a bimonthly publication of
progressive south asian politics

Volume 7: Number 1                      October 2, 1996
In this Issue...
IMF, Capital and Us: The Economics of Imperialism by Radhika Lal
"Other" wise?: The Selling of Global Cultural Difference by Sangeeta Rao
Global Technoscapes and Unborn Voices: Gendering Globalizationby Mir Ali Raza
Foil Briefs

The Structural Adjustment of Grassroots Politics

Sangeeta Kamat

Block Development Office, Thane District, Maharashtra, March 1992. Vidyut, an activist in a community development organization has before her a grand offer. The State social welfare directorate would like her and her organization to manage all the primary health care centers (PHCs) in the district. Please! they urge her. You will be fully in charge of running the PHCs. You can weed out the corruption of the doctors, and the poor will really benefit. The government, she is told cannot do as good a job as her organization would. Far from feeling flattered, Vidyut reacts angrily. Why don't you hand over the management of the forests, the water works, and the police also to us?! Then we will gladly accept your offer of the PHCs, is her sarcastic response.

The incident is a small but telling one. From decrying the infiltration of "naxalites" in the seventies, in the eighties the State had moved towards a tactic of reconciliation with the numerous voluntary organizations in the countryside. The strategy is quite specific: tame the ones who seem to err on the side of confrontation with the government and the elites; marginalize those who refuse to be so tamed, and encourage those organizations that believe in "constructive" work as opposed to struggle. For years now, the various voluntary organizations in the district (as elsewhere) have been either threatened, harassed, repressed or praised depending on where they lie on the spectrum between benign welfare activity and popular struggle. The flow of foreign funds for community development activity coupled with the cynicism over radical politics has further extended the space for organizations engaged in constructive' development as opposed to those that engage in a struggle based politics.

Abstract as the phrase "struggle based politics" may sound it refers to those groups that organize to challenge the hegemonic truths of the modern nation state -- modern technology, liberal democracy, capitalism and a unified national identity as the salvation of each and all. In many ways Vidyut's sarcastic retort is a questioning of some of these ideals. She is attacking the government's superficial project of democracy a la community management of the PHCs, wherein it would mean only managing under the existing conditions and not a reimagination of health and ill-health, and their causes and solutions in any new ways. She is also pointing out that the government would not dream of handing over those sectors' that more fundamentally and intimately decide the health and ill-health of the poor -- forest, water and police -- to their constituencies. If we understand struggle based politics in this way, their marginalization and displacement by increasingly professionalized development organizations (otherwise known as NGOs) is of grave consequence to the very possibility of radical politics.

Enter this scenario the World Bank and IMF with their structural adjustment policies (SAPs). The NGOs provide an appropriate node to soak in the crisis that will necessarily result from the cutbacks on social spending called for by the SAPs. Thus, as part of the development of a particular region, the World Bank can (and does) have NGOs co-ordinate road building, run adult literacy classes, primary schools and PHCs, manage creches for contract labourers, ensure their villages have electricity and so on, making everyone happy. UN reports can cite the boom in community participation in the world's largest democracy, the State can focus its energies on cheerleading financial investors, and capital can have not only its subsidized roads and electrified countryside but also a populace who can read the labels on its potato chips and coke.

If the scenario sounds overdone, you are quite right. The global enterprise is not running so smooth, as yet. For one, the issue of popular participation has not been settled. There continues to be a sharp cleavage between the professionalized NGOs and people's struggles, with both often operating in the same spaces but with highly unequal resources. The World Bank thus has to sieve through the various community based organizations to determine which ones will match the tasks at hand. With the help of the State, the troublemakers are weeded out to make way for the truly helping professionals.

There are several ways in which the State can assess the "appropriate" community organizations. One is through the 1976 Foreign Currency Regulation Act, whereby dollar funds to organizations have to be registered and approved by the government. Based on reports from local development officials, the Home Ministry decides which organizations are "subversive" and stalls their funding. Thus those organizations which continue to remain on the FCRA list are more likely to be invited to collaborate on the World Bank's social welfare programs. Secondly, from among the several thousand NGOs that are registered in India, the "corporate" NGOs are being specifically solicited for their assistance in implementing social policies and programs. Corporate NGOs include the State funded Bharat Agro-Industry Federation (BAIF) and the National Wasteland Development Board as well as the numerous foreign funded NGOs that resemble large corporate offices with several offices, computers, fax machines, vehicles, a highly paid managerial staff and low paid "grassroots workers". These corporate NGOs are not only more professional oriented, making for a common culture between them and the international and government development experts, but are also able to operate simultaneously in several different regions and even States given their tremendous money power.

