‘Development’ is Political

- Stalin K

This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be written by the Video Volunteers director, Stalin K. These weekly posts will cover themes from activism to community media, sustainability to identity.  This week he discusses the danger of political apathy in the NGO sector in India.

As a human rights activist, I have spent two decades campaigning for causes I care deeply about –gender equality, secularism, an end to caste discrimination. In this blog post I want to explore the curious occurrence of political apathy in the NGO sector in India.

Time and again, when working with colleagues in the field of social development, I encounter a reticence to engage with politics; from the politics of gender to the politics of wealth distribution, the politics of education to the politics of caste.

Let me share a short anecdote with you. A few years ago I was invited to evaluate the programs of a very large and very well respected microfinance NGO in India. During the period of evaluation it was the NGOs annual meeting – an occasion which saw the coming together of over 5,000 women from the hundreds of savings groups promoted by the NGO. Around lunchtime I heard a commotion in the kitchen area. I went over and found a group of 30 or so women having a heated discussion with some of the volunteer organizers. The women were refusing to eat the food that had been prepared. When I enquired as to why this was the case, they answered, ‘because you have already served the same food to a bunch of Dalits’. The volunteer organizers were trying to pacify the women, ‘lets not disturb the event, we will seat you in separate lines for food’. So I went to the top layer of management at this large NGO, and I said ‘you have to call off this meeting right now. This has to be a non-negotiable. If your ‘empowered’ women are still saying we will not eat because of issues of caste, we have reached our tolerance threshold. We have to communicate to them that this cannot, and will not, be tolerated. Everyone needs to be sent home and told that we will communicate about the future of the self help groups in due course’. Of course they did not disband the meeting but they realized how serious I was which resulted in a very interesting discussion with the NGO about the role that our sector plays. When do we start intervening and in which situations? Do we really want economically empowered people who continue to be casteist and sexist?

This country has thousands of organizations working for the underprivileged. Under what circumstances is it fine for these organizations to work on economic empowerment but not be concerned with challenging the politics of power that give rise to the very poverty they are trying to combat? This tendency to avoid active political engagement is most apparent in those organizations that are concerned with ‘service delivery’. Their mandate is not political transformation or empowerment – their mandate is to reach water to X number of villages or to set up X number of micro credit units benefiting X number of women. These types of organizations do not want to engage in work to shift existing power paradigms – this is seen as too activist. They say ‘we are not jhandadhari (flag bearers) – we do not wear the badge of a political movement’. This aversion to ‘politics’ is dangerous because tomorrow we may have, as a result of all the effective NGO programs, a huge number articulate and economically strong people who continue to practice and perpetuate social inequities.

Social entrepreneurship is becoming a big thing these days, which is great. But any project that seeks to address poverty without dealing with the ‘politics’ of depravation is bound to fail. And it should fail.

You may call yourself NGO, non-profit, social sector, development sector, voluntary agencies or whatever else, if you are in the business of bettering the life of the ‘poor’, then you are, whether you want to be or not, in the business of politics. We need to take this responsibility seriously.

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