Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Decline & Fall of the NGO

A 2-pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

Back in the early 1990s, the Indian non-governmental development sector (referred to hereafter as the NGO sector) was a source of pride to me. In most underdeveloped countries, international donor agencies would have to set up their own implementing operations; this meant that plans were formulated in London, New York, Geneva, Stockholm, etc., that significant sums were spent on expatriate staff and administration, and that local communities were reduced to the status of recipients. Not in India! Here, there was a small, vibrant and independent NGO sector that linked donors and communities, carried the aspirations and requirements of one to the other, and was cost effective in its operations. Here, donors did not work directly.

They still, for the most part, don’t. And it is a strange time to be talking of the NGO sector in terms such as decline and fall – the sector receives Rs. 7,000 crore annually in grants from abroad, a number that has been shooting up rapidly in the recent past, and the number of organizations with governmental permission to receive foreign funds (what is called the FCRA) stands at about 35,000[ii]. The sector continues to be a prime customer of vehicle manufacturers and the international travel industry, as well as to occupy some great real estate and provide employment to a large number of otherwise unemployable people (such as me). So what’s the problem?

I’m not too sure, but I do see some disquieting trends.

The first is that I have not come across any great new ideas from the NGO sector for a long time. The business of creating buzz in development is back with the government, with exciting initiatives such as the NREGA and Panchayati Raj that a) have the ability to address root causes of problems and b) have no or at best peripheral roles for NGOs. The NGO sector is not driving the nation’s development agenda or the debate on poverty any more – it is in ‘business as usual’ mode.

The second is that brilliant young people are not coming into the NGO sector. The developmentally inclined among them see NGOs as part of the problem, not a solution, and are looking at other forms of organizations and activities to address matters including for-profits and financial services. The mediocre young, to whom development is a career option rather than a calling, are more inclined towards the various layers of touting organizations in the sector because they are based in cities and salaries are higher.

The third is that, like ideas, I have not come across too many great young NGOs[iii] for a long time as well – and I am in the business of looking. It seems that good new organizations dealing with development, like people, are taking new forms such as for-profits, Internet start-ups and non-banking financial companies. And those NGOs that are being set up tend to have the limited ambition of emulating their role models in the NGO sector – which are either the public service contractors, the fancy infrastructure, lifestyle and talk-wallahs seen making loud sucking sounds in the corridors of power, or the downright venal and corrupt. Nothing original here!

The fourth is that the skeletons in the NGO sector’s collective cupboard – the dirt, corruption and the egregious practices – are finally hitting the public space[iv]. At the same time, the inability of anyone within to see, hear, or speak of wrongdoing (what I refer to as the 3-Monkeys Syndrome) continues unabated. While there has been some cursory action from within the sector[v], it seems a case of too little too late. Nobody in the NGO sector, it appears, is willing to take a strong stand. The government has no such compunctions, however, and we are slowly seeing a tightening of regulations that address some of these issues but make it difficult for the honest (and silent) minority.

The fifth is that the role of mobilizing people and providing a forum for opposition and protest has moved from the NGO sector to the extreme right and left. A look at the movements against land acquisition for SEZs, or the one against mining in Vth Schedule areas, all of which seem obvious cases for NGO action, and they are conspicuous by their absence. Those that should have been in the forefront, who claim to speak for small farmers and tribals, appear to be on the side of the corporates involved. I wonder why!

These trends point to larger problems within the NGO sector, and while there is much ranting and raving about the obvious ones, government corruption, the lack of dedicated, motivated, etc., people coming in, the lure of the Mammon and so on, some critical internal issues are being papered over, including –

The individuals and organizations that blazed a trail in the 70s and 80s are ageing, and neither is being replaced. The old bosses continue to rule their empires, with cynicism and self-aggrandizement replacing fire and zeal. They also make it impossible for second lines to develop (unless it is their progeny) while simultaneously lamenting the lack of committed and capable people who can ‘stay on to take over’. Most of their organizations are sad and tired, and exist because they exist and not so as to address critical problems of the poor and marginalized. Yet, such individuals are effective at protecting their own short-term interests to the general detriment of their organizations and the NGO sector.

The role and importance of touts within the NGO sector, in the form of resource organizations, nodal NGOs, training institutions, research and documentation setups, development consulting businesses, etc., has increased considerably. There are now layers upon layers of these between the donor and the NGO that actually uses the money, sitting in Delhi and state capitals, knowing donorspeak, writing proposals to formulas, and providing a variety of services to donors on a 20 (or whatever) percent commission. They are the new patrons of the Indian NGO and now claim to speak for and on behalf of the NGO sector[vi]. I have yet to see evidence of a mandate for them for this role.

With a now widespread belief in the mainstream that NGOs are irrelevant combined with little evidence to show that NGOs have been more effective than the state (for all its inefficiency and corruption) in providing development, there is a growing move to scuttle the NGO sector through restrictions and controls and let it sink in its own quagmire. But, before you start saying ‘to hell with the whole bloody lot of them’ and before, if you are a young professional within, you start retraining and looking around for opportunities, take a minute to think of the consequences to the country of a dormant NGO sector.

First, NGOs form an important component of civil society and thereby a forum for debate and action that is out of government circles. Without NGOs, the state would become much more powerful. Non-state opposition would move to the fringes. We are already seeing this with the government and the private sector cozying up to the detriment of vulnerable sections of society. And the extreme left groups that are now active in more than 100 districts in the country have an agenda that is similar to that of NGOs (other than the violence and overthrow of the state). Not coincidentally, the parts of the country facing the problem of insurgency are also the parts with little genuine NGO activity.

And second, who will focus on the very poor, the marginalized, etc.? The government? The new genre of development organizations? In both cases, unlikely! The state can pass high-minded laws, but would always require grassroots support and pressure to implement them effectively. And the new guys would be lost in a world without Internet connectivity, where proposed beneficiaries have little education and no marketable skills.

To conclude – most people would agree that NGOs are in a state of decline despite some glitzy statistics on foreign contributions. It is my contention that it is not in the country’s interest that they die out. Can we, on the inside, do something? As a beginning, and at the very least, we need to give less respect to a bunch of has-beens and touts who have built empires on public money raised in the name of poor people. And we need to stop behaving like the 3 monkeys – there is little disconnect between others’ bad practice and our own futures. The impetus for reform has to come from within – let us not merely react to government and public scrutiny. Or else, better brush up those CVs.

Acronyms / Jargon watch
Vth Schedule Areas Areas that have a tribal majority
Donorspeak That peculiar language of donor organizations
FCRA Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act
NGO Non-governmental Organization
NREGA National Rural Employment Guarantee Act
SEZ Special Economic Zone
[i] With apologies to Edward Gibbon
[ii] “The Noose Tightens”, an article by Neeraj Mishra in India Today issue of 29th January 2007
[iii] I should protect myself here by mentioning that there are exceptions
[iv] There have been three articles I have read in the past month in the mainstream press with headlines combining the words corruption and NGOs.
[v] One such is the formation of the Credibility Alliance – purely voluntary with no checking system in place and no means of expelling members who are not complying with the standards.
[vi] A recent example is a meeting that a group of these touts had on behalf of the NGO sector with the Home Minister on the new FCRA bill. They had not done Mr. Shivraj Patil the courtesy of reading the new bill – so when he asked them specifically which passages were objectionable to NGOs there was a flummoxed silence followed by hemming and hawing. You can be sure that the NGO sector’s purpose was not served.

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