Imported Ideology, Activism For Export

Madhu Purnima Kishwar

Feb 08, 2015, 07:27 PM | Updated Feb 18, 2016, 12:26 PM IST

Indian NGOs funded by Western agencies follow their masters’ diktat—to not let development activities begin or proceed. Their sinister agendas must be exposed

One of the most notable developments of the last four decades is the emergence of foreign-funded NGOs as the arbiters of India’s destiny and self-appointed champions of the poor and the marginalized, including women.

In the 1970s, foreign-funded NGOs were called Voluntary Organizations (VOs) until people began to ask how their work could be called “voluntary” if they were all well-paid professionals. Therefore, Western funding agencies asked the recipients of their bounty to rename themselves as NGOs (Non-governmental organizations).

This nomenclature is absurd, too, since many of the foreign-funded NGOs like Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (ANHAD) also draw heavily on government funds. Given the large-scale corruption in the NGO sector, their partisan agendas, the term “NGO” came to be mistrusted and deprived of the halo they were bestowed with at one time.

In recent years, the donor agencies have urged the NGO community to adopt a new nomenclature—Civil Society Organizations, CSOs for short. This nomenclature is the most absurd since most of the time they are at war with civil society and engage with India’s diverse communities mainly through the mediation of draconian laws such as the anti-dowry law, the domestic violence law, the law against sex determination tests etc. The general NGO mindset is that the diverse communities in India are backward and misfits in modern-day India unless they refashion their beliefs, values and social practices in keeping with the changing agendas of the NGOs floated by the international donor agencies. They are thus carrying forward the “civilizing mission” of us natives unleashed by our colonial rulers in late 19th century.

The tendency to see all social iniquities and poverty-related problems only through the prism of class struggle and to project the interests of various economic strata as being permanently mutually hostile, has remained preponderant among NGO activists in India despite the country’s social reality being far more complex. For example, many of those attacked as rich farmers or kulaks earn less than a Class IV employee in a government office. A large number of them are heavily indebted farmers who can keep their farms running only by sending off one or more of their sons for extremely low-paid occupations to earn cash.

And yet those who organize the landless poor tend to seek all the answers to the poverty of farm labourers by whipping up sentiments against the landowning farmers, leading to a zero-sum game for both, rather than understand the causes of poverty of the entire farm sector, which makes it impossible for impoverished farmers to pay decent wages.

The mutual complementarity of people in varied sectors of our economy is altogether ignored by the leftist NGOs in their obsession to highlight their conflicts and work to sharpen divides. They specialize in sectional demands that pitch various sections of society against each other.

The adversarial relationships of labour versus capital, ‘upper castes’ versus ‘lower castes’, Hindus versus Muslims, peasants versus farm labourers insisted on in the simplified rhetoric of these NGOs, produce results that are detrimental for all.

It is not a coincidence that in regions where foreign-funded NGOs abound, secessionist movements and violent upsurges such as the Maoist insurgency are common. Societies make economic progress only when there is a degree of complementarity of interests between agriculture and industry, wage earners and employers, small-scale and large-scale industry, consumers and producers—rather than where each of these sectors is locked in a permanently adversarial relationship with the others.

It’s ironical that international donor agencies of Western ‘capitalist countries’ fund mainly leftist NGOs in India and other Third World countries. There has to be a good reason why they are paid to rave and rant against Western capitalism and oppose India’s efforts to open up its economy.

Till about the 1980s, organized left parties and intellectuals opposed India’s integration with the world economy under the guise of protecting the rights of the working class against capitalist exploitation. They were the prime supporters of a closed-door economy and Statist controls. However, in the last two decades, that space has increasingly come to be shared by well-heeled and influential NGOs which specialize in whipping up frenzied campaigns against liberalization of the Indian economy for which generous political and monetary support is available from certain Western donor agencies that work in close collaboration with their respective governments.

According to government sources, the NGO sector received $3 billion in 2003 from various foreign sources. As per the FCRA Annual Report, 2011-12, Ministry of Home Affairs, Foreigners Division, FCRA Wing, Receipt and Utilization of Foreign Contribution by Voluntary Associations, some 22,702 NGOs reportedly received Rs 11,546 crore as foreign contributions. Among the list of donors, the US tops the list (Rs 3,838.23 crore) followed by the UK (Rs 1,219.02 crore) and Germany (Rs 1,096.01 crore).

