To help create an equal, just, and healthy society, ActionAid Association (AAA) has evolved over the decades from a ‘service-based’ to a ‘rights-based’ organisation. The principles of social and ecological justice underpin its distinctively transformational approach. ActionAid has worked with the poor and the marginalised in India since 1972 and is empowered by the vision of: ‘A world without poverty, patriarchy and injustice, in which every person enjoys the right to life with dignity.’ Working for the mission: ‘To work in solidarity with the poor and excluded and participate in their struggle to eradicate poverty, patriarchy and injustice.’
In the words of Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, ActionAid Association, “Our mission and organisational priorities have evolved through an elaborate process of consultations with the communities, our grounded work reviews, and engagement with mass movements, people’s organisations, activists, civil society organisations, academics, local, State and Union Governments and learnings from our practice.” Sandeep states that the rights of vulnerable communities have always been at the centre of their discourse and actions. “We seek to build the agency and protagonism of marginalised communities by helping them build collectives and working together to empower themselves by accessing rights and entitlements, building collective enterprise, and asserting their right to a life of dignity as equal citizens of India.”
A Life of Dignity and Equality for All
It was in 2006 that ActionAid Association registered as an Indian organisation. And since then, they have been governed by an independent national General Assembly and a national Governing Board. Together with communities, individual supporters, institutions, and governments, they work for equality, fraternity, and liberty for all in harmony with the planet. AAA is also part of a global federation and a full affiliate of ActionAid International, which has a presence in over 45 countries worldwide.
AAA believes that it is through purposeful collective action that shifts power in favour of the marginalised that we can achieve social justice, gender equality and poverty eradication. They draw inspiration and guidance from the Constitution of India and international covenants to help build a just, inclusive and equal world. Sandeep says, “More specifically, we have created our unique niche in the social service and non-profit sector through a multi-layered, holistic, and rights-based approach.”. Sandeep is a social anthropologist and is active in several networks, groups and movements on the ground; and also works at the macro level to design policies and programmatic interventions. Sandeep is an active member of International Development Economics Associates (IDEAs) and the World Forum of Alternatives Council and has initiated and supported several transcontinental networks, campaigns and initiatives. In October 2016, Sandeep was elected as co-Chair of the World Urban Campaign, a global advocacy and partnership platform to raise awareness about positive urban change coordinated by UN-Habitat and driven by 180 partners and networks from around the world. Sandeep served as co-chair for two terms.
AAA works in 24 states and two union territories in India with more than 250 partners and allied organisations. In addition, it partners with various stakeholders, Government institutions, and several voluntary organisations. “The range of our initiatives is eclectic and focused, and at all times, dedicated to promoting the rights of vulnerable communities,” Sandeep informs.
These include Dalits, tribals, minorities, landless labour, small farmers, and people dependent on the informal economy. “Amongst these sections of people, we focus on the rights of women, children, the aged, people with disability and chronic diseases, and the transgender,” Sandeep adds. Their outreach to marginalised communities in India has positioned them as one of the best social solution providers in the industry. They have also been conferred the World Habitat Gold Award 2019 by World Habitat for our outstanding work towards “Restoration of Dignity and Human Rights of Indigenous Tribal Community in Karnataka.” Other recent awards include
- ASSOCHAM’s 3rd Diversity and Inclusion Excellence Award 2022,
- Mahatma Award 2021 for COVID-19 Humanitarian Efforts,
- The Giving Economy Changemaker’s Charity Leadership Award 2020 and
- Delhi Minorities Commission’s Best NGO Award 2019.
The purpose of the organisation has evolved over the last 50 years of its operation and currently includes the following:
- To ensure peoples’ control over resources like land, water, forest, minerals, commons, and livelihoods
- To ensure radical democratisation of society, economy, and polity at all levels
- Facilitate assertion of women’s and girls’ rights as human rights
- Ensure children are recognised as political and equal citizens
- Ensure a just, secular, violence-free, and peaceful society and State
- Ensure solidarity with struggles and progressive actions beyond local and national boundaries
Sandeep explains, “We seek to demonstrate our values by transforming our organisational culture to stress ‘praxis’ in our work, by which we mean realising ideas in action. Solidarity, camaraderie, and sisterhood with the poor, the powerless, and excluded girls, women, boys, and men are at the core of our struggle against poverty and injustice.”
