Will 21st century usher in the end of ‘politicised’ and ‘ideological’ NGOs in India?

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)

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz

The film follows the story of programming prodigy and information activist Aaron Swartz. From Swartz’s help in the development of the basic internet protocol RSS to his co-founding of Reddit, his fingerprints are all over the internet. But it was Swartz’s groundbreaking work in social justice and political organizing combined with his aggressive approach to information access that ensnared him in a two-year legal nightmare. It was a battle that ended with the taking of his own life at the age of 26.

Film by Brian Knappenberger – Luminant Media

(Courtesy: The Documentary Network)

To mobilize or to polarize? Social Media in Mandate 2014

BY NIDHI SHENDURNIKAR TERE

As the countdown to India’s general elections draws nearer, apart from the usual range of issues that have dominated the political discourse, the role of social media is being keenly debated. With over 93 million users on Facebook and an estimated 33 million on Twitter (India’s social media election battle, March 2014); the use of social media platforms is now beyond connecting with friends and acquaintances. In the general elections of 2009, the role of social media in mobilizing public opinion was marginal. This time it is unprecedented and difficult to ignore.

With every political player now in the social media domain, it might even account for being a crucial factor in the present elections. The social media space has inevitably turned ‘political’ with major political actors in fray roping in expert services to promote their candidates on social media. Political parties are seen making every single attempt to stay in the electoral limelight by ‘trending’ on Twitter or ‘liking’ on Facebook. The impetus for this also seems to be a large number of young voters who are being influenced through social media. This is an interesting trend in itself because just a few years back the ‘political’ character of social media was debatable. Today, what we see on social media are posts, videos, comments emerging as sources of political knowledge. Certainly, there has been a transition in the way social media has reinvented itself as a medium this time around. Google hangouts, official pages of political parties, fan pages, voter awareness campaigns and voting ‘selfies’ speak much about the transition in Indian politics. However, the path ahead remains challenging.

To a large extent, social media has also contributed to polarizing opinions in the present political discourse. It is on social media that political battle-lines are being drawn with heated pro and against contentions, counter contentions and a daily dose of political passions and emotions. It is as if the electoral battle has now moved from the ‘realpolitik’ domain to the social media space.

While a basic feature of the medium is free expression, participation and immediacy of feedback (which contributes to the expansion of democratic debate), the current debating scene on social media reeks of political shrill, political abuse and a kind of intolerance for diverse opinions. Users do not stop at commenting/debating as they express contempt and disdain for political opinions that may differ from theirs. Openly expressing one’s affiliation to a political ideology or choice of a particular party/candidate may invite the wrath of friends and acquaintances who subscribe to a different set of ideas. Trolling, political sarcasm, mudslinging, levelling of accusations has vitiated the atmosphere on social media forums.

Users have been clearly divided into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ camps (users can be seen subscribing to terms such as AAPtards, CONGtards, Fekus, etc) with little perspective in place. This certainly cannot be a healthy trend in a democratic set up. Though Manan Pathak, student Tata Institute of Social Sciences disagrees,

“Polarization as against mobilization is not really an attribute of social media. The attribute of social media is to mobilize; whether or not to get polarized is the onus of the people. Rigidity and dynamism on part of the people determine whether polarization occurs. Social media is a platform to inform, share, discuss, debate, express and form views, and the views ideally should not be absolute but they should be dynamic based on rational decision making.”

Much political shrill that is generated on social media is leading to a loss of debate on pertinent and real issues that an election should ideally be about. A sort of obsession with candidates, political personalities, political camps and ideologies has resulted into a watering down of political debate. Kirthi Jayakumar, lawyer cum writer from Chennai says,

“On the one hand, the speed with which information is passed and the outlets that are available reveal a clear and strong tool for the propagation and streamlining of public opinion. But, the same is also a disadvantage in that it is beginning to set people apart from one another through the polarisation of the masses. It is also alarming that people are not respecting the right to choose and the element of secrecy in a secret ballot method. Imposing voting ideas on another individual is both, inappropriate and unbefitting.”

So to what extent can the information being circulated in social media zones be trusted? Is it credible? When information goes viral, how does one differentiate between facts and propaganda? After all groups operating in social media may be no different than interests group with a purpose. Would it be some kind of an exaggeration to claim that what we witness on social media can claim to represent the ‘real’ voices of ‘real’ people? There are no easy answers. Undoubtedly social media makes the political sphere a bit transparent but it is bereft of any kind of accountability and hence the chances of misinformation do exist. Also not to be confused is the political participation on social media and its translation into real time voting. Kiran Bhatia, student at The M.S.University of Baroda believes that while first time voters indeed have received great amount of exposure towards the election process through social media, there are also naïve and amateur users who may not care to verify the authenticity of the information presented among the huge chunk of content in circulation. She puts this aptly – “We should not flow with the flow, but deliberate and decide whether the flow is genuine or not.”

Not to be dismissive of social media’s influence on Mandate 2014, one has to admit that social media does inspire a multi-mode channel of communication and may end up playing a more than anticipated role in one’s choice of political representation. The positive side is already evident through the extensive outreach of voter awareness campaigns cum appeals – a clarion call to voters of the world’s largest democracy. Since, the election period is a temporary one and so may be the polarization; though one is left wondering as to what will social media debate after May 16!

(Nidhi Shendurnikar Tere is a Political Science doctoral candidate at The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Gujarat, and a research fellow of the University Grants Commission working on India-Pakistan Conflict Mediation and Role of Media. She is also a guest blogger with Canary Trap)