Commentary

NGOs and Their Ideas Seen as Hurting Development Should Be Countered, Not Banned

Free access to ideas of all sorts is a fundamental right. Many ideas may be terrible, but battles against them should be fought in the high country of the mind, not through censorship or bans. Caveat: ideas accompanied by or leading to violence are subject to reasonable restrictions. Yet, such restrictions need to be minimal. We do not, for instance, ban Marxist schools of thought although they seek to overthrow democracy and liquidate class enemies. The Intelligence Bureau (IB) seems unaware of or opposed to a free flow of ideas.

In a report leaked to the media, it alleges that Greenpeace and other NGOs are using foreign money to launch anti-nuclear, anti-coal and anti-GM food agitations, thus reducing India’s GDP growth by a whopping 2-3% per year. The report expresses outrage that one NGO has got funding for criticising the Gujarat model of development. The IB suggests screening and stopping all foreign funding of NGOs that support such “antinational” activities.

This is plain wrong. Every human being has a right to her own concept of what is good or bad for development. I disagree strongly with many NGOs on some issues, while agreeing with them on others. To oppose nuclear power, e-waste, large dams or carbon emissions can, in some cases, be called misguided. But it is not anti-national. It is a rival view of what development should be about. No thinking person views GDP as the only measure of development. If you go by GDP alone, Mahatma Gandhi was far more anti-development than Greenpeace.

He believed that happiness lay in reducing one’s wants, not in consuming more. This would be devastating for GDP growth, of course, but the Mahatma did not think that mattered. He opposed modern machinery, swore by handspun cloth, and wanted India to be a collection of self-sufficient village republics. If implemented, these ideas would have slashed GDP growth by much more than the 2-3% than the IB complains about.

Call the Lie

But what is the basis for the IB’s estimate anyway? The 2-3% of GDP it claims as the annual loss is around Rs 2,00,000-3,00,000 crore. Has it cited any respectable economist in this matter? Does it have a peer-reviewed model? Not at all. Worse, the sums received from abroad by the “anti-development” NGOs have averaged barely Rs 50 crore or so per year. The government can easily spend 10 times as much on exposing the falsity of NGO claims (there is indeed much falsehood around). If at the end of it all, the NGOs carry more credibility than the government or IB, the reason cannot be that dollars are somehow more convincing than rupees.

I would agree with the IB that some foreign-financed NGO crusades and agitations are based on halftruths and plain falsehoods. But that is equally true of agitations by Indian organisations and political parties. Many agitations claiming to promote the public interest actually harm it. Yet, these notions must be combated in public debate, not by executive fiat. Alas, bad ideas are so widely supported by purely desilobbies in India that foreign money is just the icing on the cake. Blame the cake, not the icing.

[pullquote]Many ideas may be terrible, but battles against them should be fought in the high country of the mind, not through censorship or bans.[/pullquote]

Many foreign-funded NGOs are indeed trying to impose their own priorities on India. Their top priorities are carbon emissions and GM foods. But in India, the biggest causes of death are unclean water and indoor pollution from smoky cooking fires. We need every sort of agricultural research, including GM research, to boost farm incomes and reduce poverty. Perhaps the greatest Indian environmental problem of all is free electricity for farmers, which leads to overpumping, and hence to the destruction of acquifers.

Funds Skew Priorities

Alas, you will not find Indian NGOs agitating against free farm electricity. You will not find them agitating in favour of GM crop research. Without doubt, foreign funding has skewed their priorities. But why blame foreigners for that? It’s only natural for crusaders to have their own priorities. It is up to Indians to resist false priorities, and establish their own.

Running an NGO

I need to make some disclosures about my own possible biases. I run my own NGO, the Mukundan Charitable Trust. I am associated with NGOs like the Centre for Civil Society and Centre for North-Eastern Studies (for whom I have a financed a fleet of medical ships taking doctors to three million people living on islands in the Brahmaputra). I have helped finance tribal land rights, micro-housing, micro-pensions, microfinance and vocational training schemes. In sum, I am squarely in the NGO business myself.

But hopefully, I can claim to be bias-free in this matter since I use only my own funds, and accept nothing from Indian or foreign donors. Also, I strongly oppose Greenpeace and other foreign-funded NGOs on many development issues. Nevertheless, I support their right to spread ideas freely, regardless of whether these are financed by dollars or rupees. I agree with Voltaire’s quote, “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.