Role of NGOs in Developing Countries—A Tool to Tight Democracy while helping Corporate Sector?
By Agha Iqrar Haroon
Holding of first European Games in Baku has been under criticism because International Human Rights organizations believe that Azerbaijan has a very rough track record of Human Rights. International Non-Government Organizations (INGOs) are perturbed over holding games in Baku as they believe that holding of European games is actually boosting “dictatorial rule” of President Ilham Aliyev.
While Supporters of Azerbaijani government are of the view Western INGOs can be quicker to condemn human rights abuses in developing world than in their own countries and countries of their donors and NGOs are expected to be non-political, but everything they do, operating within highly skewed systems of power, cannot but be political.
NGO sector is facing tough time nowadays in South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe and tougher response came from biggest democracy of the world—India.
Indian government in March 2015 banned 30 NGOs engaged in welfare of minorities (Working for Christians and Muslims while funding source countries include Gulf, Saudi Arabia and western world), from receiving foreign funds after adverse reports about their activities from intelligence agencies. A total of 69 NGOs were prohibited by the government from receiving foreign funds under Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). US based Ford Foundation was also clamped and came under fire. India went further last week by cancelling licences of 4,470 NGOs.
Pakistan followed the India and decided to take advantage of this development in neighboring country and took stiff measures against domestic or international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are allegedly involved to work against the sovereignty of Pakistan. Measures including banning NGOs if found involved in political, sectarian or anti-state activities. Over 380 NGOs are on the Orange List of scrutiny committee including 7 International NGOs in Pakistan while it has closed down offices of international NGO Save the Children this week.
Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are also introducing tough rules for NGOs and big US organizations like Open Society came under scrutiny and even deportation of some journalists who were allegedly involved in supporting alleged anti-state activities. Both countries are clamping down NGO work, claiming their links with western intelligence agencies. It may be mentioned that Uzbekistan in past banned majority of foreign NGOs due to their alleged involvement to destabilize the government.
NGO supporters are of the view that NGOs provide jobs, capacity building, advocacy and trainings to lower strata of society and they raise voice against Human Right violations and abuses and they (NGOs) are better than some elected governments in developing world. On the other hand, political activists are raising serious questions against NGO sector and accusing this sector to create or at least try to create a parallel governing system with the help of western money to destabilize weaker and young democracies and parliaments.
“Not-for-profit groupings across the world, intent on ‘capacity building’, ‘reducing poverty’ and ensuring that the ‘voices of the most marginalized’ are heard but these groups have hidden agendas to create fight between the People and Democracies, believe political circles in South Asia.
This issue of criticizing or supporting NGO sector is not simple to understand and it needs a detail and in-depth discussion because there is no doubt that weaker states need some foreign help to work out their needs.
Researchers believe that the term non-governmental organization (NGO) is dating to the formation of the United Nations in 1945, when a select club of international non-state agencies were awarded observer status to some of its meetings. The common factor uniting this group, apart from the fact that they were neither government agencies nor businesses in the traditional sense, is that they would have an avowed mission to work for a social good. NGO sector was built stronger than ever during Reagan-Thatcher years and governments in developing countries began looking at NGOs for providing support in health care, education and capacity building because a flood of foreign funding to NGOs was the theme of the decade. Aid to ‘developing’ nations also began increasingly via NGOs rather than through government organs – between 1975 and 1985. The amount of aid coming through NGO route shot up by 1,400 per cent. NGOs actually became “Soft Power” tools of superpowers during this era.
“Armed with their billions, NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation” observed Suzanna Arundhati Roy, an Indian writer and activist.
Activism we saw in late 60s and early 70s died of or killed by “Paid Activism” and labour unions became incapable to get the support of civil societies thereby Corporate Sector became stronger to deal with governments on its own parameters. In simple word, along with governments and corporations, the two torrents of power in the global landscape— NGOs were raised as a third force.
Corporate funding is also a critical issue as corporations seek to partner with NGOs as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programs. This provides marketing and public relations benefits for businesses. These partnerships between corporations and NGOs allow corporations fix their agendas while dealing with civil societies, labour unions and government officials regarding standards of goods/services they provide and service structure they offer to employees.
