Scaling with government to restore India's shared natural resources

How the Foundation for Ecological Security approached partnering with government to achieve large-scale change at a national and state level


In India, 350 million people rely on shared natural resources, such as community forests, pastures and water bodies (known collectively as “the Commons”) for their livelihoods. However, their land rights over these resources are insecure and neglect of the Commons leads to environmental degradation and exacerbated social inequalities.

The Foundation for Ecological Security (“FES”) knows that community stewardship of the Commons is central to tackling these challenges. FES envisions a future where all communities in India can steward the Commons towards a shared vision, where all communities have land rights, practise inclusive governance and can access resources to work on, and restore, Commons.

Scaling with government: a crucial pathway for impact at scale

Government partnerships are a critical pathway for FES. Without them, FES will not be able to deliver its vision for impact at scale – that government is willing, and able, to respond to community needs and demands relating to Commons, so those communities are able to restore and conserve the environment and deliver sustainable livelihoods for themselves.

For this vision to be realised, it is crucial that FES and coalition partners build a system that can support and enable the government to deliver its responsibilities to communities. The long-term goal is for the government to embed the key aspects of Commons restoration in the design of programs, be equipped to assess and build its own capacity to do this work.

Shifting from’ implementor’ to ‘facilitator’

To this end, FES considers that all government partnerships need to serve the aim of building government capacity. At a high level this implies one significant shift: FES and coalition partners need to work as ‘facilitators’ rather than ‘implementers’. In practice this means:

  • building implementation capacity of the frontline functionaries, including government actors, to support communities
  • building the capacity of officials at district and state level to train field officials, using a train-the-trainer model;
  • measuring success according to the degree to which partnerships build government ownership, rather than deliver implementation outcomes; and
  • supporting and encouraging mindset shifts at government level.

By doing this, FES and its partners will ultimately be able to phase out their intensive role and transition to a role where the processes are embedded in the government programmes.

Spring Impact’s support

Spring Impact worked with FES from 2022 to 2023 to systemise FES’ approach to government partnerships and build their capacity to deliver on their strategic objectives.

Through our work together we:

  • built strong strategic alignment across the organisation on the key shifts that need to take place in FES’ and government’s role;
  • created practical tools and resources to help teams drive towards strategic aims; and
  • established a practice of interstate learning so state teams can build on one another’s successes and avoid common pitfalls.

Key Learnings

  1. Success needs to be measured differently when working towards government adoption.
  2. Every interaction with government is an opportunity to unlock community visions for the Commons.
  3. Social sector organisations play an important role in creating convergence between government departments.

As organisations transition to partner with governments, they must take a different approach to measurement, evaluation, and learning

1. Define new measures of success

As organisations transition to partner with governments, they must take a different approach to measurement, evaluation, and learning (MEL) in order to track and evaluate progress. Government should take ownership of quality implementation and its monitoring, while organisations should focus on measuring the success of their partnerships according to the degree to which they achieve the goal of enhancing government implementation capacity.

Spring Impact and FES created indicators to measure the institutionalisation of FES’ programmes, rather than its direct implementation. These metrics now assess how government’s implementation capacity is enhanced, policy support for the Commons agenda and the extent to which government has accountability and learning mechanisms in place to assure high quality delivery. Shared monitoring of these indicators between FES and the government builds ownership and helps FES recognise when to phase out support.

2. Leverage every interaction with government to shift the status quo

Every time FES interacts with government officials, they have an opportunity to shift the mindsets of officials around Commons, and to embed ways of working that reflect the ideal partnership state (i.e. where FES are strategic partners with government, rather than contractors). It is therefore important that all team members are clear on the strategic objectives of government partnerships, and are onboarded to key guidance, so that every meeting, phone call, or MOU drafting is driving towards the program’s strategic aims and embodying a shift in partnership from implementer to facilitator.

Spring Impact worked with the FES team to define a set of key shifts that they wanted to deliver through their partnerships. This included co-designing solutions, rather than presenting solutions to government for adoption, and considering partnerships with government holistically, rather than looking at individual MOUs in isolation.

3. Support government convergence

Through our work with FES, it became clear that FES and its coalition partners play a vital role in connecting government departments that otherwise tend to operate in silo. This role is recognised by government officials, who consistently reported that there is a need for multi-actor platforms to connect with the NGOs and other departments around shared priorities.

Where are FES now?

FES and its partners are working at scale in eight out of the 11 states they currently work in, playing a critical role in building a coalition of actors to address root causes and create a shared understanding and purpose around protecting common lands. By scaling their core approach through the government, FES and its partners are able to affect and impact many more communities.

These collaborations provide various entry points to integrate Commons into the state-level agendas, unlocking the potential for large-scale work using existing government architecture and programmes. The core of this work has included:

(a) building capacity of government functionaries and community cadre for work at scale;

(b) use of data and technology for improved planning, evidence generation and accountability in government programmes;

(c) speedy and effective implementation of Community Forest Rights and tenure rights over pastures and ‘wastelands’;

(d) water conservation and landscape restoration through effective implementation of national legislation (MGNREGS);

(e) enhancing capacities of women leaders and forest produce collectors on Non Timber Forest Products regeneration, harvesting, and processing; and

(f) adoption of sustainable agricultural practices by strengthening the commons-livestock-agriculture interface.

By scaling these interventions through government adoption, FES continues to build credibility, generate evidence and improve evidence-based decision making, which will further bolster the momentum in achieving system change.

Article authored by Nikesh Sharma, Spring Impact Senior Consultant and Evie Henderson-Child.

The mindset behind the journey

Subrata Singh, FES Executive Director, explains how adopting a mindset focused on long-term commitment helped the organisation achieve impact at scale.

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