I don’t have any hope that my comments will generate any debate. However, I do want to record my views for anyone who might be interested in exploring these ideas further. Classical Marxist position diverges from the approach of contemporary NGOs both in theory and practice. The approach taken by some of the NGOs or Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) has enriched the politics of resistance rather than weakening it. Missing out on the opportunities offered by CSOs would be Left’s second big loss after the collapse of the discourse of armed revolution. Therefore, I am going to compare the traditional partisan political approach of the Left with the nonpartisan approach of the CSOs to see which approach might contribute more effectively to realizing the dream of All Power to the People.
Conventional left and right wing politicians both see NGOs as Trojan horses, promoting ‘foreign interests’ like poverty alleviation, human rights, good governance, gender justice etc. I would like to differ. I want to put NGO’s role in perspective. Without understanding the basis for convergence and divergence of interests, between the state and CSOs one cannot form a realistic opinion about them. The first point of divergence between the position of contemporary civil society organisations and Marxist position is that under Marxist framework state is seen as an instrument of oppression of one class by another, whereas contemporary CSOs see the relation between the state and civil society as a relation of interdependence. This means they can negotiate their positions and through peaceful means reform the system in the interest of people. This provides the foundation for following the democratic discourse. This point has been very well formulated by MIT professor Adil Najam. Adil has framed the relationship between the state and civil society on the basis of similarity or dissimilarity of their goals and means. If state and CSOs have common goals and common means, they will cooperate; common goals and uncommon means will lead to collaboration; uncommon goals and common means to cooption and uncommon goals and uncommon means to confrontation. This categorization is true for understanding the nature of civil society engagement with the state and various communities of interest. Whether mediation of interest of marginalised communities by CSOs results in transforming their relationship with market and state or reproduces existing barriers depends on the approach taken by CSOs.
For me, the work of leading NGOs, especially the one’s following Akhter Hameed Khan’s vision has direct relevance to political work. Whereas Marxist outlook emphasizes primacy of matter over idea; its politics is based on two practices opposed to this premise; one, building party on the basis of ideological education instead of political action; and two, giving leading role to intellectuals-producers of ‘idea’ values-, named as advanced consciousness and the vanguard over the workers- producers of material values- . The practices followed by AKRSP and OPP were based on Praxis where people defined the priorities and solutions for their problem and experts searched for solutions on the basis of preferences indicated by working class men and women; here practice took precedence over thought. In real terms, AKRSP and OPP follow a revolutionary praxis. These organisations do not aim at grabbing political power but help communities re-appropriatethe space which was encroached upon by the state during the colonial and post-colonial period.
Diagnostic Survey the community engagement tool used by AKRSP very clearly illustrates the dynamics and outcome of participatory praxis.
“The Diagnostic Survey starts with a visit by the Management Group to a village whose residents have agreed to meet with AKRSP staff. The General Manager initiates the first dialogue by explaining the OBJECTIVES AND METHODS OF AKRSP to the villagers. He then invites them to identify an income generating project that would benefit most of the households in the village and that can be undertaken by the villagers themselves. Almost invariably, villagers are able to agree on a project of overriding importance to all villagers. Thus, the result of the first dialogue is the IDENTIFICATION of a small, productive project by the residents of a village.
The identification of a project is followed by the second series of dialogues. The first step here involves a FEASIBILITY SURVEY of the proposed scheme. Supervisory responsibility for this technical assessment rests with the Programme Senior Engineer or Programme Senior Agriculturist. Responsibility in the field devolves on the Social Organization Unit. This unit works with the village residents to assess the feasibility of proposed project and to obtain data on prices of locally available inputs/material. It is on the basis of information obtained locally that BLUEPRINTS and COST ESTIMATES are prepared by the field unit and sent to the Management Group for finalisation.
The finalised scheme is taken to the villagers by the Management Group and discussed with them. This starts the third dialogue, in which AKRSP and the residents of the village explore the TERMS OF PARTNERSHIP that would characterise the relationship between the two entities. On behalf of AKRSP, these terms of the partnership are explained as general principles of rural development that have proved successful elsewhere in the world. In turn, the villagers could demonstrate their ACCEPTANCE of these terms by spelling out precisely the manner in which they would organise to plan, implement, manage and maintain specific projects that involve physical works, skill development and the creation of equity capital over time. At this stage, a Village Organization is formed, consisting of all beneficiaries of the project. An assessment of project benefits, conducted by concerned members of the Management Group, follows the formation of the organisation. This completes the Diagnostic Survey.” Here community leads the expert rather than the ‘vanguard’ creating awareness among the people. There is no ideological hairsplitting about advanced and backward consciousness. Social reality as described by the people is the starting point.
This community based approach links our tradition with modernity. Community participation has been an integral component of the way our societyorganised itself before the British Raj. The villages in Indo-Paksubcontinent met all their needs due to an elaborate system of exchanges and collaborative mechanisms. That is why the sub continent was known as a country made of countless “village republics”. All these village republics arranged many basic services on the basis of voluntary contributions. G.W. Leitner, Director Public Instruction Punjab in 1852 noted that there is one word, which adequately captures this spirit of voluntary contribution, and that is the word “Lillah”. This tradition was broken with the advent of British Raj and continued in a low-key manner in the subsequent period.
NGOisation should not be dismissed simply as a cop out but an experiment in challenging and transforming the conventional concept of political work from a nonpartisan perspective. One other related element is the Left’s narrative and I will share my views on the Narrative in the coming post.
The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme. First Progress Report December 1982 to April 1983. AKRSP Gilgit
Leitner, G.W. Indigenous Education in Punjab, Reprinted, Chandigarh, 1982