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Some Reflections on Funding and Voluntarism

These ideas are the outcome of discussions with the Lokayan core group since 1980 and with the Coalition for Environment and Development, Finland, since 1988.


The general secretary of the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development (AVARD), one of the oldest networks of Gandhian NGOs recently asked me whether Lokayan accepted foreign funds or not. Technically and even normally the straight answer should have been that since December 1982, the foreign component of Lokayan is only in terms of the earnings from the sale of the Lokayan Bulletin to individual foreign subscribers and bulk sale to foreign Trusts, Foundations and NGO networks. But instead of this, I defensively explained that we publish only in English; which we sell in the foreign ‘market’ as well. Thus we can not say that we don’t accept foreign funds. Among the activists, at the present juncture, there are only three whole-time persons in Lokayan. Only one of them is drawing close to full-time honorarium, about the same as usually paid by low paying urban NGO. There is another set of 9-10 voluntary workers, who are not paid anything, while some of them, who come regularly to the office and have no personal source of income, are paid only Rs.500 for conveyance expenses. For a variety of reasons, we had to suspend our Hindi journal, a step for which we continuously face brick-bats from our activist friends at the grass-roots not only in the Hindi-speaking region, but also from states like Orissa, Gujarat, Maharashtra and even some friends in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Why this long-winding statement, giving the details on the issue of funding, instead of a simple answer in yes or no? Probably because in real-life situations, ideal and pragmatic or moral and political are not exclusivist, dichotomous categories. In fact, it is the other way round. What is ideal and moral should also be practical and political. So, it was in search of this holistic view, the urge to be more credible and more effective, as a part of larger radical interventions that Lokayan decided to stop accepting institutional support from international donor agencies. How far have we succeeded in enhancing our ability to intervene on issues of social transformation,it is for others to judge. But, I can assure you that our critiques from within are far more devastating than any critique from observers outside.

Lokayan’s view is that the bulk of the resources in terms of ideas, human-power and finances need to come from the society which we are seeking to transform. Issues of rootedness, indigeneity and self-reliance are important for all transformative movements in any part of the globe. But equally important are the issues of international solidarity, sharing experiences with dissenting movements across nations and working for the weakest and humblest sections of our people (whom Gandhiji described as Daridranarayan) not only in our own country but in any country on the earth. This kind of international solidarity based on the principle of serving the Daridranarayan has acquired a different kind of salience since the temporary gains made by global capitalist forces know no bound whether it is a question of their profits or the question of plundering nature. But Lokayan is clearly opposed to the marginalisation, undermining and some times the total displacement of issues of rootedness, indigenenity and self reliance in the name of international solidarity. Examples of good work based on international funding are often used to justify the closure of the debate on the issue of the sources of funding.

Lokayan and many other organisations who do not accept funds from international donor agencies, do not take a position that foreign funds should not be taken by anyone under any circumstances. We are fully aware that many of the critical issues which form an essential part of our contemporary radical consciousness have been raised by those who accept foreign funds. We are also aware that many NGOs have made such a substantial difference in the living conditions of thousands of poor people that one cannot but commend and salute such work. One of the many examples which comes to my mind is that of the work done by Rajendra Singh and his colleagues at Tarun Bharat Sangh in Bhikampura, district Alwar in Rajasthan. They have created and restored hundreds of ponds, reforested the commons, increased nutritional levels of the local people and started many health programmes. If I were in the business of recommending or awarding Nobel Prizes or ‘alternative’ Nobel Prizes, I would feel honoured in awarding one to Tarun Bharat Sangh.

But if foreign-funded good work is used to make fun of, ridicule or sneer at the arduous journey of empowerment of villagers of Bhim, district Ajmer, again in Rajasthan, by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (Organisation for Empowerment of Peasant Workers), through primarily local funding resources, then Lokayan will counter such propaganda vigorously. Lokayan’s reaction will be much more intense on Rajendra Singh’s work if it is used to propagate that Indians by themselves whether at the Panchayat (lowest rung of the Indian state at the level of a village or cluster of villages) level or at the national level are incapable of handling and sustaining the participative mode of governance. We cannot allow the destruction of our cultural confidence by a few thousand dollars coupled with the usage of the dedication and competence of our young men and women. Losing our cultural confidence is the most dangerous form of disempowerment.

