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On Funding and the NGO Sector

Every attempt made during the past decade to address the question of funding of women's groups has become a highly charged affair. This is most unfortunate because a significant section of the women's movement has identified strongly with autonomous politics and needs to interrogate the premises and implications of autonomy. Yet the reality is that NGOs are an entrenched part of the system, an institutionalised force, from whom we must demand accountability even as we continue to ally with them through critical engagement.

On Funding and theNGO Sector

Every attempt made during the past decade to address the question of funding of women’s groups has become a highly charged affair. This is most unfortunate because a significant section of the women’s movement has identified strongly with autonomous politics and needs to interrogate the premises and implications of autonomy. Yet the reality is that NGOs are an entrenched part of the system, an institutionalised force, from whom we must demand accountability even as we continue to ally with them through

critical engagement.


meeting held in August 2006 in Delhi, to mark 25 years of the autonomous women’s group, Saheli, afforded a significant space to discuss the politics of autonomy within the women’s movement in India. As women from contemporary struggles for lesbian rights, dalit rights, working women’s unions, democratic rights, and also in one case a political party, spoke about their struggles, the complex and diverse ground that the autonomous women’s movement has covered in the three decades or so since its inception was overwhelming.

However, the question of funding, that is, the means by which women’s groups economically sustain themselves, a question critical to the identity of autonomous women’s groups, came up only briefly in a general discussion. Many acknowledged the importance of Saheli’s role as a nonfunded group but when funding was raised as a serious issue before the movement, interventions by NGO workers became tearful and emotional, and the issue rapidly dissolved out of the realm of discussion.

Every attempt made in more than a decade to address the question of funding has, as I recall, become a highly charged and polarised affair, couched in personal terms, unleashing deep feelings of guilt and defensiveness. This is most unfortunate particularly because a significant section of the women’s movement in India has identified strongly with autonomous politics and if at least this section does not consciously interrogate the premises and implications of autonomy, it runs the risks of alienation; it begins to function as if out of a ghetto.

Polarisation of the Funding Question

The origins of the polarisation of the funding question are to be found in the cold war era, where donor agencies played a nefarious role in furthering the imperialistic agenda. The Ford Foundation, for example, was pressed into service by the CIA to counter the “communist threat”, by setting up cultural fronts, enlisting the support of prominent anti-left intellectuals, and in India working closely with the Nehruvian regime (itself keen to quell peasant uprisings in Telangana and other places) to co-opt agrarian struggles through community development projects.

Given these dubious antecedents of Ford Foundation-type institutionalised funding in India, it is the extreme left – the Maoist groups – who have most vehemently and consistently been opposed to foreign funding. These groups are most active in feudal, rural, agrarian, forest-rich areas where the orthodox left with its focus on industrial belts is all but absent. The political space in these areas is severely contested between the Maoists, on the one hand, with their commitment to armed revolution and, on the other, either state-sponsored fronts or NGOs that mushroom by the day. But their commitment is to whom, that is a point for consideration. The extreme left would unhesitatingly state that the latter’s commitment is clearly to forces

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of imperialism while NGOs themselves would insist that it is to a rather more amorphous category: “the people”.

In 1985, the polarisation was taken further by Prakash Karat of the CPI(M) whose thesis – funded NGOs are imperialist agents – discarded all funding into a single ideological trash bin.1 This unfortunately provided an ideological basis for witch hunts in Kerala and West Bengal, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, and served as an excuse for the ruling Marxist party to crush many emerging social movements. It is interesting to note however that recent resolutions in the CPI(M)’s party organ represent a reversal of its original position on NGOs without justification for the reversal: “…NGO office-bearers must remain accountable to the state/district/ zonal/local committees in accordance with their geographical area of operation…”2 Indeed in the World Social Forum held in Mumbai in 2004, the CPI(M) worked shoulder to shoulder with a plethora of funded NGOs to mobilise massive participation.

