By Moin Qazi
Dr Moin Qazi is a PhD in Economics and English and the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.
A vibrant and competent civil society is the cornerstone of a prosperous nation. The civil society has a key role in ensuring the accountability and informing policies of the government to its people. However, to remain credible in public eye, it should embrace transparency in all its operations and activities. In recent times, civil society has suffered damage owing to the compromises in its missions as well as its role in promoting several dubious ideologies and agendas. In many parts of the world, donors have become extremely wary. The funding assistance is shrinking and several voluntary organizations are suffering from a dearth of financial resources, human resources and technical knowledge. India’s voluntary sector is going through a painful transition as the Government is actively pursuing a reform agenda.
Behind the scenes for NGOs
According to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), there are 3.3 million registered NGOs and voluntary organisations but less than 10% of them, 307,000 lakh to be precise, have filed their audited accounts. It is certainly symptomatic of a deep malaise that calls for cleansing. The government has cancelled registrations of 18,868 NGOs between 2011 and 2017 for violating laws. Following this action, foreign funding to Indian NGOs has also reduced in the last three years with Rs 15,299 crore in 2014-15, Rs 17,773 crore in 2015-16 and Rs 6,499 crore in 2016-17. This is no surprise. Given the corruption in the current society, there is no reason to believe that only the most honest will be involved.
Any briefcase NGOs begin with noble intentions. But international funding agencies often set their own agendas and priorities, causing cash-strapped NGOs to chase funding and align their missions with donor objectives. This is termed as “mission drift” in NGO discourse. It is this phenomenon that has given rise to briefcase NGOs.
Successful initiatives by the NGOs
The unhappy developments cannot undervalue the contribution of the voluntary sector to developmental work in rural India. The role of NGOs as agents of development and change is well-documented. They have proved to be reliable and innovative solution providers, especially in last-mile situations. The development history of rural India, particularly the tribal areas, is studded with a high degree of commitment and sacrifice of countless grassroots workers. India’s rural transformation would have been impossible without their selfless dedication to development.
The best and recent example is the self-help group movement that has empowered villages in a remarkable way. There have been witnesses of workers negotiate tough terrains–physical, social and administrative, to equip individuals and leaders of village-level institutions with knowledge, skills, and confidence so that they become informed and active self-advocates for the development of their communities.
According to the census of 2011, about 69% of the country’s population resides in villages. With nearly three-quarters of the population, rural India has a high potential for accelerating overall social and economic development of the nation. This potential can be harnessed through building value-based partnerships for livelihood promotion, human resources development, and financial inclusion while optimising natural resources through efficient water management and sustainable agricultural practices. As always, NGOs will have an important role to play in the rural ecosystem.
Problems with the working system of NGOs
It is saddening that the grassroots workers of the NGOs have always been very poorly paid, the bulk of the aid being cornered by the founders and administrators. Most of the attention is on beneficiaries of social programs–their livelihoods, saving habits, gender relations, etc., as these are seen as the indicators of measuring the reach and effectiveness of the aid. Rarely is the lens turned on the lives of development workers: how they relate to aid beneficiaries, their local peers in the development machinery, and the security and family issues that come with the job. Personal courage and values count. The values held dear by the urban residents are tested in the field. Peaceful coexistence with political agents remains an ongoing challenge.
The solution to all these problems
A civil society should instil confidence in the people, since it symbolises their aspirations. It is all the more important for those working in rural areas since the people in the hinterlands are not adequately empowered to safeguard their own interests. It is necessary that NGOs look inward and set their houses in order to regain the lost credibility that had been built through the sacrifices of countless committed grassroots workers.
In rural India, NGOs are one component in the broader development network but in certain conditions, they happen to be the most powerful tool. It is important how we leverage their potential. The need of the hour in the non-governmental sector is for the government to keep a transparent check on non-performing NGOs while recognizing and appreciating NGOs and their teams that make a positive contribution.
The key point which has ruptured the bonding of the government and the civil society is perception. Civil society needs to go back to the informal protocol and rapport that governed its interaction with the government. It must have a core belief that most people intrinsically want to do something positive and constructive. People within the government are no exception. While government as an entity may face several challenges, there is a significant proportion of people within the government who are sincere, hard-working and well-meaning. The odds they face in terms of serious constraints in resources, political interference and poor enabling conditions are huge yet they manage to focus on their responsibilities. We must recognise the scale of these constraints and approach it with a lens of empathy. While governance and accountability are necessary to ensure the NGOs stay on course, politicians also should be careful not to force their narrow ideologies on people, as they would negate the works of the genuine NGOs.
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