World NGO Day, February 27, though observed by several agencies and institutions across the globe is yet to adopted as an international day by the United Nations General Assembly.
However, even if it were, middle class India would at best have mixed views about dedicating a day to acknowledging and celebrating the work NGOs do. For, the middle class-NGO engagement is complicated and has a chequered history.
Until the late 1980s, middle class Indians did not particularly mind NGOs, unless its own progeny decided to commit career suicide by joining one. NGOs operated in the peripheral visual field, in villages and slums, and did things it felt petty to question. Organising health camps, teaching children, promoting handicrafts, distributing relief, etc. Orbital overlaps were few – mostly when a donation-seeker appeared at the doorstep – and vaguely amiable. Save for Emergency-era movements, news of NGOs skirmishing with authority was rare, and seen as a little release of steam, nothing to be unduly perturbed about.
A number of coherent and strident voices, most headline-grabbing of who was Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, would change all that. Punching much above their numerical strength, this new breed of NGOs refused to stick to traditional niches and was not to be limited with roles in implementing government programmes either; they were challenging the development paradigm itself.
Patkar and Co, for example, went beyond the fairness of resettlement and rehabilitation packages and questioned the raison d’etre of big dams themselves. NGOs had asked inconvenient questions of the government before too, but this was qualitatively different.
A sub-group, small but forceful, had discarded the gloves and was itching for proper battle.
Always wary of disaffection spread and not as clueless as the middle class about the NGO power, the government retaliated with anti-NGO propaganda. A small group of mischief-mongers was blocking India’s progress march with moral and financial support from foreign powers, it alleged.
Surely, it was anti-development to protest projects meant to deliver power to homes and factories and water to fields and, surely it was treasonous to whine about the nation’s problems in international fora.
Redistribution of government largesse and international embarrassment are among the middle class’s top fears in any context. Unsurprisingly then that this anti-NGO propaganda found greatest resonance among it.
More negative shades came to be added to the portraiture in time.
With new fangled ideas of participation gaining currency in the 1990s and its own personnel not really queuing up for the task of cajoling communities, the government had been prompted to envisage greater roles for NGOs in local planning and implementation.
However not all “partner” NGOs were keen to settle into contractor-type arrangements (read shady quid pro quos) and a handle was needed over them too. So, programme guidelines were drafted such that there was no ambiguity on who was wearing the pants in the government-NGO relationship, and an entire list of sticks assembled to wave as needed.
If NGOs confined themselves to a small area, they lacked scale; if they expanded, they were creating empires. If they developed “models”, they were naïve; if they emphasised nuancing implementation approaches to local contexts, their work lacked replicability.
If they invested too much in community-level processes, they did not understand urgency and lacked outcome orientation; if they invested less in community-level processes, they were taking short-cuts.
For middle class Indians, which had already made the journey from seeing NGOs as woolly-headed do-gooders to development saboteurs, the spin about NGO ineptitude and corruption was easy to accept.
To be accurate, the NGO sector is far from perfect and corruption within it is a genuine problem, but it is clear that a blinkered middle class has focussed largely on the darker end of a large colour spectrum. And the shades have only darkened in these hypernationalistic times.
At the heart of middle class Indians’ contempt for NGOs lies the fear that NGO action may at some point in time achieve the re-setting of power balances and the re-ordering of development priorities it aspires to.
Forward movement on agendas of women’s empowerment, environment, right to information, etc have already confirmed the threat.
The most telling evidence of the middle class Indians’ fears of privilege usurpation lie in its positive image about the new generation corporate philanthropies and foundations – places where the work has the flavours, in some senses, of the old school NGO. Useful work such as building toilets, planting trees, heritage protection, skill training and research happens, but it is work located within a framework set – and consented to – by the elite.
Nobody is washing the nation’s dirty linen abroad. Nobody is losing it in anger. It is all very gentle, very “civil”. Just people like us giving back what we feel ready to give back.
Meanwhile, the fight for a fundamentally better world is happening in messy spaces we have shut ourselves to.