Was there more to NGOs than I had thought so far - at best, an independent third voice in India, bringing specialised expertise to areas such as health care and environment; at worst, idealists clamouring for a way the world ought to be rather than what it was?
I stayed in this stage of puzzlement for a few months till I encountered an article by Professor Nimruji Jammulamadaka of the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, in The Critical Review, a scholarly journal devoted to politics and society.
The article, "The Needs of the Needy or the Needs of the Donors?", takes a close look at 5,000 NGOs operating in about a thousand mandals, or administrative divisions, in Andhra Pradesh and running close to 2,000 projects. The focus of her investigation was to establish what factors - or independent variables - explained the number of NGOs in each mandal. In other words, if some mandals had more NGOs than others, what factors explained this. Her first finding was that NGOs begot NGOs - that is, if a mandal already had NGOs operating in the area, there was a greater chance of more NGOs being formed there.
Her second finding was that the more extensive the activities of Christian missions in a mandal, the greater the chance of finding other NGOs there. Her third finding was that the easier the availability of funding (mostly from international sources) for some mandals, the greater the chance of NGOs being founded there - the Naxal-prone areas of Andhra Pradesh, for example, do not attract much funding and, thus, have far fewer NGOs.
All these findings lead Professor Jammulamadaka to the question in her title: do NGOs get created and sustained to cater to the needs of the needy, or do they exist to cater to the needs of their donors?
A marker of the Indian NGO world is the transnational links that these organisations have forged that offer them increased leverage and autonomy, thereby allowing them to enter into conflicts with governments.
But this has its hazards as well, says William Fisher of Harvard in his article titled "Doing Good? The Politics and Antipolitics of NGO Practices" (Annual Review of Anthropology). By depending on this kind of international funding, constituencies become "customers" and members become "clients". This process of co-option of NGOs by development agencies, he says, is by now so advanced that NGOs may be destined to become little more than the frontmen for such interests.
The classic definition of an NGO is that it is a non-profit, voluntary citizens' group, driven by people who share a common interest, perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, and who bring citizens' concerns to governments' attention.
In this sense, an NGO is merely an organisation form that "civil society" takes, a third voice, distinct from government and business, and includes a range of "intermediary institutions" - professional associations, religious groups and citizen advocacy organisations - that give voice to various sectors of society and, when done right, enrich public participation.
But as someone pointed out, this could also include the Ku Klux Klan.
As I reflected on this insight, a sudden and more worrying thought struck me. Is it possible that these large numbers of NGOs (remember that Professor Jammulamadaka's study had found 5,000 NGOs in just one state, Andhra Pradesh) act as a platform for what Leela Fernandes, professor of political science at Rutgers University, in her book, India's New Middle Class: Democratic Politics in an Era of Economic Reform, calls the "New Middle Class" - an increasingly assertive group that "began to engage in a form of backlash protest politics against a democratic political field that they perceived as having been captured by previously marginalised social groups".
This newly assertive group, she says, is largely made up of the English-educated urban professionals. Are NGOs in India, then, merely a voice for this group?