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NGOs in Governance:
State Agents, International Clients or 'Civil' Response?

By: T. Deepa Manjuri Devi *



The sudden increase in the number of NGOs during recent times has attracted keen public interest in the positive as well as negative aspects of these organisations. While some would view the trend as indicative of an increased 'civil' awareness among the people, many would still argue it as 'unhealthy' for the state since it leads to the 'inactivity' of many government machinery.

It is in the light of this ongoing debate over the NGOs and their place in the 'civil society' discourse and the role they play in the 'globalisation' and 'development' related processes all over the world that this article makes an attempt to contextualise itself.

This article has drawn heavily on the experiences in the state of Manipur, which has seen the growth of a large number of NGOs dealing with various 'AIDS projects' in the recent years, and also the examples from Bangladesh and the Latin American countries.

I will present before the readers three commonly encountered arguments that are directed against NGOs as points of reference to carry forward the argument. These criticisms try to expose the darker sides of NGOs in their three avatars - as state agents, clients of international and national donor agencies, and as 'employers' to thousands of unemployed youths (which is particularly relevant for the 'developing third world' countries).

NGOs as State Agents:

NGOs emerged in certain areas as a response to state failure, e.g. in Bangladesh, the first NGOs started operating in the country as part of the international relief efforts after the war of 1971. Self-centred and over-accountable to foreign donors, these NGOs remained isolated from wider society for quite a long time in Bangladesh until Sheikh Mujabur Rahman's Awami League came to power in 1975.

By this time, civil society organisations (shushil samaj or 'gentle societies' in Bangla) got themselves absorbed in the state apparatus, and during the time of General Zia Rahman, 'militarisation' of civil society took place in the country. The development of 'modern' civil societies like NGOs, pressure groups, etc. had been accounted as the result of 'resistance to this narrowing of public space' in the case of Bangladesh. Some countries like China had a different experience.

NGOs in China developed to serve as a platform to express the 'voice' of the marginalised population and in the Latin American context, NGOs related to HIV/AIDS care developed as part of the state effort at 'inter-institutionalisation, and civil co-ordination', in the 'fight against HIV/AIDS'.

Manipur was no stranger when it comes to associations formed by 'groups of like minded people with a shared interest' before the coming of 'modern' civil society organisations like NGOs. From the strongly political shinglup of the earlier days to the present day associations of meira paibis, the state has a rich history of civil bodies playing active part in the politics of the land.

During 'Revivalist Movement' in the seventies and the eighties, 'Cease Fire' agitation, the 'Monorama case', and also in the recent 'script movement' ( which unfortunately took an ugly turn by its involvement in the destruction of valuable public properties), we saw the active role played by civil organisations. However, the 'civil society' experience of the state took a sharp turn with the coming of AIDS in the eighties that led to the sudden growth of NGOs in the region.

Manipur launched its State AIDS Policy (for the first time in India) and Manipur State AIDS Control Society (MACS) was registered in March 1998 as the regional body to spearhead the AIDS policies and programmes in the state. The governing body of each of the District AIDS Committee functioning under MACS has NGO representatives as its Executive Committee members above and all its other members.

In fact, MACS works in collaboration with a number of NGOs, and CBOs (Community Based Organisations) which themselves are involved with different aspects of AIDS Control Programme in the state.

The two main counseling centers at Imphal - one at RIMS, and the other at JN Hospital, are both run by an NGO - Social Awareness and Service Organisation (SASO), which is funded by MACS. The launch of Rapid Intervention and Care (RIAC) Project on the 7th of November 1998 (the aim of which was to bring about a more effective and quick control of the spread of HIV/AIDS in the state) was in collaboration with twelve partner NGOs.

In fact, from just one NGO dealing with AIDS in the early nineties, Manipur, today, has 101 NGOs empanelled under MACS working in collaboration with the same for the implementation of the State AIDS policies and programmes. (Status Report, 2000 of MACS).

Such a role of the NGOs gives the public an impression that they serve as agents of the state which 'deliver the goods' on behalf of the government.

NGOs as international clients:

Most of the NGOs in the developing countries emerged as consciously created civil bodies to deal with the problems of economic underdevelopment, health and gender issues along with the environment concerns in the recent times. They may originate from 'within' the country or from 'without' as part of the globalising trend.

