Not long ago, the logos of international charities were seen as symbols of hope, stretching like bandages through stricken parts of the developing world. For millions, they represented stepping stones out of war, poverty and disease. But now, many governments are bringing in tighter regulations as to how NGOs operate and are challenging their worth. Humphrey Hawksley reports on this new theatre of tension between the developed and developing worlds.
The very public battle between the Indian government and the global campaigning organisation Greenpeace highlights an issue that is forging a new frontline between the West and an increasingly self-confident developing world.
At issue is control over non-government organisations (NGOs) which fill vacuums created by an inadequate state, usually for healthcare, education and other basic needs. Their expensive vehicles and high aspirations are often at odds with the poor environments in which they operate, while the Western emphasis on democracy, freedom of expression and civil society invariably pits them against the very governments that allow them to exist.
The question is whether restricting and more closely regulating NGOs is hostile and undemocratic, or whether these organisations, far from helping the societies in which they operate, are detrimental and hold them back.
A year ago, India’s Greenpeace was accused of being a threat to economic security for campaigning against the expansion of the coal industry and highlighting the negative impact on people and the environment. As a result, its offices have been raided and staff members have been prevented from leaving or entering the country. At the same time, the Indian government has been introducing new regulations on how NGOs operate, pay taxes and are funded, particularly with foreign money.
India’s coal industry is crucial to the government’s drive for economic growth, with many advocates asking how the West’s own industrial revolution would have fared had NGOs existed to challenge environmental damage and champion labour rights.
While this policy of regulation is drawing cries of objection from human rights institutions, India is far from alone in its impatience with NGOs, be they global operations like Greenpeace, small missionary groups or human rights groups operating with an ideological as well as a material agenda.
More than a dozen governments have or are planning to restrict the way NGOs operate, including the giants of the developing world such as China, Nigeria and Russia. Even Hungary, a member of the European Union, has carried out audits on foreign-funded NGOs and raided offices.
This suggests a far deeper challenge than one of a corrupt government protecting vested interests and refusing to brook opposition. It is an issue embedded at the heart of the debate between authoritarianism and democracy, reflecting a strengthening view that Western values and ways of doing things are not all they are trumped up to be. Therefore, the concept of the NGO needs scrutinising to establish whether or not these organisations are fit for purpose.
Haiti in the Caribbean has been dubbed ‘the NGO Republic’, with thousands of NGOs flooding in over the years, ostensibly to better the lives of its ten million people. Nearby Cuba, much poorer and until recently largely cut off from the international community, tightly regulates NGOs—as well as its own people.
But if the argument holds that NGOs have a positive rather than a negative effect on developing societies, the question must be asked as to why Haiti is so backward, violent and poor. The explanation that over the years Haiti has suffered weak, corrupt and nasty regimes has little traction, given that development is a holistic process that includes building strong institutions. Many NGOs receive funds to teach good governance and democracy.
A child born in Haiti is ten times more likely to die before reaching one year old than one in Cuba. Haiti’s infant mortality rate is more than 49 deaths per thousand, compared to Cuba’s (fewer than five). Cubans live 15 years longer than Haitians and their access to drinking water is 30 per cent higher. Almost all Cubans can read and write, compared to only 60 per cent in Haiti.
What, then, have all these NGOs in Haiti been doing for all these years?
And this is not just a freak comparison. There are similar stories elsewhere. For more than half a century, the World Food Progamme has been operating in Karamoja in northern Uganda and routinely appeals for crisis funds to avoid famine. Dozens of other NGOs are registered there, yet the people remain enveloped in poverty. Joseph Lokapel, a local district official, said many NGOs registered without any liaison with him and, in order to get funding, focus on Western issues such as gender equality and elections. ‘What has this to do with my herdsmen who need secure supplies of food and water?’ he asked.
Uganda is now introducing sweeping restrictions that include fines and imprisonment for any NGO activity seen as harmful to Ugandan interests—a move that activists claim is designed to repress opposition and starve civil society.
Russia has now declared that any NGO receiving money from abroad has to be registered as a ‘foreign agent’, and China is drafting legislation that would put NGOs under the supervision of the Chinese security services, prompting several to curb their operations or pull out all together.
India, rightfully, is examining its record of development with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking why so many people have no sewage system in a country with a billion dollar movie industry and a space programme. There is little question that its NGOs have got out of hand. At a count in 2009, India had a staggering 3.3 million registered, making one for every 400 people. Of those, 43,000 were registered as getting money from foreign donors. Yet, despite so much NGO activity, India’s development figures are more comparable to those in Haiti and Uganda than to its neighbours in South East Asia, and it is far behind other global powers such as China and Brazil. .
But if the work of NGOs is to be curtailed, then government institutions charged with protecting citizens—whether police, judiciary or healthcare—need to be reformed too so that they actually move in to do the work.
Greenpeace’s work has gone far beyond the coal industry. It has also led the way in exposing horrific conditions in other areas such as India’s tea plantations Together with another NGO, UNICEF, large-scale abuse involving pesticides, child marriage, health and more were uncovered among millions of tea workers. Their care is the responsibility of the Indian government and the tea industry. Because they failed to provide it, NGOs are having to do the job for them.
The Indian government is incapable of doing all the work of NGOs. But it does need to sort out the corrupt and ineffective from the clean and efficient, and to establish exactly what role the NGO should play in this 21st century phase of its modernisation.
Humphrey Hawksley, an Asia specialist and former BBC Beijing correspondent, has reported extensively from the developing world. He is the author of Democracy Kills – What’s So Good About Having The Vote? (Macmillan) – an examination of democracy and development.