Majority of donors including the top three are church-based organizations: Compassion International USA (Rs 183.83 crore), followed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, USA (Rs 130.77 crore) and the Kindernothilfe eV (KNH) Germany (Rs 51.76 crore). Of the top 15 donor agencies, 13 are related to some Christian sect.

The Anti-Globalization Brigade

A substantial part of these funds are going to what I call the Anti-Globalization Brigade (AGB) among NGOs. With these fabulous grants, AGBs among the NGOs are forever jet- setting from one exotic destination to another preaching to each other and friendly journalists about the need to protect our people from the evil ways of the West by keeping our country insulated from the global economy and the ‘evil’ influences of Western culture. The increase in sexual violence, wife murders, escalating dowries, corruption, female foeticide, declining sex ratio, increasing crime rate in our society, the impoverished condition and indebtedness of our farmers, failure of crops due to poor-quality pesticides, the growing frustration of millions of unemployed youth in India—all these and more are projected as inevitable outcomes of the process of globalization and the accompanying economic reforms in India.

They seldom bother to explain how any economy can be kept ‘closed-door’ without a draconian bureaucracy and police establishment to prevent the flow of goods and capital from one country to another. For decades, the mantra-chanting leftists immobilised idealistic young people by telling them that no social problem could be solved without the workers of the world uniting under the red flag to defeat the forces of world capitalism and capture state power. They actively discouraged their followers from finding concrete solutions to concrete problems and made rabble-rousing a substitute for all political activity.

That fantasy never materialized because the working class refused to fall in line. Thereafter, some disoriented leftists have reinvented their politics and tried getting the NGOs of the world to unite under the aegis of the World Social Forum (WSF) and diverse other networks with generous grants from aid organizations, and the governments of ‘capitalist–imperialist’ countries to defeat the forces of globalization! Once again they seek to channel the idealism of many dedicated young people towards bloated rhetoric so that they keep away from creative engagement with concrete problems and find workable solutions.

The entire thrust of AGB politics is to internationalize every local problem that comes to their notice. When there is a riot in Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat, many of them run to European capitals to give fiery speeches on human rights violations instead of being on the scene to protect those under attack or organize relief for them. They want global networks for themselves but insist the rest of us must live like frogs in a well and not be corrupted by the evil ways of the West.

They often buy their cheese and chocolates from Switzerland and France, but if they see Indian villagers buy a box of desi Britannia cheese or Amul chocolates or a packet of cheap Maggi noodles, they begin to have fits of anxiety over the increasing hold of the ‘decadent consumer culture of the West’ among Indians.

Since Arundhati Roy has emerged as the most celebrated pamphleteer of India’s AGBs, I would like to illustrate the basic features of this worldview by quoting from a speech delivered by her at the World Social Forum meeting in Brazil in 2002. This represents in a very condensed and accurate form all the key diagnostic clichés offered by this articulate group of our samajik neem hakims (quack social scientists) to explain what ails our politics and economy.

“India—the world’s biggest democracy—is currently at the forefront of the corporate globalization project. Its ‘market’ of one billion people is being prized open by the WTO. Corporatization and privatization are being welcomed by the government and the Indian elite.”

“It is not a coincidence that the Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the Disinvestment Minister—the men who signed the deal with Enron in India, the men who are selling the country’s infrastructure to corporate multinationals, the men who want to privatize water, electricity, oil, coal, steel, health, education and telecommunication—are all members or admirers of the RSS… a right-wing ultra-nationalist Hindu guild which has openly admired Hitler and his methods. The dismantling of democracy is proceeding with the speed and efficiency of a Structural Adjustment Programme. While the project of corporate globalization rips through people’s lives in India, massive privatization and labour ‘reforms’ are pushing people off their land and out of their jobs. Hundreds of impoverished farmers are committing suicide…Reports of starvation deaths are coming in from all over the country.”

