Nations are lobbied by outsiders all the time. It is a strong nation that knows when to concede; it is a weak nation that feels frightened when it is lobbied; and it is a foolishly stubborn nation whose government believes it knows everything and does not need external advice.
India’s annoyance with foreign funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or its allergy to their campaigns and advocacy are not marks of its strengths, but of its weakness. Just as governments till 1991 were myopically nationalist in keeping foreign capital out, the government now is churlishly nationalist in its attempts to restrict the activities of NGOs.
If companies investing in India have the right to raise capital abroad, so should civil society organizations. This is not only because resources are insufficient, but also because philanthropists in India have their own priorities. Typically, these revolve around assisting the poor by providing healthcare, education and, in many cases, building places of worship. All those activities are voluntary, and often dictated by the philanthropists’ personal preferences.
It is indeed the government’s responsibility to provide whatever welfare it chooses to provide in a non-discriminatory manner, and yet often a government is unable and sometimes unwilling to do so. In such contexts, it falls on other entities, such as NGOs, to step in. This is particularly so in instances where an NGO is assisting a community or region that may be politically controversial. (Think of an NGO providing medical relief in Maoist-held areas of central India.) The government is clearly not going to be active there, and few corporations would want to associate themselves with a cause so controversial.
It is hard for Greenpeace or Human Rights Watch to raise funding entirely from domestic sources—not because Indians don’t care for the environment or human rights, but because the advocacy of those organizations clashes with the policies and priorities of the government, and Indian companies are wary of aligning with such organizations. (Some such NGOs may have internal policies prohibiting them from seeking corporate funding.)
At the same time, even if they deny it, NGOs are businesses—they employ people, provide services or advocate ideas, or help manufacture goods. Indeed, they lobby, they amplify voices—Indian voices—already vocal in India, to advance specific positions.
It is naive to think companies, which have foreign capital invested in them, don’t do such lobbying. Companies routinely lobby for tax exemptions, to override community vetoes so that they can expand their operations, to get subsidized power or access to infrastructure, or to reduce protection of workers’ rights. They lobby for higher tariff on imports or for tax holidays. Each of those demands is in the companies’ own self-interest, and each such demand benefits only a few—shareholders, contractors, associates and staff. There is nothing wrong with any of that, provided no force is used, no bribes are given or taken, no laws are violated and there is transparency.
The same logic ought to apply to NGOs. When a company wants a community to be displaced so that it can begin mining, its shareholders and workers will gain, but someone else—a community—may bear the pain, which needs to be compensated. Indian—and indeed international—experience shows that more often than not such communities are treated unfairly, and NGOs represent such disempowered communities. That’s another way of looking at what John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist, called countervailing power.
The argument that NGOs represent foreign or anti-national interests assumes that those opposing the NGOs represent Indian interests. But how could you consider as anti-national an NGO funded by a foreign development agency and challenging a foreign pharmaceutical company which might insist on keeping life-saving drugs out of the reach of the poor, or fighting to protect India’s forests against a foreign oil company?
A former Indian senior executive argued how countries such as the US and the UK would not allow lobbying by a foreign NGO when their national security issues are involved. It is a misreading of the American and British political scene. Non-American NGOs like Federatione Internationale de Droits de l’Homme and the International Committee of the Red Cross have criticized the US over its policies and actions to combat terror, including the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and neither is restricted from raising funds or operating in the US.
By restricting NGOs’ ability to raise funds, by micromanaging their operations, by seeking to prevent their representatives from travelling to speak at meetings abroad (the latest incident involves barring a Greenpeace International staff member from Australia from entering India despite him possessing a valid visa), or by calling them unpatriotic when they give voice to India’s dispossessed, India’s democracy comes across as immature and underconfident.
Salil Tripathi is contributing editor at Mint and based in London. He is also a senior advisor at the Institute for Human Rights and Business, and has been on the board of English PEN, which campaigns for freedom of expression worldwide. These are his personal views and not necessarily of the two organizations.