Non-governmental organisations enjoy the limelight, especially those involved in social activism. This tends to increase interest in their message and helps attract funding and support. The past several days, the community as a whole has received unusually contentious attention thanks to criticism by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Wikileaked revelation of corporate monitoring of NGOs.
Mr Singh complained about the agendas of foreign-funded NGOs, but didn’t argue that this was sinister. He merely said such imported causes may be inappropriate to the Indian environment. Rejecting genetically-modified agriculture is an easy decision in food-surplus nations, but life-threatening in nutrition-deficient India. The Green Revolution was a product of wholesale genetic manipulation. The same can be said of nuclear power — no emerging economy’s followed Germany’s lead in atomic surrender. This isn’t necessarily about two different standards. Studies have shown foreign funding, for example, tends to push domestic movements to more uncompromising positions.
A segment of the NGO community has reacted strongly to Mr Singh’s interview. But the bulk of India’s NGO network, a 2009 study estimated there were 3.3 million registered groups, focus on a variety of niche development, religious and social activities. Most are local, often receive government support, and are generally non-political in nature. It can be argued the Indian NGO landscape is changing. The home ministry says the amount of foreign funding to Indian NGOs has roughly tripled in the past decade and now Rs 110 billion is funnelled to over 20,000 organisations.
However, it’s a mistake to think this transborder flow is a major disruptive element in Indian society. Indian civil society can’t be, and shouldn’t be, firewalled from foreign influences. It’s inherent in an open society that all ideas and precepts should be allowed entry. Their acceptance and rejection should be a matter of popular debate and discussion. Few NGOs have played a prominent role unless there’s also been an enabling political environment and a good degree of local support. Mr Singh’s complaints reflect his government’s poor record of spadework to implement its own policies.
But NGOs, like corporations or the media, cannot claim to be beyond the scope of regulation. Some social activists seem to believe the halo around their cause means they should be above the law. There is no shortage of examples of fraud and worse among NGOs. Not unlike corporations, they should be audited tightly, their purpose be transparently stated and, if they are in violation of these and other rules, they should be punished. Social activism by NGOs is a vital part of India, but power can and does corrupt such movements as much it does any other institution. WikiLeaks confirms that corporations and NGOs watch each other — and society is better for it. Two cheers for the foreign-funded NGO and one cheer for its regulation.