Book Review: When NGOs become mere 'Peddlers of Information'

Peddlers of Information: Indian Non-Government Organizations in the Information Age: By Tanya Jakimow; Kumarian Press /Stylus Publishing 2012 ( ) paperback $ 24.95; e-book: $ 19.99.

Non government voluntary organizations in India, are under something like a cloud, right now. Imaginative conspiracy theories ploanted vin the media and tacitly encouraged by government, glibly allege ‘foreign funding’ and influence, the moment an NGO launches a public campaign that questions any official policy. The agitation against a nuclear power plant in Koodankulam in South India is the latest instance -- and official spokespersons have not hesitated to tar the leaders of the movement ( with scant evidence) as agents of foreign powers, out to derail India’s progress towards energy self-sufficiency. Then, there are the periodic media reports of NGOs de-licensed for misuse of funds, much of it often contributed by well meaning philanthropists abroad.

NGOs in India come in all shapes: outstanding, good, bad and ugly – but it is important in this environment, to set aside any prejudices or notions based on fleeting TV ‘breaking news’ blurbs and newspaper headlines, before reading Tanya Jakimow’s offbeat take on the Indian NGO scene. If her book seems critical – it is for entirely different reasons and should not be seen as part of the anti-NGO ‘hawa’ sweeping India right now.

Yet one can’t deny that her difficulty with Indian NGOs – at any rate with the one NGO she has investigated in some detail – is something that should bother all those who care for and are stakeholders in, the voluntary efforts of civil society in India: Jakimow’s central premise as far as I can understand it is this: Too often, voluminous reports tend to substitute action on the ground. The Internet has, ironically, only accentuated this divide between words and action, by making it easier than ever before, to assemble facts and words in support of any NGO initiative.

The author spent almost a year working closely with one large NGO and a number of small and local units, in Uttarakhand state, whose names she camouflages in view of her critical take.

“The primary activity… was gathering information and knowledge, and disseminating it to remote, poor villages”, she suggests – and the so-called Information Age makes it all too easy to substitute such ‘intangible goods’ for genuine interventions, to become in effect, ‘peddlers of information’.

The other insidious development she finds, is that NGOs of the information-only kind are often the only intermediaries and gateways between the beneficiary and the donor agencies including government. Are they enablers – or subtle filters?

The numbers alone – there are an estimated 20 million workers, paid or voluntary, within the Indian NGO movement – suggest that even if the Jakimow hypothesis turns out to be correct in a small fraction of NGOs, there is a huge problem of wasted or infructuous ( often publicly funded) effort.

The archetype NGO studied by the author is an outfit with its base in Dehra Dun run by a husband and wife team joined by two other close family members, implementing many worthy projects in remote areas of the Himalayan foothills. She charts the triumphs and travails of a small group of volunteers with whom she worked for many months – in the field and at the HQ.

The danger lies in the fact that so often in India, states have callously abdicated their own responsibilities -- turning NGOs into replacements rather than accompaniments to development. The local NGO is often the only vehicle for delivery of services – such as they are – to millions of under-privileged citizens. In such scenarios, voluntary organizations serve a useful purpose – identifying potential beneficiaries and linking them to governmental resources. But in the largely unsupervised environment in which NGOs operate, who can tell how much of the funding gets siphoned off to sustain the NGO’s own infrastructure? This is a question Jakimow asks – and there is a running thread throughout the book that would seem to warrant such agonizing. The danger is this: The average reader in India may not find this to be so awful after all -- in a scenario when lay citizens are confronted every other week with instances of much more culpable hijacking of resources…. where the very government agencies charged with massive welfare schemes, siphon of a huge chunk of the benefits, right at the source.

In a Google-and-Wikipedia Age, it is so easy to whip up a quick report, complete with graphics and photos from Flickr and a neat video from You Tube -- to support just about any pitch. Jakimov’s examples of such NGO proposals, where the inputs are all from irrelevant foreign sources would be hilarious, where they not so painfully true.

To be fair, the decline and fall of Jakimow’s sample NGO, with vanishing sponsors and intruding conflicts of interest, appears to be an atypical example. Here, I must add a personal note of explanation. I have been privileged, in a 3-decade long career -- first as professional within the government- funded Information Technology sector and then as an observer and reporter of technology developments -- to have closely monitored many non government and quasi government initiatives, harnessing the tools of IT to empower India’s less privileged people. I spent many weeks at the grassroots of Kerala’s Akshaya programme of e-literacy in the largely under-developed district of Malappuram. Reporting what I saw in this programme, indirectly enabled me to attend both the World Summits on the Information Society – in Geneva, 2003 and Tunis 2005 -- where I could learn about the challenges in other developing nations and how they were trying to overcome them. As a member of the IT media corps in Bangalore, I had opportunities to observe the voluntary initiatives of global IT companies – like HP’s e-inclusion experiment in Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh and Nokia’s mobile- empowerment solutions in Tamil Nadu. And three years on a jury evaluating e-governance schemes in Kerala, allowed me privileged access to understand the dynamics of many IT-fuelled NGO initiatives. As I look back I can recall dozens of instances where the egoless initiatives of an NGO, has made a life- changing difference to less privileged people. I have also seen instances of information peddling, to appreciate the truth of what Jakimov writes about; but on balance, I think I saw overwhelmingly many more instances of IT being used creatively, to make a difference -- than otherwise.

Tanya Jakimow’s book is necessary—if not pleasant -- reading for all those within the Indian NGO ecosystem and an important contribution to the knowledge base of the same ecosystem. But it would be mistake to let this legitimate piece of criticism somehow devalue or diminish the crucial role that India-based NGOs, no matter how they are funded, are playing every day, to remove so many of our shame-inducing inequalities.

Anand Parthasarathy

May 31 2012

Dr Tanya Jakimow is a postdoctoral fellow at the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in the Environment and Development team of CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences. She is currently researching an anthropological approach to institutional change and its impact on livelihood in India and Indonesia.