NGO work in India has diverse ideological origins and underpinnings. We need to have a basic understanding of these backgrounds, if we are to design strategies for the future of these NGOs, confronted by rapidly changing social, political and economic environments.
NGOs in modern India have traditions that can be traced back to the ideologies of the Ramakrishna Mission, Mahatma Gandhi, Sarvodaya, Jesuit Missions and even Marxism. Many NGO establishments in modern India have the aura of the traditional Hindu Ashram. The accent is on austere community life in isolated project campuses, and total dedication to the poor and deprived people in the area.
This physical isolation has resulted in a situation which casts the future of Indian NGO work in an uncertain light. The Indian notion of charity has it’s roots in religious beliefs as in the case of European or American charity, but the practice of charity has developed along slightly different lines.
NGO work has been called “Non-Party Political” work, because it involves organising people around issues and demanding change. In this sense, NGO work which questions the status quo should provide some cause for concern to politicians who find their omnipotence threatened.
The impact of foreign money flowing into India has been so great that it has inspired a piece of legislation called the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). This Act is used by the Home Ministry to control the NGO sector through it’s achilles heel of funds, without which the NGO cannot function in it’s existing form. Foreign funding, which is controlled by the FCRA, forces NGOs to seek “safe” and non-controversial issues including the delivery of government programmes. Becoming an extension of the government must cause considerable dissonance for organisations which call themselves “Non-Governmental” organisations.
If it were possible for Indian NGOs to raise their funds within the country, at one stroke, it releases them from the government surveillance associated with the FCRA, and provides them with a “mandate” for the work they are doing. In a milieu where market-driven NGOs would prefer to exchange their idealism for prudence, it is only natural that international donors should have searched out those NGOs whose rhetoric was the most strident, and whose actions did not jeopardise their survival.
In a shift from a traditional economy to a market economy riding on the back of an information explosion, it is these “successful” NGOs whose funding has become most dependent on their “Northern Partners”. As a result, they have not developed the skills to talk to the public in India about their causes.
The public never gets to know about the results of the NGO’s work. All they see are the air-conditioned cars, cordless telephones and other yuppie symbols, somehow incongruous with life-styles of sacrifice and penance adopted by the early leaders of the NGO movement in India. NGOs face serious contradictions in their pursuit of social work with charity money, which sometimes conflicts with their own needs for a reasonable livelihood and the education and upbringing of their children. There are many International donors interested in the work done by NGOs in India. There are some Indian institutional donors, although access is not quite so easy as in the international system.
International donors may be NGOs or government (bilateral and multilateral) organisations.
In India too there are government agencies, although for various reasons NGOs are reluctant to work with them.