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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Sudhanshu Singh: The politics of international aid and humanitarian assistance

A senior development professional with over 33 years of experience in  international aid and humanitarian assistance, Sudhanshu Singh is Chief Executive Officer of the New-Delhi based Humanitarian Aid International (HAI).

He has extensive experience and expertise in disaster relief and rehabilitation, and has worked nationally and globally in several challenging countries such as Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, Philippines, and management of overall programs at the Asia-Pacific level. His last job was with a global alliance based in Geneva, which gave him a ring-side view of the world of international aid and humanitarian assistance.

A post graduate in Social Work from the Mahatma Gandhi  Kashi Vidyapith in Varanasi, Sudhanshu Singh talks about his disenchantment with the politics of international aid, which spurred him to start an organisation (HAI) that is Bharatiya in values and spirit, but global in vision and reach.

In the first of a three-part interview series, Sudhanshu Singh gives us an insightful analysis of the geo political compulsions, inequities and hidden agenda that drive international  aid and humanitarian assistance.

Q.) What was it like to work in humanitarian aid assistance in very challenging areas across the world?

I have 33 years of experience in the development and humanitarian sectors. Initially, however, for about  two decades, my work was on urban and rural development. The Gujarat earthquake (2001) marked the beginning of my engagement with disaster relief and rehabilitation and humanitarian aid response not only in Bharat but  globally. I worked in Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan and then in Switzerland, where I worked with an international organization managing their Asia Pacific desk.

When I worked in different countries, I began to develop a mission for my life. Wherever I went,  I found that while people from Bharat were by large present there, Bharat itself was not!  For example, if you see the typical humanitarian architecture, aid agencies originate from the global North (Developed countries). They mobilise funds and funnel it to home-grown organisations in the global South. Thus, there is an imbalance between the set of  organisations who control funding and those who receive it. Since money brings power, it also controls the architecture or narrative of aid.

Sudhanshu Singh HAI

Unfortunately, most Southern organisations work as sub-contractors! Among other things, they don’t have sufficient autonomy in decision making and co ordinating responses. So, I wanted to come up with a Bharatiya organisation for humanitarian aid based on Bharatiya value systems. Because the current humanitarian narrative has evolved out of this Northern narrative,  from which the donor countries come up with policy frameworks for the global South.

Hence I dreamt of a Bharatiya organisation, rooted in Bharatiya values and primarily resourced by people from Bharat, which not only works in Bharat but also across the world, with a Bharatiya identity and primarily based on South-South co-operation. This became such an acute pre occupation that I decided to  move from Switzerland back to Bharat to begin my mission. And I am a man in a hurry to accomplish this mission because I don’t know how much time God has given me!

Q.) How did the North-South divide and how it impacted you?  

I call it the new phase of colonialism! And to some extent, our government and the governments across the global South are also responsible for the current situation. After the Dark Ages, when Europe began to expand through colonisation, they needed viable markets for procuring raw material and sell their products. They found this in the global South and therefore began colonizing countries in regular succession.

After World War II, most of the former colonies became independent. That was the time which also saw the emergence of several organisations, which later became  global. All international organisations emerged to support people impacted by the two World Wars.  In a short span, they expanded their reach to Asia, Africa and Latin America, raised resources in their local countries to  help people in the Global South.

Around this time, around 35 countries  who were part of  OECD (Organisation for Economic  Cooperation and Development), that included the US and Europe, began to face a financial crunch in mobilising resources. Hence they began looking for fresh territories to offset the funders’ gap. They discovered this in the developing countries of Asia and Africa, which are currently developing faster than the traditional donor countries.

Bharat became the most favoured  destination because of our fast growth rate, a huge middle class,  significant diaspora presence and  Corporate Social Responsibility. Hence these factors attracted the attention of international organisations which began to get registered in Bharat!  Today, most  International NGOs (INGOs) have the suffix India! Ironically, these INGOs can do better fund raising than any of us because they do not have to start from scratch! For instance, I have faced this problem first hand when I began Humanitarian Aid  International (HAI).

Q.) Can you tell us something more about the humanitarian  assistance model, which as we can all see, is Western? 

Humanitarian policies are developed by Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC), a UN body that comes up with humanitarian policies, supported by the OECD countries. About five OECD countries provide a major chunk of funding which goes to five UN agencies. So, the polices and funding emerge from the global North for the global South. Interestingly, approximately 67 percent of disasters (both natural and human induced such as protracted crises or conflicts such as in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Central African Republic or Democratic Republic of Congo) occur in the global South. However, global policies are framed in the global North in a clearly top down approach.

Although there have been several processes of humanitarian reforms undertaken by the UN and IASC, these have not yielded  the expected results because of systemic barriers. As far as the UN is concerned,  the expense of running the organisation is itself a barrier.