50 years of service and solidarity
The year 2022 is the 50th year of AAA’s work in India. In 1972 its interventions were in two states. Sandeep says that they see people living in poverty and exclusion as the leading agents in the development processes that relate to them to ensure that structures and processes that sustain unequal power and injustice are challenged and dismantled. Their main strategies are to empower people to become rights activists, claim their rights, and hold the people and institutions meant to deliver on these rights accountable.
Alongside people living in poverty and exclusion, they also campaign for structural change, working to mobilise others in civil society to act in solidarity and align with the rights struggles of people living in poverty and exclusion.
Today they reach out to more than four million vulnerable and marginalised people across 24 states and two union territories. “At the milestone of 50 years of service and solidarity, we take all opportunities to reaffirm our work for advancing social and ecological justice,” Sandeep expresses.
According to Sandeep, adopting modern digital technology in social service projects can benefit from reaching favourable results as interconnectivity can more profound commitment to social reform through public advocacy and citizen engagement. AAA is adapting to the change by employing innovative communication strategies by amplifying citizens’ voices. “Our cohesive team of communications, campaigns, and volunteers help achieve a creative blend of old and new communications and technology tools,” Sandeep believes.
During COVID-19, technology was a great way to connect with millions in ensuring ‘authentic’ information and relief for the informal and migrant workers significantly impacted by the sudden lockdown. ‘Relief-in-transit camps’ were set up immediately across state borders to cater to migrants returning to their villages via foot or bicycle. (to read the impact story, visit https://www.actionaidindia.org/story/relief-transit-migrant-workers-returning-home/
Seventy-one camps provided support services such as health check-ups, first aid, and counselling, besides acting as resting points for labourers during their journey here. In addition, they set up WhatsApp groups with youth volunteers across several cities who coordinated with the district administration and supported families who wanted to return to their hometowns.
Additionally, AAA teams immediately set up 71 Covid-19 helplines and helpdesks, reaching out to 90 districts which provided real-time information to people regarding medical care, medicines, oxygen supplies, etc. AAA convened several Webinars and, through social media platforms, highlighted the challenges faced by migrant and informal workers. (read more on the link provided earlier).
“We must communicate better about our work with external audiences, including donors and supporters. We intend to use various media channels and forms – mainstream, conventional, and alternate media, including digital and social media, for this purpose. This will be supported by strong monitoring and evaluation systems and by documenting and widely sharing our work through different platforms,” says Sandeep.
Sandeep reveals the challenges they have to overcome: “We believe that progressive individuals and organisations in the private sector are essential allies in achieving our mission and vision.” However, the critical challenge for any organisation is financial growth and sustained investments over a period of time. AAA thus invests much towards relationship development and trust building with corporate and private donors.
Building Trust with All Stakeholders
Creating and maintaining robust monitoring and evaluation processes to provide accountability towards the deliverables and ensure the deliverables are linked to compliance and community transformation is the only way to build trust in the long term. In addition, structures and processes must be in place to ensure programme staff capacity and skills for creating and sustaining high-quality relationships with the private sector. “In short, relationship building is our ongoing priority while we strive for social and ecological justice in the long term,” Sandeep informs.
With this understanding and objective, they engage with corporates, Medium, Micro, and Small-Scale Enterprises (MSMEs), private and social enterprises, and cooperatives as per their standards and norms. “To build solidarity for our work and the communities we work with, we look forward to all opportunities to enhance CSR and volunteer outreach,” says Sandeep.
AAA’s partnerships with corporates aim not only for monetary support but also for engaging volunteers to give back to the community and allow civil society to tap into corporate expertise. A few ways that AAA has trailered corporate volunteering over the years and through mutual agreement include:
- Technical/Scientific Inputs – Corporate volunteers over the years have been involved in AAA’s project by providing scientific/technical inputs to the community/beneficiaries through planned events such as financial and digital training, helping in online market surveys/research, technical inputs in technology, and others. In addition, corporate employees have also been contributing through scientific and technological inputs into our climate and biodiversity-related initiatives such as renovation and rejuvenation of water bodies, etc.