Even more problematic has been the right wing critique which alleges that NGO funding essentially furthers “anti-Hindu” agendas of Christian, Islamic and communist organisations. The bogey of conversion has been used in several states by the VHP, Bajrang Dal, RSS and other members of the Sangh parivar to perpetrate the most horrific atrocities against missionaries and indeed any associate of the church. The strident right wing is today, however, in the uncomfortable position of having the tables turned on them, following the publication of several reports that link overseas funding to the fuelling of a politics of hate. An ASAW report in 2004 showed that a third of the money collected by Hindu organisations in Britain, ostensibly for earthquake and cyclone relief, actually funded the Sangh parivar’s criminal, anti-minority activities in Gujarat and Orissa. Another report detailed the activities of the US-based India Development and Relief Fund, which collected funds from US companies and channelled them to Hindutva-inspired fundamentalist organisations.

In the context, any discussion on funding by autonomous women’s groups today rests on tricky ground. We need to take a cleareyed look at funding while being simultaneously aware that our arguments may be used to bolster the Hindutva agenda, or to strengthen the authoritarianism of the organised left; to invite charges of class collaboration if the stand taken is nuanced, or to provoke allegations of being purist if it is not.

Autonomous Women’s Groups

For autonomous women’s groups, being non-funded was an essential prerequisite for autonomy. That is not to say that autonomous women’s groups received no funds at all. Personal donations were accepted from individual supporters but not funds from any institution, either governmental or international. Some groups accepted funds for a particular short-term project while declining institutional support for their day-to-day activities. Since autonomous women’s groups are not charity organisations but rather are political (non-party but political) formations and since institutional funding is not without its motivated interests and temporal limitations, the rationale was that institutional support for everyday activities would significantly constrain freedom and autonomy by introducing overt or subtle pressures to toe the funder’s line.

The freedom to challenge the state, political parties and entrenched, intertwined structures of oppression – capitalism, patriarchy, racism, caste, heterosexuality, religious fundamentalism – unfettered by the need to please a funding agency gave enormous political strength and also legitimacy. A common experience of autonomous women’s groups was that their campaign calls on many issues received immediate support from various sections representing a wide spectrum of political persuasions who would otherwise find it difficult, if not impossible, to work together. It also granted them an autonomous agency – they, and not some outside funding body guided by annual budget considerations, would decide the focus and duration of their work. Further, the act of raising funds from the people – college students, working women, indeed an array of individual supporters was a political act, through which not only a vision was shared but groups were allowed to remain accountable in a vital sense.

However, the women’s groups that are non-funded today are minuscule in number. The growing participation of NGOs in each of the national women’s conferences reflects the fact that the women’s movement is a hugely funded affair today. The 7th National Conference of Women’s Movements held in Kolkata in early September this year witnessed large NGO participation. In the context, questions of autonomy and funding become even more relevant. The confusion that surrounds this question is seen in the call letter to the Kolkata conference in which autonomy is described “in terms of maintaining institutional and ideological independence from political parties, governments and funding agencies” even though very few groups from the list of the organising committee members actually function independently from funding agencies.

Proliferation of NGOs

During 2003-04, 14,700 groups were registered with the ministry of home affairs and received foreign funds worth Rs 4,856 crore (Rs 48.56 billion), up from Rs 3,403 crore in 1998-99 and Rs 230 crore in 1986. Far from being a spontaneous social phenomenon, the proliferation of NGOs in the 1980s and 1990s in India has taken place in a specific historical context, as a result of specific domestic and global policy changes: economic liberalisation and integration into a market-driven global economy. Since the context of globalisation is today much discussed, a few points in this regard should be sufficient.

