Big challenges, bigger opportunities: FES helps India make the most of transformative change

With an office in New Delhi since 1981, FES has been active in India for 40 years, building platforms of mutual trust for open debate and exchange of new ideas.

India is undergoing a great transformation, with unprecedented opportunities for economic, social and infrastructure development, notably in information technology. But there are also significant challenges regarding the economic legacy, demographics, and certain mindsets that can hamper social justice.

Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) has been working with local partners to help the country make the most of the opportunities, and address its challenges in an equitable and sustainable way. The challenges facing modern India are at the scale of the massive country itself, but so are the opportunities. Against a history of rapid recent economic development and population growth, there are booming possibilities at the levels of the economy, society and even politics.

Patrick Ruether, photo by FES/Amanda Mustard

FES has been active in India for 40 years, with an office in New Delhi since 1981, building platforms of mutual trust for open debate and exchange of new ideas.

“Most of what we are doing is connected to India’s ‘Great Transformation’”, says Patrick Ruether, head of the FES country office. “Changes are already going full throttle, particularly regarding digital technology. It is going to affect everything, from energy transformation, to livelihood creation and the future of work.”

With 1 million young Indians hitting the job market each month, the future of work is critical for the country. FES is working with labour organizations to look into the future and safeguard decent work and working conditions. There are some examples to be followed nationally and internationally, and we build partnerships to exchange lessons learned where possible. But no one knows for sure how far these will apply to India, and the focus is on home-grown solutions.

"Our job is to help India find the best solution for its own circumstances" – Patrick Ruether 

To achieve this, FES is building platforms, to connect the right people to the right topics. There are vast resources of expertise in India, which have sometimes been overlooked in favour of opening up to imported investment and skills. We are trying to shift the narrative away from this foreign investment and towards job creation. India is more than capable of finding her own way, rather than copying models or drawing assistance from other countries. “Our job is to help India find the best solution for its own circumstances,” Ruether says.

  • Partners of FES India Gender and Labour Unit brainstorming for the need of a nationwide women worker’s platform at the workshop “The Idea of a Women Workers’ Platform”, Mumbai, 15 May 2018. Photo by FES India Arti Peter

This platform-building is not limited to economics and labour organization. Another FES focus is on gender relations, in the workplace and elsewhere, online and in the physical world. Twice a year, the FES India office organizes a reflection lab on gender inequalities, trying to find new ways on how to tackle these challenges, together with our partners from civil society organizations.

In 2017, FES India also started a series of seminars on gender in the digital space. The pressing question is, what is the gender dimension to the online world? This touches on aspects of access, usage and behaviour, including in gender roles in social media.

Group work “Virtual research-dive deep”, part of a training workshop on “Design Thinking for Social Justice” for partners of FES India Gender Unit at Maker’s Asylum, Mumbai, 23 February 2017. Photo by FES India/Patrick Ruether

“We are looking hard at this new frontier,” Ruether says. “Of course, we also have to redefine the gender aspects of the social contract offline, and then make sure behaviour online matches these standards.” There has been some visible progress, thanks in part to a huge push from civil society for equal rights and the reclaiming of public space like the 2017 Bekhauf Azadi (Freedom without Fear) or the #NotInMyName movements against any kind of violence.

Idea napkin of the Centre for Women's Development and Research (CWDR), “Design Thinking for Social Justice” workshop at Maker’s Asylum, Mumbai, 23 Feb. 2017. Photo FES India/Jyoti Rawal.

An emerging part of the FES portfolio is sustainability, which is nowhere more topical than in India. A key part of this shift is renewables, which can boost economic development and rural access to electricity while meeting targets for sustainability.

“The old presumption that you can only grow a transition-stage economy with manufacturing and coal is changing,” Ruether says.

One success story has been the provision of solar panels for schools—this improves education facilities while surplus power can go to the local community. FES is supporting two groups in separate states on such projects, and is also active in bridging the gap in the governance between federal and local levels of administration. 

“Our expertise here is not technical, we leave that to the partners,” Ruether says. “Rather, we work on the social and organizational aspects of implementation, connecting expert partners, local people, and relevant official agencies and guiding them to find the best solutions.”

There is also a group of seed communities, a group of representative stakeholders who test ideas and come up with innovative solutions.

“The group was the source for the project of solar panels on schools. This process is entirely Indian-owned, FES just facilitates the network. The partners do the real work”, Ruether says.

India’s status is also facing transformative change at an international level, and FES is keen to work with the country in its new role as a rising regional power. New Delhi has its own Look East policy, a shift from the earlier geopolitical focus on the Gulf, the European Union and the United States.

“Our biggest asset here is our network,” Ruether says. “Unlike conventional think tanks, we have offices in all these countries, with a wealth of civil society contacts, experience and lessons learned from other countries in the region.”

FES India team at a strategy planning meeting for the project cycle 2019-2021 (left-to-right top row) Kabir, Resham, Mukti, Jyoti, Debasish, Johann, Arti, Damyanty, (left-to-right middle row seated) Sehaj, Patrick, Anup, Rakesh, (lefto-to-right on ground)Krishna, Ranjeet, Aryaman, Mandvi, Sushil, 14 March 2018. Photo by FES India/Raoul Amaar Abbas.


For more information about the work by FES in India visit the official country office website and follow their Facebook fan page for regular updates. 

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