ActionAid is a global development organisation that works with over 15 million people in 45 countries. Headquartered in Johannesburg, its primary work is in the areas of poverty, injustice, and related causes such as food and land rights, inequality, women’s rights, and education. Originally called Action in Distress, it was founded in 1972 by Cecil Jackson-Cole as a child-sponsorship charity when 88 UK supporters sponsored 88 children in India and Kenya. It was the first big international NGO to move its headquarters from the global north to the global south.

ActionAid works with grassroots organisations and communities to advocate policies and achieve results. Globally, it has partnerships with more than 2,000 locally based organisations and is involved in over 100 alliances and networks. Its funding partners are European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the UN, and the Department for International Development (UK). It also solicits child sponsorships from donors and the public and is an active campaigner for various issues at local, national and transnational levels. In the ‘90s, the organisation adopted a human rights-based approach to development which it continues to apply. In its Strategy 2028, ActionAid has stated its intention to ‘build international momentum for social, economic and environmental justice, driven by people living in poverty and exclusion.’

About ActionAid India

ActionAid India (AAI) is a full affiliate (a self-governing entity based on ActionAid International’s federal model of governance) of ActionAid International and in 2006 it got registered as an Indian organisation called ActionAid Association. AAI’s vision is ‘a world without poverty, patriarchy and injustice in which every person enjoys the right to life with dignity’, and mission is ‘to work in solidarity with the poor and excluded and participate in their struggle to eradicate poverty, patriarchy and injustice.’ This is reflected in its core focus, which is helping people fight for their rights—like the right to education and the right to stay on their land. ActionAid uses its resources, influence and experience to help people find their own solutions. It works with local organisations to give marginalised groups better access to resources and to strengthen their communities.

AAI works with over 300 partner NGOs and multiple communities. It supports 83 long-term projects (between one and 10 years) including network partners, and 420 short-term projects (up to one year). As per its 2015–16 annual report, it worked with 252 alliance partners, with 22 per cent of these organisations being headed by women and 16 per cent by members from Dalit, tribal, minority and other backward communities. Its interventions were spread across 25 states and one union territory (including 134 of the most backward districts in India), and apparently these helped improve the lives of more than 132,000 families (details missing) from deprived communities such as Dalits, tribals, Muslims and fisher folk.

The strategic priority allocated to its various programmes is based on AAI’s Country Strategy Paper (CSP) which, in turn, is based on its human rights-based approach. The CSP helps define and guide all of its work. In 2018, its fifth CSP was formed through a consultative process involving a review of the implementation of its previous strategy by external experts and then a drafting process that gathered inputs internally and from regional partners and allies.

What AAI does

AAI’s main areas of work, in order of strategic priority-wise allocation, are explained here.

1. Promoting people’s control over natural resources and livelihood: AAI helps people, especially from marginalised communities, access and claim individual, joint and collective rights over land and natural resources. For instance, in 2015–16, more than 6,250 families in Assam submitted claims to the land revenue department for land titles and settlement of land disputes.

Advocacy measures often include partnering with other organisations on lobbying efforts such as successfully pressurising the government to withdraw proposed amendments to the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2001. AAI also helps women get access to land and form women’s collectives for purposes such as claiming land rights, food security, etc.

AAI promotes sustainable livelihoods through measures such as capacity building on agricultural entitlements (soil tests, subsidised seeds), training on organic practices, forming farmers’ collectives, addressing issues such as farmers’ suicides, etc. Promoting access to natural resources and commons is another key area of work. Helping indigenous communities claim their rightful forest land and campaigning for effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act are some of the related initiatives.

In the last few years, AAI has facilitated land titles to over 50,000 people, of which 12,000 are women. It has also helped around 58,000 informal-sector labourers gain access to social-security schemes. It is to be noted that accessing land and forests rights is a lengthy process and can easily take up to two to three years at least.

2. Strengthening the assertion of women’s and girls’ rights as human rights: AAI works with women and girls from marginalised communities on initiatives such as women’s collectives, awareness building on sexual and reproductive health, advocacy for laws that affect them, engaging with state governments on setting up of one-stop crisis centres (OSCCs) for female survivors of violence, and supporting campaigns like violence against women and One Billion Rising. In 2015–16, its flagship OSCC Gaurvai (established in 2014 in Bhopal) was accessed by women from across the state, with 2,475 cases registered and 9,917 persons calling the helpline. In total, that year 28,924 survivors were provided counselling at resource centres supported by ActionAid.

