NGOs in India have been accused of serving as tools for the foreign policy interests of western governments
It’s been over two years since a leaked report by India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) sent a chill across Indian civil society. NGOs were accused by the IB of reducing India’s GDP by a staggering 2-3% per annum, by campaigning against projects that the Indian government argued to be integral for economic growth.
The fallout was profound. NGOs, including Greenpeace, Amnesty and Cordaid, were accused of “serving as tools for foreign policy interests of western governments” by sponsoring campaigns to protect the environment or support human rights. “Anti-development” activities included campaigns against climate change, workers’ rights, or even the disposal of e-waste by India’s massive IT sector. The Ford Foundation was also among those named. For a period of time, all the foundation’s funds coming into India were scrutinised by the Indian home ministry.
Accusing development NGOs of being anti-development is somewhat of a paradox – but it’s a growing global trend. “Particularly for those activists who dare to challenge economic and political elites, the environment in which civil society operates has continued to deteriorate,” reported Civicus, the global civil society alliance, in their 2016 State of Civil Society review.
In India, prior to the IB report, there were already constraints and increased scrutiny of NGOs. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) was introduced in 2010, requiring all NGOs to apply for a license to receive foreign funding. The act was initially targeted at international political funding, but NGOs were included in its remit.
Before the leaked IB report, some hailed the increased scrutiny as potentially positive: “This is good for India; it will force Indians to be more conscious of the role of NGOs and to take ownership for our issues” said G Ananthapadmanabhan at the time, who had been the CEO of both Amnesty International and Greenpeace in India.
It was a compelling argument: for civil society to thrive it needs local support. And in India, that support is lukewarm, at best. “The civil society sector, especially those that receive foreign funding, doesn’t enjoy societal credibility,” says Biraj Patnaik, a human rights activist. “Indian society is fundamentally xenophobic, and faces a post-colonial hangover.” Patnaik explains that the role of the CIA in regime changes around the world during the 1970s, as well as the perception then that it was meddling in internal affairs in India, has left scars that still hurt forty years after the end of the cold war.
But the attack on foreign funding of civil society hasn’t resulted in the sudden rise of domestic donations and supporters, and the optimism of those in the NGO world has faded. Instead, the clampdown has seen many organisations simply fold. It’s estimated that at least 10,000 FCRA licenses, needed to receive foreign funds, have been revoked. Some of this is purely administrative – organisations failing to submit the proper paperwork. But it was also tactical on the part of the government: requiring short turnaround times, or digital returns for small organisations presents a huge barrier to organisations lacking capacity.
The environment for constructive engagement with the government has, as a consequence, been severely constrained. Suman Sahai, founder of the Indian Gene Campaign says: “If you want to do campaigning [in India], you need to engage with the government. But the current climate is one of total disengagement. The government has shut the door on the NGO sector.”
Patnaik agrees. “It’s not that the current regime is against all NGOs. But their actions clearly show that they are opposed to all NGOs working on human rights. There is little space for dialogue or negotiation on rights issues with the present government.” Human rights organisations have seen their operations constrained and Sahai worries about the culture of fear that has manifested since the IB report. “Most people are staying below the radar,” she says. “We can’t even get people to sit on our boards. They’re resigning, fearing harassment from the government.”
All NGOs receiving foreign funds now have to re-register for their FCRA license. Organisations with permanent FCRA licenses now have to get these renewed every five years. Most are doing their utmost to comply: “We’re now trying to change tactics. They want reporting? We’ll kill them with transparency,” says one activist.
In India and other countries where civil society is threatened, NGOs need to find new ways to call for change. Some don’t see campaigning approaches, such as Greenpeace’s opposition to coal-fired power stations, or Action Aid’s activism against the mining company Vedanta, as being part of the answer. At the time of the IB report, Greenpeace India faced the brunt of public accusations: shortly after the report was leaked, a Greenpeace staff member was removed from a flight on her way to a meeting in the UK. Two years on, the organisation continues to fight government attempts to shut them down: six court judgments against their ban have ruled the government’s actions as unlawful.
“We need to think of ways of speaking where we can’t be targeted and closed down,” says Jayati Ghosh, from Jawaharlal Nehru University. “We need to persuade people about the validity of what we’re saying, that environment doesn’t have to be a trade-off for development.”
This is a tall order in a country where poverty is so overwhelming. For the vast majority of Indians, thinking long-term about whether climate change can be solved by organic farming and clean energy seems irrelevant when you simply want a roof over your head and some food on the table, or for your children to go to school.
But it’s unlikely that the trend will reverse, in India or elsewhere. Civil society everywhere is under threat, including in the UK, where charities receiving government funding are now being prevented from using those funds to campaign against government policies, a move which appears to silence the government’s critics. It may not be on the scale of the Indian clampdown, but it’s certainly on the spectrum.
Protecting the voices of NGOs and activists seems to be one of the biggest challenges facing the development community. Retreating from hard-edged campaigning and failing to challenge government is clearly not the answer. But if challenging governments in developing countries isn’t done while building support from the local community, it risks failing altogether.