Why the traditional model of NGO-led development must end

My latest column for livemint, on how the space for traditional NGO-led development model is shrinking
The 1980s and 1990s were the heydays of the NGO-led development model in India, where significant funds flowed through them into development programmes targeting the poor. NGOs played a critical role in developing model interventions of service delivery and giving a voice to the poor through long-term engagement and institution-building at the local level. Concurrently, powerful networks of NGOs spoke passionately on behalf of the poor at various national and international forums. For many years, NGOs faced criticism that they were taking over the role of the state in providing basic services. Over the last few years, however, we have seen a shift in the way development projects are conceptualized and executed in India. Not only does the state have the largest development footprint in India, it also retains the power to “allow” citizens to exercise their rights and claim their state-granted entitlements; and give NGOs the regulatory space in which to operate while working for the people.
In order to understand this phenomenon better, it is helpful to look at research on “power”. John Gaventa is one of the leading researchers on the subject of “power” and “participatory development”. One of the key aspects of “power” is that of “spaces”. Spaces may be understood as opportunities or platforms for the powerless to participate and negotiate with the power holders. Gaventa suggests a continuum of spaces as closed (spaces from which the power holders exclude others and often have to resist opening up under pressure from civil society); invited (spaces created by the power holders who invite others to participate); and claimed (spaces that exist as informal arrangements that have developed organically through individual or joint efforts by the powerless).
Gaventa’s definition of spaces also shows how these are shaped and transformed through interactions between various stakeholders, all of whom hold varying degrees of power. Often, the spaces that come to exist are a combination of the three types outlined above. Closed spaces may be opened up by invitation and claimed spaces may be institutionalized through legislation. In the Indian context, this gives us a framework to look at the role and reach of the state and that of external agencies, such as NGOs that attempt to work with the state. In earlier decades, NGOs would mobilize citizens to form pressure groups and demand that the state open up hitherto closed spaces.
Over the last decade, the state has expanded its welfarist wings by pursuing a path of “granting” rights. I choose my words intentionally here: in India, the state has “granted” the rural poor the right to wage employment, to information, to education and possibly, to food security. More fundamentally, the decentralization reforms of 1993-94 have decisively opened up these “closed spaces”, inviting people to contest elections and run their own affairs at the local level. At the same time, granting rights to citizens is an invitation to citizens to engage with the state and expand the “claimed spaces” of policy formulation, implementation and holding representatives of the state (both the politicians and bureaucrats) to account. Thus, whether we talk about NGOs that execute programmes or individual/institutional donors that fund or activists who protest, they all function in the spaces created by the state.
Even in their heydays, NGOs suffered from serious criticisms of perpetuating dependency and of their inability to scale up. In a context where the state seems to be constantly redefining its role, NGOs that positioned themselves as the representatives of the unrepresented citizens have had to cede ground to the 3 million democratically-elected panchayati raj institution members across the country. These are 3 million men and women, in leadership positions in their community, who people can hold to account for the delivery of basic services. There is pressure on NGOs on the ground to transform their strategies in order to stay alive and relevant. This is already visible in many parts of the country. While aid funds continue to whittle down, NGOs are increasingly positioning themselves as catalysts that promote and strengthen people’s institutions, primarily through strengthening local government institutions that are meant to represent and serve the people. In terms of facilitating development through equitable access to services for the millions living in poverty, that is not just the best way ahead, it is the only one.
There are no doubt NGOs that are still pursuing the traditional service provider model. They all risk being left behind in the tide of policy evolution, as communities recognise that engaging with the government remains the only way towards achieving sustainable improvement in their quality of life.

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