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Foreign funded NGOs: Who finances them and why

Non-governmental organisations are always a flashpoint for bitter debate. Where some see good samaritans working for change, others detect a foreign conspiracy to manipulate domestic politics.

A new investigative piece in Open magazine offers a balanced look at some of the leading NGOs, their foreign funders, and raises some key questions. [Read it in its entirety here]

As Firstpost senior editor Pramod Kumar pointed out previously, there is little difference between a "lobbyist" and "policy advocate," other than one promotes the interest of private companies while the other peddles influence on behalf of an NGO. And the sums of foreign money entering India in the name of "advocacy" are not small change:

Members of Greenpeace and Indian NGOs protest nuke plants. AFP.

Members of Greenpeace and Indian NGOs protest nuke plants. AFP.

However, there is no reliable estimate of the money flowing into the NGOs and what they do with it. According to an Indian Express report in 2010, India had about 3.3 million NGOs by the end of 2009, an NGO for every 400 people. The amount of money flowing into the NGO sector is anybody’s guess. The Indian Express report said it was anywhere between Rs 40,000 and Rs 80,000 crore a year. Eighty thousand crore rupees is nearly half of West Bengal government’s debt or half of Kerala’s gross state domestic product (GSDP). By no means is this small. Reportedly, Delhi-based NGOs received Rs 5,800 crores, the highest in the country, followed by TN, which received Rs 4,800 crore.

The Open magazine report breaks down some of these big-picture numbers to offer specific information about big-league NGOs and their foreign funding. And in doing so it points to the "hypocrisy" of the UPA government decision to freeze the bank accounts of anti-Kudankulam groups -- on the grounds that they represent foreign interests -- while it continues to patronise other NGOs that are no less flush in outside funding.

One example is the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), "currently headed by Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia, wife of Planning Commission Vice-chairperson Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia." The Council "has received over Rs 11.5 crore in foreign donations from a range of international institutions such as the Asian Development Bank, World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Sasakawa Peace Foundation between 2007 and 2012."

Another prominent and influential organisation is the Centre for Policy Research, headed by Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta which received Rs 40.8 crore from a range of foreign donors, including the Ford Foundation, Google Foundation, International Development Research Centre, Economic and Social Research Council, Hewlett Foundation and IKEA Social Initiative. (Read the article to get the scoop on many others, including Vandana Shiva's organization, Navdanya)

Foreign funding becomes all the more critical in an environment where there is increasing pressure on NGOs to demonstrate policy impact, as Pramod Kumar explains:

Gone are the days of those small poverty projects in your neighbourhood slums or coastal villages. The aim is now to get real big bang for the buck. Fund one activist and his/her NGO and get a bill passed in the parliament; fund a cleric and create an environment of religious disharmony and band of radical youth; or spend a few thousand dollars and get a $3 billion dollar national facility stalled.

Within this context, the lack of transparency becomes a cause for genuine concern. Open magazine's Prashant Reddy writes:

An amusing facet of this is that the Central Government and Corporate India are more transparent (even if forced to be) than these civil society institutions, thanks to the Right to Information Act, 2005, and the extensive disclosure requirements under the Companies Act, 1956. Of companies in particular, information is accessible over the internet on the MCA21 website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. This contrast is amusing because some of these thinktanks never tire of demanding transparency of the State and corporate sector.

This isn't to say that NGOs are no more than shells for that ubiquitous "foreign hands" or to deny that foreign foundations fund important social change intitiatives, or to claim that any attempt to shape policy -- say to promote environmental protection or public health -- is necessarily bad. And there is the unpleasant fact that Indian philanthropy remains at a dismal low -- and the Azim Premjis rare -- making it unlikely that we can expect our made-in-India donors to make up the gap if all foreign funding were to be unilaterally banned.

But if NGOs -- foreign funded or otherwise -- want to have a voice in shaping the national debate, then we the public have the right to know who they are speaking for.

Read Open magazine's "Foreign Funding of NGOs" on its website.