BY SHASHIKUMAR VELATH
India’s politicized NGO sector is seeking intervention of Western democracies, international NGOs (INGOs) and international media to frame the accountability crises they are caught in as the “shrinking of democratic space.” Ironically, NGOs in other democracies are griping about their existential crises as well. Deborah Doane, former Director of the World Development Movement (now known as Global Justice Now), recently wrote a candid piece in the The Guardian. According to her, the very legitimacy of INGOs in the humanitarian, human rights, and development and environment sectors “is in question from all sides: governments, southern partners, donors, and even their own staff.”
She reveals that there are indeed grey areas on funds received and spent. “There is no backing away from the view that the sector needs, at the very least, a tune-up, if not a wholesale revolution to enable it to face modern times.” She goes on to ask a fundamental question that every NGO worth its salt across the world is asking: “Because in addition to the critiques, the sector is facing a rapidly changing, complex, and increasingly demanding environment, with new conflicts and climate change and colossal political, technological, and demographic transformation. The world bears little resemblance to what it did in the sector’s heyday of the 80s and 90s. Seven of the largest development organisations in the UK (Oxfam, Christian Aid, Action Aid, Cafod, World Vision, Tearfund, and Save the Children) now have a combined income of more than £1bn, but is their influence and impact commensurate?”
In India, however, the spectre of a multiplicity of voices demanding accountability from NGOs for evidence of their social impact, use of Indian and foreign donor money, foreign government grants and searching questions on whether they are cat’s paws in the hands of the foreign policy agendas of Western governments, has boxed Indian NGOs into a corner.
With their backs against the wall Indian NGOs are fighting back, compelled by their ideological opposition to the current ruling party. Besides, the activism-centric organizational structures of these NGOs prioritize confrontation with the government over engagement.
This architecture of confrontation is friendly when the political party or coalition of parties in power is ideologically aligned. For example, it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s United Progressive Alliance government which initiated the crackdown on NGOs protesting against the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam. There were civil society protests, but no outrage over the “shrinking of public space.”
An overwhelming period of Indian Republic’s 67 years of experiment with and experience of constitutional democracy kept the relationship between NGOs and the government in a comforting space with the occasional period of turbulence. The elephant in the room that the NGOs and Congress party-led or Congress-influenced coalition governments put in place was their broadly left of centre ideological unity.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tough, disruptive and questioning stance has shattered this cosy partnership and let out the elephant in the room. This outing of a well-kept public secret is certainly discomfiting, if not paralyzing. That’s why some Indian NGOs and Indian subsidiaries of INGOs see the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government as the “enemy.” Congress, Left and Caste-based, non-Hindu religion based and ethnicity-based political parties and groups are “friends”; BJP and its allies are “enemies”. In the context of this simple and straightforward binary framework, it is not surprising why the highly politicized leadership of these NGOs do not find any logic in engaging with a democratically elected government.
Simply put, Indian NGOs (home-grown as well as subsidiaries of INGOs) consider themselves as influential political players and political allies in the left of centre ideological space.
While NGO elites in India are feeling adrift, powerless and low-on-confidence because of the loss of their influential position vis-à-vis the government, Social Entrepreneurs (SocEnters) and their Social Enterprises (SocEnts) are eclipsing Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) with robust profit-neutral business models.
The large-scale changemaking impact of SocEnts is visible on the ground. Social innovators from diverse backgrounds have joined mainstream efforts to eliminate poverty in all its forms and manifestations. By doing so SocEnters are moving rapidly to contribute towards national and international efforts towards attaining the Sustainable Development Goals in the next 15 years.
The SocEnt model with its clean compliance to highest regulatory standards, ability to raise money within their home countries by interacting with and involving citizens, willingness to work collaboratively with the government and private sector on core changemaking issues in a team of teams manner, engaging decision-makers through ideological-neutral political advocacy designed to jointly arrive at creating common grounds for purposeful and meaningful action has emerged as a far superior model than the traditional 20th Century activism-based NGO model.
