Still missing the bus – Indian NGOs after the Gujarat earthquake

Niloy Banerjee

In the wake of the earthquake that devastated Gujarat in January 2001, civil society organizations mobilized to an unprecedented degree to bring relief. They played a key role and, equally importantly, were seen to have played it. Will this translate into greater recognition and legitimacy for CSOs? Will it lead to enhanced engagement of society at large with CSOs – even, possibly, to a vibrant, locally funded civil society?

Within hours of the tragedy, news teams, religious groups, secular groups and ordinary citizens were in Bhuj and other nearby towns taking stock of the situation and providing emergency help and supplies. Meanwhile, the official machinery was caught off-guard. Business India reported that ‘most survivors feel that if it hadn’t been for individual Samaritans and NGOs, the fatalities would have soared even higher’.

India’s burgeoning visual media ensured that images and stories of relief workers and relief agencies got beamed into middle-class homes in real time. The government eased norms for overseas remittances in cash and kind and tax exemptions were announced.

The Japan story

There is an interesting precedent. In post-war Japan, both welfare and development have been seen as an exclusive government preserve. All that changed with the Kobe (Hanshin-Awaji) earthquake in 1995, when Japanese citizens were rudely brought to the realization that the government’s ability to deal with a disaster of that scale was limited.  More importantly, the sterling contributions of volunteers and CSOs were seen and acknowledged. The face of Japanese civil society changed forever thereafter. Non-profit organizations in their conventional sense were born and began to attract increasing support from corporate and individual donors. Existing foundations like the Japan Foundation Asia Centre, established to promote Japanese language, art and culture, began to diversify, and now support NGOs and other development actors on a large scale.

Will Indians buy it?

In a sense, the state of NGOs in India is not very different from that of Japanese NGOs in the pre-Kobe era. Despite there being a history of not-for-profit associational life in the country, NGOs (as distinct from community-based organizations – CBOs) are often seen as foreign-funded institutions with fuzzy accountability lines. Indian society does not feel it has much sense of stake in the non-profit development sector, nor are the contributions it makes acknowledged. Small wonder, then, that for conventional NGOs (again, as distinct from CBOs) locally raised contributions – in cash or kind – amount to a very small proportion of their operating budgets. Could the Gujarat tragedy change this? Could the word ‘NGO’ or ‘voluntary organization’ begin to make sense to many more people?

Public awareness of NGOs has undoubtedly gone up many notches. But what does this awareness amount to? It is important to recognize that this new-found consciousness is within the framework of disaster relief and rehabilitation. NGOs still face the challenge of presenting themselves as change agents in non-tragic, incremental development.

Indian TV has also started to accord increasing coverage to non-government, community-led action in fields such as environment, health and education. For many months now, Star News, the ultimate information font of the Indian chatterati, has been running spots entitled ‘India Matters’ – stories of community-level action that have changed lives. In most of these, the catalytic role of NGOs throughout the country is evident.

But it is still too soon to proclaim that NGOs have now arrived in the Indian consciousness. People still don’t have a clear picture of what NGOs do. But by far the most pressing question in the public mind is the one about NGO impacts and accountability. Six months after the dust has settled around the collapsing debris of Bhuj, questions are being raised about the accountability of assistance received immediately after the earthquake. To be fair, most of this is a matter of whether enough has been achieved rather than any dark insinuations of misappropriation, nor are they addressed to NGOs alone. What’s more, a lot of these questions are being raised within the NGO sector itself. Pushpa Sundar of the Indian Centre for Philanthropy, writing in the organization’s newsletter, says:

‘As always, central and state governments, most major newspapers and journals … and other institutions and NGOs set up relief funds. Other than publishing names of donors, little other information is given to the public about amounts collected and how they have been utilized.’

Looking for comfort

This mood of distrust is reflected in the work of NGOs and donors themselves. Major donors like the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Ford Foundation have ended up working only with organizations with whom they share a certain level of ‘comfort’ or familiarity. Resources get channelled only where there is a high level of trust. It is well known that the American Indian Foundation, whose star fundraiser, the former president Bill Clinton, helped raise substantial money for Gujarat, is still looking for a counterpart with whom there is that elusive comfort. CAF India, looking again for that comfort, has actually set up its own operational wing in Gujarat to oversee its rehabilitation activites there. CAF director Mathew Cherian believes that all this may have hurt the ‘staying power’ of smaller NGOs – many of whom joined the relief effort in earnest but ran out of steam as their resources dried up.

If established donors and national NGOs are cautious about involvement with the broader NGO sector, it is hardly surprising that the average person on the street is wary. And this is where the ‘industry captains’ need to sit and have a hard think. Despite NGOs’ excellent work in Gujarat – highly visible, handled with care, compassion and expertise –corporate and middle class India are not exactly falling over one another to engage with NGOs. This also means that the spectre of local fundraising for NGOs deceives yet again. Non-profit India, alas, will have to wait another day to find the serpentine queue of eager faces outside its front door.

Niloy Banerjee is Head of the Local Resource Mobilization Network, India. He can be contacted by email at niloyb@cafmail.org


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