The Role of Civil Society in Development and Required Synergy

13 Apr 2022
Sandeep Sharma & Sasha Samuel Founder/Communication Officer

The Rio Earth Summit in 1992 declared in no uncertain terms that the key to long lasting impactful development,was partnerships and collaborations. It was only at the turn of the century then in 2002, at the World Summit held in Johannesburg that the partnerships and collaborations, especially those with key players in the market were defined and came to be known as Corporate Social Responsibility. 

Our world has limited resources – whether financial, natural or human – and as a key player in development, we are only but duty bound to optimize our use of these slowly but surely dwindling resources effectively. A good and effective partnership therefore, is defined by the ability of bringing together diverse resources in a way where greater impact, consequential value addition and greater sustainability is prime. The blueprint for development in the 21st century- the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030, represent one thing- a core fundamental shift in thinking, acknowledging the need for interconnectedness between the market, the society and the environment.  The goals are defined by the need for these key actors of development- civil society, business, government, NGOs etc.  to cooperate and collaborate. Partnership therefore is an essential paradigm in sustainable development.

While talking about partnerships, it is imperative to see how in the past these partnerships have contributed significantly to development, not only in India but world over. Case in point, Africa. Across Africa, governments and donors are investing large sums of money to strengthen existing health systems and make medicines not only affordable but also easily available. Because of the ready availability of financial resources, this might seem like an easy task to accomplish, what people failed to acknowledge was that because of disruptions in the government supply chain, there is often a struggle to get medicines and supplies to the health facilities and people who need them most. In other situations, health ministries may provide good health services but are not able to attract patients who use these services. The need to fix these broken supply chains was the impetus behind Project Last Mile. Project Last Mile was created in 2010 to leverage and share core private sector expertise to improve health systems across Africa in a sustainable way. To do this, the project leverages logistical, supply chain and marketing expertise of the Coca-Cola system to improve the reach and uptake of lifesaving medicines, including HIV medicines, and health services in Africa. Project Last Mile partners include the Global Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), The Coca-Cola Company and Coca Cola Foundation, local implementing partners and health ministries. Project Last Mile is a good and befitting example of leveraging the strengths of each player with value addition and human development playing a pivotal role in the action.

Closer to home, the Right to Education act is an example worth mentioning. History has borne witness to the fact that, the coming together of the voluntary sector and the government has proved to be trailblazing and set in motion some very important trends for the future. It is well known that literacy is the backbone of development of any country. It enhances the quality of life, awareness, and skills of people. After the end of the British Rule in India in 1947, the literacy rate of India stood at 12%. An alarming statistic that required urgent action. However, as India began to emerge from the ravages the rule had caused in its wake, literacy took the backburner. While those who could afford quality education did send their children to school, those living on the fringes much preferred to have their children help in economic activities to add to the financial stability of the family. A skewed literacy rate continued, and though India made strides economically, illiteracy remained a big issue. In an attempt to restore to these countless illiterate populations a right to a dignified life and the hope of self-reliance the voluntary organizations stepped in. Through thorough research and with the help of state and block machinery, a solution was charted out. The challenges were manifold; the inability to afford education, the lack of infrastructure, poor human resources were only some. By synergising the thorough leg work of the sector, the ability of the government to provide financial and infrastructural resources and the willingness of the voluntary sector to stand in the gap of human resources, the Right to Education was enacted in the year 2009. The RTE Act makes education a fundamental right of every child between the ages of 6 and 14 and specifies minimum norms in elementary schools. It requires all private schools to reserve 25% of seats for children. When the act came into force in 2010, India became one of the 135 countries to make education a fundamental right of every child. 

These two vastly different but similar examples are reflective of the need for fostering partnerships and the role businesses, governments and civil society plays in keeping societal betterment at the fore. However, while we have discussed at length the role of India Inc. and the government, it is only but vital to deeply understand the role of civil society, the challenges it faces and the opportunities it presents to synergise these partnerships. 

The need for Civil Society organizations

1.Civil Society organizations act as the beam balance between the state and the market. They influence political change and the need for pro-people laws to control market players. Their struggle since the time of the Indian freedom movement has been pivotal in transforming India through the decades.  

