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NEW DELHI (Reuters Life!) - As charities around the world grapple with scarce funding amid the global economic meltdown, aid agencies in India are targeting what has until now been an untapped resource: the middle class.
India's rapid economic boom in recent years has given rise to a large middle-class population who has the income to holiday abroad, buy branded products and dine in expensive restaurants.
Estimates vary on the size of this community, but it is believed to number some 200 million in a country with a total population of 1.2 billion.
Aid agencies, which have traditionally relied on governmental donors to sponsor development and emergency relief projects, say they are now waking up to this new source of funds.
"There is a large Indian middle class and they have probably not been giving much because we have not been engaging them directly," said Thomas Chandy, CEO of Save the Children India.
Chandy said his organization is raising about one million rupees ($20,000) every month from speaking to people on the street in India's bustling business hub Mumbai.
In Delhi's Connaught Place commercial district, outside the stores selling Levis clothing and Nike sports goods, a man carrying a clipboard with the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) logo joins the shoe cleaners and street children who are vying for the attention of shoppers and office workers.
And unlike the beggars, people seem more than happy to stop and listen to the UNICEF worker's pitch.
As in many developing countries, there is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor in India.
Women cradling babies in the folds of their saris weave between cars on the congested roads of south Delhi's posh enclaves, asking for money to feed their children.
Outside swanky malls, young children in ragged clothes mill between people carrying designer shopping bags, begging.
It may appear that occupants of air-conditioned luxury cars are immune to the beggars knocking on their windows, but these wealthier Indians say this is simply not the case.
"It's hard to see the poverty, but there are just so many people that need help that you just don't know where to begin," said Sangeeta Desai, 32, a marketing manager.
"If a reputable charity approaches me for a project which I think can make a difference, then I will surely give my support."
Fundraisers say they hope to capitalize on such attitudes.
"It's not like it was 10 years ago," said Clement Chauvet, private fundraiser and partnership manager for UNICEF India. "India's middle classes want to help in the development of their own country and have the resources and interest to do this now."
UNICEF India raised $1.6 million last year and Chauvet expects this will rise to $3.2 million in 2009.
Similar to the procedures used by market researchers and advertisers, the charities use face-to-face contact, telemarketing and direct mailing to target a certain segment.
"The thriving middle class, who are young, a little beyond 30-years-old, urban professionals and who have a sustainable source of income, are the segment which we are looking at," said Kunal Verma, Oxfam India's marketing and communications director.
"These people understand development work much more than they did ten years ago and they now want to be part of the solution."
Verma said Oxfam India now has around 50,000 donors in the country and he estimates face-to-face engagement will raise about $900,000 in 2009 compared to $460,000 last year.
Agencies say about one to 5 percent of those approached in India end up giving regular contributions - similar to the international benchmark.
The public reaction to last September's devastating floods in the eastern state of Bihar, which left hundreds dead, has also reinforced charities' views that Indians are keen to help.
Aid workers say they were inundated with calls, emails and letters from people offering help.
Although public fundraising is a relatively new phenomenon in India and the amounts raised are still modest, charities say the practice can bring more than just monetary rewards.
"The idea is to try and create an understanding amongst the general population that they can help make a difference in their own country," said Sarah Crowe, UNICEF's head of communications for South Asia.
"The needs are so huge in a country like India that it can't just be one single source of funds. It has to be a joint effort."
Editing by Miral Fahmy