Who guards the guardians?

Omair Ahmad | Updated on March 22, 2019 Published on March 22, 2019

Real speak: A great many NGOs do commendable work, but a great many are led by people who do not experience the problems they are trying to fix   -  K ANANTHAN

The search for ‘reliability’ among NGOs may take you further away from the voices of those they are meant to represent

A week or so ago, I read a book on philanthropy, and how by funding the “solutions” to problems, those who have become rich by questionable means keep people from asking how they got so rich. The book is about the US, but the ideas in it made me reflect on things that had troubled me during most of my career in the non-profit sector.

Part of this began a decade and a half ago, when I was scouting for NGOs to work with in Jammu & Kashmir. In the years just after the attack on the Indian Parliament (December 2001) and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to start a comprehensive peace process, there was a sharp drop in incidents of violence in Kashmir Valley. While governments tried to deal with the big things, some of us worked to rebuild little things — learning in academic institutions ravaged by the vicious politics of places plagued by insurgency, poetry and writing that helped people articulate the horrors they had seen and suffered, and human rights groups seeking to establish a count of the number of such cases.

In trying to find whom to work with, whom to support, I confronted a logistical problem. I did not know how many NGOs existed, what work they did or how good they were. In search of answers I turned to another NGO, one that documented the activities of NGOs — an NGO of NGOs — which gave me a list. I also turned to institutions, specifically centrally administered universities and a well-known global publisher. While I am happy with the little work we were able to do, it struck me that the more I looked for ‘reliability’, the further I moved away from the most vulnerable and the most-affected people.

Later, working at an international foundation, this issue came up again. The biggest issue, of course, was the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which regulates which NGOs can receive foreign funds. This is far from easy and managed through the ministry of home affairs. Many of the NGOs manage to do this by reaching out to former senior officials in the government who share their concerns, who can help them navigate the complexities. Even with the help of people with the best intentions, the FCRA narrows the ability of those who can receive funds. It may not be the most efficient NGOs, or the ones with the best ideas, but merely the ones with the best connections. By definition we give the power to the privileged to deal with the problems of the underprivileged.

The funny thing is that this is not a concern even among those working in the non-profit sector. At a friend’s wedding, I ran into one of his father’s friends who happened to be a former director of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW). I mentioned the FCRA and the work I was struggling to do, and he exclaimed in frustration how much he hated the legislation, how that one Act had led to the corruption of so many of “his boys”. I was surprised at this candid statement, but it added another layer of complication to the issue. If bribery adds to the issues of funding, then both privilege and corruption limit the ability to deal with social problems.

This should worry us — not just the limitation of foreign funding but that so much of our non-profit sector is dominated by people who do not experience the problems they are trying to fix. I wonder if we are really able to perceive the problems we are talking about. What I most fear is that we are actually creating jobs for those who have not suffered and letting them dominate the conversation about the suffering.

Let me give an example. Working on a project on peace-building in Kashmir, the only conferences that could be arranged were through either Indian or Pakistani NGOs. These NGOs, of course, had to be helmed by people fairly close to the two governments. The project was in the name of Kashmiris, but their voices were the least powerful in the room. It was an opening, more than what was available before, but was that enough?

There is an aphorism in the Bible which holds that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man getting to heaven. At times I wonder if it is any easier for us to hear the voices of the marginalised from the very organisations in charge of speaking for them. While I remain convinced about the good work that many organisations do — and I have been witness to some truly transformative experiences — I would hope to see more led by the people they represent.

Omair Ahmad   -  BUSINESS LINE


Omair Ahmad is the South Asia Editor for The Third Pole, reporting on water issues in the Himalayas

Twitter: @OmairTAhmad

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Published on March 22, 2019
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