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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Why NGOs cannot create a civil society

Why NGOs cannot create a civil society

Dr Bharat Jhunjhunmara looks at the thin line dividing some NGOs and the state.

NGOs are nowadays considered to be an integral part of the "civil" society.

There are two breeds. Some take it upon themselves the responsibility of demanding

Right to Information from their governments, in protecting human rights against the

alleged excesses of the governments, and so on. The presumption is that the governments

are somehow "wrong" and the NGOs are the ones to set it right. The second

breed is of those engaged in planting trees etc. in cooperation with the government.

My problem arises only with the first breed. The question is whether these NGOs indeed

have a locus standi in the task of restraining the state.

The presumption is that these "selfless" organizations of the people can

restrain political parties from going berserk. They are seen as a bulwark against

the excesses of the state. Is such an eulogization justified? Probably not.

There is a fundamental flaw in such thinking. The problems of pol-itical parties

are inherent in all organizations. One cannot fight an allegedly corrupt organization

- the political party - by relying on another equally suspect organization - the

NGO.

The case in favor of NGOs rests on the premise that they are "selfless",

while politicians are "selfish". But what exactly does this mean, selfless?

Does it mean that the person has no desires? Not really.

Every action that we undertake has a desire behind it. A missionary treats the poor

because he wants to reach closer to God. That too is a desire. The difference between

a missionary and a criminal is that the nature of their desires are different. We

must, then, examine the nature of desires.

The ancient Indian tradition has a fourfold classification of desires - physical

pleasures, wealth, social acclaim and self-realization. One desires physical pleasures

- eating food, for example - so one takes up a job. One desires wealth - to build

a business empire - so one sweats through the night watching the exchange rates.

Others desire social acclaim - to be received well by the "poor" - so they

distribute blankets to the street people. Yet others desire self-knowledge - or God

- so they meditate in the forests.

The question then is whether the desire of the NGOs is any different from that of

the politicians? Not quite. The politician makes a political party. He brings many

people together and leads them. He enjoys the fact that people listen to him.

So also the NGOs. The NGOs too bring people together. They enjoy the social acclaim

or power that public activism brings. Both desire social acclaim. Why else would

they create "organizations"? Organization equals power.

The NGOs claim that they are "serving" the people. Maybe. But why build

an organization in order to serve the people? There are many other ways of serving

the people. They could earn lots of money and distribute free clothes and food packets

to the needy. Or they could learn to play the flute to the poor children in the slums

and ghettos. But the NGOs will do no such thing because it does not bring them the

power and the social acclaim that they desire.

Moreover, the politicians too claim that they are serving the people. There is really

nothing to distinguish between them.

Now we may ask whether the NGOs can restrain the politicians? The basic problem is

that all organizations are inherently suspect. It is difficult to rein in one allegedly

corrupt organization - the political party - by establishing another equally suspect

organization - the NGO - because the latter is as open to corruption as the former.

If the political parties have degenerated, so have many NGOs. It is foolish to say

that one organization - an NGO - will remain pure while another - a political party

- is said to be necessarily corrupt.

That leaves us with the question of how the society may restrain the politician if

no organization can? This contradiction was resolved in the Indian tradition by positing

the concept of a brahmin (not to be confused with its degenerate form under the caste

system). The defining traits of the brahmin were the pursuit of self-knowledge, voluntary

poverty and non-possession.

This is best explained by an example: Alexander invaded India three centuries before

Christ. Mega-sthenes, the Greek ambassador to the Indian court of Pataliputra, has

narrated an incident. Alexander came to know of a sage called Dandamis and sent his

soldiers to fetch him. They said to Dandamis: "King Alexander, who is the sovereign

lord of all men, asks you to go to him, and if you comply, he will reward you with

great and splendid gifts, but if you refuse, will cut off your head."

Dandamis, unafraid, refused to go and said: "What Alexander offers me, and the

gifts he promises, are all things to me utterly useless; the things which I prize

are these leaves which are my house, these blooming plants which supply me with dainty

food, and the water which is my drink. Should Alexander cut off my head, he cannot

also destroy my soul. Let Alexander, then, terrify with these threats those who wish

for gold and wealth. Go, then, and tell Alexander this: Dandamis has no need of aught

that is yours, and therefore will not go to you, but if you want anything from Dandamis

you come to him."

Alexander then admitted that Dandamis was the only antagonist in whom he, the conqueror

of many nations, had found more than his match.

It is people like Dandamis who alone can restrain the politician. Truth is their

weapon. Resistance to evil politics requires not another powerful organization -

which may be equally evil - but the absence of the same. It is the frugality that

gives the brahmins the power to resist the power of politics.

The NGOs, with their huge funds and big offices, are too attached to their worldly

pleasures to be able to restrain the politician.

We have thus two entirely different solutions. First is to build another set of organizations

- NGOs and their like - with their paraphernalia of cars, computers, bank deposits

and air tickets. Notwithstanding their claims to the contrary, these are as suspect

as the political parties that they set out to control.

The second alternative is to invigorate the tradition of the brahmins. Let the selfless

live frugally and become speakers of truth.

This is not to say that NGOs have no locus standi. They have a positive role to play.

They are, truly speaking, extensions of the state and that is with what they must

aim to excel. They can make the people aware of pollution, improve the breeds of

local cattle, help design better curriculum for the schools, etc. But to ascribe

to them the task of restraining the politicians is like asking one patient to cure

another.

- (The author, a PhD from the University of Florida, consults with donors and

Indian NGOs on economics and rural development.)

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