Forget Wal-Mart, our NGOs are the veterans of lobbying

The Wal-Mart lobbying story has let the cat out of the bag that in India one can easily buy government policy. Not that it was a state secret, but a little bit of evidence adds value to what we always surmised.

Before some other leak stirs the pot, it is time that we looked at another form of policy peddling - lobbying by countless NGOs that receive money from abroad; from 160 countries to be precise.

The idea to look at the issue came from a lobbyist in a TV debate last night. Perhaps he was trying to dilute the charges against his ilk, but he had a point. NGOs do huge amount of lobbying, but we hardly notice it.

Representational image. AFP

If the politicians, media and PR guys are paid to work for the commercial interests of big corporations, NGOs get away with their more open form of haggling, although it might have equally impactful policy implications - some of them definitely useful to people, while some are detrimental and laden with vested interests.

In the first case, it is called “lobbying” which is nothing less than wheeling-dealing, while in the latter, it’s called “policy advocacy,” which has a benign kurta-pyjama elegance to it.

The former brings big corporation business-interests to India, while the latter brings ideas that front for the foreign policy objectives of rich countries, international NGOs or agendas of caucuses that peddle issues ranging from gay rights and (anti) nuclear energy to evangelism and radical Islamic establishments.

While most of the foreign aid coming to India, estimated to be at 3 percent of the national budget (according to an article by Suvojit Chattopadhyay in Livemint) and roughly 0.7 percent of the GDP (according to some earlier estimates) are loans that need to be repaid, it’s common knowledge that even as loans, they come with a lot of conditions including commercial and foreign policy interests. The US aid to Pakistan is a clear example.

The smaller component of grants are what they use as leverage. Grants, which are less than pittance for India’s scale, are free and are the carrots that lead to bigger conditional loans, which are invariably preceded by a lot of changes, including the toilets in some government offices or accounting practices.

Tied assistance, despite the rhetoric of aid effectiveness and OECD’s apparent efforts, are a reality and nations with corrupt and spineless politicians fall for them. In 2006, OECD had said that 41.7 percent of global financial aid was untied. What it really meant was that majority of the assistance was tied. The ties are political (e.g. doing certain things the way Barack Obama wants) and commercial (giving away aviation and defence contracts to companies of certain countries or changing the policy environment for MNCs to operate).

Anyway this is a known story and we can only whine and parrot people like Prakash Karat and Gurdas Gupta.

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.

What do they do with this money, who sends it to them, and for what? This is certainly a grey area.

The motives of the NGOs came under the cloud recently in the wake of the Kudankulam agitation, when the Congress leaders and cabinet ministers insinuated about foreign funding and vested interests pulling the strings of the agitation. The government put 77 NGOs under scrutiny for suspicious activities.

During the same period, the Parliament was also informed that 24 NGOs had been under investigation by CBI and 10, by state police. One of the NGOs investigated by the CBI was the Coimbatore-based Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TNMMK), which incidentally also supported the Kudankulam agitation.

There is hardly any transparency or accountability on what most of the NGOs do with this money. Their accountability is mainly to the donors although they have to do some perfunctory paperwork for Indian authorities such as the income tax department. This is where their style of lobbying needs to be looked into.

While most of the multi-lateral and bilateral funding flows through the national and state budgets, a lot of their money also flows directly to the NGOs. While bilateral donors (official aid organisations of countries such as USAID, DFID and AusAID) prefer funding through national budgets because they would want to see policy impact, they also like to fund NGOs for creating an “enabling environment” for their policy objectives.

The USAID, which funds several NGOs across India, for one, doesn’t hide its foreign policy intent, when it says that it is an “an independent government agency that provides economic, development, and humanitarian assistance around the world in support of the foreign policy goals of the United States.”

There is increasing pressure on the bi-laterals by their governments to show policy impact and not to run retail projects of building slum houses or rehabilitating a few sex-trafficked girls. Policy is big ticket and can lead to the operation of vested interests. It can be commercial or what they see as right - say promotion of democracy, fighting or fostering radical Islam, abolition of sex trade or reducing labour migration.

This is the new trend in international funding - increasing pressure on NGOs to show policy impact. That has also led to a number of NGO-funded activists on the streets fighting corruption and serial activists who shift from human rights to poverty to climate change.

Some of them sound like activists, but they are paid professionals who don the roles of activists. There is increasing pressure on the NGOs by donors - international NGOs, private charities and foundations and governments - to demonstrate policy impact. 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 US$ 3 billion dollar national facility stalled.

Thanks for the idea Mr. Lobbyist. You really know the story, don’t you?

Updated Date: Dec 13, 2012 15:08 PM

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