“The two arms of the Indian government have evolved the perfect pincer action. While one arm is busy selling India off in chunks, the other, to divert attention, is orchestrating a howling, baying chorus of Hindu nationalism and religious Fascism. It is conducting nuclear tests, rewriting history books, burning churches, and demolishing mosques. Censorship, surveillance, the suspension of civil liberties and human rights, the definition of who is an Indian citizen and who is not, particularly with regard to religious minorities, is becoming common practice. Since the Indian ‘market’ is open to global investors—the massacre is not even an embarrassing inconvenience…”

“All this to say that it is a myth that the free market breaks down national barriers. The free market does not threaten national sovereignty, it undermines democracy. As the disparity between the rich and the poor grows, the fight to corner resources is intensifying. To push through their ‘sweetheart deals’, to corporatize the crops we grow, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the dreams we dream, corporate globalization needs an international confederation of loyal, corrupt, authoritarian governments in poorer countries to push through unpopular reforms and quell the mutinies…The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling—their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability. Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.”

Roy gave concrete shape to her crusade against MNCs at the WSF by giving a call to the AGBs to target two MNCs involved in Iraq for boycott of their goods in order to drive them out of business. The farcical nature of their boycott is evident from the fact that the previous year the AGBs had issued a similar call against American imperialism by pasting stickers and posters, mainly in and outside their own offices asking people to boycott McDonalds, Pepsi and Coke. These three companies producing junk food and drinks undoubtedly make for easy and culturally compelling targets but certainly do not represent the full and real might of the imperialist West.

If the AGBs are truly anti-globalization, why not include a boycott of foreign consultancies, foreign aid money, foreign TV channels, publishers, cellphones, computers, Suzuki or Ford cars, Sony TVs, as well as the airplanes they ride while continuously globetrotting? Could it be that they have not understood that microchips are the real symbols and enablers of globalization—not potato chips?

There is something comic about representatives of the AGBs warning us about the evils of globalization despite their own politics being altogether dependent on international aid money. They should take their swadeshi fantasies to their logical conclusion by proclaiming: “Our Swadeshi Politics is Manufactured with 100 Per Cent Videshi Aid Money!”

There are basic flaws in the way the AGBs diagnose India’s problems. In their worldview, globalization = privatization = selling off India’s assets to evil marauders. All this is ostensibly carried out by right-wing members of the ‘evil’ Hindu guild who are Hitlerian Fascists out to muzzle the free press and trample underfoot the rights of the poor and marginalized groups. Facts tell a contrary tale. The closed-door economy was synonymous with State-controlled servile television and radio, a regime of government-controlled paper quotas for newspapers which, along with government’s patronage through release of advertisements to sycophants, were used as powerful instruments to coerce newspaper establishments into playing a game of cautious servility. Today we have dozens of private news channels including some foreign TV channels beaming less censored news to our homes than was ever possible in the heydays of State-monopolized TV.

The kind of outrage expressed by our newspapers towards the Gujarat government following the riots of 2002 should be compared to the tame newspaper coverage of similar riots of 1980s or human rights violations in the Northeast during the euphoric days of the closed-door economy when sarkari press releases constituted a major part of what was published as ‘news’. The worst communal riots in post-Independence India took place during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, before India began opening up to global markets. During the same period, most of the border states witnessed secessionist movements involving virulent popular upsurges. Chief Ministers of almost all states in India were involved in constant battles with the Centre over issues of regional autonomy.

The draconian clampdown on the press during the Emergency was not only a sign of political authoritarianism but also a denial of economic freedom to many segments of society, especially the peasantry. The toughest challenge to the Emergency came from Punjab farmers led by the Akali Dal who had been fighting the policy of compulsory procurement of wheat by the government at officially controlled prices. Shahidi Jathas of Akalis courted arrest every single day of the Emergency to protest against lack of economic liberty and muzzling of political freedom, with thousands filling government jails.

Politicians of all hues have had to learn that they cannot stay in power for long if they are openly associated with fomenting communal hatred and riots. They seem to have understood that, leave alone foreign investors, even Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) or resident sons and daughters of Mother India will not invest their money in India, if there are deadly outbreaks of violence or recurring inter-community riots in the country.

The states that are wooing capital are precisely the ones that are implementing measures of reforms in governance. By contrast, states like UP which have not responded to the challenges of globalization remain the poorest and their governance is in doldrums.