Whatever the original aim of these organisations, they have to 'adjust' their aims and objectives to the ongoing 'demands' and 'preferences' of the 'donors' - international or national. Nevertheless, NGOs receive more funds from 'foreign donors' than 'national donors'.

For instance, in the Latin American countries, 43% of the total funding NGOs (dealing with HIV/AIDS care) recieve is from international agencies, while only a meager 9.4% comes from the government side (from the remaining 46.9%, 4.7% is jointly provided by international agencies and national government, and the rest, i.e. 42.2% is incurred by the NGOs themselves from their own resources).

These aids are bestowed with the expectation that the NGOs will target their policies and programmes to the following populations - MSM (Men having Sex with Men), CSWs (Commercial Sex Workers), PLWHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS) and adolescents.

Similarly in the case of Manipur, funding from various agencies always has some strings attached to them and it is also applicable to NGOs everywhere if they get 'aids' from donor agencies. For example, when Rapid Intervention and Care (RIAC) Project was launched on the 7th of November, 1998 with the objective to bring about a more effective and quick control of the spread of HIV/AIDS in the state in collaboration with twelve partner NGOs, the different activities to be covered under this had been already elaborated.

Under this project, three targeted groups are mentioned i.e. the truck drivers, the women at risk (CSWs, women IDUs, women quarry labourers, spouses of IDUs, HIV/AIDS patients) and MSM. This means that the various NGOs working in collaboration with MACS and the other donor agencies (the names of five national and twenty-four international funding agencies have been listed in the Status Report of MACS, 2000)) are 'obliged' to work within that framework.

Thus, NGOs as 'aid machines' are prone to interference from the donors as well as the local powers. This open secret of unethical and sleazy engagements arouse deceit in the mind of the general people towards these organisations and the latter see them as bogus which do not have genuine interest for the betterment of the affected people.

NGOs as 'Employers':

The third criticism mainly directs at the internal working environment of these organisations. In modern times, NGOs have become great sources of employments for many jobless as well as the socially committed sections of the population everywhere. However, there is no definite rule or regulation covering the employer-employee relationship within such organizations.

Many feel that NGOs as 'employers' are 'emerging worse than the state, or many private sector organisations' and 'under the halo of "non-profit", the people who profit the least and neglected are those employees at the lowest rung. These underpaid employees are the ones who actually go to the field and interact with the clients in the process of 'delivering the goods'.

Besides, the working environment of NGOs has been felt by many as 'unfriendly' to its employees, especially to the female employees. Within NGO community itself there are allegations of mismanagement, corruption, scandal, etc.

The 'connoisseurs' of such organisations, who exalt their existence as a sign of 'vibrant' civil awareness, generally overlook these organisational illnesses. Seeing these sides of NGOs led many to refrain from calling them the 'third sectors' and instead regard them as more 'uncivil' than 'civil'.

There are always possibilities to have opinions 'for' and 'against' these criticisms. However, it is also true that 'nungshit shittana una lengba hounade!' The various criticisms directed against the NGOs are not at all baseless arguments.

This is not to deny the great potential NGOs possess as providers of service effectively at the community level, and their significant role in the management of health, gender issues, human rights, and other 'development' related projects.

Indeed the call of the hour is to acknowledge the presence of such organisations in contemporary politics of governance, be it in a small and remote town like Imphal or a 'global' city like New York, which could be labeled as the 'necessary evils'.

In this connection, I would like to emphasise the burning need at present, of seriously considering the 'darker sides' of these organisations once more, and then try looking for solutions to such criticisms (the above mentioned are not exhaustive), so that their potential be taped to the fullest for the benefit of all parties concerned.

There should be a re-evaluation of the NGOs vis--vis their performance. NGOs as employers should be sensitive to its lower rung employees as well. In Manipur, NGOs exploiting the volunteers and the other field-workers are not scene unseen and unknown even for a casual observer.

Finally, excessive dependence on these bodies by the state should be looked at with skepticism, unless, of course, the state has 'complete privatisation' in its mind! NGOs can be supplementary but they can never be a substitute to good governance.


T.Deepa Manjuri Devi, a Ph.D (Sociology) student at Delhi School of Economics, writes regularly to e-pao.net
She can be contacted at rita_takhel@yahoo.com
This article was webcasted on June 3, 2005.


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