From the Eighth Plan onwards, the thrust of the Planning Commission has been to open up a space for NGOs consistent with liberalising the country’s economy and ushering in the era of public-private partnerships. With the introduction of new economic policies in the early 1990s, massive infusions of aid began to pour into the country, notably from international financial institutions like the World Bank, IMF and ADB, each tied to structural conditions: marketfriendly restructuring, corporatisation and privatisation of public enterprises and utilities, creating a flexible labour force, removing regulations and so on. These structural adjustments entailed the systematic dismantling of the country’s fragile public services and the retreat of the state from essential sectors like food and water supply, education, healthcare and so on. This has left the poor to pretty much to fend for themselves, without a say in the direction of the country’s fast-track development path, without an administration to confront when displaced and disenfranchised to make room for such development, and of course without any claim on the dubious fruits of such development.

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The same financial institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the ADB who are on the one hand twisting the arms of the state to force its retreat from the public sector are the ones to use the language of “beneficiary participation” and “capacity building” to set up, fund, and collaborate with all kinds of NGOs. At a time when the word “development” is no more than a euphemism for the unregulated plunder of natural resources and the transfer of public assets to private hands, NGOs increasingly present the so-called human face of this process. A 1994 paper on the ADB’s cooperation with NGOs states that “NGOs understand clientele culture and idiom which are important social dimensions that impinge on beneficiary participation in development efforts”.3 The World Bank’s Report on Development 2000-01 clearly states that “Social tensions and divisions can be eased by bringing political opponents together within the framework of formal and informal forums and by channelling their energies through political processes, rather than leaving confrontation as the only form of release”.4 Given the role that funding agencies outline for the NGO, it is hardly surprising that most NGOs function to mediate and diffuse the enormous build-up of social and political tension, which is the outcome of iniquitous and highly destructive development. This process of mediation and diffusion is variously known as advocacy or negotiation or networking, depending on the context.

One way of looking at the tremendous proliferation of NGOs and their particular role precisely when such far-reaching, indeed violent, changes are being made to the social and economic fabric of the country is to press into service Karat’s “NGO as imperialist agent” thesis. However, this approach does not in any way further the discussion on funding nor does it pose new questions for reflection but rather it takes us back full circle or even further back than full circle. NGOs are a much more widespread, indeed omnipresent force today than they were in the mid-1980s. The increase in the foreign funds inflow into NGOs today is more than 20 times what it used to be in the mid-1980s and since then, the number of registered NGOs has increased by 250 per cent. Also, the earlier distinction that used to be made in terms of differentiating between the foreign-funded NGO (“imperialist money”) and the one that received state funding (“taxpayer’s money”) is becoming defunct in today’s changing economic and political context.

Identity Politics

At this point, we also need to consider a related question, which is the question of identity politics and representation. The last three decades have also seen the proliferation of identity-based politics. The resurgence of the dalit movement, emergence of the women’s movement, growth of environmental groups, proliferation of ethnic identity-based oppositional movements in the north-east, and the more recent emergence of queer groups – all these represent the increasing tendency of sections of people to organise on the basis of identity.

How does one view this phenomenon? Given that identity-based politics is also heavily funded today, one simple approach could be to take a class-based view and lump all identity-based initiatives as an extension of neo-imperialism or postmodernism, established and funded by Ford Foundations and Oxfams to undermine the class struggle. Now, taking the example of the women’s movement, it can hardly be denied that unless women had organised on the basis of their identity as women and pounded hard and long at various doors – those of the state, political parties including the left and so on – the incredible spaces, indeed the co-optation, that opened up for women’s issues in the country would have remained a thing unknown. For years the left sought to assimilate the women’s question under the rubric of class struggle, deriding the concept of patriarchy as divisive and inimical.

Today, despite the formal assimilation of women’s issues into the cultural mainstream, the political struggle for women’s liberation is still a distant dream. In trade unions women continue to be absent from leadership. The low skill levels that for historical reasons women possess and the ubiquitous sexual division of labour keeps women tied to the bottom rungs of labour, which more or less closes the door for women for leadership in traditional maledominated unions. What choice do women workers have but to opt for forms of organising that are flexible, non-patriarchal and based around their subjective and objective reality as women? The same can be said of many other single-issue groups or movements: lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (lgbt) groups working in a mainstream culture that’s marked by a deeply-entrenched fear of homosexuality or trade union research groups working in a climate of backlash against labour.

