Filling a vacuum

Print edition : September 23, 2011

Members of India Against Corruption demonstrating against Anna Hazare's arrest, in Patna on August 16. - RANJEET KUMAR

The falling credibility of the political class has helped NGOs to play an increasing role in setting social agendas.

In the realms of both academics and activism, civil society or non-governmental organisations are broadly classified into two categories. The first category is that of operational NGOs implementing programmes and carrying out tasks with the professed and distinct aim of improving services on the ground. The range of services addressed by these NGOs includes poverty alleviation, protection of human rights, environmental concerns, empowerment and gender equity. In other words, operational NGOs essentially focus on relieving the suffering, promoting interests of the poor, protecting the environment, providing basic social services, and undertaking community development. The second category is that of advocacy NGOs, which advance objectives of social and political agenda-setting, negotiation for the same and monitoring the implementation, enforcement and non-compliance of governance policies. In the process, advocacy NGOs give voice to, mobilise, and represent varied social and political interests or concerns, including that of different segments of the population. These interventions have taken place at the local, national and international levels.

According to several studies carried out by organisations as varied as the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS), advocacy NGOs have been growing in number across the world, especially after 1990. The reasons for the spurt highlighted in these studies include the end of the Cold War, the availability of greater resources, and a more open social and political environment in the era of globalisation. The United Nations (U.N.) lends greater credence to these organisations by stating in its March 2000 report on United Nations Reform priorities that the international community has a right to protect citizens of the world from ethnic cleansing, genocide and crimes against humanity through advocacy initiatives. A shared perspective then was that these advocacy NGOs could become a third factor located between the institutional spaces of the state and the market, promoting the development of marginalised groups in different parts of the world.

Global estimates are that there are approximately 40,000 internationally operating NGOs across the globe. India has the highest number of nationally and locally operating NGOs. A study by the Union Home Ministry had put the number of NGOs in India at 33 lakh, which is approximately one NGO for every 400 persons. While the majority of Indian NGOs falls in the classification of operational NGOs, developments in the country over the past decade and a half have signified the rise of advocacy NGO. These advocacy NGOs have advanced multidimensional activities centred on monitoring governance, implementation of governance policies and social and political agenda-setting for the same.

For organisations such as National Social Watch, which has links with International Social Watch, monitoring governance is one of the primary tasks. A statement of the organisation on its website runs as follows: Governance is about how government, civil society, and the private sector work together. Governance tells us how the government functions, who is involved in the policy process, and where the effects, both positive and negative, of political activity, are distributed in a society.

It goes on to add that governance is a development issue and good governance is a key requirement for effective and inclusive development. Governance is about the way that decisions are made in villages, towns, cities, provinces, and countries. For those in government, it is the exercise of authority to manage the affairs of a constituency. While the government normally has the final say when it comes to public policies, programmes, laws, and regulations, it is not the only player. Citizens, civil society organisations, and the private sector also have a role to play.

Other organisations such as the Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA) and the Consumer Units and Trusts Society (CUTS) keep track of governance and policy implementation in specific areas such as human rights, budgets and financial expenditure. Many of these organisations underline that local issues and governance impact global governance and also that local efforts can have global repercussions.

India Against Corruption (IAC), the NGO that spearheaded the Anna Hazare-led Jan Lokpal Bill movement, has been a kind of by-product of the coming together of a number of organisations that have advanced both operational social work and advocacy-oriented initiatives. The leaders of IAC, such as Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi, are associated with a number of NGOs that promote both advocacy and operational social work.

According to the Lucknow-based political observer and advocate Indra Bhushan Singh, a number of advocacy NGOs in India, including Social Watch , Human Rights Watch and the CBGA, have championed diverse causes effectively, but the most spectacular success has been that of IAC. While a variety of factors can be deduced for these successes, the most important factor that has contributed to them is the systematic degeneration of the credibility of the political class of the county and the rise of weak governments as a result of it. And this weakness is exemplified when the IAC movement is perceived and portrayed as one bypassing or even challenging Parliament, by none other than the Prime Minister of the country.

Indra Bhushan Singh adds that this weakness of political authority has been a growing phenomenon and many international agencies haved been seeking to make inroads into this weak system using some of these organisations. He pointed to a 1993 study of the PIRG, which highlighted the increased funding of NGOs in different sectors by organisations and agencies such as the World Bank. What this study showed was that while there were a number of operational NGOs that were being supported by the World Bank, there was also a marked emphasis to facilitate advocacy initiatives even from operational NGOs. Interestingly, this was the period when structural adjustment programmes (SAP) had become the primary concern of the Union and very many State governments in the country. And as is well known, SAP initiatives have, in many parts of the world, been disastrous on the poor communities. The SAPs had led to massive cuts in social and welfare spending, wage freezing, spiralling of prices, and privatisation of basic services. In many places it had also become an instrument seeking to advance a homogenised world-view and governance model that completely overlooks history and the inequities generated by it. It needs to be studied at length as to what ideological shifts this context as well as the support from the international agencies has caused on these organisations. The recent interventions also need to be studied from that perspective too, Indra Bhushan Singh pointed out.

John Samuel, former International Director of Action Aid and a civil society commentator, said, Civil society is being paraded as the new panacea for a range of issues such as poverty, human rights, gender equity and good governance. This process is getting increasingly facilitated in India by telegenic politics, which has eclipsed the old modes of analytical journalism and nuanced critique. The market and the media have collided to create an instant sensex' of politics and here new-age advocacy actors from the non-party political and civil space have begun to outsmart the old politicians by utilising network modes of mobilisation.

Viewed holistically, what is at play in the advocacy initiatives and the attempts at monitoring, nuancing or dictating policy and governance is a mlange of factors, ranging from righteous and empowerment-oriented aspirations of the people and their channelisation in terms of people-oriented advocacy, but controlled and dictated time and again by forces of the market and globalisation.

Clearly, this is a mixture that is difficult to manage within defined parameters. Only an assertion of the political forces that emphasises real social justice, empowerment, ethics and probity in public life may be able to steer the course out of this confusion. But then, which political force has the potential to do it?

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