Development Crisis: Need for New NGO Leaders

Abhishek Chaturvedi

Development, both as a concept and as a practice, has come a long way since its ideation by intellectuals at the academia, government and elsewhere. The ideas and the discourse on human 'progress', 'growth' and 'advancement' too have over the recent decades got enmeshed with the idea of development. Essentially, a repository with the government, from global to local, it is now the buzzword among not only the governments, but also agencies like multilateral, bilateral, corporate, media, academia and the civil society. Further, if colonialism and imperialism marked the 19th century and decolonization and nationalist movements marked the first half of the 20th century; the idea of development has characterized the latter half of the century. The closing decades of the 20thh century further witnessed the dispersal of the idea of development to civil society, with the roll-back of the state in most parts of the world under the spate of LPG (liberalization, privatization and globali­zation).

Why NGOs?

Increasing dissatisfaction and dissent with the nature and type of development

undertaken by the governments, not only forced the governments to retreat; but also created space for civil society, manifested through its millions of mutinying Non Government Organizations (NGOs) to take centre stage in most countries -developed, developing and underdeveloped. The very prefix 'non' was a clear indicator of the strong dissent and disenchantment with the nature and type of 'government' led initiatives. This trend was more marked where there was a strong democratic past and where the societies were historically more intellectually involved.

NGOs in India

India , along with several countries in South Asia and Latin America , has been a case in point. As for India , civil society based movements and traditions have, perhaps, been the strongest. These being mostly democratic and reformist in nature have therefore, had far greater acceptance among the people and the different régimes of power, unlike many other countries of the world where power has been usurped by military, dictatorial and oppressive regimes. While India had a strong tradition of community led action -both secular and religious -well documented and preserved, at least, since the last two centuries, the setting up and mushrooming of the 'NGOs'

-in its modern and secular sense -can be traced to the decade of 1960s in general.

Currently, boasting a presence of over half a million NGOs, India, perhaps, has the largest number of such organizations, addressing, championing and advocating, an enormous variety of causes and issues, from those of Scheduled Castes and Tribes, social oppression, heritage and culture protection, anti-LPG movements to urban slums, trafficking of women and children, fragile ecosystems, local governance, HIV, cancer, legal aid, animal rights and now the latest one creating new fault-lines the Special Economic Zones (SEZs).

Need for New NGO Leaders

Nevertheless, the civil society led development/NGO sector and its hydra-headed initiatives seems to have plateaued off, as there are really few NGO leaders and NGOs who have the capacity to envision longue dureé futuristic initiatives or the ones that could help the sector advance to the next level.

The next level would clearly deal with the new macro/micro level challenges that civil society is expected to face in the coming decades, along with the fuzzy but key areas that were addressed with inadequate strength or efforts earlier. While the former would need serious but synchronized ideation and whose consti­tuents could be drawn from a body of NGO leaders capable of championing and approximating the macro/micro level challenges, the fuzzier ones are easier to identify and relate to.

Among this latter terrain, challenges would pertain to the NGO sector's capacity:

  • come together on representing to NGO's issues with the multinational and national agencies, besides other similar bodies on whom they would increasingly depend for funds, even as most international development agencies begin a gradual phase-out from India and competition for government aid increases;
  • to advise, educate, negotiate and partner with the corporate sector (currently booming with success) on funding meaningful development initiatives and move beyond their public image of short-term, visibility-led CSR initiatives as tools for soft marketing;
  • to advice, educate and negotiate with the law making agencies on producing development/NGO friendly legal and fiscal frameworks;
  • to develop the ability to envision and implement longue dureé initiatives with pragmatic and honest insights from the failures of the development sector;
  • to develop capacities to measure impacts of their grant utilization and to produce more tangible results;
  • to appropriately capture and document the enormous body of information that is being currently produced and convert the same into knowledge materials for global sharing with ever new tools of communication and dissemination;
  • develop novel tools for implementation of next level initiatives that bear a strong mix of the latest research from the world of science/social science, complex needs of the civil society and the ones that consider physical environment as a critical resource rather than an object of organized exploitation.

As we all know, effective NGOs and their leaders, howsoever critical their current requirement to the sector be, are results of complex mechanisms that are difficult to delineate. It would not only be inappropriate but also unfair to continue to tread upon the existing but lop-sided practices that allow only certain individuals to climb the development sector ladder who meet the most expected/preferred/desired academic and formal qualifications, with typically similar backgrounds, and with the ability to be conformists within the organizations. The absence of an agenda among the current NGO leadership to create space for the next generation NGO leaders is seemingly the biggest threat to the sector. Unfortunately, the 'non' in the 'N'GO has largely becoming meaningless, as most of these have either transformed into bodies akin to government organizations or those in the corporate sector, even as the creative abilities, perspectives and visions of fresh recruits perceiving their work as an extension to their formal learning gradually degenerate and dissipate into mere managers.