PCDForum Column #5,    Release Date December 10, 1990

by F. Stephen

The 1980s saw an explosive growth in the number and size
of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in India, in part
a response to increased funding from foreign agencies and
the Indian government. Youth clubs and other voluntary
village self-help organizations transformed themselves into
formalized projects and larger NGOs fragmented into
countless smaller agencies as their individual staff formed
their own organizations to tap available funds.

Since donors prefer to fund projects, the project
approach has dominated. Village groups are organized for
particular activities–such as primary health care, non-formal
education, or credit–sustained for the length of the funded
project, and then abandoned.

Efforts to organize on homogeneous caste or occupational
lines to deal with more substantive economic issues,
such as improved wages and access to land, are less
common. It is precisely such efforts, however, that offer
prospects for achieving the structural changes in power
relationships that are basic to sustained improvements in
the well-being of marginalized groups. These are also the
issues that potentially unite similar groups throughout the
state or nation into a significant economic and political

One of the more successful examples is the fisherman’s
union of Kerala. Here, with the assistance of PCO, a local
NGO, a group of fishermen formed a cooperative to
eliminate the grip of the middle men who controlled credit
and marketing facilities. Later they created a parallel
organization registered as a trade union through which they
organized others of their trade all along the Kerela coast to
negotiate with large trawler operators and government.
Gradually the union took on many of the original functions
of PCO, which then merged into the cooperative structure
as a secretariat accountable to the cooperative’s board of

Unfortunately, most people’s organizations in India
continue to function as extensions of an externally funded
NGO, revealing a crisis of vision on the part of both NGOs
and donors. Those NGOs that do have a vision are divided
between the radicals, whose vision of revolution through
conscientization has proven overly romantic and impractical,
and the technocrats, whose modernization approach is
naive and narrow. Neither has articulated pragmatic
strategies for rural transformation. Both tend to treat
isolated and fragmented initiatives as ends in themselves
without regard to the larger social institutions and dynamics
that are the source of social, economic and political

Similarly, the funding agencies generally work in
isolation from one another, functioning as little more than
financial intermediaries that distribute funds to recipient
NGOs and measure their importance by the number of
projects they “own.” Their practice of funding projects
with limited purposes in three year cycles nearly assures
the continued dependence and passivity of the beneficiaries.

There is evidence that this pattern is starting to change.
The emerging trend in India is toward the formation of
alliances of NGOs to address critical issues facing
marginalized people within major geopolitical areas of the
country. The critical role of NGOs in alliance with the
affected people, media, and concerned citizens to resist
construction of a series of dams in the Narmada valley that
threaten to displace a million people, many of them tribals,
and flood 350,000 hectares of forest and 200,000 hectares
of cultivatable land is only one such example.

The general destruction of forests and grazing lands
that is leading to the rapid extension of drought prone areas
in India is another issue that requires large scale collective
action. NGOs are coming to recognize the dimensions of
the resulting crisis and the futility of responding to primarily
through relief measures that leave untouched its underlying causes.

Here again is an issue that demands collective
action by large numbers of NGOs able to bring to bear a
wide spectrum of capabilities, including relevant technical
and policy analysis skills.

Such insights are emerging at a rapid rate out of a
collective self-assessment by Indian NGOs that is leading
us beyond an NGO-centered to a truly people-centered
development vision. It requires a serious commitment to
building the power of people’s organizations, to transforming
our own roles, and to establishing new relationships with our funding agencies.

F. Stephen is executive director of Search, a major South Indian
NGO training support organization based in Bangalore, and a
contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum.
This guest column was prepared and distributed by the
PCDForum, based on F. Stephen’s monograph “NGOs – Hope of
the Last Decade of this Century!” For further information contact
Search, 219/26 6th Main, 4th Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore-560
011, India.

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