A globalizing economy reduces some of the top-heavy powers and oppressive influence of many national governments, making the world relatively more democratic. Many countries where business communities have been freed from the clutches of insular and corrupt bureaucracies, politicians, and army generals, are more democratic today than they were when they had built walls of protectionism. China, the former Soviet Union, South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia have all yielded relatively more space in recent years for voices of dissent.

The fact that even after two-and-a-half decades of reforms, India commands only a small proportion of world trade and is not getting the kind of foreign investments many other Asian countries are getting shows that the Indian economy is still over-politicised and marred by instability, corruption, and red tape. Moreover, the infrastructure is still too poor to inspire enough confidence in investors.

There is no denying that many MNCs indulge in unethical practices and behave like marauders in poorer countries. However, the conduct of MNCs or for that matter even small business establishments and petty shopkeepers depends on the quality of regulatory mechanisms institutionalized in each country and the effectiveness of the legal system in providing sure and speedy redress when the legitimate rights of citizens are being violated through unethical business practices. Societies that have effective and transparent mechanisms to impose punitive measures for wrong practices in business are able to enforce a sense of responsibility for both big and small market players.

There is not a single example in the world today of a completely closed-door economy which is also wealthy and successful. On the contrary, countries like Myanmar, which are rich in natural resources and had relatively high standards of living a hundred years ago, have been wrecked and impoverished by their authoritarian regimes blocking economic access to the world. It is well-known that countries open to trade and investment grow faster than those that are not. North Korea was once richer than South Korea; after 60 years of hermit economics, it is now 16 times poorer. Per capita GDP fell by an average of 1.1 per cent in closed developing countries. In industrialized countries, it rose by 1.9 per cent.

No doubt, there will be some losers and victims of the globalized economy. Unfortunately, the losers will be those very countries that are saddled with tyrannical and authoritarian regimes that deny their citizens economic freedom and have prevented them from acquiring education and other skills. Countries where bribes and pay-offs are the basis of economic decisions, where there is lack of transparency and where citizens do not have the power to call power-wielders to account, will also lose out to economic marauders in the global economy because their leaders are often too eager to shortchange their own people. This underscores the urgent need for reform in governance rather than a closed-door economy that will only strengthen the hold of rapacious servants of the state.

The West Discovers the Evils of Globalization Rather Late

It cannot be a coincidence that a strong movement against globalization and multinationals began to emerge in the West only in the last decade when the following new developments began to get consolidated.

The WTO regime added to the clout of Second and Third World economies by giving them the possibility of influencing decisions and seeking a level playing field. Many decisions on trade-related disputes have gone in favour of the developing world and against the attempts of First World countries’ imposing unfair terms on the former.

MNCs began majorly shifting their manufacturing base to Asian countries, leading to a flight of capital and job losses in the First World. The fact that many MNCs owe little or no loyalty to nation-states and move to whichever countries they find profitable to operate from, has earned them the wrath of Western professionals and trade union leaders.

There was no comparable criticism of MNCs as long as they merely sought export markets in Second and Third World countries. Dumping of MNC goods is beneficial for First World economies if the MNCs are First World-based. However, ever since the MNCs started shifting their manufacturing base resulting in the flooding of Western markets with “Made in Korea”, “Made in China” or “Made in Mexico” labels, there is legitimate panic in the First World against this reversal in the flow of goods and money.

While Asian countries are actively wooing MNC investments, the MNCs are facing harsh criticism from people of the very countries that gave them birth. If the MNCs were indeed as evil as they are being projected to be, then the First World anti-MNC radicals should be glad to be rid of them. The fact is that they are upset at their mobility and refusal to be bound down by national loyalties.

Witness how the American and west European governments are battling to force a sense of economic loyalty in their MNCs towards some of their mother countries. For example, on 23 January 2004, the US Senate passed a law barring American MNCs from sub-contracting to non-Americans the work given to them by the American government, because of the fear of job losses in America. The very fact that special laws need to be passed shows that a significant proportion of MNCs are not voluntarily complying with the demands of the American government because they realize that if they listen to such governmental diktats, they will not be able to compete with their rivals globally.

