Wednesday, April 22, 2015

NGOs: the good, bad and the ugly

NGOs: the good, bad and the ugly

With Greenpeace and various non-profits under the scanner, it is time to revive the idea of an accreditation agency for the sector

“In Sheraton hotels in scattered nations, We damn multinational corporations; Injustice seems so easy to protest,In such seething hotbeds of social rest.”
(‘The Development Set’, Ross Coggins, 1976)

The newest remix of Ross Coggins’ poem has come from none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he commented about “five-star activists” in an address early this month to the judiciary. The difference is, Ross Coggins was an insider who wrote a scathing satire on social service workers who travel from rich countries to save the developing world — “although we move with the better classes, / Our thoughts are always with the masses.” Mr. Modi, far from having any intention of guiding India’s non-profits or holding a mirror up to them, seems to have simply anointed himself as a rating agency for the voluntary sector. However, in the background of the heightened scrutiny of NGOs, coming in the wake of the protests against nuclear power plants and mining operations, Mr. Modi’s jibe is more than just an outlier.

The uproar around NGOs today is an opportune moment for the government and the voluntary sector to work together to clean up their act. It is time to again broach the idea of a national accreditation agency for non-profits.  The erstwhile Planning Commission had built the groundwork for this in the National Policy on the Voluntary Sector 2007 and had come up with a set of guidelines set forth in the Eleventh and Twelfth Five Year Plans for the sector. Although the policies were not ultimately adopted, the directions were arrived at after extensive consultations with multiple stakeholders and they reflected a positive and collaborative spirit. Most importantly, they were founded in recognition of the nuances underlying the sector and the evolving dynamics of its relationship with society and with government.

The first move was to shelve the idea of importing rankings because the Indian voluntary sector is neither as single-purposed as the hotel industry nor as amenable to hierarchical gradation as the military, two spheres where ratings are dominant. The voluntary sector in India is diverse in purpose, nature and approach. As rating agencies would admit, standardised measurement methodologies for social sector organisations are still an emerging field and comparisons across sub-sectors would be bananas and limes, far less apples and oranges.

However, intermediary organisations such as rating agencies could definitely be beneficial in building a robust voluntary sector, where the link between performance and incentives is not always holy.

The experience of rating agencies across the world reveals that ratings (alphabets or stars) are helpful, especially to donors, in reducing transaction costs, while making investment decisions based on financial health, to check compliance of statutory norms, etc. This has been found to work especially well with certain sub-sectors such as commercial microfinance but not as well for agencies with multiple bottom-lines, intangible results, or whose primary purpose is to hold the state accountable. These are exactly the non-profit organisations about whom self-serving perceptions are formed and which are exploited, when needed, with a political vendetta. It was, therefore, rightly decided that ratings could not be a stand-alone solution to build credibility or assess non-profits.

Accreditation could work
The second move was to acknowledge that accreditation could be a win-win starting point and that mainstreaming this would be a logical step to take. Accreditation is the process of certifying voluntary organisations based on a set of agreed and codified norms, principles, standards and practices. Credibility Alliance, a network of voluntary organisations in India, has been a pioneer of this in India. There have been similar experiments nurtured by donors and consultancy agencies. Yet, accreditation of the NGO sector has not yet blossomed to its full potential, for it has remained outside the state’s engagement. All attempts have been voluntary and were born out of a self-regulatory spirit or donor interest, although the benefits in terms of public perception, investor confidence, and donor guidance are well documented.

It is in this context that a consensus was reached to set up an autonomous accreditation authority — National Accreditation Council of India or NACI — in 2012. However, it only progressed to the extent that a document was prepared by the Council for Advancement of People’s Action and Rural Technology (CAPART), a government body, whose existence itself was under the scanner.

During the multiple engagements between 2007 and 2014 between the Indian government and the voluntary sector on institutionalising accreditation, it was decided that NACI will need to be autonomous, have equal representation of both government and voluntary organisations, develop a methodology in consultation with the sector and, most importantly, respect the diversity of the sector in terms of size, location, nature and theme.

A certificate from NACI will still not be sufficient to avoid broad-brushing or selective marking of non-profits or activists. Yet, if the Prime Minister truly believes in building a credible voluntary sector, it is imperative to move ahead and revive the NACI idea. Without that, “five-star” will only mark the level of trust deficit between the present government and the voluntary sector.

(Balakrishnan Madhavan Kutty is a Harvard graduate in non-profit management, and has supported non-profits across India and the U.S.)

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