The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum: Lessons for the Struggle against ‘Globalisation’

II. WSF Mumbai 2004 and the NGO phenomenon in India

Buoyed by the success of the Porto Alegre meets, the WSF organisers have been trying systematically to expand the Forum’s influence even further. In the course of the last year they have organised an Argentina Social Forum meet in Buenos Aires, a European Social Forum in Florence, a Palestine Thematic Forum in Ramallah (on “negotiated solutions for conflicts”), an Asian Social Forum in Hyderabad, and an African Social Forum in Addis Ababa. It is as part of this “internationalisation” process that the WSF bodies (the Brazilian Organising Committee and the International Council) decided to hold the next WSF gathering not in Brazil, but in India.

The holding of the “Asian Social Forum” at Hyderabad on January 2-7, 2003, confirmed that such an event could be successfully held in India. Large funds were mobilised from foreign funding agencies for this event too, including from Ford Foundation, which is, as we have seen, one of the major funders of the WSF.

Just as in Brazil the WSF was initiated by ATTAC and PT, in India the WSF meet is being organised by an alliance of non-governmental organisations and leading cadre from certain political parties — in the main, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, along with their mass organisations of workers, students, peasants, and women. Certain mass organisations with close ties to NGOs are also involved. While these are the forces taking the initiative to organise the meet, and which are able to provide the full-time manpower to do so, a large number of other forces and individuals are likely to join the proceedings in one way or another, either as organisers of discussions or simply as participants.

Large requirement of funds

The foreign funding here, as in Porto Alegre, is of two types: first, the infrastructural funding which comes to the WSF central bodies; secondly, the funding for various participating organisations, which is much larger, but which is near-impossible to trace.

As for the first, the “Part Funding Policy” as adopted by the India General Council of the WSF at its April 7-8 2003 meeting at BTR Bhawan in Delhi, “Maximum international funds [are] to be raised and managed by IC/BOC (International Council/Brazilian Organising Council) as per their policy”. No principle is laid down here for what type of sources may be tapped, just as the WSF Charter is silent on this score. Apart from this, the Part Funding Policy says that “NRI’s [and] organisations other than funding organisations and individuals may be approached for contribution to solidarity fund.” The document “Project World Social Forum 2004” (World Social Forum Secretariat — Brazilian Organising Committee and Indian Organising Committee) estimates that $2.5 million will have to be raised.

However, as mentioned above, this does not capture the full role of funding agencies. In fact “Project World Social Forum 2004” estimates total expenditure for the event at $29.7 million (about Rs 135 crore), the bulk of which, $26.2 million, is the cost of the delegates’ participation (transportation, accommodation and food). Funding agencies would bear much of this cost, since an army of NGO functionaries and employees would be attending — nearly all of the country’s foreign-funded NGOs would be present, as well as many from abroad. The visits of many important personages too would be sponsored by NGOs. However, these sums would be disbursed directly to delegates without entering the WSF Secretariat accounts. The amount provided by foundations/funding agencies directly to the WSF Secretariat is a small fraction of such funds actually involved in the WSF meet (see Appendix II for some examples of this).

The NGO sector in India

Let us turn, then, to the activities of the NGOs — one of the two main forces organising the WSF in India. In Appendix I, we have discussed Ford Foundation’s activities at length because of its role as funder of the WSF, and also as a case study of foreign funding. The broad pattern displayed by the Ford Foundation holds for the entire NGO sector in India.