Examples of good work and paucity of funds in organisations like Lokayan are put forward to ‘show’ that it is almost impossible to raise funds locally. There can be nothing more misleading than this. Paucity of funds is a problem of those urban middle classes, who are socio-culturally rootless, spiritually lethargic to come out of the mad-race syndrome of ‘do-all’ and ‘get-all’ but still keen to believe that they are very ‘public-spirited’ persons.

No one can deny that just like mainstream politics, the internationally funded NGO sector also has its share of opportunists and social climbers.

The debate for and against foreign funds can not be compartmentalised into an either-or manner such that developing an internal critique on the work-style of public workers becomes difficult. Funding may be local, national or international: issues of austerity, accountability, team-work, sharing credit, nurturing the younger generation by those who have better access to resources, should remain the criterion for judging the good or bad work-culture. Public-work does have its own discipline and share of sacrifice. Although in a deeper sense, no public work goes unrewarded. In fact, the sense of satisfaction and meaningfulness is itself a priceless reward for any public activity which we undertake. But unfortunately, there is a consensus among our elite and middle classes on not confronting uncomfortable issues, looking for soft-options, lofty-persuasive rationalisation of our limitations, occasional glorification of our weaknesses. We also sneer at the courage of conviction or altruistic sense or longing to do selfless work among ‘ordinary’ frail human beings around us. I say ‘ordinary’ because it is difficult to make fun of ‘heroes’ of history but easy to make fun of the strivings of those ‘ordinary’ people whose cumulative might creates epochal people like Gandhi or Ambedkar.

Small sacrifices in everyday life by ordinary citizens have a crucial role in sustaining the notion, and work around issues, of larger public good. Human compassion, empathy and commitment for larger public good is the ultimate resource for all kinds of voluntarism. Many a times those who have access to easy funds—personal, national or international—tend to look for the substitutes to these resources in terms of professional competence or political skills. Nothing can be more dangerous than such a ‘professional’ understanding of voluntarism which ignores or undermines the ‘ordinary’ and his/her capacity to contribute his/her share in the ‘voluntary efforts’ of the society Computer boys of Rajiv Gandhi tried to destroy the cultural confidence of the rooted and more authentic political workers in his own party which had a disastrous effect on the entire democratic political culture. Similarly smart ‘professional’ social workers, speaking good English, generally culturally illiterate as far as Indian traditions are concerned, and making frequent foreign jaunts are transforming the notion of voluntarism in such a manner that what is paid work will be legitimised and applauded as voluntary work. And what is genuine grassroots, altruistic-voluntary work will not even be classified as work of any sort. Because it does not have a project proposal, registered name-plate, bank-account and project funds. This extreme myopia, in my humble opinion, has mainly been caused by a colonial consciousness. The British, by enacting the 1860 Registration of Societies Act, sought to control our society. Mutuality, co-operation, spontaneity and the consequent robust civic-space were some of the attributes of our social system above the pollution line* . This is not to deny the hierarchy, exploitation and caste based ‘begaar’, exploitation of physical labour without any corresponding notion of just wages for the scheduled caste workers, particularly in the agricultural sector. This issue has its own validity. It was on account of our moral-ideological weakness with regard to the caste system that we faced humiliating defeats on the cultural and political fronts from the British.

The Society’s Registration Act undermined voluntarism in the most fundamental sense. It usurped the act of voluntarism from civic society into the politico-legal framework of the state. Looked at from this viewpoint, all of us who have registered societies, are in fact a camouflaged arm of the state-sector rather than belonging to the consciousness of our civic society. Sensitivity on these issues will allow us to debate on the issue of foreign funds in a healthy manner. The journey towards rediscovering our roots and authenticity will be long, arduous and sometimes frustrating.



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