- Leveraging Linkages with Administration – AAA has also sought and leveraged linkages with Government departments and administration through corporate engagement and has contributed to the long-term sustainability of projects and scaling up.
- Engagement with Community – Corporate volunteers have also engaged with the community, where the project has been initiated through various means, including plantation drives, art, and craft activities with the children, awareness building on the environment, climate change, COVID, and health and painting competitions on ‘Girl Power’.
- Relief Efforts and Fundraising during Emergencies – Corporate volunteers have aided AAA’s relief responses in many ways through a range of activities of employment giving, cycling campaigns, marathons for fundraising, emergency transportation, and distribution of relief material and others.
Taking their corporate partnerships beyond disaster response, AAA demonstrates the connection between climate change–resilience–disaster in co-creating CSR projects that mitigate disaster impact and advance social and ecological justice in the long term. AAA believes that the diversity of corporate funding needs to be explored further to include the agency of Medium, Micro, and Small Scale (MSME) sectors and cooperatives that may not be in the purview of the CSR Act but should not be precluded from the ties of solidarity giving. Empowered individuals from the communities they work with are likely to be in this sector and would be keen to work with them. Sandeep elaborates, “We also intend to reach out to workers’ formations within the corporate sectors, such as unions, to raise funds on issues of mutual concern.”
An Inclusive, Human-Rights-Based Approach
In his advice to budding social entrepreneurs aspiring to venture into the not-for-profit space, Sandeep suggests that an inclusive, human-rights-based approach is the future of the not-for-profit space. “While our rights-based practices vary according to where and with whom we work and what we aim to achieve with those we work, a few consistent principles ensure that securing rights empowers and builds dignity,” elaborated Sandeep. These are:
- Organising and Raising Critical Consciousness–The first step in AAA’s rights-based framework is to raise critical consciousness through popular education and practical support to analyse contexts, power relations, and violation of rights and then to plan and organise actions to improve people’s well-being. For those forced to believe that they have no rights and are socialised to expect treatment without dignity or respect, the first step is to challenge and change their perceptions of themselves. This step supports people in critically assessing their situation and seeing it for what it is: exploitation, oppression, and injustice. It is also the first step to empowerment for change– an inner realisation that there is a possibility for change and a sense that people have the power to do something about it.
- Addressing people’s needs as rights, they can claim– “At times, we provide practical solidarity by providing short-term services and relief to address these immediate basic needs, simply because people need them to survive or to support them in claiming their rights,” explained Sandeep. This can be housing, food, information, or training in emergencies.
- Ensuring participation and actions of poor and excluded people–The human-rights-based approach requires that rights-holders living in poverty are fully involved and take action in determining their needs and the responses that will be provided to answer them.
- Paying attention to the issue of power– “Central to our rights-based approach is the analysis of power relations and strengthening the power of poor and excluded people,” explained Sandeep. “Policy changes and public opinion-building must go hand in hand with societal changes to transform the structures, attitudes, and values at the root of societal inequities and injustice. We thus require a more people-centred approach focused on social transformation.”
- Deepening democracy at every level–AAA’s rights-based approaches emphasise making democracy ‘popular’, that is, deepening inclusive processes and cultures of democracy.
- Holding state (and non-state) actors accountable– “The human rights framework and our human rights-based approach are premised on the firm belief that the State is the primary duty bearer and is responsible for respecting, promoting, protecting and fulfilling the human rights of its citizens,” stated Sandeep.
On envisioning scaling AAAs offerings in the future, Sandeep says they will continue their approach of engaging with the Government and scaling up their strategic partnerships across Government bodies, civil society organisations, and people’s formations. They strive to build capacity and ownership of both the institutions and the people, especially the youth and women, to democratise institutions from the local level upwards. They also strive to strengthen all the pillars of democracy – civil society, media, judiciary, and State institutions on the one hand and, on the other hand, create the last mile connectivity between the Government and the people. “We also intend to leverage our existing relationships with donors and reach out to many prospective donors in the coming years to build a sizable and stable base of supporters,” Sandeep concludes.