The combustion of technology with social innovation has enhanced a citizen’s ability to self-represent. The Citizen does not need a NGO to represent her cause anymore. Similarly, The Citizen does not need media which merely bridges the information gap between her and an event. The bottom-line is that the sell-by date of NGOs structured as independent organizations representing the voice of the marginalized, unheard and voiceless is over.
It is, of course, a no-brainer that NGOs have thrived in democracies because they simply cannot survive in dictatorships, theocratic States or any other non-democratic regime. NGOs were designed as legitimate institutions, like the media, which make the scaffolding encasing democratic societies. In the 20th Century these organizations were considered an essential part of the institutional framework, part of democracy’s scaffolding, which would channelize the voice of the voiceless, the poor, indigent and marginalized. Therefore, NGOs were focussed on mobilizing people they represented. Soon NGOs started building constituencies of people they represented. Their business model was built on ‘Activism’ and ‘Agitation’.
Funding for causes is directed towards building strategic campaigns to pump up individual activism, which in turn leads to mobilization of citizens towards particular causes the NGOs are championing. But over time, especially now, causes have not only become political and NGOs deeply politicized, but it is also evidently clear that the NGOs do not have solutions to offer. NGOs do not have exit plans from causes they advocate. This ensures that they develop vested interests in simply perpetuating the situation that allows them to stay in business-as-usual mode.
Therefore, NGOs rely on confrontational strategies to stay relevant in public discourses. Since they are self-righteous they are reluctant to admit that they are ideological and have vested political ambitions to be seen as “influencers”, instead of taking on the role of solution finders. It is at this troubling interface of social problem and social impact where SocEnters have jumped in with their changemaking skills.
SocEnters understand that our societies have entered into a new age of persuasion. Building on the experience garnered by the NGO sector, SocEnts have junked the confrontational approach of NGOs by viewing their constituents as “aspirational citizens” instead of the condescending NGO lens of viewing people they serve as “beneficiaries”.
But SocEnters build their organizations as collaborative enterprises. They invest energy and resources in building partnerships with governments, private sector, community organizations and citizens to jointly find solutions to social problems in an array of sectors such as poverty-alleviation, health, education, water, sanitation, food, housing and environment. They are designing models which allow large numbers of people to escape poverty through entrepreneurship.
Their organizational structures are equally varied; some are registered as trust or charities and others as for profit private limited companies or ‘Section 8’ companies.
The social capital of NGOs is declining faster than their funds because they aren’t able to move beyond campaigning and advocacy to come up with winning sustainable solutions to the entrenched social problems. In the next five years the activism-based NGO model will collapse because of “everyone a changemaker” citizen-led campaigning models, which brings communities together. Communities no longer need NGOs to bind them together!
If NGOs fail to restructure and reorient their business models to align with SocEnt models, they will hasten their demise.
SocEnters insist that their ethical entrepreneurial business models put morals-before-markets. Their profit-neutral social impact enterprises are bringing transformative framework change wherever they are in operation. Given that social innovation is rapidly and surely putting NGOs out of business, shouldn’t the elite celebrity NGO leaders in India think innovatively about “beyond charity” operative models? NGOs in Western countries are certainly reassessing their role and relevance.
Similarly, will the NGO leadership in India rethink their purpose, role and funding? Will they display the sagacity to get out of their trenches, cease the ideological and political warfare against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and instead engage with his government on substantive issues of change? It is unlikely that there is any imagination or thought leadership to revitalize and restructure the NGO sector in India. It is most likely that technology for change will continue to empower citizens as changemakers, erasing the need for NGOs to act as outsourced intermediaries channelizing the “voices” of citizens on the marginalia of society. The end is near for most NGOs. On their ruins a new, agile, innovative, impactful, collaborative and accountable social enterprise sector will take shape.
(Shashikumar Velath is an investigative journalist and led CNN-IBN’s Special Investigation Team from 2005 to 2009. He is currently a Leadership Group Member in Ashoka – Innovators for the Public. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap or any employee thereof)