What do NGOs actually do? All you need to know!

It appears that the idea for demonetisation came from a relatively unknown NGO called Arthkranti Pratishthan. Many inconvenienced by the note ban must be tearing their hair out and wondering what NGOs have to do with currency recommendations? We thought it was a good time to revisit our understanding of what NGOs do.

Here is the simplest way to go about it. We can start by looking at the systems, services and people we take for granted in our own lives. Competent doctors to cure us when we are ill, education that allows us to participate in better quality employment, employers who provide fair conditions of work, even wages that meet a basic standard of living. In a nutshell, NGOs try to recreate these very systems to help the poor and underprivileged. All NGOs are performing one or more of the following tasks :

  • Service Delivery 
  • Behaviour change 
  • Policy Advocacy

Most of us are familiar with ‘Service Delivery’ NGOs. They supply the most urgently needed and basic necessities. Akshaya Patra Foundation serves 1.6 million mid-day meals a day to schoolchildren, many of whom count it as their only meal. Goonj… provides emergency relief to communities who have lost everything in disasters. Aravind Eye Care has performed over 3 million low-cost or free eye surgeries for people in need. The service could even include mobilising volunteers who distribute food, teach, and perform other roles.

Behaviour change refers to the subtle but no less important work NGOs do. Many underprivileged people are held back not by a lack of money but social biases held by others. For many years, it was not possible for a person with a physical or mental disability to dream of full-time employment. Today software giants like SAP hire people on the autism spectrum for software testing, technical writing and system administration. Other common topics including addressing people’s attitudes towards child marriage, domestic violence, technology and more. A small change in heart can mean a world of difference to a young girl who gets to go to school instead of staying at home!

Advocacy is a little trickier to understand. It does not address any single beneficiary directly. Instead, it involves working with policymakers, government bodies and elected representatives to advocate on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves. These NGOs’ ultimate goal is to create or change laws and policies to accommodate the concerns of those in need. Arthkranti’s stated mission, for instance, aims at fixing flaws in India’s economic systems to reduce black money and improve the access to capital for all citizens. It is not driven by a desire to improve the personal fortunes of any of its members. 

  • Bangalore Public Action Committee (B.Pac) aims to increase good governance, infrastructure, services etc for residents of Bangalore by increasing people’s participation and engaging with political parties
  • People for Ethical Treatment of India (PETA) lobbies to improve the treatment of animals.
  • Change.org accepts and forwards online petitions from citizens and their supporters to elected representatives of their country
  • Greenpeace is a global organisation that pushes governments to reduce carbon emissions, divest from fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
  • Amnesty India campaigns against human rights violations all over the world.

Advocacy NGOs fall into a mighty gray area, especially because their work asks us to support a world we cannot imagine. Their work can pit them against governments and existing laws of a country – Greenpeace and Amnesty International have both been hauled up by governments in India and abroad for ‘meddling’ in internal affairs of a country.

However, there are other more shadowy lobbies, think tanks and special interest groups that also fall into the ‘NGO’ bracket because they are non-governmental entities. They claim to represent public interest but may actually speak only for their donor base or one segment of society. Questions are raised about vested interests, and whether this work actually represents people in need. These organisations also tend to stay away from the public eye, unlike others that try to rally support from individuals, businesses and even government officials. A closer look into their finances, staff and mission is required to better understand their world.

Credible NGOs also make an effort to state their mission, finances and programmes in the public domain.

This article first appeared in Equitymaster.

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