The point is that single issue movements and identity politics are not the result of some sort of false consciousness that has gripped the people, nor does it represent a sell-out to neoliberal/postmodern forces. Rather, given the inability of class analysis to explain the basis of so many aspects of our daily lived oppression and therefore also its inability to offer liberating

Centre for Studies

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answers, people everywhere are organising in partial but significant ways to identify, unravel and dissolve the strands of oppression from the whole smothering fabric. We have a long way to go in terms of developing idiom, theory and praxis that will take into account the various facets of oppression, without sweeping one or the other under the carpet. To do so autonomously, without dependence on external aid is a real challenge.

The fact that identity-based politics is heavily funded today poses real difficulties, particularly for those of us who have chosen to do political work in non-funded ways. The volunteerism of the voluntary sector is an oxymoron. We watch with dismay as bright and idealistic young people leave universities to walk straight through the doors of their first employer

– the funded NGO – in whose wellappointed offices they will receive their first training often in advocacy and impotence. As single issue specialists, their careers will hinge on developing expertise in one aspect of a social problem, stripped of the larger political context. As they engage in negotiation in high places, the people of the country will figure in their scheme of things as “clientele” and peoples’ rights as “beneficiary participation”.

Voluntary Sector Is Not a Monolith

Yet the reality is that NGOs are an entrenched part of the system, an institutionalised force, in many ways no different from other institutions. To that extent, a strategy of boycotting NGOs or calling them “imperialist agents” is only as productive as it is to boycott the media for serving the needs of neo-imperialism and allowing it to function just as it pleases, or for the same reasons, to boycott the parliamentary democracy system and abandon the demand for 33 per cent reservation of electoral seats for women or to boycott the judiciary and abandon the need for legal reform.

In the last two decades, there have been some, admittedly few if one considers the scale of the voluntary sector, but nevertheless significant interventions by funded NGOs to directly confront the state, communal forces and the forces of neo-imperialism. As an example, on September 25, 1999, two Bharatiya Janata Party officials called for the investigation and punishment of 13 NGOs they described as “antinational” for their sponsorship of a newspaper advertisement criticising the BJP’s positions on women’s issues, and also for their earlier criticism of the Pokhran nuclear tests of May 1998. Within a few days, the home ministry (a BJP-ruled coalition was in power then) served notice upon several of the NGOs classifying the groups as “organisation[s] of a political nature, not being a political party” under Section 5(1) of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act of 1976 (FCRA). To treat the voluntary sector as a monolith would be to ignore the history and future possibilities of such interventions. Because it is not a monolith, to look for allies within it is no more reprehensible than it is to lobby the friendly journalist, the liberal academic, the sympathetic politician. Rather than boycott, what is needed is a more critical and intelligent engagement with NGOs.

Having said that, we also need to critically examine the ground reality of NGO operations, and formulate questions for the voluntary sector. This is particularly important because the voluntary sector tends to function more or less as a vast, unregulated body. If today the Right to Information Act can be brought to bear upon government bodies, do we not also require some mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability from NGOs?

Most NGOs are accountable only to themselves and their funders. The FCRA, which regulates foreign assistance inflows, is quite ineffective in even basic regulatory activities such as pinpointing fraudulent NGOs. Further, UN bodies like UNDP, UNICEF, and so on, as well as the IMF, the World Bank and their subsidiaries can give funds directly to NGOs. No FCRA is needed for such funding. They are quite literally above the law. These NGOs become the pushers of coercive population policies and hazardous contraception; they smoothen the way for the entry of private companies into sectors like water and electricity; they provide the rubber stamp to prove “beneficiary participation” in World Bank and ADB-led mega development projects.

