NGOs and social movements: partnership or solidarity?

“If you can’t be an ally then at least don’t make our work more difficult.”

Madhuresh Kumar
29 March 2020, 6.00pm
The Rally for the Valley, 1999.
Flickr/International Rivers. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Can NGOs work with social movements in ways that avoid domination and co-optation? In his article on Transformation Michael Silberman says ‘yes:’ genuine partnerships can be formed, though there are always difficulties and dangers. From a movement perspective and based on my experience in India, however, I’d say there’s a deeper issue at stake: NGOs seem incapable of practicing what movements really need, which isn’t partnership but solidarity.

My first brush with movements came when I participated in the “Rally for the Valley” led by Arundhati Roy in solidarity with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (the Save Narmada Movement or ‘NBA’) in 1999. I became part of a group of students who accompanied NBA’s surprise actions at central government ministries, month-long sit-ins at the Jantar Mantar designated protest space in Delhi, exposure trips to the Narmada Valley, film screenings, seminars and debates.

Later, we joined with teachers, lawyers, journalists, artists, activists and NGOs to constitute the Delhi Support Group for Narmada, which expanded to become the Delhi Solidarity Group in support of a wider range of natural resource-based protests struggling for community rights over land, water, forests and minerals.

Importantly, the Group developed a number of principles for its support work: communities and community organisations are the primary voices in articulating demands and deciding on the course of struggle; solidarity means providing inputs and resources only when asked; and power inequities demand that support groups ‘remain on the floor and not on the stage,’ guided solely by the desire to use every resource for the benefit of movements engaged in building people’s power and social transformation.

I believe these principles are crucial to any attempt by NGOs to work in solidarity with movements. They definitely helped the Solidarity Group to earn the trust and respect of movement groups and their leaders, who made us part of the co-ordinating structures which facilitated the coming together of various movements like Action 2007/Sangharsh and many others.

At the same time, they brought us into direct conflict with bigger and better-resourced national and international NGOs and networks facilitated by donor agencies, who were competing to gain the trust of the movements, make alliances, and access these spaces. At times, we were also accused of being gatekeepers or of misrepresenting movements, but in general our principles served us well.

In 2009 I became a National Organiser, and later the National Convenor, of the National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements (or NAPM), which is one of the largest movement alliances in the country. I was responsible, not only for carrying out organisational and campaign work but also for forging strategic alliances with the media, political parties, trade unions, fraternal organisations, and national and international NGOs.

By this time, pro-market economic reforms in India had already started to change society, politics and the economy, and also the movement-scape and its relationship to NGOs and the State. The vocabulary of participatory democracy, civil society, inclusion, advocacy, and stakeholders came to replace a focus on systems change, revolution, deepening democracy, democratising power, community rights and class struggle.

This meant that the coming together of grassroots movements for systemic change like NAPM, Jan Vikas Andolan, Bharat Jan Andolan and others in the 1990s gave way to issue-based networks in the 2000s, like the National Campaign for the Right to Information, the Right to Food and Work Campaign, and campaigns for pensions, social security, forest rights, health and education.

NAPM was part of many of these alliances and processes, which often had a very diverse set of actors that went beyond grassroots groups to include national NGOs and local partners of International NGOs. This coming together remained rooted in the values and principles of people’s movements, but as INGOs became more involved this began to change. These groups were both advocacy and campaigning organisations in themselves, and they also controlled significant financial resources, providing grants to a number of local NGOs who were called their ‘partners’ even though the relationship was unequal.

Over time, many local NGOs became co-opted in support of their international funders who were seeking more legitimacy in multi-stakeholder meetings organised by government, industry and multilateral agencies, capturing policy and advocacy spaces and diluting the demands and ideas of social movements in the name of a more ‘balanced’ approach to economic growth and development.

This became evident during the National Advisory Council stakeholder meetings which piloted several rights-based legislative efforts during the term of the United Progressive Alliance government between 2004 and 2014. For example, when movement groups made a demand for stopping all forced land acquisitions in the country, protecting land rights, and ensuring land reforms, the larger NGOs and their supporters in the Council made the counter-argument that land acquisition was necessary for development projects - but without addressing the historical injustices, development-induced displacements, and large land banks that were lying idle.

Movement groups who have nothing to lose except oppression and injustice can be extremely radical in their demands, but INGOs and the larger national NGOs have a great deal at stake in terms of their funding and their relationship with government, which rules out direct confrontation. When the two positions clashed, as they often did, our advice was this: ‘if you can’t be an ally and offer us solidarity then at least don’t make our work more difficult.’ To be fair to them, they often tried, but the position of NGOs and movements is structurally different.

This situation worsened with the coming of the National Democratic Alliance in 2014, which is completely hostile towards social movements, farmers’ organisations, trade unions and critical voices within the NGO sector. They have attacked freedoms of speech, expression and association, and have criminalised dissent. Not only has this has made the work of social transformation much more difficult; it has also threatened the very existence of large-scale, organised progressive forces.

The struggle now is to open-up spaces and ensure that democratic rights can be practised and defended. However, these imperatives are not high on the agendas of most INGOs and international think tanks which have opened up offices in India in their names in the last ten years, often as local representatives of global brands. Instead, they behave like social sector technocrats who are happy to collaborate with government, sit in stakeholder consultations, and offer muted responses to poverty and injustice, tinkering around the edges of the anti-people agenda of those in power.

This agenda includes privatising public services, dismantling the credibility of every public institution including the judiciary, and introducing regressive labour and environmental reforms. These reformist NGOs are far removed from grassroots groups and don’t even feel the need to seek legitimacy, unlike earlier INGOs who were engaged in advocacy. If outreach is on their agenda at all, it is for their own programmes and funding, not out of any sense of solidarity with others.

Take the example of air pollution, where the focus is on technocratic approaches like creating markets for air filters and monitoring equipment, or pushing blindly for solar power parks without talking about the social and environmental consequences or their impact on jobs and livelihoods. The cosmetic actions of the current Indian government in the name of fighting climate change receive global adulation, in part because these measures are amplified by INGOs and the ecosystem they have created.

While India is praised for big strides in achieving its renewable energy targets it isn’t confronted by these groups on its worsening human rights record, violence against minorities, shrinking spaces for democratic dissent, curbs on freedom of speech, and the unbridled pursuit of capitalist growth.

In such a scenario it’s extremely difficult to build any alliance between social movements, NGOs and think tanks. A true alliance can be only based on solidarity and empathy. Without these things, it’s difficult even to start a conversation. But we do have the experience and knowledge required to work together as equals if we want to, using principles like these: root yourself in the local context and in people’s own agendas; don’t be imperialists (imperialism isn’t dead, it just manifests in different forms); don’t hegemonise; question the knowledge production process; and most importantly, learn to walk together as a comrade in solidarity.

On the part of social movements, deeper learning on finding authentic allies and strengthening authentic alliances is important, but there is no substitute for building people’s power and raising up their voices so that governments and others have to listen, and take action in response. This is what is happening at the moment in the country amidst widespread protests for life, liberty and citizenship.

If they are prepared to practice solidarity with these protests in ways that go beyond extractive or instrumental partnerships in service to themselves and their own agendas, NGOs can certainly be our allies. But - as we learned way back in the Save Narmada and other movements – they should ‘remain on the floor, and not strut around the stage.’


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