Strategies for Indian NGOs to Survive Social Disruption and Thrive in the Post Pandemic World


Unpacking Social Disruption

Social disruption is a radical change, and it will result in a breakdown of social life. Often it happens suddenly. An example of a change that is not social disruption is the transition of ‘family’ from ‘joint family system’ to ‘nuclear family system’. Since it is a gradual change, people get sufficient time to adapt and continue their lives as usual. We don’t call it social transition as it is just a social change!

Social disruption is radical and sudden. Such changes may be caused by a pandemic due to which large numbers of the population are decimated, or a political coup by which a democratic government is replaced by a totalitarian regime, or new technologies suddenly disrupt social interactions and the way people have lived so far.

In some countries, we see sudden changes in political life. People who were human rights activists, who worked for the poor and the marginalized in the tribal and underdeveloped areas, who wanted to bring about social reforms, and who were the voice of the voiceless start questioning their own work, convictions, and their ways of public engagement. The survival of NGOs in these countries suddenly becomes difficult due to new regulations and fund crunch.

In most countries of the world today, technology altered the mode of communications, media habits, the education of children, and even the way people purchased groceries and fish. Society gets divided on the ideas to deal with an ongoing crisis or how to deal with a pandemic such as COVID. The boundaries between science and ideology may become blurred. In the COVID pandemic phase, we have seen many scientists acting as ideology peddlers and ideology peddlers acting like scientists – mostly in social media.

Precipitating Factors of Social Disruption at Global Level

Failure of Grand Theories: Some of the grand theories which explained social change earlier have stopped making sense to both academics and laymen. Those who believed in capitalism thought ‘demand’ and ‘supply’ in a free market will offer choices, opportunities, and purchasing power to the people. That is not actually happening without governmental interventions. Many communist economies have already failed to deliver what has been promised. USSR and East Europe disappeared from the ‘geography’ to merge with ‘history’. Cuba is in a deep socio-economic crisis. China became more capitalist than the US. Currently, we see the inadequacies of grand theories which decided the destinies of most countries in the post-world war era.

Failure of Welfare State: The idea of ‘social welfare’ was proposed to ensure the wellbeing of those who are ousted by the market – to give goods and services to the marginalized, at below the market price. The ‘welfare state’ idea also stopped working when elected representatives in democracies became crony capitalists and the safety net of the welfare state is not enough to protect the poor from the onslaught of the market forces.

Post-Truth Society: We have now entered a type of society where ‘post-truth dominates most of our communications and social interactions. Post-truth refers to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. In the social development sector too, donors are no longer influenced by research and data for considering funding options. Anecdotal evidence and emotional stories of NGOs work better for fundraising. Objectivity is often the casualty when many of the research studies are sponsored by industry bodies.

Several WhatsApp groups are believed to have been created by political parties to spread rumors and lies across the world. More people spend their time on social media as anybody with a computer and access to the internet can post their opinions on social media and mark them as fact, which may become legitimized through echo chambers as users validate the story one another. As user networks in social media become echo chambers, one viewpoint dominates over others and there is no scrutiny of claims made by people who post, tweet, or publish on social media.

People in the Post-truth era often ignore fact checks. The authenticity of the content on social media is usually judged based on how many views or likes a post gets. This will force users to create an atmosphere that appeals to emotion instead of researched facts.

Artificial Intelligence (AI): When we think about AI, the picture that comes to our mind is of robots with human features, self-driven cars, and autonomous weapons as portrayed in science fiction. Though we are yet to see any soldier-less wars with automated weapons etc. we have already seen the disappearance of many low-skilled jobs.

We have seen the disappearance of many roadside vegetable sellers in Indian cities as online sellers took over the grocery market. We have seen many highly paid professionals working from home while the poor laborers and even the middle class sold their families gold and other assets for survival. The impact of AI in terms of the social disruption it caused will have to be seen in the coming days.

Gig Economy: The world of work has been started changing even before the pandemic. Besides the low-skilled jobs were being eliminated by AI and digital hyper-connectivity, the pandemic also put the final nail on the coffin of the concept of ‘permanent jobs’ at fixed locations. We are now in the ‘Gig economies’ where mostly temporary, flexible jobs are widely available. Companies hire independent contractors and freelancers. Eventually, those traditional full-time workers who focus on their career development will have vanished.

In the gig economy, jobs connect workers with clients/customers through online platforms. Cheaper but more efficient services such as Uber, or Zomato will be leading the services sector.

A wide variety of positions ranging from driving, delivering food to writing freelance articles will fall in the gig economy. Part-time professors will be contracted in colleges and universities. Workers who don’t have the appropriate technological capabilities will be left behind. These changes are also facilitated by economic reasons as employers may not be in a position to hire full-time staff for specific tasks for which anyway specialized experts will be available in the market. People also find it convenient to work from home or anywhere. Many gig workers have proved their effectiveness during the pandemic by home-delivering groceries and other essential items in most of the cities. Academic institutions have used several national and international experts at a cheaper rate.

Symptoms of Social Disruption in India

We can clearly diagnose the social disruption in India with some of its clear symptoms. We see more and more individuals and communities getting marginalized. While the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. The number of unemployed and underemployed people is being steadily increased. More people are feeling that they are excluded from the mainstream of society. Their sense of insecurity is increasing day by day.

Simultaneously identity politics is becoming more conspicuous. Religion, caste, and community affiliations are increasingly becoming part of the social capital. Political mobilization based on such identities has more respectability and subscribers than earlier.

