The NGO I was working with in India organised communities to tell elected representatives from the region – ‘if you don’t stand by us when we construct our water supply system, don’t come to us when you need our votes’. It was on one hand, a remarkably simple pressure mechanism that often worked. However, did that slogan overshadow all the other needs that the communities had, but which were not framed and presented to their elected representatives in this aggressive manner, aided by the NGO? It is difficult to say. But in organising the community to bring into play, a simple democratic principle, succeeded in prodding better development politics in the region.
Then again, by leading a water programme, was the NGO letting the state (which was supposed to have installed the infrastructure in the first place) off the hook? By that standard, any NGO intervention that improves access and/or quality of delivery of basic services makes the task of the state easier. The state clearly had the resources and the mandate. But in spite of this, when the state is inactive and indifferent, one of the basic aims of aid is to get non-state actors in motion, to at least alleviate to some extent, the problems communities living there face; all with the objective that the state will be spurred/shamed/forced to break its slumber.
But if politicians could get re-elected just by devoting a part of their constituency development funds and government schemes to a couple of wells, toilets and taps, would that create perverse incentives for the state to ignore problems of poverty and unemployment? And often, it is not as if the state is in deep slumber. It is in fact, very active. There is politics at work, of interests who require status-quo be maintained. There is probably no way to deal with this other than engaging directly with the powers at play.
Should the NGO focus on organising the community to take on the state, in the process, ignoring a group of marginalised poor who don’t seem to show much enthusiasm. What is more important – intra-community power dynamics or that between the community and the state and/or other communities? What about issues of gender and social discrimination in society? Or long-term environmental sustainability issues? What about the mining contract that was just given out in the neighbouring district, that will pollute the air and water in this community forever?
I am now going around in circles. But that is how it often is – on the ground, with the people…