Whether one agrees or not, the fact remains that since the day India officially opted for neoliberalization-based globalization, there has been a flood of NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations) into the country. Two years ago, in 2009-10, there were around 3.3 million NGOs working in India. In other words, there was one NGO for less than 400 inhabitants, and several times more than the numbers of elementary schools and primary health centres (“First Official Estimate: An NGO for every 400 people in India”, The Indian Express, July 7, 2010).
As per the government data, released in December 2011, United States of America, Britain, Germany, Italy and Netherlands have been among top five financial supporters of these NGOs for a number of years. They have been the source of more than 50 per cent of the total funds received by them. According to The Times of India (December 7, 2011), “Indian NGOs collectively received foreign contribution to the tune of over Rs 49, 968 crore [one crore=10 million] during five years from 2005-06 to 2009-10. A total of 21,508 organizations received such funds for various activities in 2009-10 as compared to 21,542 organizations in 2008-09.” The data for 2010-11 are not yet compiled.
It needs to be noted and pondered over that, not only the rich, but poorer countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Zambia, Congo and China have also donated to several NGOs. It will be interesting to know the names of the NGOs who have been receiving foreign funds and the fields of their activities. It also needs to be investigated whether the above-noted poorer countries are really donors or they are just proxy for some other countries. The Home Ministry of the Government of India recently informed Parliament: “The annual return submitted by the associations is scrutinized to ensure that recipients of foreign contribution utilize the same in accordance with the stated objectives for which the foreign contribution is received and the money is not diverted to undesirable activities.”
Before looking more into NGOs’ activities, let us peep into the origin of NGOs. By definition, an NGO is established by people or institutions not connected with the government of the land. The earliest reference to NGOs pertains to 1839 (T. R. Davies, “The Rise and Fall of Transnational Civil Society: The Evolution of International Non-Governmental Organization since 1839”). In the year 1914, there were 1,083 NGOs all over the world. They played commendable roles in the campaigns against slavery, discriminations against women and for disarmament. The year 1945 is of crucial importance for the NGOs’ recent history. It was the year when United Nations came into existence. The UN, in its Charter (chapter 10, article 71), defined an NGO and demarcated its area of activities. It cautioned that an NGO must not seek to denigrate the government of the country where it works or act as if it were a party in the opposition. It must be non-criminal and non-profit. According to Prof. Peter Willets of the City University of London, an NGO is “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.”
NGOs are of several types according to their activities. They are, generally, supposed to work for the good of others like providing relief during natural disasters, wars, racial conflicts and uplifting the oppressed and deprived and empowering weaker sections. Some work for the dissemination of knowledge and eradication of the hold of superstitions.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the world underwent a sea-change as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and disintegration of the world socialist system, NAM becoming extremely weak and the ascendancy of neoliberalism-based globalization as signaled by the imposition of Washington Consensus with its ten points. The face of imperialism underwent a change. It stepped up its efforts to become “humanitarian imperialism” (Jean Bricmont, Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2006). Attempts were made to refurbish the image of imperialism and in this, NGOs came to be used as a tool. Imperialist armed interventions took place in Afghanistan and Iraq but, there was no opposition from the NGOs. In fact, they tried hard to divert the attention of the people and all the time harped on benevolent role of imperialism. To quote Bricmont, “What do the NGOs have to say about al this, especially the human rights defenders? As the Canadian professor international law Michael Mandel rightly remarks, at the start of the [Iraq] war, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other group issued a firm appeal to the “belligerents” (as neutral a term as possible) to respect the rules of war. But not a word was said about the illegality of the war itself, about what international law consider the “supreme crime” committed by those who started the war. These organizations are in the position of those who recommend that rapists use condoms. That may seem better than nothing, but finally, given the relationship of forces, even the condoms won’t be used. The ideology of intervention in the name of human rights has been the perfect instrument to destroy peace movements and anti-imperialist movements. But once that intervention takes place on a large scale, human rights and the Geneva Conventions are massively violated.”
In some way, NGOs are expected to perform, by and large, the same role as the clergy performed during the colonial era. But the situation in which the NGOs work and the expectations their financiers have are much more complex. “As a result NGOs now have to work in a context where many of their strategies and approaches are set and monitored closely by external donor agencies. It can sometimes be hard to remember the previous core aims set for development NGOs (e.g. improving the environment, developing service delivery models, ‘scaling up’, promoting popular participation, micro-finance, strategic planning), as new ones come on stream all the time (e.g. advocacy to change policies, rights-based approaches, ‘gender mainstreaming’, accountability and transparency, impact assessment).
