Over the past couple of decades, I have had the good fortune in life to work in a variety of NGOs (grassroots as well as state level resource, and campaigning organizations in addition to donor organisations), and also work as an ‘activist’ without holding any job anywhere. From grassroots ‘constructive’ and innovative work to being a national level ‘networked activist’ on issues pertaining to agriculture, I have played a gamut of roles in my self-driven efforts at securing environmental and social justice wherever I have noticed injustice. I have also had the good luck of finding a partner in life who supports me to do what I do today (including financially) – I realize that may be this is not something that everyone is blessed with, in a world which puts the challenge of dignified survival on most.
“Taking Sides” was the name of a workshop that I helped a donor organization put together, years and years ago, to change the way NGOs and individuals in NGOs think about “Development”. After all, when the most marginalized (let us say, a poor, dalit, differently abled woman) are ready to take on injustice or set out to change the world against all odds (let us say, by contesting to be a Panchayat Sarpanch?), why can’t NGOs do the same?
In the recent past, when the Intelligence Bureau (IB) put out its not-so-intelligent report on NGOs coming in the way of ‘development’ of the country, the social media went abuzz with many ordinary citizens lambasting NGOs with much vitriol pouring out. The “crime” of the individuals and NGOs listed in the IB report was that they were bringing down India’s GDP growth rate by around 2-3% per annum. It is not clear when and where GDP growth became the sole development agenda of this country, and why many of us were left out of that decision-making, to the extent that anything that does not fall in line with this agenda is criminalised.
The paranoia that was part of the IB report (orchestratedly so) was reflected in public voices too. In the script that was carefully written, there was a clamour from the ‘swayamsewaks’ as well as the profits-at-any-cost industry for decisive action against NGOs. The whole sector was portrayed in a sinister light. Admittedly, there are many NGOs out there who bring a bad name to the sector.
However, I write this piece to defend NGOs and make people understand that even the “agitating” kinds are adopting the approach that they do for valid and right reasons.
For one thing, with or without the general public noticing, the discourse as well as practice of “development” has changed long back, as far as the civil society is concerned. For the government too, it should have ideally changed, since it mouths the right discourse on the right occasion. But it is so very apparent that the State is stuck in archaic development practice that is unabashedly centred around ‘trickle-down’ theories, couched as ‘inclusive development’.
NGOs have realized long back, and rightly so, that their impact being limited to small areas will not help the big dreams that they carry for a just and equal world. Now, don’t tell me that dreaming about a just world is a crime! They have also been egged on by their donors to show impact that is larger than what the NGOs immediately achieve. Right-thinking NGOs also realize that they are not out to replace the state and all the various basic services that it has to provide to its citizens.
Therefore, there is something very legitimate in NGOs trying to influence the state to take over what they are doing on a small scale. This then requires the much-dreaded word – ‘advocacy’. Effective advocacy of course requires all the things that have been listed out in the IB report as sinister, anti-national activities: social media activism, academic research studies, liaisoning with other activists, support from experts from elsewhere including scientific and IT experts, conferences organized and attended, screenings of documentaries, complaints to statutory bodies like NHRC, working closely with the affected communities, influencing investors etc. Which part of this is a contravention of the FCRA law, can the IB explain?
Many NGOs have also rightly imbibed a participatory approach to their practice of development. This shuns top-down models of one-size-fits-all frameworks, and tries to empower communities to define their own development pathways and accompany communities in the pursuit of these locally defined pathways. Decentralisation and devolution are development mantras accepted by the government too, when convenient. As one can imagine, the local development planning with the community’s own priorities often clashes with the top-down models. Needless to explain elaborately, the top-down models are also often determined by who is funding our very electoral political processes – the parties, the candidates, their election spend etc. in addition to some multilateral agencies which are presiding as ‘gurus’ of development. In all such situations, it is very apparent that NGOs will stand by the local people for their bottom-up development vision to play itself out.
Importantly, NGOs are constantly questioned about the sustainability of their initiatives by their donors – of institutions created, of programmes initiated and the very content of development being practiced so to speak. Sustainable Development in a somewhat more well-defined environmental framework is something that gained ground worldover from the late 1980s, and the Rio Summit in 1993 found States ‘adopting’ this framework. This then requires governments to ensure that ‘grow now, pay later’ models are kept aside, so that win-win solutions are always explored first and foremost. This calls for new and innovative investments on alternatives. This necessitates scale to be looked at as not a monolithic centralized concept, but scale as a large multitude of replicated successes. Sustainable Development as a concept and as practice is here to stay for a large number of NGOs and it is archaic that the governments do not seek to practice this. When the state seeks to keep out the sustainability aspect from its development trajectory, NGOs rightly take it upon themselves to question this and demand wisdom from the state.
Finally, the development discourse and practice have also long back shifted away from charity and welfare. Rights-based framework to development has gained immense ground in the understanding and practice of NGOs. This approach focuses on structural inequities that lead to injustice and poverty (this is about control over and access to resources, deep-rooted discrimination based on caste and gender, leading to unequal opportunities etc.). In this framework, it is understood that State is the duty-bearer of upholding and protecting various rights of citizens, and citizens are rights-holders. This flows from our Constitution as well as the country’s international commitments. Given this understanding, is it difficult to understand that NGOs will indeed organize citizens to seek their due justice from the State? Why should this perfectly legitimate way of shaping a better society be vilified?
Meanwhile, even at a very conservative 3 employees per NGO calculation, the NGO sector provides manifold greater (and more equitable) employment than the IT sector of the country. Similarly, the foreign fund inflows from the FCRA-cleared NGOs is around 10% of the total inflows last year. Remember, this is something that does not involve remittances back! So, what exactly is this NGO-bashing about for those who measure everything in economic terms?
There is only one question to be answered: are we saying that (foreign-funded) NGOs should not believe in and practise participatory, rights-based sustainable development and that the FCRA law will be designed and used against them? Which part of this practice is not acceptable: the participatory aspect, the sustainability aspect or the constitutional rights-based aspect? This really is the substantive question to be answered.
– Kavitha Kuruganti is an aware citizen based out of Bangalore, labeled as a social activist.