The NGO problem

Published: Sunday 15 May 1994

THE RECENT controversy over the national and global role of non-government organisations (NGOs), generated at the preparatory meeting for the United Nations-sponsored International Conference on Environment and Development (ICPD) in New York is seething with portents. It seems to be one more issue over which the North and the South might have diametrically opposed views and opinions. Whereas Northern countries like the U S, Norway, Canada and Switzerland are wont to see an increasingly important role for NGOs, it is paranoid caution that characterises countries like India, Pakistan, and Iran. They tend to react with wariness and even resentment to the possibility of their power being diluted, and of being watched and assessed by anything that has Northern approval. It should be fairly obvious that the context for the debate is more or less the same as any other current North-South conflict and is likely to run into the same cul de sac.

But this dead end by itself cannot be the end to this tale. Apart from the tangle of competing arguments that the North and the South are going to exchange, there is the question of how NGOs, both as a giant international network and as discrete entities, define their functions. There is also the question of how people perceive their germaneness, if, in the welter of other problems, people take time off to perceive it at all. What is indisputable, in any case, is that the role of NGOs cannot be left to the mercy of the hardnosed pull and push of diplomacy and the sly bargaining for power at international meets.

Official trepidation about the possible autonomy of this role -- and the fact that, by the nature of their calling, NGOs distrust governments -- is what prompted Indian Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao recently to make a pointed reference to the likelihood of conflicts between the grassroots panchayat setup in India and NGOs. The fact that he spoke of this and invited NGOs to participate in the nation-building process in virtually the same breath is an indication of precisely how seriously, if perversely, the government views the nature of Indian statehood.

A lot of official arguments seem to merely state baldly that NGOs have no locus standi because they are not elected bodies. This is no argument: development bodies set up by the government are not elected either. The unfortunate fact is that the Indian state is passing through a loud phase of posturing self-confidence; it has managed to hardsell its rhetoric of decentralisation. Ideally, both panchayats and NGOs would form the vanguard of a decentralised statehood. But the Indian government is not looking for an ideal manner of things, it is looking for loyalty; which explains why it is cranking out talk of panchayats and NGOs at odds with each other, tilling the fields in battledress. Pit one of your enemies against another of your enemies and you've won the war.

Unfortunately for powermongers anywhere in the world, NGOs do not exist for the comfort of governments but for the comfort of the people. The very existence of NGOs is premised on the argument that politics alone, in its present shape, is just not enough. It is rather unfair to invert this argument and complain that NGOs form no part of the official democratic machinery and have no mandate.

The government's fidgeting at global fora as well as local platforms is more likely to radiate the message that it has an aversion to being scrutinised by non-governmental watchdogs, and that it does not wish to interrupt its set routine of activities, and never mind the rhetoric. Most of all, the government leaves itself open to the suspicion that it is determined to take over those areas of public life and developmental activities that do not match its blueprint. Authoritarianism is inherent in every government that wants to keep on staying in power -- and which government doesn't? -- and NGOs comprise one of the few effective, democratic ways to keep its ferocity in check.

Even though NGOs are only one of several factors that keep a democratic polity going, they have their act cut out because of what they often manage to do, and what the governmental agencies rarely succeed in doing -- to look deeply into the real, and not imagined, needs of the people, study causative factors, and to actually share, not impose, relevant solutions in specific contexts.

This is a role that neither geography nor degree of democratic sophistication can change. It is a common role, North and South. And it is a role that says that NGOs will always live dangerously.

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