Indian Social Forum: are NGOs enemies of the people?

Esme Choonara > dated 25 November 2006 | issue 2028

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One of the most striking features of the Indian Social Forum (ISF), which took place in Delhi two weeks ago, was the huge numbers of NGOs – non governmental organisations – involved in the event.

NGOs usually campaign around humanitarian issues, provide direct welfare or work among the poor.

NGOs dominated the ISF much more than previous social forum events in India. They mobilised hundreds of groups of the poor and oppressed, including many impressive groups of women and dalits (untouchables), from across India. Each group brought its own songs, music, banners and matching outfits. Bringing these groups together in one place was a powerful reminder that the much praised Indian boom is being fuelled by the exploitation of the poor and dispossessed. However, the influence and impact of the NGOs raises some serious questions about the development of the movement in India and the strategy of the left.

There has been a huge rise in NGOs globally over the past 30 years. In India there are now around 1.5 million NGOs involving around 19.4 million people working as paid staff or volunteers.

This growth has taken place in part because of the spread of neoliberalism. As the state has privatised or cut welfare, NGOs have stepped in, often encouraged by the state, to fill the gap.

In India, the growth of NGOs has been fuelled by some of the failures of the organised left. The two big Communist Parties in India – the main forces on the left – are in effect social democratic parties. Communists are in power in two big states – West Bengal and Kerala. This means that they often follow contradictory policies across India and, despite attracting committed and talented individuals, have no consistent focus on organising from below or challenging the state.

In West Bengal the Left Front led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – the CPI(M) – has been in power since 1977. The CPI(M) chief minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee is at the forefront of forcefully aquiring land for Special Economic Zones in order to attract multinationals to the state. This has provoked demonstrations by hundreds of poor farmers.


The establshed left have also failed to address a number of political questions such as the attacks on Muslims or strategies for organising casualised marginal workers. This has led many who are concerned with these issues into a proliferation of smaller NGOs which try to address these issues.

The way NGOs are funded has implications for their political role. NGOs that want to receive foreign donations have to register with the Indian Home Ministry which means satisfying government regulations about their role and remit, including familiar sounding warnings about not funding “terrorist organisations”. There are over 20,000 NGOs in India registered to receive foreign funding.

The British government’s Department for International Development (DFID) is a major funder of NGOs. Its project in India is its largest anywhere in the world, employing over 170 staff in its Delhi office alone. In 2004-5 its programme included grants worth more than £259 million. DFID has been challenged by the anti-capitalist movement over recent years for its role in channelling aid to the Global South into privatisation projects.

DFID India’s website proudly boasts of the joint declaration signed by Tony Blair and Indian prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in 2004 to “strengthen and deepen bilateral relationship between the two countries”.

Competition for funding limits how radical NGOs can be in practice. So they can express the anger of the poor, but are unlikely to allow that anger to be channelled into direct confrontation with the state.

Many NGOs of course do not have funding either from DFID or the Indian state. Some 73 percent of NGOs in India have only one paid staff member or none at all. This means that there are thousands of small NGOs working on a largely voluntary basis.

Many of the activists working in these small NGOs are genuinely committed to challenging inequality and poverty. Many of them do important work organising the poor and oppressed.

However, because NGOs organise on a sectional basis through oppressed groups, often competing for funding or profile, they fragment the overall struggle. Just bringing the groups together in one place does not automatically generalise the struggle or develop any strategic overview.

So at the Indian Social Forum, many groups came – often visibly shepherded by their organisers – and spent the entire event in their own group, marching and eating together, going to their own self organised meetings and then leaving together.

Because the forum organisers allowed this form of identity based politics to dominate the event, there were few big meetings to bring people together and put local struggles into a wider context. There was almost no discussion about war and imperialism. There was no demonstration to take the struggles out into the wider city.

By contrast, the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004 opened with Arundhati Roy arguing that imperialism is the key question facing the movement and ended with a powerful demonstration through the city.


This depoliticisation is not exclusively an Indian problem. This identity based politics is one of the dominant political strands within the social forum movement. At the European Social Forum in Athens earlier this year, the organisers blocked attempts to organise large plenaries that could generalise the struggle.

Some on the Indian left wrongly write off all NGOs as tools of imperialism and neoliberalism. In fact, many NGOs express genuine anger and are critical of the state. The NGOs should be welcomed as part of a wider united front against war, neoliberal policies and against communalism.

But there is also a fight to be had for the future of the movement. There is an urgent need for the left to rebuild a base among workers and the poor and to shape a political argument about how to challenge – not accommodate to – state power.

One of the encouraging things about the ISF was that we met hundreds of people struggling for change and many individuals who are indeed grappling with these questions.

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