2. Civil society offers representation. While the prime responsibility of the government is to offer representation to all people irrespective of caste, class and creed, oftentimes it falls short of doing so. This is where civil society steps in and offers these individuals representation. 

3. Civil Society organizations are early warning mechanisms that are able to foresee possible tumult and alert machinery to take corrective action. Thus, they play a very important stabilizing role between the state and the economy. 

4. Civil society are the non-state actors that act as essential cogs in the wheel. They are the actors who innovate and create breakthrough models of communication, all while carrying the demand of people to formal institutions. 

5. The civil society has also emerged as de facto regulators in instances when governments have not been able to fill in the vacuum of laws and regulations. Case in point, Coca-Cola. When the unethical practice followed by Coca-Cola company and its usage of the water from the village of Plachimada, Kerala, a large number of voluntary organizations in India stood up in arms against them. The dispute then went global, where its presence in universities and schools was questioned. By publicly inflicting harm to a market leader’s reputation, eventually forced the entire industry to change its practices and allowed corporates to conform to norms set by civil society. 

However, while we have discussed the need for civil society and its organizations, there is no denying that over the course of the years, their operations have been without challenges of any kind. 

Let us then look into the challenges that the civil society is encountering in the context of the current scenario. 


  1. Regulatory Frameworks: The voluntary sector in India does not simply fill gaps in the government’s service delivery system; it contributes significantly to the country’s GDP. The sector is a major provider of livelihoods to millions, and has grown exponentially over the past two decades. However, certain regulatory frameworks established by the government, seek to regulate even the internal affairs of the organization. Most often, hampering the good work they have set out to do. While there is more that defines the civil society than just FCRA and Income tax laws, the constant changes to these regulations often do begin to define the sector, acting as a challenge to the work of civil society. 
  2. Saturated Avenues of Fundraising: It will not be incorrect to claim that fundraising ranks amongst the top three challenges faced by most non-profit leaders. Researching prospective donors, crafting a pitch deck, securing the first meeting, making the actual ask, writing grant proposals, reviewing budgets, reporting impact to donors, and/or organizing a crowdfunding campaign have surely given sleepless nights to all fundraisers. The lack of networking, inability to carry out proper communication, dwindling human resource all add to the manifold challenges that surround fundraising. Often putting organizations in a tight spot and leaving them with the inability to carry out the tasks set before them to completion. COVID has only further exacerbated the situation. 
  3. CSR Spending: Despite historical steps taken by the Government of India in terms of mandating CSR law, data from the last seven years brings to the fore the limitations on the actualization of the mandate. It is quite concerning to note that 52% of the mandated companies have failed to spend their CSR earmarked budgets, thereby, significantly decreasing the larger impact it would have had on the country’s development. That PSU companies are spending more funds under their CSR mandates, is a common belief. However, a closer look at the data reveals that the of the total contribution towards CSR, only 22% of it can be accounted for by PSUs while their private counterparts account for over 78% of these funds. Data published by the National CSR Portal on the Top Ten CSR States juxtaposes the share of CSR funds received by the industrialized states with the least industrialized states. The study revealed that states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka have received the most CSR funds while states like Mizoram and others still continue to have next to negligible access to the funds, thereby largely outweighing the positive impact that CSR in India set out to accomplish. A mere 10% of the total funds are allocated for rural development. Despite rural India requiring the most development assistance, the dwindling expenditure on their overall upliftment is a real reflection on actualization of CSR. Since the pandemic hit, a majority of the CSR funds have been redirected for COVID relief, a need of the hour. However, the last two years have revealed the need to bring about transformative change. 
  4. Leadership Vacuum: By and large NPOs have been struggling to build second line leadership within the organization. This is now having impact at the macro level as we are witnessing the dearth of new leaders occupying the center stage of development discourse. It is largely constricted to erstwhile leaders who continue to be the flag bearer of the civil society space. While it is commendable to carry the baton successfully thus far, it is however important to nurture and build second line leadership within and around the sector. However, historically investment in this area of institution building has been wanting in NPOs and therefore there is a larger challenge to find people to pass the baton.
  5. Social Contractors: The sector has slowly witnessed a transition from initiating policies and programs keeping the least amongst us in mind to becoming mere service providers or what can be called social contractors. Their role has gone from being a key strategic player in democracy to becoming mere service providers that are approached in times of trouble or to undertake what businesses think is the best possible solution to a problem. 
  6. Wave of professionalization: Of late, the sector has witnessed massive professionalization that is developing a new brand of ‘technocrats’ who are far removed from the real issues on ground. This has also meant more structured ways of working, bureaucratic processes, and new developmental tools to address societal problems.  For the sector to carry out its work optimally, it is important to be in touch with these real issues and find a fine balance between work and compassion.
  7. Lack of Dialogue: For the growth of the country, dialogue and discussion is imperative. It not only helps reflect on the past, but chart out a sustainable way forward. However, the civil society has increasingly witnessed the trend of working in silos. This independence from the state and the market has caused lack of interconnectedness. As in life, the sector as a whole needs to move from being independent to being interdependent to not only learn from other perspectives, but also, help in being more proactive than reactive. 