One of the biggest attraction in working for a UN agency is the very attractive salaries , which are tax-free!  A similar situation was replicated in the INGO scenario. Mostly, the UN agencies don’t work directly with the affected people; they work through a partner, in this case, the INGOs. These INGOs, in turn, partner with local organisations, which are at the bottom of the pyramid. Unfortunately, the local organisations, which do all the ground work are often faced with uncertainty—their funding is not assured, they are most cost efficient, the workers are underpaid and often don’t receive salaries when the project has come to an end!


However, the rich organisations need regular fund inflow to sustain their expensive organisational structure and their desire to grow.  It is  natural for every organisation to want to grow, Even HAI would like to extend our scope of work in the country and also work abroad. But for that to happen, we need to have enough funds raised!  Fund raising, however, is very competitive and at times, unethical too.

Humanitarian organisations sometimes tend to forget that we need funds to address  certain needs of the community; not for our own sustenance. Unfortunately, that has become secondary and that’s not a good sign. In Bharat, all the INGOs are doing massive fund raising. HAI, as a Bharatiya NGO,  aspires to raise funds within or from the diaspora, which we are unable to do as we are not on level playing field even within our own context.

It’s unfortunate that Bharatiya NGOs feel compelled to reply on INGOs even for accessing domestic funding. International NGOs often sponsor prime-time programmes on TV or run expensive advertisements. Can we afford to do that? No, we can’t! Even if we can afford the money, our brand is not attractive unlike theirs! Even the corporate sector would prefer to work with renowned brands, however less cost efficient they are. Local organisations are much more cost efficient but lack the appeal and glamour of international organisations and INGOs.

When a disaster occurs, immediate response is imperative to save lives during critical hours. People need immediate assistance to save their lives and restore normalcy. Home grown organisations who are located in the closest proximity are best suited to respond in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Unfortunately, they are not the ones who have the luxury of sufficient resources. They don’t have the brand value that attract donors to contribute to them. They don’t have so-called smart people to talk in fluent English and churn out campaigns to attract individual and corporate donors!

INGOs, on the other hand, have dedicated fund raising desks and spend Rs. 20 to 25 crores  every year only on fund raising campaigns! Most Bharatiya organisations, sadly, don’t even have that much of annual funding!  So, there is wide disparity and  inefficient use of the sparse  funding we have.

I would hold the government responsible to some extent for this stalemate. For instance, when the NDA government first came to power, they stopped accepting bilateral aid from all countries except six blocks: EU, UK, US,  Russia, Germany and France.  They informed the other countries to divert the  funding to wherever it was needed.  However, when the UPA government came into power they went back to the earlier policy of accepting assistance from the other countries. But they stipulated a minimum annual funding of $ 25 million.

However, by then, most bilateral donors had already closed down their offices in our country and moved to other countries. However, this didn’t mean that they stopped funding Bharat. Instead of funding directly, they began to route it through their representatives, the INGOs, which boosted their presence and reach in the country. The shift was also a tangible marginalisation of Bharatiya organisations.

The recent FCRA amendments introduced last year is again very disempowering for  Bharatiya organisations because according to these new regulations, if my organisation is FCRA complaint and I receive foreign funding, I have to utilise it myself and not pass it on to other organisation(s).  Earlier, international organisations partnered with local organisations and disbursed funding to them. While this was certainly not an ideal partnership and it certainly was exploitative, it nevertheless enabled some funding to trickle down! That, however, is now prohibited!

Has the practice stopped now? Absolutely not! Rules are framed for those who want to abide by them or are too weak to violate.  Powerful organisations and people always find a way out! Now, such organisations are taking staff of local organisations on their payroll and signing non-financial partnership agreements with local organisations to continue working. International NGOs like World Vision, Care India, Plan India have become  global because their respective governments have supported them for decades and  continue to do so! If Bharatiya organisations are not similarly empowered financially, they will be unable to have  an independent thought process. So, currently, the global North not only controls funding, but also thought process and policy, disbursed by the country offices of the INGOs!

Such a top down approach—”I know what to do for you!”— trivialises, minimises and denies  local knowledge and wisdom traditions.  A poor person or a refugee is better informed of his or her situation than anyone else!  Such people can plan their solutions. The only barriers they face is that they don’t have options and resources. The responsibility of a funding agency is to provide resources to help them address these barriers; not to tell  the person concerned what needs to be done!

When people from resource-rich organisations visit the community, they go with their ears closed and mouth open! When I visit a community, however, I try to understand their needs. Every community is unique. There is no one size fits all approach in humanitarian aid assistance! Unless I understand this, how can I come up with meaningful and appropriate solutions?

(To be continued)

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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 


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