Opinion: Philanthropy’s distinct role in India’s COVID-19 response

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
A health care worker checks a woman’s temperature during a COVID-19 campaign at a slum area in Mumbai, India. Photo by: Francis Mascarenhas / Reuters

During times of crisis, systemic inequities intensify. The most vulnerable and marginalized populations carry a disproportionate share of the hardship — and are often left out of response and recovery efforts. Workers in India’s informal sector have been severely affected, facing existential challenges accessing food, drinking water, shelter, and other essential goods and services. Others affected include the homeless, elderly, children, religious minorities, LGBTQ communities, people with disabilities, sex workers, slum dwellers, and women subjected to violence.

In India, prime minister's relief fund for COVID-19 jeopardizes NGO sector

COVID-19 relief efforts are being thwarted in India due to the opaque nature of a centralized fund operated by the government, plunging the NGO sector into an existential crisis.

That’s why philanthropies saw COVID-19 as more than a public health crisis. The pandemic was a systemic call to arms for organizations such as the health-focused nonprofit Swasti. Yet Swasti faced a significant challenge: How could it respond effectively to the rapidly changing health needs and interconnected socioeconomic concerns brought on by the unprecedented crisis?

Along with The Catalyst Group, Swasti brought together a variety of other NGOs to found the COVID Action Collaborative, or CAC. Its 150 member organizations are now coordinating efforts and sharing knowledge to provide integrated health, nutrition, social protection, livelihood, and financing support to over 2 million vulnerable people across 15 states of India.

CAC is just one example of how philanthropy, nonprofits, and other organizations are responding quickly, flexibly, and collaboratively to the COVID-19 crisis in India. As per our recent report, these social sector actors are complementing and enabling government efforts, filling gaps by addressing critical and immediate needs, and laying the groundwork for longer-term COVID-19 recovery and future preparedness.

We interviewed more than 50 individuals across 40 social sector organizations, and determined several opportunity areas where targeted COVID-19 responses are underway and where philanthropic action — by domestic and foreign foundations, corporate social responsibility organizations, high-net-worth givers, and collaboratives — could be transformative. The following diagram illustrates an organizing framework for funders to support India’s COVID-19 efforts.

Source: Bridgespan analysis; health systems strengthening framework adapted from WHO’s “Everybody’s Business” report; socioeconomic needs adapted from Bridgespan’s “Mitigating Socioeconomic Impacts in Low- and Middle-Income Countries” memo. View a larger version.

Strengthening the health care continuum

Timely support across the health care continuum is critical as COVID-19 cases and related mortality in India continue to rise. Looking at the work of a few illustrative organizations across the opportunity areas reveals where philanthropies can help.

Organizations have supported COVID-19 prevention activities and provided a window into ways that philanthropies can complement government action. For example, the WISH Foundation, in partnership with some state governments, is supporting COVID-19 control rooms to oversee social distancing measures, surveillance, and home quarantine.

Nonprofits are also helping with health screening and awareness building. Karuna Trust, for example, is helping with screening COVID-19 cases in 71 primary health centers across five states with the help of public health workers.

And, while much of the COVID-19 treatment and control is in government-run facilities, organizations such as Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society are augmenting government’s efforts by piloting standby isolation facilities for COVID-19 patients in rural India.

Supporting health system capacity

More health care capacity is needed with a pandemic, and the social sector is filling some gaps. Grassroots and community-based organizations are supplementing government efforts to disseminate accurate information about COVID-19. For example, the nonprofit Piramal Swasthya is reaching out to teachers and faith leaders to disseminate disease awareness and behavior change messages.

In addition, because the pandemic is putting a significant strain on public health infrastructure and trained health personnel, some organizations such as Basic Healthcare Services are augmenting the state health care capacity by providing primary care to tribal communities in remote areas.

Swasth Foundation is addressing safety concerns of health personnel by coordinating with personal protective equipment suppliers to procure essential items such as masks, face shields, and full-body protective suits for government hospitals, public health posts, and even essential workers such as police officers and sanitation workers.

Other organizations are helping with health data and health technology — including telemedicine, telementoring, and health helplines. Noora Health is using its technology platforms to provide health information to frontline workers and community members.

Meeting socioeconomic needs

India is home to 40 million internal migrant workers, a large majority of whom have been impacted by the pandemic and the lockdown, including losing their jobs.

Social sector organizations are alleviating some of the burden. Haqdarshak, a social enterprise in 20 states, is helping vulnerable populations gain access to government schemes through a free mobile app and multilingual helplines that provide information on scheme eligibility and document requirements.

The pandemic is also causing increased anxiety, and posing mental health and physical safety challenges for individuals, families, and communities. Organizations such as the Society for Nutrition, Education & Health Action are addressing the surge in gender-based violence, relying on its crisis helpline and email support to track and address domestic violence cases in Mumbai slums.

Principles for effective philanthropy

Philanthropy can be an important actor in India’s COVID-19 response and recovery, by keeping five principles in mind:

Focus on issues of equity and justice. The most vulnerable populations — especially at the intersection of caste, class, gender, and poverty — have the greatest chance of falling through the cracks. Helping organizations effectively engage and serve these populations in these times will be important.

Provide flexible funding to build resilience of grantees. Philanthropy can support partner organizations with flexible funding and regular conversations to help build the institutional and financial resilience that nonprofits will require over the coming years, more so given the funding crunch for non-COVID causes and diversion of scarce corporate social responsibility resources to government funds for the pandemic response.

Invest in capabilities arising from or accentuated by the pandemic. Addressing the humanitarian and immediate needs of the pandemic comes first. But several needs — such as mental health, livelihoods, and health surveillance — will also need attention in the foreseeable future.

Collaborate to leverage resources and learnings. The recovery is likely to be a multiyear, multistakeholder effort. And it is becoming more important than ever for philanthropists to collaborate with civil society, business, government, and communities to drive impact.

There is an unprecedented need for speed and flexibility combined with strategic thinking. As time passes, it will be crucial to double down on what philanthropy can do best: Move nimbly, risk failure, promote equity, and innovate to strengthen the society of which it is such an indispensable part.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Pritha Venkatachalam

    Pritha Venkatachalam is a partner in The Bridgespan Group’s Mumbai office. She has advised governments, donors and philanthropies, nonprofits, and the private sector on a wide range of global development challenges across Asia and Africa. .
  • Donald Yeh

    Donald Yeh is a partner in The Bridgespan Group’s Mumbai office. He has worked with both philanthropic and nonprofit organizations on topics including strategy and portfolio planning, field building, and operating models.
  • Niloufer Memon

    Niloufer Memon is a manager in The Bridgespan Group’s Mumbai office. She has advised philanthropies and nonprofits operating in India, Africa, and the United States across a number of issue areas, including education, health care, and land rights.