Where do we stand now?

India is at the point of transition, and has been so in the last one decade particularly with its stand on environment & climate issues, social reformation, rising middle class, mushrooming growth of the IT sector, special impetus on nurturing start-up ecosystem and a vibrant civil society. Innovation & activation of technology has played a key role in shaping this transition. Within these structural quarters also, there are overlaps, synergies which are at play concomitantly, and it is hard to dismiss their utility if we as a society need to indulge in the transition, not just by design but driven by purpose. However, the past two years have been the most tumultuous years we have all collectively witnessed. Even though we would like to believe that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt equally by all, the fact of the matter remains that this was far from true. It brought out vulnerabilities in a way that were never acknowledged before and effectively changed the course of the world and the country. The significant ground India had gained over certain developmental challenges all came to a screeching halt when the pandemic struck. Becoming severely detrimental to the country. The evolving and changing regulatory frameworks further exacerbated the situation. 

So what should we do?

  1. Diversify fundraising: Fundraising seems to be a major challenge that often hampers the good work an organization has set out to do. At present, in India, the need of the hour is for the landscape to be diverse and dynamic; easily adoptive of myriad changes. One step in the right direction to broadbase fundraising in the country is the social stock exchange. In the spirit of financial inclusion, the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI) approved the creation of Social Stock Exchanges (SSE) on September 28, 2021. These entities shall encompass non-profit organizations & for-profit companies under their ambit of social enterprises (SE). The idea behind the exchange is to enable NPOs to raise money from the market. The SSE promises to be beneficial for donors and investors as it opens up the sector, its work and its cascading impact to the market and its investors. 
  2. Scalability: Scaling up using the innovation of NGOs often tends to position governments as passive recipients of innovation. However, a lot of success stories illustrate that achieving impact through the public sector at scale, requires bi-directional partnership. This would mean that it is imperative to put the government at the centre from as early as designing the program. 
  3. Positive Communication: Currently the communication surrounding the sector is largely negative, it is now more imperative than ever to rebuild our communication channels and put out more positive stories of transformation. This will help not only in changing the negative narrative but also ensure the stories of change are making a larger impact. 
  4.  Strategic CSR Spending: It is important now more than ever that we relook at our philanthropy more strategically. While redirecting funds because it is viewed as an extension of the corporates work may sound ideal, earmarking that money to only meet the needs of a few states is incorrect. The underdeveloped states still seem to remain as that. While redirecting CSR expenditure for COVID relief was the need of the hour, a real change will only be felt when the existing healthcare systems and overall infrastructures and states are strengthened, thereby even strengthening the value proposition that businesses have to offer.
  5. Synergy and Collaboration: If anything, COVID-19 has reinforced the fact that for India to grow and thrive steadily, there is a need for collaboration between all- the state, India Inc. and the civil society and community at large. The synergy between the three is the holy grail of development. This collaboration and partnership will be critical to not only scale up development, but do it in a way that is purpose driven.


Even though the term civil society etymologically can trace its roots back to the Greeks and the Romans, its relevance is felt now more than ever. It is that important cog in the wheel that perfectly balances the rising tension between the tenets of liberty and equality while adding empathy along the way to the overall development of the state. India finds itself at the crossroads of transition, but at its very core are the people of the nation. It is now more than ever imperative to synergise the collective good of the machinery- the state, businesses and the civil society- hold each other accountable and scale up development to witness real transformational change on the ground and be integral parts of India’s development story.