Further, because of the complete lack of mechanisms of accountability, most NGOs are run like fiefdoms. NGO bosses have been known to fire an entire set of employees to quell dissent, without encountering anything more than a murmur of protest, which also is effectively quashed.

In Delhi many years ago when a well known NGO had summarily fired a few employees, a rare attempt was made at unionising NGO employees. Since no clear definition of management and workers exists in the NGO context, which is a context of so-called volunteerism, the first few meetings were attended both by the staff and the bosses of several NGOs. Needless to say, utter confusion prevailed, the real issues were never articulated for fear of reprisal, and the whole thing petered out in no time. Many NGOs are in no way better than the corporate/private sector when it comes to employee practices: arbitrary hire-and-fire policies, non-observanceof minimum wage regulation, unfair working hours and lack of commitment to social security. In recent times, there have been multiple cases of sexual harassment of NGO employees by their bosses. Because these bosses are well known lawyers or well-connected to local politicians and so on, their individual influence combined with the lack of any institutionalised mechanism to address sexual harassment, has led either to a withdrawal of charges or been resolved merely by the employee leaving the organisation.

NGOs in Coalition

In issue-based coalitions involving nonfunded groups as well as NGOs, the role of the NGO usually proves to be highly problematic simply on account of the huge power differential that funding creates. Functioning with infrastructural privileges like a paid office space, paid full-time workers,communication facilities like telephone, email and so on, propels the NGO in no time to the front of an alliance. These infrastructural privileges make the NGO accessible to the media; if the coalition secretariat’s address is its own, the NGO soon begins to command a central, highly visible space. Not surprisingly, democratic processes begin to be subverted in the pressure and immediacy surrounding campaigns, and the coalition soon falls like a pack of cards. Given the privileges that it enjoys and the ease with which it can co-opt a campaign, the NGO must necessarily play, or be asked to play, a facilitating role in the background rather than a frontal role.

NGOs also tend to be fiercely competitive. This is hardly surprising considering the limited, if not capitalist nature of sectorbased, issue-based funding. The growth of another NGO in a particular sector deeply threatens existing NGOs working in that sector. The limited nature of funding makes it difficult for NGOs to tolerate competition and for this reason, we find NGOs treating the sector or issue they are funded for as pretty much their private property. Typically they are experts in advocacy, accountable to no constituency;

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 they resist transgressions into their territory; they begin to develop narrow, single-issue expertise; they adopt careerist aspirations; their idiom and practices and increasingly, their salary structures, closely resemble what we expect to find in the corporate world. It is heartening however that there are still a handful of NGOs in the country that are trying to resist these trends, working towards parity, and insisting on some degree of freedom over their utilisation of funds. These NGOs typically work with people in communities, by virtue of which they have a constituency that they are somewhat accountable to.

Even as we form alliances based on critical engagement with such honest NGOs, we must demand accountability from the sector as a whole. To treat the voluntary sector as a monolith would ignore the fact that there are NGO bosses and there are NGO employees, and a clear power differential exists between them. The power differential must be sharpened and turned back on the sector. To expect the field staff of NGOs, the “workers” as it were, to initiate this process is to ignore the fact that the same conditions that make organising within the informal sector so difficult also prevail in NGOs. In fact, things are worse here because of the fuzziness of the employer-employee relationship and the jargon of volunteerism used. However, I believe that repeated questioning, external pressure and also consistent, transparent and honest initiatives from within the NGO sector are needed, rather than silence and defensiveness. Honest engagement and open dialogue would help to separate the wheat from the chaff as it were, and lead to positive changes.

Engaging Critically

The first set of questions would be related to the nature of the funding received. Who is funding you? What is the track record of your funder in India and other countries? From where does your funder collect its monies? From individuals, from trade unions, from corporates, from international financial institutions? What sectors do your funders typically assist?