AAI helps single women fight for their rights, such as housing benefits. Its Beti Zindabad campaign organises and educates women on issues such as violence against women, child marriages, declining girl child ratio and girl-child trafficking. AAI has taken up causes such as witch hunting, sex workers’ issues, and sensitising media on eliminating gender discrimination. It also promotes women entrepreneurs through collective enterprises. It advocates for policies that count women who stay at home as a productive workforce although it is not clear what exactly is being done to promote this.

In the recent past, more than 30,000 women have been organised into collectives, 11,000 girls trained on sexual-health rights, and 9,000 women provided skills training.

3. Ensuring children are recognised as equal and political citizens: One of the main focus areas for AAI is protection and promotion of the rights of marginalised children. Its efforts are in influencing key policies such as those on child labour, helping communities and school management in making schools functional and accessible to children, and extending support to state and local campaigns such as the Suchna Evam Rozgar Adhikar Abhiyan (Movement for Right to Information and Employment) in Rajasthan.

AAI helps strengthen school-management committees by providing training on roles and responsibilities, focusing on out-of-school children (OoSC) and child labour, and looking into specific cases and enrolling children into local schools or in bridge courses. It emphasises on retention, especially for girl children, by helping community-based organisations (CBO) and communities to attend to specific factors that may cause dropouts. It also ensures non-closure of government schools and assists vulnerable children by mobilising scholarships and support for their mothers if needed.

On education, AAI has taken up initiatives on implementing the RTE Act in more than 700 schools and conducted capacity-building programmes. In 2015–16, the organisation helped enrol 11,362 children in schools and facilitated the monitoring of 1,222 schools for basic amenities and quality of education. Further, 631 children rescued from child labour were enrolled in schools and 535 children suffering from malnutrition were linked to nutritional rehabilitation centres and Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS).

Local initiatives that AAI has taken up include engaging with tribal communities to give up child-marriage practice, promoting children’s participation in governance, and working with local schools. Some of AAI’s achievements over the last few years are: enrolling 30,000 children into schools with 40 per cent being girls, 1,706 cases of malnutrition addressed, and scholarship for higher studies for over 7,000 children from marginalised backgrounds (35 per cent from Muslim communities).

4. Encouraging democratisation of society, economy and polity at all levels: This is essentially about encouraging participatory governance and democracy among ordinary people through village-development plans, leadership training to build people’s alliances, and training programmes for community leaders and members of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI).

Village-development plans are taken up by local communities with AAI facilitating this process. In 2015–16, such planning was done in 40,640 villages and 1,603 of such micro-level plans were approved by gram sabhas. AAI encourages community monitoring of the implementation of various government schemes, with information-resource centres set up in panchayats across states and social audits and public hearings organised. In that same year, 757 people’s watch groups were formed for such monitoring.

Click to view table

The table here is for the 42 villages in eight panchayats of Latehar district of Jharkhand:

AAI focuses on building community leadership for young women and men on issues of democratisation, constitutional rights, and various pro-poor legislations and public-welfare schemes. It also helps in building capacity of elected panchayat members and community leaders. In 2015–16, 8,232 PRI members were trained on governance aspects, while in recent years (dates unknown) about 19,000 youths from marginalised communities were trained in leadership schools. Other related work that AAI has taken up include encouraging women’s participation in governance, organising campaigns against untouchability, and raising awareness on people’s right to employment opportunities and social protection.

5. Building a just, secular, violence-free and peaceful society and state: This entails organising consultations, campaigns and workshops to promote and uphold diversity, equality and rights, especially for minority groups. One such project was based in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat where AAI and its local partners worked with internally displaced communities focusing on their rehabilitation and peace building.

6. Emergency response: AAI is involved in disaster-relief interventions, mitigation efforts, disaster preparedness, and needs assessment. For instance, AAI was invited by the Bihar government to provide support in designing its disaster risk reduction policy and building a roadmap for it. It reached out to nearly 6,000 households in 75 villages as part of its response work during the 2015 Kashmir floods. It then took up long-term rehabilitation work for the affected communities. In the 2015 heat wave that struck Telangana, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, AAI helped 1,157 families.

