“NGOs in crisis”
“13,000 in 2 months”
“Crackdown on NGOs”
If you have been reading newspapers in the last few months, you would have encountered some of these headlines. There is serious worry over the fate of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and what the government intends to do with them.
My view is somewhat different: The ongoing crackdown could, in fact, turn out to be ultimately good for the innumerable honest but nondescript NGOs in the country.
The news reports seem to imply that the government does not like NGOs and is harassing them by questioning their actions and accounts. In fact, if we go deeper, the government is only moving against those NGOs which are allowed to receive foreign donations under Foreign Currency Regulation Act (FCRA) rules. However, the truth is that among the hundreds of thousands of NGOs in India, there are only a few which have such permission and have better financial resources.
From my experience working with NGOs, I would say the country’s social equity is based on the work of numerous low-profile NGOs with no foreign funding and little domestic funding, toiling at the village, panchayat and sub-district levels.
One could compare the contribution of these NGOs to that of 26 million micro-enterprises in our villages, clusters and small towns. Do the country’s economy and sustainability depend on these small firms or on the few large multinational companies and Indian firms with foreign investments? I would say the reason why we as a country never go into a deep economic crisis, unlike many other countries, is our intra-country dependency.
Similarly, if we look at our villages, talukas, blocks, sub-divisions and districts, you will find few signs of governance. Whatever social equity exists there is due to volunteers and the work of non-profit and non-governmental organizations.
Amid such governance failure—part of the reason could be found in the Socio Economic and Caste Census and part in the lack of businesses in rural areas—the only institutions that are effective on the ground in rural India are NGOs. Ironically, if ever someone was serious about delivering governance to these areas, the only option would be to depend on local NGOs or social organizations.
In my own experience, the deeper I go into districts, panchayats and villages, the only people I find capable of doing something good are always a group of volunteers or non-profit organizations. A business house with good intentions may provide money, some government bodies may appreciate your work if you’re lucky and stay out of your way as a good gesture, but the only people who would walk with you would be an NGO—and I mean it.
This does not mean all NGOs are free of the corruption that pervades India. As in the government and the private sectors, NGOs also have corrupt and dishonest elements. This is where there is good news for the NGOs and not-so good news for the government. Considering that the government is asking NGOs tough questions, we are, in fact, going to be better placed. In any case, the NGOs are supposed to be the custodians of the money granted for serving a cause, and they have no reason to hide their actions and accounts of what they are doing. In fact, for a well-meaning NGO, transparency will add value and help in raising funds.
I know for a fact that NGOs suffer immensely due to their inability to market themselves and raise funds. About five years back, we started talking to grassroots NGOs to help them go online and use the Internet as a marketing tool. We encouraged them to share local content and their work and reach out to those who may contribute to their resources by funding. We were humbled by the experience. About 5,000 such NGOs that had never known what information technology meant went online and now have several heart-warming stories to share of how digital inclusion has uplifted them in terms of legitimacy, accountability and transparency.
Moreover, with our advocacy, we also got .ngo approved as a top level domain, which is provided to valid NGOs. Which means any organization with a website bearing a .ngo extension can be considered a trusted NGO. This leads to the possibility that this database can be seen as pool of potential NGOs with whom companies and governments can choose to work with trust and dependency.
I also expect the NGO sector as a whole to be purified due to the government’s demand for NGOs to be online and share their accounts and sources. Thus, the pure and legitimate NGOs will make the life of governments even more miserable, if they fail to be accountable.
Since dedicated and honest NGOs will have nothing to lose, they will act with conviction and not just take orders. And that situation for NGOs at large is good news.
In my next column, I will discuss with you how going online has changed the lives of several grassroots NGOs—and those of the people they serve.
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of the Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also a member of screening committee of community radio at the ministry of information and broadcasting. Tweet him @osamamanzar