In fact, international agencies have expressed a clear wish to fund what they call "network NGOs" a term coined to refer to those NGOs that can administer and supervise a number of operations, areas and projects, as opposed to local community organizations which are more interested in developing a strong base of leadership and action within a local community. This is a clear case of market demand determining supply: that is, network NGOs will emerge and flourish to meet the demand of international aid agencies thereby restructuring the field of grassroots activism in completely new ways.

The restructuring is likely to alter the very fundamentals of popular politics in India by undermining the survival of popular movements such as the Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Kerala Fisherworkers Forum, to name but a few of the well known struggles of today. The demand for network NGOs is justified as a more efficient mode for the delivery of social goods. The hard work of organizing marginalized groups at local levels to articulate their demands is presumably an inefficient mode of listening and responding for international capital and the State. Perhaps because too often these demands are radically opposed to neoliberal capital and elite interests?! Having network NGOs who have little contact with the constituencies they seemingly represent permits development experts to proceed as if the demands of the people are already known and defined -- roads, electricity, literacy, mid-day meals, birth control for women, sewing, chicken rearing and other such enterprises. The keywords of empowerment and participation will continue to be used with impunity by the NGOs and the international agencies even as their practices are increasingly removed from the meaning of these terms.

Corporate and network NGOs are finding a ready ground in India not only due to the demand generated by structural adjustment, but also because of the internal class dynamics of the country, augmented undoubtedly by free market ideology. The recent trend of corporate and network NGOs, I argue, provides a new career track for many middle class college educated youth, mostly from the liberal arts, who can not only continue to assume leadership positions on national concerns, but simultaneously maintain an upwardly mobile middle class lifestyle. Thus instead of becoming "failures" in an economy which promotes only doctors, lawyers, engineers and politicians, the NGOs open a new niche for an aspiring middle class. NGO "activists" are now successful lobbyists and members of expert committees, part of an international jet set of development professionals. The enormous expansion and legitimacy of the development apparatus along with liberalization which minimizes the State's development investments has contributed or rather caused this new niche for the liberal minded middle class of the country. However, it also operates in a dialectical relation with the needs and aspirations of a middle class looking for professional openings, so that they too may be consumers of the fruits of the free market as well as play out their historically adopted role as leaders of the nation.

An even more recent plan within corporate NGOs highlights this marriage of convenience between upwardly mobile "activists" and international capital interests. Leaders of corporate NGOs have publicly proposed that voluntary organizations must now behave like private enterprises and learn to manage employment generation schemes on a "for profit" basis. They admit that relief and welfare services are still required, but when it comes to the "economy" there can be no "free riders". Their point is that if in the past schemes, loans and grants were made available to the poor, such a situation cannot (or must not?) continue indefinitely. The re-orientation calls for changes at an organizational level as well as at an ideological level. At the organizational level, the advocates explicitly propose employing people with business skills, paying them market salaries, accepting "beneficiaries" who are credit worthy, foregoing subsidies and grants for bank loans, and specializing in ventures which will be viable (suggesting for instance even prawn cultivation which is known to be ecologically destructive). At the ideological level, it is stated that NGOs must stop viewing the economic system as unequal and unfair to the poor, and must instead focus on the "unused opportunities" that exist (for whom, is conveniently not specified). Not only does this new world view ensure that NGOs will ignore issues of class, caste, gender and environmental justice in their own work, but even more dangerously, they will marginalize and delegitimize those people's movements for whom these issues form the core of their struggles.

For those of us who presume that the existence of numerous grassroots organizations and NGOs in India automatically reflects an autonomous political will of civil society, or an act of self-determination by civil society this article is a signpost saying Proceed With Caution. The emergent patterns of NGO formation require us to formulate ways of discerning between various independent initiatives within the voluntary sector to know which ones to ally ourselves with and which ones to critique and oppose. The experiences of activist-intellectuals in India show that it is much easier to agree on the devastating effects of neoliberal capital and their representatives, but much harder to challenge and oppose NGOs and their "activists" because of their general image as "people with good intentions". Good intentions notwithstanding, it is necessary that we understand the systematic reorganization of the political culture that is taking place materially and ideologically through the aegis of the global economy.

[Sangeeta Kamat is a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and adjunct faculty at Brooklyn College, NY.]

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