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In An Increasingly Political World, Can NGOs Afford To Remain Apolitical?

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“It soon became obvious that tackling the root causes of poverty was an inherently political business.” 

-Maggie Black

Humanitarian and development aid as we know it has its roots in geopolitics. After World War II, the United Nations was created to replace the League of Nations with a renewed emphasis on peace, security, human rights, economic development and international law. ‘Universal Egalitarianism’ was one of the founding principles of the initiative but, ironically, it also paved the foundation for the dominance of the US as a global leader in the postwar period. Interestingly, by the end of the 20th century, the UN turned out to be an influential apolitical institution, despite its origin in a highly political environment.

For many, the UN defines what development means, in terms of goals, ideologies and implementation methodologies. It has guided the Non-Government Organisations (NGO) sector, on the ‘whats’ and ‘hows’ of the development domain, along with the principle of an NGO as an apolitical organization. When UN bodies consciously took a stand of non-alignment and non-interference in the internal politics of their sovereign nations, NGOs around the world followed suit.

In reality, however, this is either setting oneself up for failure or being hopelessly naive. When social and development causes like healthcare, education, sanitation, welfare etc. are highly political, how can one define where development ends, and politics begins?

As development workers and NGOs continue to derive their morality from the UN, we become stuck in the dilemma and struggle of being apolitical in an increasingly political world.

As a development professional, the integrity of my work and morality of my profession dictates that I set out target goals and by the end of the program, do my best to achieve them. Planning for the implementation process, we fill in the log frames and habitually include ‘political co-operation’ under ‘risks and assumptions.’

For any development professional, this has become a ritual that we almost reflexively perform, without paying attention to its significance. Working methodically in every other aspect of our work, mitigating every perceivable risk, the weak link in our otherwise careful delivery plan may come down to the whims of a politician. But given our ‘apolitical’ stand, mitigation of that one risk remains ‘out of scope.’ On a national and international level, development agendas are compromised because of unfavourable political environments.

The ethics of my work dictate that my organisation and I do not make false claims, and deliver the goals we promised. But somehow, failure, arising due to ‘political’ issues, remains acceptable industry-wide. In any other sector, failure to achieve promised objectives would be considered unacceptable and might also be grounds for loss of a contract. But in the development sector, we are more open to failing in our promises than considering the idea of political advocacy and alignment, which remains a no-go territory.

The apolitical stand of the UN at the international level, crucially followed by national and local NGOs may result in a terrible cost to people’s welfare and wellbeing on the ground. This statement is more real today than ever before, when the development goals worldwide, are being seen in divisive political ideologies. There are many valid reasons for development organisations to be unaffiliated. The simplest one is that their job is to provide services to people irrespective of their ideologies. However, we fail to see that when we promise to deliver those services, a large part of the promise relies on the favourable (to the development and social goals) and stable political environment.

Political leadership with hostile views on development objectives may result in cuts to social programs, as is visible in the current US Administration’s disregard for women’s health (Planned Parenthood), healthcare, children’s education (UNESCO), climate change (notice of withdrawal from Paris Climate Agreement) and international development (USAID).

Similar examples can be seen in other countries like India, where anti-foreign aid sentiment has led to cancelling licenses for thousands of NGOs and development organisations. This step taken by the current political leadership in India is guided either by their Hindu ideology (seeing Christian charities as a hub for religious conversion), anti-NGO sentiment (historical baggage) or corporate quid-pro-quo relationships (strengthening private sector at the expense of environmental stability).

In the face of such hostility from political leadership around the world and the detrimental effects of their decisions setting back decades of development efforts, to believe in strict non-alignment is a simplistic and quixotic approach. When the development goals are becoming increasingly political, can development organisations afford to remain above the divide?

Perhaps the time has come for the development sector to take a stand and become the voice of conscience for the political leadership and help define the vision of a better world for all.

Note: The phrase “above the divide” is taken from an article published on September 25, 2015, by Maggie Black in The Guardian.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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