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This question was posed by a friend who is not a development professional but a volunteer who would like to see his skills being of use to NGOs in reaching out to the underprivileged.  On the face of it, the question was simple and I was tempted to give a straight, ‘top-of-mind’ answer. On reflection, I felt that this is a question that can confront anyone, as variants of it have stared me in the eye in the past. What would my answer be then? Could I help someone think it through systematically? This is an effort in that direction..

For over 14 years I have worked with small and large NGOs across India and have formed some opinion, even expectations, of what their role should be and more importantly should NOT be.

In humanitarian situations, I am fine with NGOs delivering service. Outside of humanitarian situations, I am not so excited with NGOs delivering service.. especially not in situations where government was supposed to.  I was (and still am) convinced that NGOs should not be running systems in parallel to government. They should be

  • Educating the poor (sounds so much better when I say that in Marathi –  लोकाना शहाणे करुन सॊडणे) – unfortunately so few now can claim to be doing that!
  • Innovating, documenting and advocating taking the experiment to scale – like the Home Based Neonatal Care model developed by SEARCH.
  • Acting as watch dogs to ensure that rights and entitlements of people are not trampled upon – like the Right to Information activists are doing.

There remains a category of agencies that are purely philanthropic organisations. These work in areas where direct support was more important (and urgently required) than longer term processes that I have spoke of above. Hospices (Missionaries of Charity), abused women support centres, orphanages (SOS Children’s Village) etc fall in this category. This too is important work and I have the deepest respect for people who do it tirelessly year after year.

As it has always happened with me, the more I learn about something – the less I am sure of my opinions. Over the last two years, I had opportunity to work in failed / failing / weak / indifferent States in South Asia. My experience has forced me to relax my strong views on NGOs NOT running parallel systems – in some situations that is the ONLY way that people can survive and the situation seems to be closer to a humanitarian crisis.

  • Thousands of people in Afghanistan would be forced to rely on contaminated surface water, had it not been for NGOs developing safe drinking water systems in remote areas of Afghanistan.
  • Internally displaced people in the Swat and Buner regions of Pakistan would have starved were it not for NGOs delivering humanitarian aid (here one must not forget the host communities who opened up their homes and hearts for the affected – they remain unsung)
  • Children would probably have never seen the inside of a school or had a full meal but for NGOs workers risking life and limb in the war zones of Sri Lanka.

Having said this, I still hold the opinion that in most regions in India – NGOs delivering services (running schools and clinics, immunising children, building roads & hospitals etc) cannot really be justified – though they no doubt do some good. Problem is that it lets the government, which is supposed to deliver the service, off the hook. Further these services are almost NEVER sustainable or easily scalable.

Coming back to the question that triggered this one – When do you say “this is not worth it”? The answer, alas, is not simple. Very frankly, it depends! (before you bring out the knives let me clarify… ) It depends on

  • What is your motivation and reason for working / volunteering in the development field.
  • What do you want to GET out of the work you do – very few people are truly ‘selfless’. Most of us want something out of it – an intellectual challenge, emotional satisfaction, alternate profession or simply ‘feel good’.
  • What scale you want to work on – I myself moved from working on projects with NGOs to State wide programmes to country programmes to regions (South Asia first and shortly to be followed by the Horn, East and Central Africa).
  • What role do you see for yourself – I see myself as wanting to ‘influence’ development initiatives and make them more effective.
  • What parameters (even targets) you have set for yourself.

When this question pops up, please take it as a signal that all is not necessarily hunky dory! Act wisely. Pause in what you are doing. Take a deep breath. Evaluate what you are doing. Assess the impact you are having on lives of the poor. Ascertain that your personal goals are also being met..

Then ask yourself – has it all been worthwhile?

  • If the answer is YES – continue..
  • If the answer is NO – please stop and do (seek) something more worthwhile.

I will leave you with the words from the Kenny Rogers song ” The Gambler”

“You got to know when to hold ‘em,  know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.”