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Tuesday, Oct 22, 2002

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Who is afraid of NGOs?

Pratap Ravindran

THE exponentially incremental ineffectiveness of successive elected governments in India in recent years and the not-unrelated spread of crony capitalism has resulted in, among other things, the proliferation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). And these NGOs, for their part, have inducted the term `civil society' in the language of public discourse although, amusingly enough, nobody seems to be certain what exactly it means.

Be that as it may be, the increasingly significant role that NGOs have come to play in public life has got the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance Government at the Centre rattled enough to attempt a higher degree of legislative control over them through changes in the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 1976.

An attempt suitably wrapped in the national flag and rendered politically unobjectionable through references to the need for a prohibition on foreign contributions for anti-national activities.

While the media finds it convenient to quote NGOs on a range of subjects in which a perspective antithetical to that of the government of the day is desired, certain politically engaged sections of Indian society are not convinced that all NGOs are right all the time. And they are right in their reservations... .

What are NGOs and how did they come to occupy the position in public discourse that they do? Are the claims made at least by some of them that they are the true representatives of the people and, as such, more `legitimate' than elected governments valid, especially in the context of a democracy?

The term `non-governmental organisation' came into being because the United Nations wanted to differentiate between the participation rights of inter-governmental specialised agencies and those of international private organisations in its charter. The term did not exist prior to the formation of the UN. Thus, in 1910, when 132 international private organisations resolved to cooperate with each other, they did so as the Union of International Associations. And the League of Nations officially tagged its dealings with them as "liaison with private organisations".

Prof Peter Willetts of City University, London, in the section on NGOs in the UNESCO Encyclopaedia of Life Support Systems, notes that the first draft of the UN charter did not make any mention of maintaining cooperation with private bodies.

"A variety of groups, mainly but not solely from the US, lobbied to rectify this at the San Francisco conference which established the UN in 1945. Not only did they succeed in introducing a provision for strengthening and formalising the relations with private organisations previously maintained by the League, they also greatly enhanced the UN's role in economic and social issues and upgraded the status of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to a `principal organ' of the UN. To clarify matters, new terminology was introduced to cover ECOSOC's relationship with two types of international organisations. Under Article 70, `specialised agencies established by intergovernmental agreement' could `participate without a vote in its deliberations' while, under Article 71, `non-governmental organisations' could have `suitable arrangements for consultation'. Thus `specialised agencies' and NGOs became technical UN jargon. Unlike much UN jargon, the term NGO passed into popular usage... "

He goes on to observe that there is no generally accepted definition of an NGO and that the term carries different connotations in different circumstances. However, he says, there are some fundamental features that characterise an NGO. First, an NGO must be independent from the direct control of any government. In addition, it should not be constituted as a political party, should be non-profit-making and should not engage in criminal or violent activities. Thus, an NGO is defined as "an independent, voluntary association of people acting together on a continuous basis, for some common purpose, other than achieving government office, making money or illegal activities."

That sounds innocuous enough...but is it?

And what of civil society? Many eminent thinkers — de Tocqueville, Hegel, Marx and so on — have written a great deal about it and, at the end of the day, left most people even more confused than they were to begin with. Mr John Grimond, for instance. He writes in The Economist The World in 2002: "It (civil society) is universally talked about in tones that suggest it is a Great Good, but for some people it presents a problem: What on earth is it? Unless you know, how can you tell if you want to join it?"

To make matters worse, the term `civil society', with all its ambiguities has come to be linked in the public mind with NGOs — primarily because it is these organisations that use it extensively. And NGOs, again in the public mind, are somewhat suspect entities, not because of the adversarial positions that they espouse... but because of their association with the World Bank and other organisations that get seedier as you go down the line.

Many NGOs, especially when TV cameras are focussed on their members, strike a strongly anti-World Bank posture. But the unfortunate truth is that many NGOs depend upon the World Bank for funding — something that rather weakens their rhetoric relating to alternative modes of development and so on.

The World Bank, in a paper on `NGO World Bank Collaboration', states: "Since the 1970s, operational collaboration with NGOs has become an increasingly important feature of Bank-financed activities (emphasis added).

Growing collaboration with NGOs can be attributed to the expanding role and influence of the NGO sector generally, as well as increasing recognition within the World Bank as to specific benefits which NGO involvement can bring to Bank-financed operations (emphasis added)."