Since NGOs receive funding from corporations, they may be reluctant to criticize corporations. In order to satisfy corporate donors and attract more funding, NGOs may tailor their activities to serve corporate interests and keep their eyes shut on labour laws, labour exploitation, Human Right abuses by multinational firms, contract job issues etc etc. Therefore, directly or indirectly NGOs help a system that is only interested in extracting labour at the cheapest possible price instead of raising voice against contract job system, exploitation of labour laws etc etc.
Funding dependency and a hierarchical, corporate culture – many heads of international NGOs (INGOs) come from the business world. According to an Indian activist Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah: ‘
Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organizations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.”
Non Government Organisation (NGO) sector is promoted, funded and supported by United Nations as the most effective part of Development sector. This sector fills the gaps in developing countries where governments are resource-less, weak, ineffective or corrupt. Majority of NGOs are funded by western countries as figure is over 82% funding coming from Europe or North America to NGOs working in South Asia, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. This funding is part of philanthropist activates and support groups, UN funding, UASID funding, European Union funding and support from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
NGO sector is working effectively as “Accountability Bureau for developing governments”, asking developing governments for accountability of Human Rights, Public Funds and Social Rights. NGOs train public to ask questions to their governments and demand accountability through capacity building and advocacy however NGO sector itself has no mechanism that can ensure their accountability to the people—to the public and even to governments as governments are handcuffed to check their working in many countries through special arrangements. The only accountability of NGO sector is their annual audit report — but this audio report cannot allow to ask why such salary was given to such person and why A project was not initiated and why B project was opted etc etc . Therefore accountability is only to check 2+2=4 — How much money comes and where it was utilized. However, NGO sectors questions governments why project A was initiated and why Mr. M was given high salary and what was the criterion and process to hire Mr. M. NGOs are being held accountable by their donors, which can erode rather than enhance their legitimacy, a difficult challenge to overcome. Some commentators have also argued that the changes in NGO funding sources have ultimately altered their functions. Here the risk of foreign funded agenda increases and most of time this agenda is in contradiction of public policy and sovereignty of the countries where NGOs are working.
NGO sector critiques perks and privileges of bureaucrats and politicians in developing countries and always raises voice to minimize establishment charges and overhead expenditures of government while this sector itself allows minimum 37% spending on establishment charges (salaries, perks and privileges of employees) according to World Bank standards parameters.
“The legitimacy and the accountability of NGOs on the point of their true nature are also emerging as important issues. As non-state actors with considerable influence over the governance in many areas, concerns have been expressed over the extent to which they represent the views of the public and the extent to which they allow the public to hold them to account”, commented one former Consultant while discussing NGO role in an academic paper.
The flood of NGOs has also been accused of damaging the public sector in developing countries and taking the place as a “parallel governments” and even playing to weaken elected and legitimate governments through funding anti-government activists. In some instance, NGOs are accuse of changing regimes like in Ukraine by funding anti-government protests in Maidan Euro and placing pro-US government of President Poroshenko. Eastern European and Central Asian governments firmly believe that western-funded NGOs plans, operates and execute so-called Revolutions including Orange Revolution and Rose Revolution in past. “NGO sector was caught red handed in Uzbekistan 10 years back when it was behind Andijan riots to remove President Karomov government”, claimed one former Uzbek bureaucrat while talking to this writer.
There were reports that NGO sector was also behind an attempt to scrap Pakistani Parliament last year when two political parties sat outside Pakistani parliament for months, abusing democratic institutions including parliament and demanding disbanding sitting and elected government of Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif.
Directly or indirect, NGO sector looks behind regime changes in developing countries by using and promoting narratives of Human Rights, Advocacy, Freedom of Speech, Capacity Building, and so on so forth.
What is the actual role of NOGs in developing or hurting democracies? is a big question for developing countries having weak democratic institutes and this question should be taken as proposition for healthy discussion and debates.