It’s often said, tongue in cheek, that India’s “shadow” government works out of the nondescript, low-slung buildings abutting the Lodhi Garden in Delhi. That’s partly hubris, but it also stems from being close to the centre of power. This rarefied zone houses powerful “cultural” institutions like the India International Centre, as well as a host of global multilateral agencies and think-tanks. Things get done here discreetly, sans any fanfare. Which is why there is a faint air of disquiet at the spotlight on Ford Foundation, whose headquarters are across the road from IIC.
The context, of course, is the Anna Hazare team-led ‘India Against Corruption’ movement for a Jan Lokpal bill. Author-activist Arundhati Roy, among others, raised concerns about Arvind Kejriwal’s links with the foundation, which is touted as a front for multilateral agencies interfering in public policy matters. In the spotlight is Kabir, an NGO run by Kejriwal associate Manish Sisodia, which has received grants totalling $3,97,000 from the foundation. Kejriwal and Ford Foundation have both denied any links while Sisodia has said the money was for films, documentaries and campaigns on RTI (see Arvind Kejriwal interview). But the issue has rekindled old fears of a “foreign hand” in domestic policy.
Should NGOs receiving grants from international agencies like the Ford Foundation and others be barred from participating in the shaping of public policy? And are these civil society groups working as stooges of the West to execute an “American agenda”?
The Ford Foundation, which completes six decades in India next year, provides a continuing flow of grants to institutions, think-tanks, civil society, and even farmer groups, to carry out research and advocacy work. The sums are not inconsequential—about $15 million (about Rs 70 crore) a year. And the recipients—320 grants, over the past four years—are the who’s who of civil society and advocacy groups in India.
The Foundation Of Indian Policymaking?
A selection of Ford Foundation grants (2007-11)
|Manish Sisodia, Founder, Kabir
Promoting RTI for transparency & accountability; Anna Hazare supporter $3,97,000
|Nandan M. Nilekani, President, NCAER, Influential think-tank on policy issues that have found application $2,30,000|
|JNU, Leading liberal arts university; FF funds used to set up Centre for Law & Governance $4,00,000||Mathew Titus, Executive Director, Sa-Dhan Association Umbrella body of MFIs $9,10,000|
|Sandeep Dikshit, Governing body member, CBGA Promotes accountability & participatory governance $6,50,000||Yogendra Yadav, Fellow, Centre for Study of Developing Societies, A think-tank largely funded by ICSSR $3,50,000|
|Pratap Bhanu Mehta Head, Centre for Policy Research Leading think-tank, provides advisory services to govt $687,000||Parthiv Shah Founder Director, CMAC
Promotes culture, design & focuses on governance $2,55,000
|Amitabh Behar, Executive director,
National Foundation for India Supports voluntary development $25,00,000
|Dr Gladwin Joseph, Director, ATREE Striving to conserve biodiversity through sustainable development $13,19,031|
|Kinsuk Mitra, chairperson, Winrock Intl Sustainable rural resource management $8,00,000||Indira Jaising, Director, Lawyers’ Collective Promotes human rights for marginalised people $12,40,000|
|Akhila Sivadas, Executive Director, Centre for Advocacy & Research Rights of marginalised populations $5,00,000||J. Mohanty, Chairperson, Credibility Alliance Promoting norms of accountability among NGOs $6,00,000|
The foundation, on its part, makes no bones about its neo-liberal agenda, broadly pro-market, seeking accountability in governance, and promoting marginalised groups. It funds a small number of institutions, but chooses effectively. At a post-budget meeting two years back, it was noted that all the think-tanks represented (NCAER, NIPFP, ICRIER and the Centre for Policy Research) on the dais received grants from the foundation. Academicians and scholars from these think-tanks are regularly consulted by the government on various policy issues.
On whether the views of these intellectuals actually get reflected in subsequent policies, Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia declines to comment. “I don’t really have a view on it,” he says. He does, however, concede that India’s association with the foundation “is something that has been on for a long time”.
Experts recall that during the initial years of the Ford Foundation establishing its India operations at the invitation of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, some of the intellectuals associated with it used to work from the agriculture ministry and its research institutions—and played a significant role in the Green Revolution. In fact, through the 1960s till the 1990s, the foundation’s experts were providing direct technical inputs to the government in areas like health, education and governance. It was around this time that the foundation gradually increased its exposure to the NGO sector.
“Over the last decade, there has been a shift,” says a Planning Commission official. “Of late, they are not seen as being too active in providing technical inputs or helping in government policy implementation or any of the discussions that take place.” Instead, the closer dialogue of policymakers with civil society groups is considered an indirect form of engagement by overseas agencies. Institutions like the Ford Foundation and other funding groups have been collaborating with civil society groups across issues as diverse as human rights, forest rights and agriculture to education, health and RTI.
This also fits in with a recent shift in the US policy of association with India, which is now focusing on building state-to-state partnerships by “engaging Indian state and local leaders” throughout the country on “topics of mutual interest”. Civil society groups and think-tanks are expected to play an important role in this. As Prof Anil Gupta of IIM-Ahmedabad observes, “Their influence is far beyond what is recognised, and not always benign.”
What do the recipients of Ford Foundation’s largesse have to say about this charge? “Every donor or grant-making institution can be accused of having a hidden agenda, including the Government of India. That they have made stooges of anybody is unthinkable,” says Dr Rajiv Kumar, the secretary-general of FICCI and former director of ICRIER. Indian think-tanks, he points out, receive funding not just from the US, but also from reputed institutions in Germany, Japan, Canada and other countries.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research, in fact, says that the reason why India has not been able to create a research infrastructure funding institution is because of the psychological fear of strings being attached to all funding for research. “Open-ended grants from reputed American funding institutions are much less interfering than many so-called sources of Indian funding, barring a few,” he states bluntly. Striving to dispel perceptions of pre-set agendas, Mehta points out that CPR has no stated viewpoint on issues like the interlinking of rivers, climate change and so on. These are issues on which the CPR faculty continues to disagree vociferously.
What scholars do agree on is that the government should provide more funds for research and advocacy. The budgetary allocation for the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) is far too inadequate to support research requirements. E.A.S. Sarma, former secretary, department of economic affairs, points out, “What the international agencies give for research is just a drop in the ocean. Why should the government leave funding to the Ford Foundation and other agencies?”
Based on their experiences, many grant recipients vouch for total autonomy in their functioning. Prof Kuldeep Mathur of JNU, who is currently working on a Ford Foundation-funded project looking into the reasons for the push towards public-private-partnerships in the delivery of services, is worried about the continuing bias towards foreign grants. “It is true that they—whether the World Bank or USAID or UNDP—are pushing for a change in delivery of services. It’s an open and transparent agenda,” says Mathur. But the situation might be different when dealing with the central and state governments as they may have their own agenda in funding research.
Given the magnitude of the problems the common man faces, and the gaps in governance, ruling out foreign assistance for improving health and education infrastructure or doing an evaluation of government programmes is seen as unrealistic. Calling every foreign grant recipient a US stooge “is not an analytical argument, but a rhetoric ploy”, says Mehta.
That said, in an economic global order where Western institutions and ideas dominate, the influences are subtle. Foreign funding agencies don’t have to push any agenda. As a socio-political observer put it, “First the language is learnt and slowly the terminology and knowledge becomes part of conditioning.” In such a milieu, it is hard to distinguish who is pushing which agenda. Whether we like it or not, this is inbuilt in the “global village” package.