Colour of the Cash

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What matters is the quality of work, not the source of NGO funds

The piece in Open on ‘Foreign Funding of NGOs’ with the subtitle ‘Should FDI in India’s thinktank sector worry us?’, has served its purpose by triggering a long-overdue reasoned debate. The author lays out various questions that might warrant their own conference or white paper. Yet, I feel the questions should not stop at the sources or levels of foreign support to thinktanks. The more critical issues are those around the status of policy formulation in India and what goes into it—the rigour of intellectual debate, the quality of evidence, the voice of experts and practitioners, the focus on beneficial outcomes for current and future generations, the accountability of decision-makers and implementers, etcetera. Put simply, how is policy in India made, and to what practice does it lead?


This question gets to the heart of the poor quality of governance in India. To my mind, we should focus on improving inputs to policy, and thereafter, practice. Sixty-five years after independence, in a world vastly more globalised and open, we should worry less about where support for these inputs comes from than the quality of their arguments or evidence. Surely, the Indian mind, honed over 5,000 years of debate and global crosswinds, cannot lose its autonomy because some thinktanks funded by foreign money try to impose a particular option? And at a time when so many concerns—from economic crises to climate change—have gone global, is it even possible to restrict debate and money flows for that debate to national boundaries?

Lest I am misunderstood, let me declare here that I am entirely in favour of greater transparency in the formulation of public policy. Otherwise, it would just be lobbying by another name. Yes, we want to know what money is going to whom for what research and advocacy, and we expect our government to use this information fairly. I would go further and say these principles should also cover the private sector, civil society institutions, the judiciary and media. After all, if we believe funders can sway the recommendations and policy preferences of our researchers, is it a stretch to posit that advertisers might have a say in editorial policy? Or are we to believe that only thinktanks are prone to such elastic influences?

I know many of the institutions that the article refers to, and I have had professional interactions with several of their individuals, both as an activist and a philanthropist funding a range of thinktanks and other NGOs in India. I must admit I have been puzzled with government decisions to allow some of them foreign funding and not others. We should have transparent rules based on a clearer principle. Else, we risk a case of ‘My prejudice is better than yours’, and some ‘official dissenters’ will be tolerated, with or without foreign funding, while others are not. Parliamentarians are right to worry ‘that the new law would give the Centre too much discretionary power to crack down on dissenting NGOs’, as the article suggests.

It is understandable that the Government would prefer domestic funding for institutions involved in activities that are critical for a democracy but awkward for its government, such as exposing human rights abuses, challenging current policy on the basis of new evidence, or asserting a worldview different from the dominant one. It would not want its policy on nuclear energy, for example, undermined by what it sees as external influence. This has led to a spate of unfortunate actions.

Yet, speaking truth to power is not easy, just necessary in a healthy democracy. And here we are, the world’s largest democracy, seeking to stifle dissent by invoking archaic laws and regulations. Why this fear? I doubt it was foreign funding that influenced our MPs to insert Section 66A into the IT Act or retain Section 124A of the IPC on sedition. Or that it takes someone else to tell us that something is wrong if Parliament passes eight bills in 17 minutes, without debate.

When individuals and institutions canvass opinions against such ills, they do need financial support, especially in a country with little space and few platforms for a deep discourse on democracy.

What India needs is larger domestic funds for thinktanks and movements. So, will Indian donors step up and fund these causes? I certainly hope so, though there is scant evidence of it; I often wonder why the ecological impact work of organisations like Atree (disclosure: I am a Board member and donor) gets so little local support, even though the same U-Penn list mentioned in Open ranks Atree on top among environmental thinktanks in Asia.

If all foreign agencies supporting NGO work in India were to withdraw overnight, I doubt if the country would be better off. Voices demanding reforms of governance or insisting on rights would be less audible. In any case, in today’s interconnected world, influences abound—often just 140 characters at a time. We can run, but we can’t really hide. And perhaps we don’t even need to. Surely, we can withstand the impact of foreign funding for thinktanks and other NGOs that challenge the establishment and question our outdated legal framework.

I hope Indian philanthropists will join the cause, supporting ideas that are different from their own in the interests of diversity and democracy, and even crowd out the others. But if they do, will the Government find other means to block such support if their output causes it discomfort? I hope not. Let the Government devote more resources to independent research and knowledge, and let’s follow that money. Above all, let’s respect quality no matter who funds it.