AAI assists disaster-affected people such as those in Assam, Manipur, Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh in demanding their rightful entitlements from their governments. The organisation ensures that the communities have information on how to access entitlements and addresses the concerns of vulnerable groups such as women.

7. Strengthening solidarity with struggles and progressive actions beyond local and national boundaries: Here, AAI attempts to create awareness on national and transnational issues through multiple mediums, such as workshops, seminars and mass media. In 2015–16, the South Solidarity Initiative (SSI), an entity hosted by ActionAid Association’s South-South Solidarity Knowledge Activist Hub, advanced the idea of South-South solidarity by collaborating with multiple groups and people both within and outside India. AAI built awareness on trade-related challenges, especially the revival of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) negotiations through meetings, reports, articles, several statements and press releases. Social media is an important component of AAI’s efforts to disseminate information.

Impact made

AAI claims to have impacted over 14 lakh women, 15 lakh men, and over 12 lakh children to date. As per AAI data, the quantifiable impact made in the last six years is as follows:

Particulars
Impact in numbers

Land claims filed*
380,571

All land titles received*
111,353

Land claims filed (homestead)
151,395

Land titles received (homestead)
38,145

Land claims filed (agricultural)
97,379

Land titles received (agricultural)
19,772

Total land pattas (titles) received (single women)
6,337

Farmers practising CRSA**
22,483

Women farmers practising CRSA
9,934

Kitchen gardens established
3,491

Seed banks established
1,012

Grain banks established
534

Households able to access community land/commons
18,725

*Agricultural land, Homestead land & under Forest Rights Act
**Climate-resilient sustainable agriculture

Choosing partners and projects

AAI chooses its partners on the basis of shared values and objectives, and prioritises projects whose goals are in line with its own strategy and rights-based approach rather than opting for a service-delivery model, except in cases of disasters and emergencies.

The regional offices conduct poverty and vulnerability assessment of the marginalised communities in different blocks in the state and based on the analysis, a regional operational plan (ROP) is devised for every 5 years aligning with the CSP.

When evaluating potential CBOs and civil society organisations (CSO), its programme teams from regional offices visit the field villages, interact with community members, and gather information in the presence of the CBO to make an assessment. This is coupled with financial appraisal as well as assessment of various policies such as HR policy and sexual-harassment policy, governance structure, and representation of women, minorities and marginalised groups in the organisation. Post this, if the organisation is willing to improve on its systems and policies and agree on incorporating AAI’s feedback, a small project (of up to a year) is taken up. After a review and thorough appraisal, AAI may take up another programme of 5 to 7 years’ duration.

The role of regional offices is to strengthen CBOs by providing continuous programmatic inputs, capacity building of staff, sharing feminist/Ambedkarite perspectives, facilitating trainings, etc.

For the project-approval process, AAI teams ensure that the proposal has a clear problem statement, well-defined strategies and activities, and pre-decided output and outcome indicators and monitoring mechanism. The regional office team conducts field visits at least once every quarter and CBO leaders have detailed review meetings with the project staff.

Every partner organisation is required to submit quarterly progress reports and data on utilisation along with requisition for the next quarter’s fund. AAI follows this monitoring framework for impact measurement:

  • Changes in the rights consciousness, capacity, organisation and mobilisation of the poor and the excluded people (rights holders) to claim their rights
  • Improvement in the conditions (tangible or intangible—social, political or economic) of rights holders
  • Organisation and action of civil society in support of the rights of the poor and excluded people
  • Changes in policies and practices of state and non-state institutions (duty bearers)

At the end of every year, AAI conducts a so-called ‘participatory review reflection process (PRRP)’. This is an ongoing participatory monitoring mechanism and periodic in-depth review with key stakeholders on the progress of its work, where data is gathered and analysed for learning and accountability purposes.

Funding, challenges and goals

In FY 2017, the total funds employed were Rs 41,250,617, with restricted or specific project funds accounting for a little over Rs 7 crore and unrestricted or general funds in the negative (nearly Rs 3 crore). Of the restricted funds, Rs 5.6 crore came from foreign contribution (FC) and Rs 1.4 crore was non-foreign (NFC). The FC for specific project funds saw a substantial increase from FY 2016 (Rs 2.2 crore).

Grants received from ActionAid International and affiliates were responsible for a majority of the FC, with a little over Rs 43 lakh. General donation from FC was Rs 14 lakh and from NFC was Rs 17 lakh. Grant received from sponsorship fund was Rs 1 crore (all NFC). Except for the sponsorship fund, all figures were lower compared to the previous FY 2016.

