Letter from India: Can philanthropy help heal deep pandemic wounds?

06 December 2021

7 minute read

This article is written by Deval Sanghavi, Co-Founder of Dasra in India. It is the third instalment in a new four-part series exploring the role of philanthropy, the personal experiences of philanthropists, and the evolving global trends that are redefining the act of giving. You can access the other articles at the bottom of the page.

While many in the UK, Europe and North America have had the privilege of being double vaccinated, and with schools and offices slowly re-opening, it may feel like the worst is now behind them – in India however, the situation is nowhere close to pre-COVID times. Unfortunately, the impact which COVID-19 continues to have on communities could remain for the next 3-5 years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected India aggressively and at scale, exacerbating existing longer-term challenges for millions of underprivileged communities.

A shocking 97% of Indians are now poorer than before the pandemic, as unemployment levels moved into double digits (reaching 14.73% in May 2021), and household incomes have slumped nearly 75% on average1. This has forced around 50% of formal workers into informal jobs, and 230 million people have fallen below the minimum wage line2.

Our overburdened health systems have struggled to cope, with devastating effect – with just 5.5 hospital beds and 8.6 physicians per 10,000 Indians3, there have been more than 460,000 COVID-19 deaths so far4, and this is not taking into account the damage caused by the Delta variant where Delhi’s never-ending funeral pyres were showcased across the world in April 2021. It’s also estimated that a further 500,000 deaths in early lockdown from non-COVID-19 causes, such as malaria, tuberculosis and diabetes, could have been prevented with better healthcare resources5.

Hitting the weakest, hardest

Women have been hit particularly hard. It was estimated that nearly 8.7 million women working before the pandemic remained out of the workforce as of October 2020, and during the first lockdown, women lost two-thirds of their already-meagre incomes, with more than one in 10 limiting their food intake, or running out of food6. As the second wave took hold, 5.7 million rural women’s jobs were washed away in April 20217, as a result of the need to do extra unpaid care work, as well as mobility restrictions and the reduction in MNREGA8 jobs.

In parallel with mounting household struggles, disruption in education has been especially damaging for children, with 286 million affected by pandemic-related school closures, and only 8% of children living rurally able to study online9. This could have a devastating long-term impact, especially as many older children are engaging in informal work to support household income, which in my opinion makes them less likely to return to school.

Philanthropy is mobilising rapidly

In my personal view, private-sector funding is vital, not only to heal COVID-19 scars, but also to tackle our deep societal issues – education, livelihoods, healthcare infrastructure, sanitation, poverty, pollution, and women and girls’ safety – which have all taken a turn for the worse in the past two years. Young women here in India are particularly disadvantaged, being highly vulnerable to child marriage, teenage pregnancy, and poor education when compared with global peers, and progress in supporting adolescent girls has been piecemeal so far10.

The good news is that over the last decade, we’ve seen philanthropy contribute to India’s fast-maturing development sector in a major way, thanks to a significant rise in donations, movement towards more structured approaches to giving, and growth and diversification of the support ecosystem. In the fiscal year 2020, for example, private-sector funding totalled about INR 64,000 crore, up nearly 23% on the previous year. Around 20% came from family philanthropy, the fastest-growing area that accounted for almost two-thirds of the increase in funding since FY1911.

That said, more funding is desperately needed – 92% of NGOs had insufficient funds to respond during the second wave of the pandemic, and 78% had limited donor support12.

The role of post-COVID philanthropy

As we move beyond COVID-19 relief efforts, there is a growing need to create resilient, shock-proof grassroot non-profits – so that the communities they serve can be empowered to rebuild and become resilient themselves.

Philanthropy for India, now more than ever, needs to put far greater trust in local NGOs and communities, enabling them to be nimble, responsive and resilient. This requires a different form of funding, one that is flexible, long-term, and covers the real costs required for an organisation to pivot, pilot and innovate new programmes which meet the community’s ever-changing needs due to COVID-19.

This means thinking twice about sending equipment such as oxygen concentrators to countries where they take months to reach, and where there isn’t the manpower or the training required to run these machines. Instead, one may provide flexible funding to local organisations, allowing them to make decisions as and when required.

Post-COVID philanthropy in India will need to reflect on giving principles – to be more inclusive, and to give more trust and decision-making power to the non-profits, given that they champion vulnerable communities which have been pushed further to the margin by the pandemic. At Dasra, we encourage our donor network to:

  • Support smaller, local NGOs that have been historically left outside of funding circles, and have been further ostracised by COVID. Given that these communities receive minimal support, these local NGOs have stepped up to provide for these communities on multiple fronts outside of their original competencies during COVID.
  • Provide flexible, unrestricted funding to NGOs – enabling them to make their own decisions and adapt to supporting their communities’ changing needs.
  • Engage with, and learn from NGO leaders themselves who have lived experiences of the communities they serve.

Rebuilding India – Dasra’s response

Dasra, alongside Tarsadia Foundation and multiple other funders, have launched a USD 50 million resilience fund over 5 years, supporting 300 NGOs with flexible funding and giving them the trust and support required to serve their communities in these ever changing times.

While many funders claim to have a sense of urgency, let us not forget that NGO leaders, many with lived experiences, did not wait until they made their first million or billion, did not wait until their children graduated college, and did not wait until they had funding in place.

Their sense of urgency started when they decided to right the wrongs they saw in front of them and trusted the communities they serve to be part of the solution. In my opinion, it is time, especially during COVID, that donors learn from these impatient leaders and urgently change the way funds are disbursed to allow for communities to survive and possibly even thrive in these next few years.

This initiative is more than just a fund; our aim is to nurture a multi-generational philanthropic community with shared values and an aligned vision for strengthening the resilience of our most vulnerable communities. It provides an open-source platform for non-profits to engage with funders, and to share experiences and best practices. We’ll be collating and sharing these learnings across the sector, through our research and reports, to help secure sustainable, long-term donor support.

A brighter tomorrow

The pandemic has brutally revealed deep vulnerabilities and inequities in our society. It’s been a stark wake-up call to rethink the way we support our most marginalised communities, and to ensure we are all better prepared for future crises.

I strongly believe that strategic, empathetic, and collaborative philanthropy has a vital and important role to play in shaping in brighter tomorrow for India.

About Dasra

Dasra was founded in 1999 on the simple premise that supporting non-profits in their growth will scale their impact on the vulnerable lives they serve. Now with a team of a 100+ individuals, Dasra acts as a catalyst in India’s vibrant philanthropic sector by driving collaborative action to accelerate social change. Dasra works tirelessly to build partnerships with hundreds of non-profits in India and philanthropists from around the world, to ensure India achieves the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

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