While social conflicts are being manifested as physical fights, crimes such as mob lynching are getting normalized. We also see several incidents of shooting and robbery even in places like the National Capital Region of India, which was supposed to be comparatively safer and secure, compared to the rest of India.

Simultaneously, institutions that were custodians and deliverers of public justice are being compromised. Earlier it was the cost factor that prevented the people from approaching public justice systems to address their grievances. Now many of these public justice institutions became co-opted with emerging power structures and the poor feel that the biases and prejudices prevailing in these systems are blocking fair play and they are also inimical to the delivery of justice.

Civil society organizations and community-based organizations used to be the watchdogs of human rights and liberty. We had several grassroots-level movements which made authorities accountable for their responsibilities and duties. The NGO system in India which played many developmental and democratic functions is severely constrained due to newly introduced regulatory mechanisms. Civil society is quite conspicuous by its absence.

The normlessness or rather emergence of new norms distances and alienates individuals and drags them into various mental health issues. Reports indicate increasing rates of depression and even suicidal tendencies among all categories of people including students, youth, and middle-aged – especially during the COVID pandemic. Ever-increasing crowds in front of alcohol outlets in almost all states of the country where lockdown rules have been relaxed are indicative of increasing dependency on addictive substances and substance abuse.

The fragility of NGOs in a disrupted society

Let us now discuss the fragility of NGOs as part of social disruption. We all remember Kodak which was once the market leader in its sector. It disappeared because it was a fragile organization. But there are many organizations today which are antifragile as they are resilient and can withstand pressures of social disruption.

From time to time, it is important to audit the fragility tendencies in NGOs. Otherwise, they become redundant in due course of time. Some of the checks NGOs must do to assess their fragility are listed below.

  1. Check whether there are increasing misconceptions or misunderstandings about an NGO which was not there earlier. For example, some prominent NGOs were projected as an agent of pharma companies during the pandemic. Some others were alleged of having political or religious motives. How is the organization placed to respond to such allegations? Has your NGO been understood correctly by the outside world?
  2. Check whether some members of the community that you once served started reacting violently? For example, hospital-based violence has increased during the ongoing COVID crisis. Part of it could be due to a growing lack of trust and confidence among the general public. The popular perception of health care professionals – particularly in the private sector is clouded in doubt, and mistrust even when people say doctors are Gods and nurses are angels, etc.
  3. Consequently, community support may not come forward as much as an NGO needs. Donors may also often be tired of seeing the usual stories of change or they may not be convinced of their return on investment.  Losing donor confidence in an increasingly competitive environment is bad for NGOs.
  4. NGOs which are not investing in upgrading the skills of their staff/volunteers or the technology they use in the service delivery may disappear in due course of time. If we take the example of Kodak, we see they became redundant when the technology they have used was no more relevant to the community or clients it had efficiently served for a long time.
  5. Finally, there could be many intra-organizational factors such as lack of transparency in decision making, perceived unfair treatment of employees, overall negative organizational climate and so on which create mistrust and will adversely impact the morale of association members and staff.

Thus, the very clear and visible indicators of fragility in NGOs are:

  • Erosion of support base in the community
  • Dwindling resources
  • Donor fatigue
  • Increasing turnover of expert staff
  • Leadership vacuum at all levels which will lead to a situation where no problem solvers are available for dealing with everyday issues of the community it serves
  • Low morale of staff due to rumors and internal conflicts, and
  • Mental health issues including depression

Way Forward for NGOs

The most influential voice in helping organizations overcome their fragility is Nassim Nicholas Taleb. What he says on dealing with the fragility of organizations is interesting:

“Modern society assumes that anything can be ‘fixed,’ but most of the time it is better to leave well alone. Socioeconomic life and the human body can actually be harmed by intervention, leaving the whole more fragile to shocks and uncertainty. Often, the best course of action is to ignore the noise from too much data, and let time take care of the problem…Suppressing volatility and randomness in our economy, our health, our education, or our political life makes systems more fragile. Without stressors, complex systems become weak and even die”.

What he asks us not to sleep over the fragility of organizations, but to give them time to heal and rejuvenate while introducing some strategic measures to contain their fragility. Such measures could include:

  1. Strengthening of Resource Base:We know nothing is possible without funds. For which associations may go beyond conventional donors. It is not correct to assume that the donor base is dwindling. Rather, the nature of donors is changing, and resilient associations should map the emerging donor landscape and move forward to extract resources.
  2. Linkages and Networking: These are very important, especially in resource mobilization. Quite often it is not the perfection of a grand proposal that brings money to an NGO, rather it is the contacts and relationships they have. Having the right contacts with the right people in the right place is very important
  3. Staffing: An organization’s asset is primarily its staff. Getting the right kind of staff is very crucial for survival.
  4. Modernization:Upgrading staff technical skills and getting up to date with technology is important.
  5. Leadership: Creating leaders at every level – not of the one at the helm of affairs is very important. Because they are the everyday problem solvers.
  6. Revising the roots:Revisiting roots, particularly the vision and mission of NGOs from time to time is very important. It will help NGOs to answer, why they are here and where they are going. Getting these clarified for themselves and the outside world is an important prerequisite for their survival.

Kandathil Sebastian is a Social Scientist based in Delhi. This is an edited version of a speech he has delivered at the CMAI Regional Conference, held virtually on 31 July 2021


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