World NGO Day | OpEd
In recent years, political leaders, governments and multi-lateral organisations have strongly affirmed positive contributions made by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in addressing severe human needs, especially in contexts adversely affected by COVID-19 or political unrest. Contributions from individuals and institutional donors seem to be on the uptrend, and there is a surge in humanitarian programming activities on the ground. However, the brutal truth lies in the fact that NGOs are increasingly having to operate in contexts that place greater constraints on our staff and operations than ever before.
Since 2014, February 27 has been observed as World NGO Day. It is a tribute to all non-governmental & not-for-profit organisations and employees, and it seeks to recognise the immeasurable contributions to human society, even in the most difficult circumstances. Today, as we continue to call for greater cooperation between NGOs and the private & public sectors in taking on some of the world’s greatest humanitarian challenges, it is also timely to shed light on the increasing contextual limitations faced by NGOs, and consider how we could all work together towards this higher calling.
As a result of the pandemic, 58 million more people are expected to move below the poverty line in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa alone. Additionally, a report last year estimated that the global NGOs and charities market would shrink by 0.9% from a high of USD 255.71 billion in 2019 to USD 253.34 billion in 2020, mainly due to the lockdowns & restrictions imposed by various countries, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe global economic downturn. This is despite a projection that donor engagement is on the rise, and total donor numbers are forecast to reach 2.5 billion by 2030. While an estimated 10 million NGOs exist worldwide, the shrinking operational space and human capacity which we experience is less accounted for.
Rising levels of ethnic, religious, social and political polarisation across the globe have problematised the humanitarian crises which NGOs seek to address. Here, in the Asia Pacific, the most disaster-prone region, where we also have the highest number of refugees and more than half of the world’s most vulnerable people, the challenges related to pandemic transmission in densely populated countries, the emergence of strong majoritarian influences and impact of military coups have led to a diminished role for NGOs, while humanitarian issues have exploded.
In many cases, the polarisation of political views makes it near-impossible to work out collaborative solutions to alleviate global, regional & local problems of poverty, climate change, inequality, delivery of public health & education services, and social injustice. At times, restrictions are imposed as a reaction to combative & strident advocacy action by NGOs, or as a result of mistrust. Recent surges in nationalism in some contexts not only reject the much-needed foreign aid, they also vilify NGOs whose work is funded by international sources. Any form of demonstration by citizens in which NGOs participate, be it against flawed public policies or projects having severe environmental or social impact, is commonly sanctioned as fomenting social unrest. In some contexts, human rights activism is outlawed, and the release of research publications that seemingly place countries in a “bad light” are perceived as ill-motivated actions. Even in areas where NGOs exercise the international humanitarian principles of “humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence”, our staff and partners are not spared from harassment, threats, physical attacks, kidnappings and deaths. Several countries in the Asia Pacific region are testament to these realities which NGOs face across the globe.
On World NGO Day, it is important for us to reflect on the vital role that NGOs play today and in the future. As a society, we must consider and accord the crucial space that NGOs need to occupy, restrictions notwithstanding, in critical areas such as disaster relief, health & nutrition, education, gender equality, social inclusion, safeguarding, livelihoods & climate change, mitigation, shelter and protection for the world’s most vulnerable children and communities, Given that trust deficits with governments could cause undue disruptions, it is imperative that we continually maintain an open dialogue to rebuild good faith and foster trust. NGOs would also benefit from moving towards persuasive public engagement as partners seeking to achieve well-defined and measurable common goals, especially in the areas of sustainable development. Rather than focusing on who or what is right or wrong – we need to continuously bring to centre stage what should matter - the well-being of the most vulnerable children and communities - in our midst.
At World Vision Asia Pacific, we are constantly striving towards our calling as gap-fillers and catalysts in society. However, the ultimate responsibility to citizens remains with elected governments. This demands that we work closely with public authorities at all levels – local, provincial and national, and seek to integrate our programmes with government plans. It is also critical that we keep our own houses in order, ensuring that we manage our organisations and programmes in ways that reflect the highest standards of corporate governance and financial accountability. Finally, it is critical for us to remain politically neutral & independent at all times, always working towards stability & peace, and never allowing our efforts to be used by other persons or groups to further their political agenda.
At World Vision, our agenda is clear and unchanging – we stand by and serve the most vulnerable children and communities, even in the most challenging natural and human circumstances. With greater global awareness that we all have a part to play in championing change, our hope remains that we will be able to overcome the shrinking space that faces us in our service to the vulnerable across the world.
Note: Across the Asia Pacific, World Vision has over 7,300 staff in 18 countries, serving 10.3 million children, their families and communities. Together with close to 40,000 other WV staff worldwide, our mission is to bring hope, joy and justice to all children. Our humanitarian work is built upon the foundations of our faith and supported by millions of individuals and institutional donors. We are proud to partner with governments, corporates, communities and other like-minded NGOs in our service to the most vulnerable children worldwide.
About the author
Cherian Thomas is the Regional Leader of South Asia and Pacific, World Vision International. Cherian brings to World Vision an extensive experience in banking and development finance, infrastructure development, policy advocacy, capacity building, programme support. He worked for over 29 years in corporate finance, project finance and banking for leading corporations, including IDFC Limited, Tata Industries Limited, ICICI Limited, SCICI Limited, and Citibank. Prior to his current role as Regional Leader for World Vision South Asia and the Pacific, Cherian was the CEO and National Director of World Vision India and led a team of around 1500 staff, serving 2.6 million children through 200 programmes and projects.