AAI claims to have 47,192 individual donors and prominent supporters include Tata Motors, Wipro Care, Jet Airways, Delhi Public School, Colgate Palmolive, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and Microsoft India.

As part of its transparency efforts, ActionAid is a member of Accountable Now, a cross-sector platform for internationally operating civil society organisations (CSO), and has signed the 12 Accountability Commitments of the Global Standard for CSO Accountability. It published reports on its economic, environmental and social performance in line with Accountable Now’s reporting guidelines.

Many challenges crop up during the course of AAI’s work – be it the influence wielded by upper-caste groups who tend to oppose upliftment of the poor and marginalised, especially in issues such as rescue and release of bonded labourers, accessing land rights for Dalits and forest rights for tribals, addressing issues of interstate migration or seasonal migration and the many barriers to accessing basic rights like minimum wage, weakened local governance systems, or breaking the cycle of patriarchy.

Goals for the next three to five years are plentiful, and most are a continuation of its existing work. On land, water and forest rights, AAI will demand for time-bound and progressive land reforms and protection of forest, land and water commons. For labour and livelihoods rights, the focus will be on informal workers, ensuring social security and decent wages, and promoting self-help groups and collectives, while for child rights, health and nutrition, advocacy, strengthening public education system, and supporting informal mechanisms for education will take priority. On women’s rights, it will continue to support women’s agency and decision-making powers, campaign for equal opportunities for girls from marginalised communities, and work towards progressive legislation and prioritisation of critical social sectors such as health and education in the budgeting process. Other work will be addressing the chronic poverty in slums, advocating for social housing, and protection of urban commons.

CB view

Like it is with most international NGOs, AAI’s work can seem a bit confusing since the scope and the number of programmes and partners are quite big. The simplest way one can think of explaining its interventions is grassroots support for local communities with high-level policy advocacy. Unlike smaller NGOs that work on specific areas and have mostly tangible outputs due to their service-delivery models, AAI’s results are often about enabling people to receive help and support. Campaigns, awareness building and forming collectives are a big part of what it does.

While in itself this isn’t a problem, what is concerning is the limited data available to assess and understand the impact of its work. The last annual report available is for 2015–16. One hopes that this is due to internal bureaucracy rather than lack of data since the former is a less troubling cause. While certain numbers in terms of the results achieved are provided, much of it seems to be incomplete (the website has some figures but no dates). For instance, training farmers or women is admirable but just training isn’t enough for them to break through the poverty cycle. And this isn’t just about whether they are willing to use the knowledge and skills provided; structural and societal barriers will continue to exist for the indigent, irrespective of how aware or intelligent they are. In such cases, it is vital that the real, long-term impact be tracked.

Then there are the lofty claims of making schools ‘discrimination-free’. While this is an admirable goal, discrimination is an ongoing phenomenon. It is unlikely that any place can be made discrimination-free without constant effort and vigilance. A school doesn’t exist in isolation, it reflects the broader contours and culture of the society of which it is a part. To then make such statements could be seen as an exaggeration.

In response to our question on this claim, AAI said that during the impact-assessment process for Dalit Adhikar Abhiyan (DAA) in 2016, it was verified that the 80 villages (core villages under DAA initiative) and their schools had no visible form of discrimination in public spaces. In 2001, 47 types of untouchability practices were prevalent in Harda and Hoshangabad districts in Madhya Pradesh; a 2013–14 study conducted by DAA and AAI suggested that only 17 types of such practices were found in their campaign region. Regular follow-up is done by community organisations and legal actions are taken up if any case on Dalit atrocity is reported.

All said and done, one must recognise AAI’s work in India, especially at the grassroots level and on issues that most Indians would rather ignore, such as caste discrimination, indigenous rights and witch hunting. On the latter, AAI has come up with a set of demands that include a central act on prevention of witch hunting. In keeping with its rather broad mission and objectives, the scope of AAI’s activities is also huge and while that is the organisation’s prerogative, one would like to see some flagship programmes where the journey from implementation to long-term impact is mapped and traced, with detailed reports and data. Since much of their work is supporting other grassroots organisations, this can help in assessing the actual, long-term results of their efforts. For ActionAid India, it may be time for direct action in aiding the poor and the needy.