A general critique of the Indian NGO

The activist streak is missing in today's non-governmental organisations, and so they 'serve a function' rather than challenge the system.

The last two decades have witnessed a proliferation of non-governmental organisations in the development sector of India. Largely autonomous in their functioning, there is great diversity in the aims and approaches of these organisations. They address issues as varied as rural development, gender relations and child rights, work in remote regions and urban slums and engage in direct welfare delivery as well as advocacy. In terms of size and resources, NGOs range from two-person offices to large networks that employ thousands of staff members, with a turnover that would shock workers at the governmental block development office.

The importance of NGOs as development partners has been recognised by governments as well as international donor agencies. Altogether, NGOs today employ the largest number of people across rural and urban India. For example, while the central government employs 3.3 million people, the NGO sector employs 6.1 million people, 2.7 million in paid positions and 3.4 million as volunteers. Over time, the NGOs have come to fill in the void created by the disastrous effects of globalisation and rallied to provide minimum services to the affected population, be it in urban slums or neglected rural regions.

That said, one should not turn a blind eye to the serious limitations inherent in these organisations. While NGOs have undoubtedly played a positive role in our transitional society, an examination of their performance reveals that they have not addressed the root causes of social problems. Their aim has been to ensure the smooth functioning of the system without upsetting the existing balance of power in society. The rich and powerful remain entrenched in their positions, with NGOs concentrating on fighting the symptoms of poverty rather than the disease of structural exploitation. For their part, international donors are happier providing the voluntary organizations palliatives on areas such as gender, HIV-AIDS prevention and child rights rather than supporting programmes that will challenge and overhaul the exploitative structures that lead to so many of society's ills.

Many NGOs have rushed to deliver services to weaker segments of the population, ranging from running bahvadi nursery schools to maintaining hostels for tribal students. What they do not realise is that they are assisting the government authorities in shirking their responsibilities in the wake of globalisation. In rushing to fill the breach, the non-governmental sector actually becomes complicit with politicians and bureaucracy. As government agencies now begin to engage in auctioning programmes to the lowest bidder, ignoring the quality of work, NGOs meekly succumb to the process and get co-opted by the very system they set out to challenge. Indeed, these NGOs are now appearing ever more comfortable with a discourse that has been designed by the national and international elites, which only mouth concern for the poor and the marginalised.

The mirage of development

There is a disturbing trend of transplanting successful development models from one place to everywhere, without taking into account socio-cultural and area-specific realities. The aping of a single model of rural development all over a country as diverse as India is likely to end in failure. Take the example of Anna Hazare's watershed development work in Ralegaon Siddhi in the Ahmednagar District of Maharashtra state, widely recognised as a success. This was then taken as a uniform model of rural development, with the Maharashtra government allocating funds for developing one village unit in each district of the state on the Ralegaon Siddhi model. Predictably, the scheme was a failure in most areas.

The present trend in development work is to focus on economic development in rural areas through self-help groups. While this is a novel method to organise the weaker sections, NGOs, funding agencies as well as the government have negated the very purpose by making the formation of self-help groups their primary objective. This is part of a larger problem with other rural development models, which fail to address the basic causes of poverty in society. The self-help groups in fact are not empowering at all. Instead, they entrench the rural folk in a market-driven consumer society and an economy driven by globalisation. By emphasising the role of self-help groups as a one-size-fits-all vehicle for community empowerment, the NGOs are only creating a mirage of social development.

Generational change

To understand NGOs, one must analyse the changing social context in which they function. Many NGOs were established in the 1970s by idealistic university 'dropouts' much influenced by socialist principles. These pioneers of the voluntary movement of India were motivated by a sense of service and a need to challenge social inequity. Things began to change in the late 1980s, when the leadership transferred from the idealists to the professionals. Today, it is professionals, including trained social workers and managers, who run the more 'effective' NGOs like any other business. While professionalism has introduced organisational efficiency, what has been lost is the idealism and commitment to social change that motivated the first generation.

In recent years, the steady commercialisation of the NGO sector has received a further boost as a whole range of new actors, from young professionals to retired bureaucrats, set up NGOs in the hope of getting a slice of the international funding pie. Needless to say, being a sector that only reflects the values of the rest of society, corruption and greed has crept in among NGOs as well. Not enough is being done to expose and oust the corrupt who are involved in development.

There is also a definite middle class bias evident among NGOs, which can be attributed to the social and educational background of most who lead these organisations. Financial security is a priority with today's development professional, and innovation and risk-taking therefore to be found at a premium. Because these functionaries prefer not to upset their relationships with politicians and government officials, there is little possibility of their organisations challenging the establishment at whatever layer of society. Thus, the NGOs of today are reduced to meek, submissive organisations that rarely threaten powerful interests.

While the stated aim of most NGOs is 'empowerment' of weaker communities, the very structure of these organisations prevents them from becoming a vehicle for bringing a share of power to the poor and marginalised. Is it any surprise, then, that attempts by such organisations to engineer a people's movement inevitably end in failure? A popular movement has to take into account popular aspirations, and it has to throw up its own leaders. A popular movement can never emerge from neatly designed plans of NGOs with their specific target groups. Additionally, unlike popular struggles, which are based on making demands on the state and government, NGO-led 'movements' do not like to antagonise the establishment. They are organisations ready-made for co-option by vested interests.

NGOs in India, by and large, do not have it within their vision or power to transform existing exploitative social structures. In treading the narrow path of 'development' as defined by the national establishment and international agencies, they have turned their backs on the people they profess to serve. For this reason, the NGOs of today face a real danger of losing their identity.

This article is appearing simultaneously in Himal and in Ekak Matra, the Bangla language journal published from Calcutta.

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