PCDForum Column #5,    Release Date December 10, 1990

by F. Stephen

The 1980s saw an explosive growth in the number and size of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in India, in part a response to increased funding from foreign agencies and the Indian government. Youth clubs and other voluntary village self-help organizations transformed themselves into formalized projects and larger NGOs fragmented into countless smaller agencies as their individual staff formed their own organizations to tap available funds.

Since donors prefer to fund projects, the project approach has dominated. Village groups are organized for particular activities--such as primary health care, non-formal education, or credit--sustained for the length of the funded project, and then abandoned.

Efforts to organize on homogeneous caste or occupational lines to deal with more substantive economic issues, such as improved wages and access to land, are less common. It is precisely such efforts, however, that offer prospects for achieving the structural changes in power relationships that are basic to sustained improvements in the well-being of marginalized groups. These are also the issues that potentially unite similar groups throughout the state or nation into a significant economic and political force.

One of the more successful examples is the fisherman's union of Kerala. Here, with the assistance of PCO, a local NGO, a group of fishermen formed a cooperative to eliminate the grip of the middle men who controlled credit and marketing facilities. Later they created a parallel organization registered as a trade union through which they organized others of their trade all along the Kerela coast to negotiate with large trawler operators and government. Gradually the union took on many of the original functions of PCO, which then merged into the cooperative structure as a secretariat accountable to the cooperative's board of directors.

Unfortunately, most people's organizations in India continue to function as extensions of an externally funded NGO, revealing a crisis of vision on the part of both NGOs and donors. Those NGOs that do have a vision are divided between the radicals, whose vision of revolution through conscientization has proven overly romantic and impractical, and the technocrats, whose modernization approach is naive and narrow. Neither has articulated pragmatic strategies for rural transformation. Both tend to treat isolated and fragmented initiatives as ends in themselves without regard to the larger social institutions and dynamics that are the source of social, economic and political marginalization.

Similarly, the funding agencies generally work in isolation from one another, functioning as little more than financial intermediaries that distribute funds to recipient NGOs and measure their importance by the number of projects they "own." Their practice of funding projects with limited purposes in three year cycles nearly assures the continued dependence and passivity of the beneficiaries.

There is evidence that this pattern is starting to change. The emerging trend in India is toward the formation of alliances of NGOs to address critical issues facing marginalized people within major geopolitical areas of the country. The critical role of NGOs in alliance with the affected people, media, and concerned citizens to resist construction of a series of dams in the Narmada valley that threaten to displace a million people, many of them tribals, and flood 350,000 hectares of forest and 200,000 hectares of cultivatable land is only one such example.

The general destruction of forests and grazing lands that is leading to the rapid extension of drought prone areas in India is another issue that requires large scale collective action. NGOs are coming to recognize the dimensions of the resulting crisis and the futility of responding to primarily through relief measures that leave untouched its underlying causes. Here again is an issue that demands collective action by large numbers of NGOs able to bring to bear a wide spectrum of capabilities, including relevant technical and policy analysis skills.

Such insights are emerging at a rapid rate out of a collective self-assessment by Indian NGOs that is leading us beyond an NGO-centered to a truly people-centered development vision. It requires a serious commitment to building the power of people's organizations, to transforming our own roles, and to establishing new relationships with our funding agencies.

F. Stephen is executive director of Search, a major South Indian NGO training support organization based in Bangalore, and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. This guest column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum, based on F. Stephen's monograph "NGOs - Hope of the Last Decade of this Century!" For further information contact Search, 219/26 6th Main, 4th Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore-560 011, India.

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