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NGOs And Their Accountability

NGOs And Their Accountability

Author: P.N. Benjamin
Publication: Vijay Times
Date: February 19, 2007

Money has been flowing into the NGO sector, but very few of the charitable outfits allow public scrutiny of their accounts. So, one of the recommendations of the Veerappa Moily-chaired second Administrative Reforms Commission is to bring the NGO-sector in the purview of the proposed three-member Rashtriya Lokaukta. It has put the spotlight on the vexatious issue of the accountability of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).

NGOs have long been a part of Indian life championing a slew of social issues and delivering a wide variety of services. The Central Social Welfare Board has been providing financial support to voluntary agencies for four decades. In 1986 a new government agency, the Council for Advancement of People's Action and Rural Technology (CAPART) was established to promote NGOs even as the State stepped up funding of their activities. Huge funds began flowing in during the 1990s when NGO involvement was made mandatory by various international bodies including UN agencies as pre-condition for governments receiving funds for socio-economic programmes.

Few figures are available for how much money Indian NGOs raise within the country. But foreign funding for their activities has risen sharply from Rs 1412 crore to Rs 6,200 crore in 2005 growing at a compounded annual rate of 14 per cent every year. This mirrors the overall sharp increase in spending on 'community' services in the country.

There is very little financial regulation of NGOs as matters stand. The Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA), under which organisations that receive foreign funds have to report annually to the Home Ministry the sources and use of the money, is focussed on ensuring internal security. It is not concerned with wastage or misuse of funds, but with use of these funds for political, communal or other such activities. Similarly, annual submissions to the registrar of societies or to charity commissioners are for all practical purposes mere formalities, with little scrutiny if public money is being prudently spent by charities. This is in stark contrast to what exists in the government where the Comptroller and Auditor General's office investigates whether the physical achievements match the funds spent. The Kelkar Committee had recommended the creation of a National Charities Board to assist the government in regulating charities as is the case with the National Charities Commission in the UK.

Transparency, or rather the lack of it, has long been a problem with the NGO sector. One telling example of this is how few NGOs bother to make their annual accounts available for public scrutiny.

Besides being the pub and IT capital, Bangalore can also be called the NGO capital of India because in the past few years, there has been a mushrooming in the number of NGOs. Along with this rise comes the question of credibility of these organisations. According to a report published a couple of years ago, of the over 700 NGOs then in Bangalore "perhaps" 50 published their annual statement of accounts!

A substantial portion of the funds required for their functioning come from foreign funding agencies, as revealed by the Home Ministry recently in its annual reports. 600-odd NGOs in Bangalore City alone received nearly Rs.700 crores in 2005. Some of the major beneficiaries of foreign funding in Bangalore are: Church's Concern for Child and Youth Care (CCCYC), Campus Crusade for Christ, Mysore Resettlement and Dev. Agency (MYRADA), Indian Society of Church of Christ, Habitat for Humanity in India, Christian Church in India, Bridge Foundation., Karnataka Jesuit Education , and Veda Vigyan Vidya Pita. Outreach Samuha, Humanistic Inst., Biblical Baptist Institutions Incorp., and Bangalore Rural Edn. & Dev. Society.

Graham Hancock's damning 1989 expose, Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige, and Corruption of the International Aid Business, estimated that most of the $60 billion plus that comprised governmental, UN, and World Bank or IMF-type "aid" was siphoned off. Mostly by elites in poor nations, special interests (like agribusiness) in donor countries, but also, startlingly, the aid agencies' own personnel budgets, which waste as much as 80 percent of the funds for lavish (first-class) air travel, salaries, and perquisites.

Unfortunately, the same appears to be true of NGOs. Despite their saintly image in the media, some have connections to dubious groups in India. Some misuse their funds, for instance to pay for trips by their "volunteers" to "lecture-tours" or wasted on extravagant overheads

In the aftermath of the tsunami many NGOs have become merely fronts for religious conversion. Yes, everyone loves a good tsunami. There have been sordid tales about how certain "charities" refused help unless the targets of their munificence converted. More insidious are groups with deceptively appealing siren songs. Most of these organizations have become personal fiefdoms for self-glorification, or else unwitting tools in the hands of anti-nationals.

A word to the wise donor: caveat emptor, buyer beware! All NGOs are not created equal.

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