There are a number of sincere individuals working in NGOs or associated with NGOs. Many such persons are moved by a desire to reach some immediate assistance to needy people. Seen in specific contexts, they do in fact reach some relief to sections of people. Without questioning the commitment and genuineness of such individuals, our concern here is to point to the broader political significance of the NGO institutional phenomenon.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed an extraordinary proliferation of foreign-funded NGOs in India: according to the Home Ministry, by the year 2000 nearly 20,000 organisations were registered under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, though only 13,800 of them submitted their accounts to the government as required.1 Total foreign funds received by these organisations rose from Rs 3,403 crore in 1998-99 to Rs 3,925 crore in 1999-2000 to Rs 4,535 crore (about $993 million) in 2000-01.2

Not a spontaneous social phenomenon

NGOs make out that they have spontaneously emerged from society, hence the earlier term ‘voluntary agency’ and the now-favoured term ‘civil society organisation’. In fact, however, international funding agencies (from which smaller NGOs in various countries in the third world receive their funds) depend heavily on funds from government, corporate and institutional sources. For example, according to the World Bank document “Report on Development: 2000-2001”, more than 70 per cent of projects approved by the World Bank in 1999 included the participation of NGOs and representatives of “civil society” — a single project aimed at bolstering NGOs over seven countries cost $900 million. The Bank assigned two of its functionaries to relations with NGOs and representatives of “civil society”; that figure has grown to 80 today. As for governmental support, another report puts funds to NGOs from advanced industrial countries other than the US at $2.3 billion in 1995; including the US, the figure would be much larger.3 As one writer puts it, “These gigantic sums reveal the hoax of presenting the rapid growth of NGOs as a ‘social phenomenon’.”4

Why do multinational corporations, the imperialist governments, and institutions such as the World Bank and the United Nations channel such funds to NGOs?

Indeed the extraordinary proliferation of NGOs serves imperialism in a variety of ways.

1. NGOs, especially those working to provide various services — health, education, nutrition, rural development — act as a buffer between the State and people. Many States find it useful to maintain the trappings of democracy even as they slash people’s most basic survival requirements from their budgets. NGOs come to the rescue by acting as the private contractors of the State, with the benefit that the State is absolved of all responsibilities. People cannot demand anything as a right from the NGOs: what they get from them is ‘charity’.

Till the 1980s, NGO activity in India was limited to ‘developmental’ activities — rural uplift, literacy, nutrition for women and children, small loans for self-employment, public health, and so on. This continues to be a major sphere of NGO activity — in 2000-01, Rs 970 crore, or 21 per cent of the total foreign funds, was designated for rural development, health and family welfare; other ‘developmental’ heads would have added to this figure.

But in what context are these ‘developmental’ activities taking place? In the basic context of enormous, conscious suppression of development. Under the guidance of the IMF and World Bank, successive Indian governments slashed their expenditure on rural development (including expenditure on agriculture, rural development, special areas programme, irrigation and flood control, village industry, energy and transport; the figures are for Centre and states combined) from 14.5 per cent of GDP in 1985-90 to 5.9 per cent in 2000-01.5 Rural employment growth is now flat; per capita foodgrains consumption has fallen dramatically to levels lower than the 1939-44 famine; the situation is calamitous. Were expenditure by Centre and states on rural development to have remained at the same percentage of GDP as in 1985-90, it would not have been Rs 124,000 crore in 2000-01, but Rs 305,000 crore, or more than two and a half times the actual amount.

In comparison with this giant spending gap, the sums being spent by NGOs in India are trivial. But, by their presence, the notion is conveyed all round that private organisations are stepping in to fill the gap left by the State. This is doubly useful to the rulers. The political propaganda of ‘privatisation’ is bolstered; and, as said before, people are unable to demand anything as their right. In effect, NGO activities help the State to whittle down even the existing meagre social claims that people have on the social product.

Thus NGOs are multiplied fastest where State policies — usually as part of an IMF/World Bank-directed policy — are withdrawing basic services such as food, health care, and education. The greater the devastation wreaked by the policy, the greater the proliferation of NGOs sponsored to help the victims. (Indeed, before the US prepares to invade a country, it funds and prepares leading NGOs to provide ‘relief’ after it has rained destruction.6 Thus in the second half of 2002 NGOs began cutting their spending on, and manpower deployed in, still-devastated Afghanistan — as part of their preparation to join the US caravan to Iraq.)

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