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Business News/ Specials / The Philanthropy Issue/  Foreign funding still viewed with suspicion: Ananthapadmanabhan
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Foreign funding still viewed with suspicion: Ananthapadmanabhan

G. Ananthapadmanabhan of Amnesty International India talks about the current state of advocacy in the country and the challenges involved

G. Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive, Amnesty International India.Premium
G. Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive, Amnesty International India.

Mumbai: Philanthropy for advocacy in India needs support from domestic philanthropists because of the suspicion with which foreign funding is viewed, says G. Ananthapadmanabhan, chief executive of Amnesty International India. In a telephonic interview, Ananthapadmanabhan talks about the current state of advocacy in the country, the challenges involved, the role of youth and social media in making a change and the future. Edited excerpts:

What is the concept of philanthropy for advocacy? Can you explain briefly?

Advocacy is a tool of change and philanthropy is a means of supporting that. In a democracy, public opinion or interest has to be represented to decision makers in several ways. People get to do it once in five years when they vote.

But in the interim, people do express their opinions and do influence policy. Various people do it from their own points of view. Civil society, the not-for-profit sector, does represent a very vital part of the democratic design of the society and as an important fabric of the society, it is important that organizations are able to express their views strongly, communicate it well, are able to reach decision makers and have a position within policymaking. It is an important voice. It is an activity that needs resources and support. It will not happen by itself. It is a very important role for philanthropists to play.

How crucial is the need for philanthropy for advocacy in India at present?

Historically, a positive change has always come about by people showing very good examples of implementation on the ground combined with campaigning, awareness building, public mobilization and good advocacy for the right kind of policy. A combination of interactions has led to change. And Indian philanthropists need to support this portfolio, not just one part of it. Traditionally, foreign donors and philanthropists have supported the whole spectrum. Now, as India’s economy is growing, many Indian philanthropists are seeing that there are enough resources in India in terms of wealth and understanding and their foreign counterparts are saying that India is not their priority anymore.

Secondly, we as citizens of India, also feel that these are not matters (eg. policy influence) in which we want foreign money. By and large, there is much value to the sentiment that we should be able to support the kind of policy changes within our country itself. These two changes are making it very important for Indian philanthropists to step in.

What kind of challenges does one face when it comes to advocacy in India?

There are not many people who are doing philanthropy for advocacy, but there are a lot of people who are doing advocacy. However, they do not have Indian philanthropic support. The support is coming from foreign philanthropies and that is increasingly becoming a problem as we are beginning to see this kind of foreign interference in our policy. Irrespective of the content of what the organization wants to say, the fact that it is funded by foreign agencies, even though the money is raised in India, is given more importance. So, organizations that are trying to influence the policy space are facing this challenge of being seen as foreign or supported by foreign money. There is important work that organizations are doing but the ability to seek support is diminishing and Indian philanthropy is not stepping up.

How do we overcome these challenges?

I think the first thing for our philanthropists to do is to recognize that advocacy and campaigning are an important part of the portfolio of change-making. These also need support and nurturing and more people need to see this. Second, the great Indian middle class also is increasingly interested in contributing to change-making; so, they are also our source of financial and other support. Organizations in this space should reach out to ordinary people to collect small donations as well. I believe potentially, there is enough support within the country for these kind of activities and that should be enhanced. But having said that, I also think that the view that foreign funding is a general suspect is outdated. Today, both the Indian civil society and organizations are largely equal partners in funding relations. So, the suspicion needs to go.

You said the Indian middle class was more aware about advocacy and campaigning; so, how can a common man contribute for these causes apart from the traditional donation method?

The Indian middle class need not just be defensive when fingers are pointed at them but could also be proactive in raising their voice and concern for things that are unjust anywhere in the world. That is what global citizenship means. In fact, today, there is a fairly significant portion of India which is ready to do that. It is not just a matter of money but also lending your voice to advocate for things within the country and globally.

Which are some of the main areas in India where this kind of advocacy efforts should be concentrated and where is it needed the most?

By and large, it is not an exaggeration to say that we are a deeply unequal society. We have some of the world’s richest people, but we also have one in four undernourished and stunted children in the world. So, we have a huge contrast. In a way, this kind of advocacy and public opinion-building representing the public spirit is a public good, and left to itself, market mechanism won’t deliver it. The key thing is that the voices of the marginalized, the voices of the Adivasis who are caught in a sort of no-man’s land, the voices of women, the voices of the natural world, have to be brought in the discourse so that they have a seat on the table.

Are there any specific precautions that philanthropists need to take while working for advocacy issues?

What I have learnt with my conversations with philanthropists and philanthropic organizations is that philanthropy is actually a personal act driven by personal values. I would say the starting point for a philanthropist is to ask—is this proposition that I am presenting a part of our democratic design? And will it, in the long run, create an environment that enhances our ability to pursue economic development? If the answer syncs with their values, then they have to find actors in society like civil society organizations that give voice to their own values and support them. So, the precaution is, you go with people who will sync with your own voice.

Has the youth become more aware about advocacy? Also, what role does social media play in this entire system?

India is a very young country and investing in strategies that target the youth is a good way of thinking about philanthropy. Influencing the youth is key to doing social good. And so, we also have to use the means and tools like social media. I would say the way social media has developed has relatively revolutionized communication and consciousness. For instance, the way we are now thinking about violence against women, the kind of debate it has generated, must continue. These kinds of debates would not have been possible without social media and by their nature, these debates are somewhat disruptive of their existing order. And that is not a bad thing. Philanthropists should use the power of youth, social media and networking connections as a very powerful means of social change.

What is the future for philanthropy for advocacy in India?

I think there is no doubt at all that India would see great citizen engagement going forward. Citizens are going to play a big role in shaping our policies. I think the challenge for Indian philanthropists is how they align their own values and vision with the young people to produce the changes we want to see.

What are some of the prominent examples where advocacy made an impact?

There are many examples. The Right to Information Act came after a labourer in Rajasthan wanting to know what the government is doing with their employment guarantee fund. The net result was a legislation which democratized information in this country. That is a very powerful and recent example. Smaller changes that have come about are that several states have now mandated rain water harvesting. Bangalore has a norm that all new buildings will provide for solar water heating. All these have come about as a result of citizen groups showing that it is essential and also advocating for it.

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Published: 03 Oct 2014, 12:11 AM IST
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