For reasons that are not difficult to identify in the context of the above, the moral high ground occupied by various representatives of civil society, in general, and NGOs, in particular, is not recognised as such by all. Thus, some intellectuals have declined to go along with the notion of local, community-based forms of `participatory development' that constitute the `new paradigm of development' and have, instead, taken the position that NGOs, in as much as they tacitly accept the World Bank's strategy of `cooperation for development', serve to promote the cause of imperialism.

While this position, at first glance, may seem somewhat extreme, its strengths are revealed on more sustained scrutiny. Given the validity of the truism that the language of politics and the politics of language influence each other, it is difficult to deny the fact that the `cooperation' between the North and the South and the `aid' that flows from the former to the latter — two terms freely bandied about by many NGOs — have connotations disconcertingly different from what one would ordinarily expect. The plain truth, as borne out by empirical data, is that aid is invariably tied to the purchase of goods produced by the donor nations at prices significantly higher than the ones quoted in the competitive marketplace.

And then again, donor nations usually insist that the recipient nations enter into investment and trading arrangements favourable to multinationals domiciled in them and demand free access to raw materials and markets. Whether aid continues to be aid when linked to conditions such as the above is something that every reader will have to work out for himself or herself.

As for NGOs, they seem to have grown into a full-fledged business. Most readers would be astonished to learn that there are more than 50,000 NGOs currently working in the developing world, which receive over $10 billion in funding from global financial institutions and American, Japanese and European governmental agencies.

The political analysts and social scientists arrayed against them point out that they do a great deal of damage by deflecting public attention away from a class analysis of latter-day imperialism by waffling on about `a third way' that lies between authoritarian statism and predatory market capitalism to lead to `alternative development'.

The most damning class analysis of NGOs is contained in `Globalisation Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century' by Mr James Petras and Mr Henry Veltmeyer (Madhyam Books).

The authors point out that the managers of the biggest NGOs manage million-dollar budgets, receive salaries and perks comparable to those of top CEOs and jet their way to international conferences at which they confer with top businessmen and make policy decisions that affect — in the great majority of cases, adversely — millions of poor men and women, many of them workers in the informal sector.

In a scathing passage, Messrs Petras and Veltmeyer write: "The NGOs worldwide have become the latest vehicle for upward mobility for the ambitious educated classes. Academics, journalists and professionals have abandoned their earlier interests in poorly rewarded Leftist movements for a lucrative career managing an NGO, bringing with them their organisational and rhetorical skills and a certain populist vocabulary. Today, thousands of NGO directors drive $40,000 four-wheel-drive sports utility vehicles from their fashionable suburban homes or apartments to their well-furnished offices and building complexes, leaving the children and domestic chores in the hands of servants and their yards to be tended by its gardeners.

"They are more familiar with and spend more time at the overseas sites of their international conferences on poverty (Washington, Bangkok, Tokyo, Brussels, Rome etc) than the muddy villages of their own country. They are more adept at writing up new proposals to bring in hard currency for `deserving professionals' than risking a rap on the head from police attacking a demonstration of underpaid rural schoolteachers. NGO leaders are a new class not based on property ownership or government resources but derived from imperial funding and their own capacity to control significant popular groups. The NGO leaders can be conceived of as a kind of neo-comprador group that doesn't produce any useful commodity but does function to produce services for the donor countries, trading in domestic poverty for individual perks (emphasis added)." They go on to add that when NGOs talk about civil society, they tend to "obscure the profound class division, class exploitation and class struggle" that polarises contemporary society.

And so, we go back to the basic question: Do NGOs, in a democracy, reflect the interests of the people more accurately than an elected government? The answer, quite clearly, is that they do not as they represent certain classes and not the people as a whole.

And what about flawed democracies such as India? In such cases, they can prove positively dangerous by diluting debate on substantive issues and getting people to accept palliatives. The final word, in the Indian context, must go to Messrs Petras and Veltmeyer: "(The third circumstances in which) NGOs have multiplied has been during the frequent and deepening economic crises provoked by free market capitalism. Intellectuals, academicians and professionals saw jobs disappear or salaries decline as budget cuts took hold, so a second job became a necessity. NGOs became a job placement agency, and consultancies became a safety net for potentially downwardly mobile intellectuals willing to spout the civil society-free market alternative development line and carry on collaborative policies with neo-liberal regimes and international financial institutions. When millions lose their jobs and poverty spreads to significant portions of the population, NGOs engage in preventive action: they focus on `survival strategies', not general strikes; and they organise soup kitchens, not mass demonstrations against food hoarders, neo-liberal regimes or US imperialism."

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