“This process is fuelled by changing foreign policy positions, along with the outputs of think-tanks and certain key individuals—often fueled by the same donors that fund NGOs.… The roles civil society and NGOs are expected to play have shifted as the dominant paradigms have moved successively from a focus on the state, as the key to economic development, to markets, to an understanding of market failures. This has been accompanied by an increased emphasis on other development players to complement the market , and most recently to monitor the ‘enabling state’, which (the argument now goes) needs to drive development but which has to be regulated; this job has been allocated to ‘civil society’ – a confused and ahistorical term deployed to promote this development model.” (Tina Wallace, “NGO Dilemmas: Trojan Horses for Global Neoliberalism?”, The Socialist Register 2004).
This is the background against which NGOs presently work and facilitate the mission of their donors.
Before the arrival of the era of neoliberalism, there were organizations in India such as Marwari Relief Society, Ramakrishna Mission, Bharat Sevashram and so on, which were called voluntary organizations and the people running them worked without drawing any salary and perks, but, now the situation is different, there are regular payments and the NGOs have their own bureaucracy. The acts of embezzlement, faking the records, cuts and commissions, and pilfering are regularly heard of. The workers are, by and large, mercenaries.
What has been observed in India and elsewhere confirms the following observation by Tina Wallace: “Current funding trends and the influence of business sector management thinking are shaping the way development is conceptualized, analyzed and addressed by development NGOs, reflecting agendas and paradigms developed by the rich and powerful countries. While there never was a golden age of NGOs, they are now becoming increasingly tied to global agendas and uniform ways of working. This reality threatens their role as institutions providing an alternative, as champions of the poor, as organizations working in solidarity with those marginalized by the world economy.”
Africa has attracted the NGOs and their patrons much more than any other continent. Issa G. Shivji, a leading expert on development and law from Tanzania, has underlined that the sudden increase in the number and activities of NGOs in Africa is part of a neoliberal paradigm rather than pure altruistic motivations. He ridicules NGOs that want to change the world without understanding it. They want to perpetuate the old imperial relationship with Africa in a new garb (Issa G. Shivji, Silences in NGO Discourse: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa, 2007, Nairobi and Oxford).
Coming back to India, certain quarters have been singing in the praise of NGOs, day in and day out, ignoring their not-so-very-bright-sides. They are said to be symbols of “independent voice”, honesty and devotion to the cause of people at large. On the other hand, politicians and political parties are termed as corrupt and selfish. Look at the utterances of Anna Hazare and his team. All the time they shower abuses even on elected representatives of people. Mind you, they never say a single word against the corporate sector whether Indian or foreign and machinations of imperialists. One journalist recently said that the leaders of the civil society (in other words, those who run NGOs) must be preferred to elected representatives as the true voice of the people because those who win elections employ man and money power to secure votes. This claim reminds people of a similar propaganda during the 1960s and 1970s, eulogizing “party less democracy” and “guided democracy” in order to denigrate parliamentary democracy!
It is to be noted that those who run NGOs are, by and large, leading comfortable life, frequently hopping from one place to the other by air and staying in luxurious hotels. People at large are just a façade to hide their connections with MNCs and international organizations, controlled by Western governments. While, never raising even a small finger against the corporate and imperialists, they always try to denigrate elected governments, parliamentary system and political parties. They try to dictate terms as extra-constitutional authority. They always rubbish the UN advice of 1945 that they should keep away from politics and never confront or denigrate the elected regimes. It needs to be noted that the corporate-controlled electronic media and newspapers try to exaggerate their popular support and appeal. Frenzy is sought to be created. Henry A Giroux is proved right by what has happened in recent days in India: “As a powerful form of public pedagogy, the dominant media set the agenda for what information is included or excluded; they provide the narratives for understanding the past and present… and have the power to deeply influence how people define the future. The media do not merely manufacture consent, they go so far as to produce the news and dictate knowledge, skills, and values through which citizenship is lived and democracy defined.” (Henry A. Giroux, Against The Terror of Neoliberalism, Paradigm Publishers, 2008, p. 24).