What a global funder can learn from the grassroots
To support these disproportionately vulnerable communities to recover from the pandemic, many philanthropy funders have reoriented grant-making strategies to focus on equity and inclusion
Before Covid-19 erupted, poverty was declining across the world. A Brookings Institution study showed that extreme poverty, defined as those living in households spending less than $1.90 per person per day in terms of purchasing power parity, had fallen from 1.9 billion people (1990) to 648 million (2019).
The pandemic, however, disrupted this trend. In India, the first wave led to the loss of millions of jobs, and resulted in an increase in impoverished families. The Centre for Sustainable Employment (Azim Premji University)’s The State of Working India Report, 2021, estimated that the pandemic pushed 230 million Indians below the poverty line. Though the last few months witnessed an uptick in the employment rate, the total number of employed individuals is still lower than the pre-Covid-19-levels, as per data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
A study conducted by the United Nations Development Programme in partnership with the Pardee Center for International Futures, University of Denver, to assess recovery scenarios over the next decade, found that by 2030, the pandemic could directly drive a quarter of a billion people into extreme poverty.
The pandemic has been a period of reckoning for governments and civil society. It has been equally so for philanthropy funders, who looked aggressively for solutions as the humanitarian crisis unfolded. It led to a strong recognition for the need to strengthen and build long-term resilience in communities to fight against future calamities of this scale.
As funders dug deeper to understand the causes for high levels of vulnerability, it was evident that existing inequalities in household incomes and unequal access to social protection measures were the two main reasons that led to low resilience levels in communities, causing them to sink deeper into poverty.
To support these disproportionately vulnerable communities to recover from the pandemic, it became apparent that solutions had to be designed with the participation and contribution of members of these affected groups. These solutions also had to be developed keeping in view the specific needs of the community to be served, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. To this end, many philanthropy funders reoriented their grant-making strategies for a sharper focus on equity and inclusion, incorporating a stronger role for members from disproportionately vulnerable groups to design and execute recovery interventions.
For instance, in 2020, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation allocated an additional $125 million (approximately ₹935 crore) over three years to support recovery initiatives in the United States, India and Nigeria. The challenge was to identify ideas for support that would advance a more equitable recovery from the crisis. Starting with a blue-sky approach, we had conversations with civil society organisations (CSOs) leaders, government officials and other philanthropy funder institutions to identify and develop opportunities for grant-making support. In India, our efforts culminated in making grants of $10 million (approximately ₹75 crore) to support field-level action aimed at strengthening the ability of vulnerable groups to deal with future calamities effectively.
The CSOs we supported work in close partnership with local institutions of governance such as gram panchayats and municipal wards, community leaders and government health functionaries such Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) and Auxiliary Nursing Midwifery (ANM) workers and village health committees. Coupled with a strong field presence, CSOs were involved in a range of activities such as providing emergency rations and medical supplies and promoting livelihood-generation activities such as subsistence farming, cattle rearing and micro-entrepreneurship in several rural districts of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh that saw massive inward migration on account of job losses.
They also undertook activities that led to easier access to existing government-funded social protection schemes such as helping households organise their personal identification documents to claim benefits from welfare schemes. In addition, CSOs such as Jan Sahas worked with a network of other CSOs to provide safe, secure, and sustainable internal migration of labour. It studied movement patterns of major migrant communities and in partnership with local CSOs across these tracks, jointly decided on a menu of offerings to migrant families, including food, shelter, medical help and other basic requirements on a running basis.
Here’s what we learnt. It is important to acknowledge early that existing inequalities in any social context are deep rooted and are often intergenerational, so off-the-shelf prescriptions do not work well. For long-term, sustained impact, funders should consider supporting both local and macro-level interventions that aim to bring about long-term change in the ecosystem that impacts the lives of vulnerable communities. To do so, it is critical to develop solutions that are custom-built to address specific requirements of the target group. Interventions are likely to succeed better if they are designed and executed by CSOs that have a strong, deep-rooted association with, and experience in working with the target group.
These organisations typically have the strongest capacity to develop and execute solutions with local inputs, increasing the probability of success in resolving the challenge for the funder institution.
Moutushi Sengupta is director, India of John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, the country arm of the US-based grant giant that supports CSOs in the United States, Nigeria and India. She has been part of Dasra’s collaborative platforms including the Dasra Philanthropy Week and Community of Foundations The views expressed are personal