No, many NGOs do far more harm than good


Graham Hancock’s damning 1989 expose, Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, estimated that most of the $60 billion plus that comprised governmental, UN, and World Bank or IMF-type “aid” was siphoned off. Mostly by elites in poor nations, special interests (like agribusiness) in donor countries, but also, startlingly, the aid agencies’ own personnel budgets, which waste as much as 80 percent of the funds for lavish (first-class) travel, salaries, and perquisites.

Unfortunately, the same appears to be true of NGOs. Despite their saintly image in the media, some have connections to dubious groups in India. Some misuse their funds, for instance to pay for trips by their “volunteers” to India, boondoggle “lecture-tours” of the United States by their comrades-in-arms in India, and so forth.

In addition, the aftermath of the tsunami demonstrated what has long been an open secret: many NGOs are merely fronts for religious conversion. Yes, everyone loves a good tsunami. There were sordid tales about how certain “charities” refused help unless the targets of their munificence converted. Compare this to the sterling, selfless work done by, say, All-India Movement (AIM) for Seva.

But ambulance-chasing Christian fundamentalists are a known devil. Indian groups with deceptively appealing siren songs are more insidious. Most of them are started by well-meaning, idealistic, but naive individuals to “do something for India.” But over time, these organizations get hijacked, and become personal fiefdoms for self-glorification, or else unwitting tools in the hands of anti-nationals. In the end, you, the Indian-American donor, may find your hard-earned money either wasted on extravagant overhead, or funding groups you may not approve of.

For instance, Association for India’s Development’s (AID) collaboration with DYFI and SFI, youth and student wings of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in tsunami relief raises questions about how their funds are used. Some AID chapters in the United States are also subsidizing Asha for Education cofounder Sandeep Pandey’s “peace march” to Pakistan. This is stretching the definition of development and education: these are political activities, which tax-exempt charities are expected to avoid.
These are the kinds of things that go on behind the appealing facades of NGOs. A word to the wise donor: caveat emptor, buyer beware!

Non-Indian NGOs too show bad faith. Amnesty International, headed by a niece of Bangladesh’s dictator, ignores daily atrocities visited upon non-Muslim minority populations there. Human Rights Watch worries about Muslims, but not about ethnically cleansed Kashmiri Hindus. ActionAid and WorldVision have been accused of covert or blatant conversion agendas. Hypocrisy and political games are par for the course.

All NGOs are not created equal: to separate the wheat from the chaff, ignore propaganda and look at track records, especially financial statements.

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Mumbai.


Yes, properly motivated NGOs do a lot of good

My opponent’s criticism of NGOs is overly broad, though he gets support from an unexpected quarter: Arundhati Roy. “NGOs have depoliticized resistance, turned resistance into a salaried 9-5 job. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary,” says she with the usual Roy theatrics and unoriginality. This point has been made time and again by critics of the World Bank-IMF consortium’s Structural Adjustment Policies in poor nations. Neo-liberal regimes actively used NGOs to defuse the anger arising from the disastrous consequences to the poor from economic “liberalization.” So there is some truth to the allegation, despite the red rhetoric.

Yet, to attack the very agency of NGOs is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. NGOs cannot replace the welfare state, but they certainly can enhance the provision of core social services, especially where the State has abdicated its responsibility.

In fact, “NGO” is new only in terminology. The term arose from the West’s vision of democratized societies, where, through volunteerism, a civil society is constructed vertically, cutting across kin and family networks. But NGOs as community-based organizations are not new: they fill gaps left by the State. Health, education, justice, economic development, and environmental protection have always been addressed by local communities, especially within religious contexts.

People in the Third World, especially the rural and the poor, retain a strong sense of community: individual achievements are measured against their contribution to the community, unlike in the individualistic societies of the West. This builds a collective consciousness and a sense of community ownership, the Commons.

When NGOs as external agents in such communities work within the parameters of the collectivistic culture, the rewards are enormous. NGOs that work with native ways of knowing succeed in getting the people to participate in determining their development needs and the processes required to achieve their goals. NGOs need to be humble enough to recognize that traditional knowledge systems often have greater utility than their new-fangled, urban-centric prescriptions.

Examples of such success stories abound in the areas of education, land and water development, forest husbandry, and health: the Ekal Vidyalayas that impart basic life-skills and rudimentary modern education within the context of the native cultures; the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh that provides micro-credit based on mutual trust instead of collateral; the Tarun Bharat Sangh that involves local people in forest and water conservation by reviving traditional community values of environmental protection that got alienated due to state ownership of these resources.

NGOs that facilitate development by combining native wisdom with modern technology and management provide sustainable long-term solutions. Motivations of political, religious, or ideological activism, or charity make not an NGO.

Sugrutha Ramaswami is an IT professional in New Jersey.