Are NGOs Relevant?

By Anjum Altaf

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) remind me of Iqbal’s poem PahaaR aur Gulehrii (Mountain and Squirrel) in Baang-e-Dara. In terms of the scale of the problem they are insignificant just as the size of the squirrel is insignificant relative to the size of the mountain. In terms of the ability to think, the roles are reversed – the brain of the squirrel is vastly superior to the non-existent brain of the mountain.

So, clearly NGOs can be irrelevant or relevant depending on whether one looks at their brawn or their brain.

Take education in Pakistan as an example. The public school system in the country is the mountain; the NGOs are the squirrel. It is quite clear to anyone who has looked at the numbers that the public school system has broken down. Leave aside the quality of education being imparted in the schools (it should best be called indoctrination); between 2004 and 2010, the number of dropouts from the primary grades is projected to increase from 11 million to 14 million children.

Now look at the scale of the NGOs. If you add all them together, the schools they operate will not exceed a few thousand and the total number of students enrolled will not be more than a few hundred thousand. In terms of the scale of the problem, NGOs are irrelevant to the solution of the national crisis.

If NGOs are realistic (and many of them are), they should be able to see that they cannot replace the public school system or even come anywhere close to filling the gap left by the latter’s collapse. The numbers don’t add up. Such NGOs have other objectives that can be equally laudable.

But not all NGOs are realistic and this reminds me of another story about the elephant and the mouse. The elephant is toying with the mouse with its foot; the mouse looks up contemptuously at the elephant and says: chotey hondiaN bimaar riyaaN (I was ill when young, otherwise…).

So, there are NGOs that get puffed up, lose sight of their scale, and begin to believe they can take on the elephant. You can see that in the targets they set for themselves – doubling the number of schools in five years, tripling the number of children enrolled, etc. They spend vast amounts of time and energy raising funds to meet these targets without taking into account the real costs per unit of output and go into self-congratulatory raptures when the targets are achieved.

But if filling the gap left by the public school system is the objective these kinds of targets are irrelevant and meaningless. NGOs can double or triple or quintuple the number of their schools and it will not make a dent in the problem.

What then should the NGOs be doing? What else but leveraging the aspect where they have an overwhelming superiority? The NGOs are driven by a civic motivation, a concern for children, and have some of the most thoughtful minds in their ranks. The public school system is run by tired bureaucrats and infiltrated by retrograde ideologues.

The NGOs should be using their brainpower to figure out how to make the public school system perform better because only if the public school system performs better will the national crisis be resolved. NGOs can use their schools to experiment with new content and learning methods and teaching techniques. But in the end these have to impact the system itself to yield meaningful results on the scale required.

There is no denying that NGOs make a huge difference to the life chances of the children they reach. But, to repeat the arithmetic, they are irrelevant to the scale of the problem. The question NGOs have to ask themselves is whether they desire to derive their satisfaction from acts of charity or from contributing to the solution of a national crisis. There is room for both but the clarity is necessary. A mouse can be a very noble mouse (and there is no shame in being one) but the nobility will not turn it into an elephant. A mouse that thinks of itself as an elephant, on the other hand, makes for a sorry spectacle and gets in the way of solving the problem. It needs to shed the illusion.

There is another analogy that comes to mind that illustrates this point. In the 1960s, American automobile manufacturers were making unsafe cars, a practice that was noticed by Ralph Nader who had a sort of consumer NGO. Imagine Nader going into the business of manufacturing safe cars – 10 the first year with a target of doubling output every year. All those who would have received Nader’s safe cars would have been better off but Nader would have been irrelevant to the scale of the problem – the manufacturers were putting millions of unsafe cars on the roads every year.

Instead, Nader used his knowledge and intelligence (Princeton, Harvard Law School) and his group of committed consumer activists (Nader’s Raiders) to force the manufacturers to make all cars safe. His 1965 book Unsafe at Any Speed and his mobilization campaign are still considered classics of effective NGO action.

And this also makes the point that NGOs in the field of education should teach poetry and the liberal arts in their own schools and lobby for them to be an important part of the curriculum of all schools. Students in the age of information and technology feel all such subjects are a waste of time. But if they had had PahaaR aur Gulehrii explained to them with care they would have found it easy to understand why Nader preferred brain to brawn in his quest to solve a major problem.

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  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 01:01h, 17 September Reply

    Sonia Faleiro reiterates this message using the poverty and illiteracy among children as an example:

    “Not even the best intentions can pull children out of poverty. Only the government can.”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 08:02h, 22 August Reply

    Here is a useful perspective on the issue:

    “Charity: Water [an NGO] aims to show through the growth of its philanthropic work that the world’s water crisis is solvable. The message it effectively conveys is: if enough affluent people in the West were generous enough to pay for water projects in poor countries, we could fix the problem…

    “Let’s put this problem in perspective. The World Health Organization has estimated that it would require investments totaling $535 billion between 2011 and 2015 to provide universal access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation. This problem cannot be solved by scaling philanthropy. It’s like using an “adopt-a-highway” approach to solve the world’s transportation problems. To fix this problem, governments and businesses must take the lead.

    “Philanthropists have a vital role to play in the solution, just as they have played key roles advancing many movements — from abolition to women’s suffrage to gay rights. But when the problem is vast and grant resources are relatively scarce, philanthropy needs to be used catalytically.”

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