New Delhi: India’s non-profit sector is losing professionals to international agencies, even as it presses the government to allow the sector to work outside the country’s borders.
Because laws governing non-governmental organizations mandate that all money be used within India, NGOs cannot operate or open branches overseas. Now a group of them are lobbying for change as part of the National Policy on the Voluntary Sector, the first-ever series of guidelines governing NGOs, expected to come up for cabinet approval within three months.
At least 200 professionals have joined foreign development agencies such as ActionAid and Save the Children Fund in the last five years, according to the New Delhi-based NGO advocacy group, Participatory Research in Asia (Pria).
“Because of certain restrictions in the Income-tax Act, charitable expenditure has to be spent within country,” said Pria president Rajesh Tandon. “But in the era of globalization, Indian NGOs should be encouraged to use their expertise abroad.”
Under the current Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and the Income-tax Act, 1961, NGOs have to use charitable assistance within the country.
While organizations are banned from starting offshore operations, their professionals are increasingly joining foreign agencies in search of better pay and career prospects.
“Most mid-level executives in the sector earn between Rs12,000 and Rs15,000. But foreign agencies pay three times more,” said Binoy Acharya, director of Unnati, an Ahmedabad-based advocacy group that trains in municipal administration and empowerment of Dalits.
At least 10 officials with four-five years of experience have left Unnati to take up foreign postings with groups such as community development agencies Aga Khan Foundation and Oxfam. In many cases, they left on the recommendation of Unnati. “Since most of the officials have worked with us for several years, we don’t want to stop their career growth,” said Acharya.
As India’s NGO sector mushrooms into a billion-dollar enterprise—by some estimates, growing between 10% and 20% annually—experts say the government’s reticence to allow them to operate overseas inhibits growth, donor funding and reputation.
“To travel outside with the Indian flag and work in an overseas outpost is something the government has not accepted as a policy or principle,” said Jagadananda, member secretary of the Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD), a Bhubaneswar-based NGO that has 300 volunteers on its roll for disaster relief operations.
He should know. Based on CYSD’s work in cyclone-hit Orissa in 1999 and the Gujarat earthquake aftermath in 2001, Dutch NGO Oxfam Novib offered funding to undertake relief and trauma care work in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. “We could not take it up as we did not have the ready infrastructure and assistance other NGOs received from their respective governments,” Jagadananda says.
Observers say this hinders India’s transition from a country that needs to a country that gives. India currently provides bilateral funds about $1.32 billion (Rs5,808 crore) to fellow countries in South Asia and Africa, which includes financial assistance and technical expertise.
“While India is increasingly been seen as a donor country, there are issues to be addressed regarding government protocols and other regulations governing the sector,” said Leslie Browne, director of Oxfam in New Delhi.
Government officials caution that NGOs should have more than enough to keep them busy in India. An official of the Planning Commission, the public agency coordinating the draft policy between the government and the NGO sector, said, “India first needs to reduce its own poverty than worry about setting up operations outside the country.”
The national policy draft, which was approved by the Prime Minister’s office with “minor corrections” last month, says that because of India’s expertise, international development organizations are interested in partnering with Indian voluntary organizations for a range of activities in India and abroad. The draft is currently being reviewed by multiple ministries.