable cost, though she didn't use those words. I've learnt more about finance from Sewa's members than I did from corporate clients." – Jayshree Vyas, MD, Sewa Bank

SEWA Bank is a women's bank. In fact, it has been a women's-only bank since 1974, long before the Government set up one of its own. Uniquely, they're also a poor woman's bank. SEWA Bank grew out of the work of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA), a trade union of women workers in the informal sector. Their members were ragpickers, textile workers, vegetable sellers, manual labourers, agarbatti workers… all the least likely people you are likely to run into at your own bank. Many of them were uneducated, earning a few rupees a day, but unable to access banking systems that would keep their money safe. Their daily surpluses would be a few rupees, leaving them outside the ambit of formal banking.

They saw the hard work their members were doing, and the struggles they faced to save and grow this money. They realised that, "self-employed women workers and producers are economically very active and contribute to the growth of the economy…" Yet they were not treated with dignity. They set out to remedy this. As one of their members said, "we may be poor, but we are so many. Why don't we start a bank of our own?"

In 1974, 4,000 women contributed share capital of Rs10 each to establish the SEWA Bank. Since then, the bank has been providing savings, credit, pension and insurance services to its members. In a rarity for Indian banks, they provide housing loans and housing-related finance for women! Their condition is that the house should be in the name of the woman, thus creating an economic asset for her. The Bank realised that women in the informal sector face a loss in wages when they have to go the nearest branch. They pioneered the concept of doorstep banking for low-income households, currently a privilege offered by many banks only to premium account holders. Their efforts have paid off – SEWA Bank now has over 400,000 accounts and 100,000 shareholders.

The economic potential of those 'at the bottom of the pyramid' is formidable. Our understanding of financial systems is dominated by the Sensex, big banks, venture capital firms, and other corporate entities. Yet there are other success stories everywhere. SEWA's Bank had a turnover of Rs 200 crores and a net profit of Rs 2 croreGrameen Bank, which is now present in 97% of Bangladesh's districts, has lent 11,000 crore taka to its members. It's time we paid attention to other systems that work for the benefit of people who are 'not like us.'


This article first appeared in Equitymaster.

From Broken Blackboards to a Bright Future

Laxmi is a third-year engineering student. Engage her in a conversation and this shy girl transforms into an extremely confident person. She says her favourite subject is VLSI Design, and on further probing explains, “It’s just like playing a game.” 

One thing that sets successful people apart whether Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs, is their passion for what they do. Laxmi exudes that level of passion and looks all set for a successful future. She comes from a humble background where her school fee is a luxury her parents work hard to afford. Always a bright student, she scored 95% in her 10th grade exams, but the possibility for higher education seemed bleak until her headmaster introduced the family to Vidya Poshak. Vidya Poshak attempts to encourage meritorious yet economically challenged students to continue their education and realize their career dreams, by providing financial assistance. Students receive continued support year after year subject to their satisfactory academic performance, until they finish their under graduate studies.

Most students from a background like Laxmi’s have poor communication skills. There are many reasons for this. Fifteen years of formal education are spent learning passively. In most public primary schools accessible to students in rural India, discourse is not encouraged. There are few, if any, opportunities for presentations or group discussions to help students look at different perspectives. Science classes, for the most part, focus on memorizing formulae instead of discovering and understanding concepts through experimentation or hands-on learning. English classes lay emphasis on grammar rules but language immersion is seldom practiced. This does little to encourage independent or creative thought. Instead, students are urged to learn the contents of their textbooks by rote – information that is often forgotten by the time the exams are over. The poor means of knowledge acquisition are exacerbated by undertrained, apathetic or underpaid teachers, a lack of basic infrastructure and an enormous class strength. As a result, students finish school without the necessary skills for critical thinking, analysis or communication, to succeed in the real world.  The shortcoming becomes more apparent when these students enter colleges where they must interact with students from diverse backgrounds, and possibly a better education.


This is one area that Vidya Poshak makes a huge impact. Batches of 60 students are selected for 9 day camps which focus on developing better communication skills, working in groups, and filling in the gaps left by a public-school education.  The support of an organization such as Vidya Poshak can change the future of a student like Laxmi, and you can make that happen. Support one student for one semester.

The story first appeared in EquityMaster. 


Shiladevi – organic farmer, leader, entrepreneur!

Meet Shiladevi, a Pioneer in Organic Farming
Godiyari village in Darbhanga district, Bihar is badly affected by flood every year. It lies on the river Bagmati and community face lot of problems in flood. Unexpected weather conditions have doubled their problems due to decreased income from agriculture and the investment is very high due to cost in chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Shiladevi is a mercurial WOMEN LEADER who motivates flood and climate affected communities to practice adaptive agriculture initiatives and livelihoods. Shiladevi make bio pesticides (called as Madka Rasayan by local community) and bio compost and practice organic farming in 1 acre land. Apart from using in her field, she also sells these bio pesticides and compost locally and earns extra income. In a recent meeting at Maulaganj with Gram Vikas Maha Sangh, Shiladevi said “even making small changes in our life can be a reason for big changes in the community."

To address these problems, Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP) facilitated the process with local NGO, Kanchan Seva Ashram, to introduce innovative agriculture practices with disaster and climate affected vulnerable communities. After experimenting of the Madka Rasayan in her agriculture field, she saw the difference in production of vegetables and pulses and health and taste aspects of the crop. Using own bio pesticides and compost reduces the cost as well as protects the environment. SSP provided support for trainings and learning visits through Community Resilience Fund (CRF).

She travels to other villages and teach communities in preparing bio pesticides using local leaves and materials. More than 500 women members have learned from her practices while visiting her village and seeing her work so far. She is now recognized as a women farmer leader in her area and an active member of Gram Vikas Maha Sangh.

When she started using the bio compost, neighbours started enquiring about the ‘new medicine’. Shiladevi shared her follow community on how to make bio compost. When the response from the field was very positive as it reduced the pest attack and increased the quality of the crop encouraged her to prepare the pesticide in more quantity to sell outside.

She says, “This bio pesticide is the best alternative to chemical pesticides buy from market that is costly, damage crops, environment and affect our health.”

Now Shiladevi is selling the bio pesticide for RS.30/- per kg. She earn Rs.3000/- per month by selling bio pesticide and additional earning of Rs. 6500 per season by selling good quality vegetables. Around 40% of the farmers in the village are using this pesticide to control enemy pests. She also teaches other villages and developed 11 women who are making bio pesticides and using in their field as well as selling to others.
– Family income level increased by selling bio pesticides
– Quality are assured in eco friendly farming practices using bio pesticides and vermin compost
– 11 new women members joined in this initiative
– Soil fertility and crop health has increased by using eco-friendly farming practices
How to make the bio-pesticide: Neem leaf (Azadirachtaindica) – 1 kg, Green Chilli – 200 gm, Jaggery – 100 gm, Rejected dry tobacco leaves – 500, Akaun leaf – 1 kg, Cow urine – 10 litre, Gur 150 gm, 10 litre cow urine. (Mix this ingredient in 10 litre cow urine and keep it for 20 days and use it). Production cost for 1kg is approx Rs. 10/- only.

Shiladevi's success is enabled by organisations like Swayam Shikshan Prayog. Veterun, raise money for Swayam Shikshan Prayog India and help them reach more women like Shiladevi!

Story and image courtesy of Swayam Shikshan Prayog