The second set of questions would be related to the nature of activities and public accountability. What mechanisms do you have to ensure your autonomy from your funder in terms of utilisation of funds? Is your statement of audit and accounts publicly available?

The third would be related to employee practices. What kind of terms and conditions with respect to working hours, benefits and social security do you follow? What are your employee hiring and separation policies? Does everyone receive at least a minimum wage? What is the wage differential between the highest and lowest paid employee? What kind of mechanisms do you have to address sexual harassment? Is there a sexual harassment committee in place following the Vishakha case guidelines?

Finally, while we need to critically engage with and question the NGO sector, as autonomous women’s groups we also need to ask questions of ourselves. The dwindling strength of autonomous women’s groups is a cause for serious concern. Although it is tempting to attribute the reason for this to the mushrooming of NGOs, I believe that is taking an easyroute and letting us off the hook quite easily.

Challenges of Mobilisation

No doubt globalisation has eroded our traditional base in cities. Middle class women who in the 1980s came out in large numbers on the streets are today being pushed into employment on a large scale. Given the nontenured nature of today’s job opportunities, they are more preoccupied with figuring out ways of walking the tightrope, balancing domestic responsibilities and jobs, than responding to women’s groups. Have we been able to articulate, and mobilise around, their daily struggles? Even if we despair at the individualisation of middle class women ushered in by new economic policies, are we reaching out to the bulk of poor/working class/dalit women whose lives are being wrecked by globalisation in at least the urban areas where we work? Are we actively making linkages, both in terms of perspectives and strategy, with other struggles: of the working class, dalits and against globalisation.

Autonomous women’s groups adopted a distance from institutionalised funding as part of a larger politics of autonomy that included also, distance from political parties, the state, and patriarchal organising principles.

Autonomous women’s groups have tried to remain neutral to political party and state affiliation, preferring to play an active watchdog role at least until the early 1990s. Again, the rationale was that by remaining autonomous they could pressurise political parties and the state to commit to a positive, women’s charter, and openly challenge anti-women positions, a


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freedom that would be severely compromised if they embraced the ideology of any one party or were tied to the dictates of the state. It is a different matter and one of serious concern that autonomous women’s groups have not played the watchdog role consistently in recent times. The reasons for this apparent cynicism need to be debated seriously.

Similarly, autonomous women’s groups, in attempting to be the change they wish to see in the world, have adopted prefigurative structures of collective decisionmaking that challenge the inherent authoritarianism of democratic centralism and party-based organisations. A healthy suspicion of leadership and expertise introduces mechanisms of self-correction in a collective, allowing greater room for democracy and politicisation. The flip side is that collectives in order to function democratically demand a certain degree of equality, arguably even homogeneity, to allow for equal debate, equal power distribution. Collectives, however, only mirror the inequalities to be found everywhere in a deeply divided society; invisible power structures are embedded in collectives too; the same, sometimes crippling, dependencies on the more powerful member of the collective, the first among so-called equals, prevail. So what does this really mean? Non-funded, autonomous politics must go beyond being just a cult or ritual to be practised by a few believers. How far is this politics replicable outside small groups and in mass movements? Again, this needs to be seriously debated.

In Germany, resistance to authoritarian organisation structures informed the working of one mass organisation, the Green Party, at least in its initial stages; consider for example the practice of including dissent notes in party publications whenever consensus on an issue could not be reached. Here Petra Kelly’s vision of the Greens as an “anti-party party” comes to mind.

Does our historical reality prefigure such possibilities? Are we there yet in our political traditions?




1 Prakash, Karat (1985): ‘Action Groups/

Voluntary Organisations: A Factor in Imperialist

Strategy’, The Marxist, New Delhi. 2 People’s Democracy, Vol XXVII, No 40;

October 5, 2003. 3 Vanita, Viswanath (1994): ‘The Bank’s

Cooperation with NGOs: A Background Paper’,

Asian Development Bank, December 1994. 4 World Bank: ‘Report on Development: 2000-01’.

Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006

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