If Indians Value Democracy, they Must Loosen their Purse Strings

If we agree that dissent is an invaluable part of democracy and if we do not want foreign donors to influence what happens in the country, then Indian philanthropists must fill the breach.

A villager at a public meeting of the Mahan Sangram Samiti in Madhya Pradesh, a campaign in which Greenpeace India is involved. Credit: Greenpeace.org

A villager at a public meeting of the Mahan Sangram Samiti in Madhya Pradesh, a campaign in which Greenpeace India is involved. Credit: Greenpeace.org

The government’s recent decision to suspend the FCRA registration of two activist NGOs – Teesta Setalvad’s Sabrang Trust and Greenpeace India – is an urgent reminder of the need for promoting Indian philanthropy as never before. If the suspension is truly because of the misuse of foreign funds as alleged, then no tears would need to be shed for one or two NGOs having to tighten their belts and do without foreign aid. In fact, it would be deemed a much needed signal to many NGOs to put their house in order – for the misutilisation or inefficient use of grants, from whatever source, is tainting the image of the sector. But the widespread perception is that the two NGOs are being targeted not so much for misuse of funds but for their protests against government policies. Before Teesta’s NGO and Greenpeace, the leaders of the India Against Corruption movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and several others were targeted for receiving foreign funds. This reinforces the belief among civil society and the thinking public that the space for dissent and free speech – which was never very robust – is shrinking further.

A well functioning democracy needs a strong civil society, one that is supported by active citizens’ groups as well as by philanthropic institutions. Eradication of corruption, protection of the environment, and promotion of communal harmony are all laudable constitutional goals, and agitating to secure them can hardly be considered a threat to national security. If it is accepted that acting as a watchdog to the excesses of government and market is a necessary role for civil society to play, then civil society organisations must be allowed to play that role without fear, and what is more, be allowed to access funds from whatever legitimate sources they can to enable them to play that role.

If a plurality of actors is necessary to act as a counterforce to state power and market excesses, so also is a plurality of funding sources necessary for independence of action. Many private organisations working for social change may be in opposition to the state, market, or extra-national forces, which makes it possible that any of these may withhold support in conflictual situations, thereby making it necessary for other sources to step in. A plurality of funders ensures that no one source can dictate terms.

When government funds are not forthcoming due to disagreement with government, for whatever reason, and foreign funds are considered, rightly or wrongly, as against national interest, then support for reform must come from private philanthropic funds.

What philanthropy can do

Philanthropy plays several roles but in the main, they are four. One, philanthropy supplements government provision for social needs, and assists in its efforts to bring development to society. Two, it plays a role in reducing inequalities of wealth and opportunity in society. Three, it plays the role of a catalyst, triggering positive transformative change in society. Finally, it acts as a countervailing force, helping to build a strong civil society to rein in a too powerful government or an exploitative market to safeguard the rights of citizens.

As a supplement to government efforts in health, education etc., philanthropy can play only a small role, since its resources are far more limited than government’s. Though the budget of the Bill Gates Foundation, currently the largest philanthropic organisation in the world, is bigger than the GDP of some countries, it still cannot compensate for internal government spending because it is focused on only one or two issues.

Philanthropy’s role in reducing inequality is indirect, direct transfer of resources from the rich to the poor by private effort being simply not practical. Philanthropy can help, however, by increasing opportunities for upward mobility and by supporting reforms which may lead to a more equitable distribution.

Philanthropy’s third role as a catalyst is extremely important – by providing independent private resources as seed funds, philanthropy acts as an incubator for innovation. Experiments are best made by private institutions on a smaller scale before public funds are committed in large amount on schemes which are as yet unproven.

But it is philanthropy’s role in building a strong civil society to act as a countervailing force against the excesses or dominance of government and in keeping dissent open which can add the most value in India today.

Timid corporates

Many citizens’ associations, self-help groups and civil society organisations are active in every district and town of India, helping citizens to claim their rights. However, such efforts at social mobilization and demanding accountability from government are on the verge of being squeezed out of existence for want of flexible and durable funding. Philanthropy that supports a few hundred schools or clinics is not as important as that which makes government at all levels accountable for poor governance. But few Indian donors of note have supported anything that sounds even faintly radical. Even if he meant it in a different context, Prime Minister Modi rightly said that the Indian corporate sector has shown risk aversion and timidity rather than daring.

After Independence, catalytic funds for experimentation and innovation as well as advocacy for policy change have largely been provided by foreign aid. By supporting civil rights groups protesting an inequitable trading system, or climate change negotiations which favoured the rich rather than the poor, foreign international organisations have helped to shape a minimally just global order. They have also influenced policy advocacy for citizens’ rights to minimum levels of health and work safety, transparency in government, education, food free from contamination, minimum levels of clean air and water, and justice for victims of caste or communal tensions. However, now both the funders and those who take their funds are coming under attack by the government.

If foreign aid is considered unacceptable for such causes, then Indian money must step in. In any case foreign aid is on the decline, not only because of slowing global growth but also because of India’s success on the economic front, so that foreign donors do not see the need to give aid to India. There is thus an even greater need for indigenous philanthropy to fill the gap in support of civil society.

If we agree that legitimate dissent is an invaluable part of a democratic society, and if foreign aid dries up or if we do not want foreign donors to influence or affect what happens in the country, then the only recourse is to make our own foundations and philanthropists proactive in supporting civil society activism and advocacy, which so few do at present. Will they rise to the challenge?

Pushpa Sundar is a noted expert on philanthropy and the author of Foreign Aid for Indian NGOs: Problem or Solution? (Routledge 2010) and Business and Community: The story of corporate social responsibility in India (Sage 2013).