The furore over scheming non-governmental organisations that are holding back India’s gross domestic product growth seems to have now passed over. While it lasted, the debate saw a spate of arguments from both sides of the fence. Some of them seemed to suggest that NGOs should have nothing to do with politics and should stick to developmental activities. Presumably, this implies that NGOs should stick to improving crop yields (without advocating for pro-poor policies on farmland acquisition), digging ditches (without seeking to influence government policies on setting minimum wages), building houses (without highlighting poor town planning and the builder-neta nexus), watershed management (without protesting against big dams), etc.
As expected then, the Intelligence Bureau and the government departments that ensured the leak of their report expect all civil society organisation and action to remain within the safe boundaries of what is acceptable to the ruling political dispensations, irrespective of their political affiliation. It is easy to see how this view is completely antithetical to the fact that development and social change is political. NGOs that engage in these projects often have to take political positions that may not be palatable to those in power. Depending on the specific situation, these may be against elites that are taking advantage of its social and economic privilege, against elected representatives who ignore their constituents or an apathetic bureaucracy that chooses to side with big business interests at the cost of local communities.
So in this column, I argue that NGOs are not political enough and they need to step up their political game—whether fighting for better governance, working with communities against large dams, mining companies or nuclear plants, or just installing toilets and water taps.
Of course, those who think the very idea of a scheme such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is simply a waste of money—and make statements about the scheme being disastrous for the farm sector without considering the fact that agriculture has become so non-remunerative that small and marginal farmers would rather dig ditches than work on farms—would see any interest group that organises the poor as a threat to national interest. One needs to question this conception of national interest that is defined in such narrow terms so as to exclude precisely those that are in need of a government-sponsored welfare support. While the finance minister has every right to highlight the aspirational neo-middle class, we as a country are in no position to ignore those who don’t yet quite make the cut and are largely voiceless during the spell in between successive elections, but are aspirational nevertheless. It is this class that needs representing and indeed, representation of an active political nature.
It is easy to brand NGOs as utopian or Luddite as opponents struggle with their conception of public interest. What gives an NGO the legitimacy to pick a particular issue over another? Why is it water and not housing; or watershed development and not skills training; gender equality and not income generation? In making these choices, NGOs either use their own narrative about the situation on the ground, or allow themselves to be driven by needs expressed by communities. One can argue for or against either approach. It is also fair to argue that NGO activity that focuses purely on mounting pressure on the state neglects many immediate needs that communities face and therefore, ignores potential fixes to those problems. It should be evident to anyone who thinks through this that depending on the issue at hand and the context, these are all legitimate questions that must be asked of organisations that are supposedly working in public interest.
However, if there is one area where many NGOs are lacking today, it is in their inability or reluctance to engage sufficiently with political economy. Engaging with political economy in their respective areas of work implies, among others, working on the drivers of public policies—who are they motivated by, in whose interest and at what cost; what is the role of local elites in influencing policy implementation? While it is all well to work on, say, improving crop yields, unless one works on power and politics in every context, long-lasting change will not be realised. Part of the reason for not working on this is precisely what some critics seem to want—to stay clear of politics, operating in a safe space without ruffling any feathers. In doing so, NGOs are doing a great dis-service to the communities it works with.
NGOs, funded by a variety of currencies and interests continue to operate all over the country. The attack on NGOs as undemocratic betrays a narrow understanding of democracy that considers elections as the only source of legitimacy in the public sphere. NGOs may choose to be apolitical or openly political. What is imperative is that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that NGOs, irrespective of their affiliation, are entirely transparent—in their motives, funding and strategies.
Suvojit Chattopadhyay works on issues of governance and development. Over the last decade, he has worked with a range of development agencies in India, Ghana and Kenya