Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Kalawati,Government and the NGOs

While channel-surfing after the parliamentary vote, I ran into one channel analyzing the speech of Rahul Gandhi, generally considered well-delivered. The television commentator prefaced his comments by saying that Rahul Gandhi began by making NGO-ish comments like his visit to the house of the Vidharbha widow Kalawati and talking about subjects like women’s welfare. Subsequently the anchor explained, Rahul went on to talk of more substantive things pertinent to the matter at hand. This comment of the anchor made me stop and think. Think quite a bit. Because the anchor seemed to be saying that topics like citizen’s welfare are not matters of critical concern to government and that these subjects can be left to the intervention of NGOs. If this is the thinking, than it is a sad state of affairs. It seems to by default reinforce the thinking that the government’s imagery is that of a militaristic big brother, bothered only about nuclear bombs, a strong army and police and national security and the welfare of its citizens is a second rate agenda that can be out sourced to NGOs.

Actually it could be construed that it is a shame that NGOs have to exist in the manner that do and perform the functions that they are performing – running schools, and orphanages and hospitals and feeding centers and performing other such other services. A lot of these initiatives have their origins in colonial times when church run institutions and others began this work. However it is easy enough to accept and understand that social sector investment would not be a priority for a colonial government unless it furthered their commercial or strategic political interests. That these functions still need to be performed by the voluntary sector sixty years and more after independence is actually a shame. In most developed societies, governments take care of the basics necessities of their citizens through direct provision of services as in the socialist states or through creation of viable social safety nets. NGOs typically act as watch dogs overseeing the implementation and efficacy of programs rather than actually run programs.

That NGOs would usually do in relief situations where systems have broken down and governments often do not function. The fact that government involvement in the sectors of education, health care and other social sectors is at a level that voluntary organizations need to raise resources – often from overseas and deliver services on the ground, should say some thing. From time to time, the government talks of regulating the activities of the voluntary sector and especially of those who get funding from overseas. This is seen as a way of controlling the work and activities of the sector. Well, the fact of the matter is that there is a more effective and sustainable way of controlling the activities of the voluntary sector.

If only the government would take sectors like education, health care and grass root level poverty alleviation and not just macro economic structural reforms as seriously as it deals with say issues like terrorism and national security and invest in them wisely and well- not just in terms of financial allocation though that is important too, but also in terms of the brightest and the best being assigned to administer these schemes. That would pretty well make most NGOs obsolete and out of work and there would be no further need to regulate them. and in the mean time, while the government gets its act together – that is if they wish to do so, there is a need to recognize the many groups – small and big, known and unknown who serve the many Kalavatis of the land.

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