December 04, 2005

Watching the watchdogs -- NGO's

Watching the watchdogs

Media needs to observe the NGO sector more actively and objectively, says Shailaja Chandra

Not many people are aware that NGOs now number over 28,300 foreign funded entities, some 160,000 organisations funded by the Central Government and another 400,000 at the State level. The third category receives funding from the State governments or from charities, trusts and private sources.




What mechanism exists to know who is doing what, where? It is not my case that Government should be the custodian, leave alone the controller of such information. Nor is this necessary. What is necessary is to know which organisation is operating for what purpose and whether they are following basic requirements of accountability for the cause they profess to serve.

After all, political parties are answerable to citizens, their decisions and those of their bureaucracies are subject to review by statutory watchdogs, Parliament and State legislatures; the corporate sector is accountable to shareholders through the Companies Act. Why should organisations that claim to work for public good and garner funds in public's name not be accountable? The RTI only covers those "substantially" funded by the government. What about the rest?

Undoubtedly NGOs have fought against poverty, hunger, disease, and achieved much. They have supported human rights, protection of the environment, and served many religious, social, economic, educational and cultural causes with exemplary devotion. But between them NGOs receive more funds than the budgets of many state governments. More foreign aid goes to NGOs located in Delhi than those located in any other state or union territory. The funds received by them exceed the capital's entire budget for roads and transport. Whereas the Foreigners Contribution (Regulation) Act 1976 seeks to regulate the acceptance and utilisation of foreign contributions, naturally the entire focus is on preventing misuse for antinational activities. What about other issues like competence, expertise, track record and promised outcomes?

Since many of the organisations entered the scene to fill the gaps left behind by a cash-strapped or apathetic public sector, NGOs were seen as benevolent mediators between the Government and the people, between the rulers and the ruled. Since nothing 'went back' to the donors and there was supposedly no conflict of interest, it was automatically assumed that NGOs were entitled to the high moral ground they flaunted.

Vested with this 'authority', some NGOs now seek to be public watchdogs, witnesses, judges and executioners all rolled into one. As no one questions their ethics or legitimacy, they have become adept at lobbying for funds, and 'renting a cause'. It is reported that 10 per cent of their budgets goes towards publicity which buys credibility, often confused with legitimacy. They project a Robin Hood image setting right 'wrongs' and ameliorating society's' 'ills'.

Many of their supporters are retired or serving bureaucrats and academics who don the mantle of grassroots leaders. This is not an Indian phenomenon. The revolving door between Government bureaucracies and NGOs exists the world over. However, in India, sometimes bureaucrats themselves facilitate the establishment of NGOs and then join them when the time is ripe. No one questions the conflict of interest. Politicians see no competition from either development minded NGOs who in fact give a good name to the on-going local agenda. Small rabble rousing NGOs are viewed by them merely as a transitory nuisance -- little blotches which will disappear as something new catches their attention.

Registering an NGO under the outdated Societies Registration Act 1864 merely requires seven persons to file a bunch of papers -- a hurdle which can be crossed easily, given the right connections and grease. Whereas the stated goal of NGOs is transfer of ownership to the community, in practice the "community" may be unaware of the activities carried out in its name.

Pressure to improve accountability among NGOs has grown worldwide. The need for observing discipline, professionalism and transparency are being increasingly demanded. In US and UK insistence on disclosures and self-assessment on the lines of corporate governance by listed companies is being talked about. Philanthropists who once donated funds on trust without any conditionality now impose requirements. Within academia, centres working within Yale, Harvard, and the London School of Economics etc., have repeatedly called for improvement in NGO accountability.

The United Nations Economic and Social Council have prescribed accreditation rules requiring a democratically adopted constitution, a representative structure and an appropriate mechanism for accountability. Efforts in this direction began in India too a couple of years back. 15,000 voluntary organisations were involved in a process of consultation to enhance good governance and credibility of NGOs in the public eye. Simple, internal policies for self-regulation were recommended, the aim being to increase transparency, accountability and confidence among the public. The good news is that a system of accreditation for NGOs has been set in motion and at least those who secure voluntary accreditation can be expected to observe basic, agreed norms in conducting their operations.

The real cause for worry is the opacity of the sources of financing, as few NGOs derive income from public contributions or donations. The foreign funded ones declare who their sponsors and financiers are but their track record and actual contribution is overseen by no one. The FCRA only examines the security dimension. The Ministries and Department of the Central and State governments, lack the time, energy or resources to chase after half million organisations across the country.

Means and management apart, certainly everyone should be concerned about NGO effectiveness which depends more on competence than possessing a large heart or a loud voice. Ultimately, domain expertise is essential if NGOs are to achieve anything of substance.

Often NGOs promote economic causes and pursue issues like child labour and enforcement of labour laws - all worthy goals. But lacking expertise and competence to address issues to the end, they often inflict more damage their good on the beneficiaries. Witness those rendered jobless as factories fold up leaving thousands of poor people to lead desperate lives in conditions far worse than before. Shorn of their earnings overnight, they have to per force pursue dangerous options verging on crime. This can hardly be called a victory of good over evil.

Even so, it is creditable that NGOs invited to the last World Economic Forum at Davos were able to buttonhole many a giant who until then treated corporate social responsibility as a nice sounding phrase. Not only did the activists share the same table but their words began to be taken seriously. Almost. Until some of them got branded as "ill informed", "incoherent", and "uncompromising" because rhetoric and expertise are not the same and while competent aggression succeeds, shams get exposed.

Media needs to be sensitive to the politics behind some NGO movements, to ask searching questions, before eulogising selected stories to the exclusion of the bigger picture. Self-appointed NGOs answer to no constituency. While some have genuinely contributed to enhancing welfare and the furtherance of human and civil rights, others are servicing special interests dictated by their donors. Equally, the extraordinary work being done by a range of selfless, compassionate NGOs hardly receives the coverage it deserves. We need to see more stories about NGOs which have made a difference to people's lives in ways that no government, or even the most caring individual, could ever have done.

Stories about NGOs that provide succour to terminally ill patients; about NGOs attending to burn victims in hospitals; or working with spastic children; bringing the fruits of education to slum children. One salutes the men and women who have given their time and effort to make that difference, unmindful of returns, leave alone recognition. Selfless compassion and concern for the truly deprived deserves much more acclaim. Why it that these heroic deeds never get told? Because they have no friends in high places? Or no time to give dramatic sound bytes?

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