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As a consequence of chasing funds, NGOs shift their focus from their core mission, change their objectives to suit donor needs

By Moin Qazi*
India is now all set to frame a law to curb the wild growth of NGOs following a series of strict observations of the Supreme Court. The CBI has informed the Supreme Court that it has detected 32.97 lakh registered NGOs and voluntary organizations but less than 10% of them, 3.07 lakh, filed their audited accounts.
India has tens of thousands of NGOs, including local arms of global charities and homegrown groups, working on a wide range of issues, including poverty, gender rights, urban safety, human rights, microfinance, environmental protection, healthcare, agriculture and clean energy. They form the bulwark of India’s vibrant civil society, which is crucial to developing an effective interface of the government and the community.
But sadly not all NGOs are necessarily formed for altruistic reasons, and in a number of cases NGOs are promoted because they make good economic logic to the founders.
There is a growing tribe of NGOs which exists, metaphorically or literally, purely in files ,websites and documents and all their work is based on fictitious reports intelligently drawn up in their offices. They make huge money and are now euphemistically called brief case NGOs. They have expertise in drafting proposals and accessing western donors and most of the funding they receive goes into the pockets of the promoters. Many not-for-profits are known for money laundering, misusing funds and even funding anti-national activities.
This is no surprise .After all the NGO promoters come from the same society that all of us come from and there is no reason to believe that only the most honest will be involved. “NGO” is now a catchall term that covers agendas form mundane to sophisticated causes like “abolition of child labor", “promotion of good hygiene and sanitary practices,” “women’s rights, “ to international missions like “climate change “and “conflict resolution.” Many briefcase NGOs begin with noble intentions. But international funding agencies often set their own agendas and priorities, causing cash-strapped NGOs to chase funding and align their mission with donor objectives.
As a consequence of chasing funding, organizations shift their focus from their core mission, resulting in what is popularly called in NGO discourse as “mission drift”. It is this phenomenon that has given rise to briefcase NGOs.
While the large sized NGOs have become increasingly professionalized over the last two decades, the smaller ones are now deeply mired in dubious practices. Altruism and voluntarism no longer remain key defining characteristics of the sector. Sadly many of these NGO have been found to have anti-national motives and dubious sources of funds. NGOs have become a big cottage industry acting as conduits for flow of funds with little transparency and accountability.
it is not surprising that NGOs have rarely have a fixed objective or mission or expertise. They change their objectives to suit the need of donors. This is the reason why very few NGOs lack a track record of expertise because are driven by short term objectives that are framed primarily to fit into the funding criteria of the donors . Once a project is completed and a new has to be approached a total overhaul of the mission takes place . Thus the NGO is never able to internalize a permanent vision or philosophy.
The degeneration of NGOs is a recent phenomena and it should not deflect us from the worthwhile contribution it has made particularly in humanitarian work. Civil society as a whole, and NGOs as a major part of it, has successfully campaigned to make human rights discourse and environmental issues a part of mainstream political agendas. They have also been instrumental on drawing focus on issues such as gender-based and religiously-driven segregation and discrimination, besides creating public awareness on issues pertaining to health, education and sanitation. But most importantly, they have been leading public opinion on the need to hold public representatives and government officials accountable, and on demanding transparency in governance.
NGOs working in the humanitarian and development sectors won official approval in the 1980s and 1990s, but there are signs now that they are losing favor. The NGO sector stands accused by some of complacency and self-interest, on the one hand, and of being ineffectual and irrelevant on the other. NGOs are increasingly challenged to demonstrate their legitimacy as representative voices of civil society. NGOs themselves are taking a hard look at their mandates, their core values, and their role particularly when many of them have got embroiled in ideological controversies.
NGOs engaged in service delivery are taking up the role of the state and thus enabling the state to abdicate its responsibility towards its citizens. Several NGOs are playing a big role in delivering services such as health and education belie the distinction between voicing the concerns of citizens – which is the function of civil society – and taking care of citizens, which is the responsibility of the government. An active civil society and a responsible government are both features of a democratic and forward-looking society. When NGOs are seen to possess more resources to deliver services, while at the same time still claiming to be a part of civil society, they are mixing the two factors and produce outcomes which are not always helpful.
With some large NGOs having become heavily corporatized entities, where staffs earn above market-based salaries and where foreign money flows affluently, it is natural to expect some kind of transparency and accountability. This includes accountability for salaries being paid to the right people and for the right purposes as well as ensuring that foreign funds are spent on the projects they are meant for.
The burgeoning and unregulated NGO sector is certainly not a welcome sign. It signals continuing manifestation of corruption and misuse of scarce and precious grants and donor funds meant for charitable purpose. At a time when the world is desperately starved of funds for relief work in areas where local populations face abysmal conditions of health, sanitation ,sanitation ,water and in very many cases precarious living conditions verging on hunger we cannot afford such misappropriation of funds.
While transparency and stringent audits are key to ensuring proper utilization of funds, it is equally important that the objectives of funding are properly aligned with the need of end user groups. Funders need to work more with local communities to understand how capabilities, needs, and aspirations can be addressed in the funding mandate. While community partners sometimes have different priorities, this doesn't inherently have to be in conflict with the idea of doing well. Clarity on positive, mutually-beneficial relationships between local organizations and funders is key to putting scarce and precious funds to produce more lasting and productive impact.
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*Contact: moinqazi123@gmail.com

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