Therefore, MNCs are battling against their respective governments to allow them to outsource contracts as well as recruit the required human labour power from other countries. Such ongoing battles between First World governments and First World MNCs have provided unique openings and opportunities for countries like India.

The panic in First World countries is compounded by the fact that several Asian economies, including India, which began by inviting MNC investments, have generated enough wealth and expertise to start their own MNCs. These Asian MNCs are beginning to give a genuine run for their money to Western MNCs in many manufacturing activities barring defence equipment, which is still a Western monopoly.

The European Union and the US government are very worried that if they are compelled to withdraw the $440 billion annual subsidy currently being given to their farmers, their respective farm sectors will simply collapse. By contrast, farmers in countries like India which have borne the brunt of negative subsidies and artificially depressed, bureaucratically controlled prices as well as restrictions on exports imposed by their own government, will be finally able to outcompete European and American farmers for certain crops if the subsidy and tariff regime is dismantled as mandated by the WTO.

Countries like the US are beginning to run huge trade deficits with the Asian tigers. Consequently, these newly emerging economies have brought about a substantial change in global power equations. In the 1990s, the pressure to quickly open up was on developing countries. Today, domestic political compulsions in the developed world (fear of loss of jobs and collapse of their agriculture and fear of two-way flow of trade) are driving them towards protectionism.

It is therefore no surprise that huge protest demonstrations have been organised by Western trade unions, farmer unions, professionals and First World intellectuals, with the full support of many First World governments and Western donor agencies who are actively wooing Third World protesters to come and add numbers to give their campaigns the appearance of a vast global movement against globalization!

That some First World governments and workers are worried about MNCs shifting their areas of operation leading to unemployment in their own countries is understandable, though if MNCs are as bad as they make them out to be, they should be happy to get rid of them from their countries. But what is hard to understand is why certain Indian NGOs and intellectuals are upset at the prospect of a dramatic increase in employment opportunities in upwardly mobile jobs for the people of India.

When political parties in India hire buses, trucks and people for rallies where the poor are given some freebies, brought in from villages and slums as a show of strength by our netas, we tend to frown upon it as an example of political corruption and cynical manipulation of people. Likewise, we look down upon those who sell their votes to this or that party for a couple of hundred rupees or a bottle of liquor. All these are seen as signs of undermining our democracy.

However, by contrast, we are failing to register the significance of a new kind of deluded or hired rallyist who has emerged on the international scene. Most of the self-styled radicals, who went and demonstrated against WTO in Seattle and Rio de Janeiro or in Hyderabad, the site of the Asia Social Forum in 2002, or gathered at Mumbai for opposing reforms and emoting against globalization, have had their air tickets and per diem expenses paid for by a whole range of Western donor agencies and some European governments financing the politics of trade barriers and closing borders against the flow of goods and services from Third and Second World countries.

It is dishonourable enough that the Anti-Globalization Brigades in the West want to fire their guns from the shoulders of people of impoverished nations by making out a case that the Third World countries would be devastated by free-er trade regimes. But it is even more dishonourable that our self-styled radicals are happy at being thus used for defending the interests of First World farmers, industrial workers and professions and yet they pretend that they are speaking on behalf of the impoverished farmers and the working poor of India.

Unfortunately, the very same AGBs who pant and fume at India opening up to foreign investments have very little objection to India being aid-dependent. They are in fact upset at even feeble attempts by the Indian government to lessen India’s aid dependence.

Clearly, they prefer Indians in the role of grovelling supplicants who have willingly crushed all pride. They have no problem in being tied to the apron strings of international donor agencies to finance their politics, but do not trust Indians to benefit from partnership in world trade. Their policy of “No to Free Trade, Yes to Tied Aid” is the real worth of their politics.

The UPA government had outsourced a good part of its politics to these NGOs in return for BJP-bashing. It allowed them to derail the economic reforms agenda set into motion during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime. Coupled with their politics of freebies and subsidies, the NGOs sent the Indian economy into deep depression. I hope the current BJP regime will reign in the NGOs with their imported agendas and export-oriented activism.

Madhu Purnima Kishwar is Maulana Azad National Professor, ICSSR, and the founder of human rights organisation, MANUSHI.

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