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India's Middle Class Debate Continued: Should NGOs be Looking in the Mirror? Guest post from Bipasha Majumder

Duncan Green's picture

On my recent trip to India, I discovered some talented bloggers – here’s Bipasha Majumder, Oxfam India’s Communications Officer in Mumbai, writing in a purely personal capacity on the Great Middle Class Debate. She also writes a personal blog.

I have had discussions and I have had heated discussions.  Sometimes I have just let the question float in the air, sat back and observed what others had to say.

Whichever way you look at it, one thing is very clear. The great Indian rising middle class is just not bothered. They are largely happy and keen to contribute to the ‘growing’ economy. But when it comes to any kind of contribution to a cause, especially those related to poverty, there is a big wall of apathy around them.

As a friend puts it – there is a bubble around them…. a bubble of ipad, iphones, AC rooms and cars and what they have achieved in life on various levels. It’s not that they are ignorant of the problems afflicting the country. It’s just that it doesn’t affect them directly. If it doesn’t affect them, then there is no point bothering about it. It’s a problem which is out there and for the government to handle.  If prodded on charity, this group will probably turn around and say, ‘I can only donate when my needs have been taken care of – I still have  bank loans to pay, a second car to buy and a trip abroad to book.’

It’s not that the entire middle class is like this. There is a growing section of people who want to give back, to do something for somebody. And they do, mostly in the form of sponsoring the education of girl children or giving out books and old clothes or giving time by teaching kids in slums or orphanages. A few believe in collecting funds and giving it directly to individuals who need help, medical attention etc. Some would go and donate old computers to schools in villages. This set of people will willingly help as long as they know its directly benefiting somebody’s life.….a change that they can see and feel good about.

But this group is also very skeptical about donating to any NGO (not just Oxfam). With so many scams around politically-connected NGOs surfacing and lack of transparency in most, they don’t want their hard earned money to go into somebody else’s pockets. There is a joke that sums up this cynicism – if you want to own land, build a temple and if you want to earn money, open an NGO. During the rise in the global concern on HIV-AIDS, many such dubious NGOs surfaced, collected hefty foreign funds and then disappeared without a trace.

One can keep pointing fingers at the apathy of the middle class, but the situation within the social sector is not that rosy either. Apart from the fact that many NGOs (some known ones also) do have dubious financial histories, many others are mostly a one-man show working on the whims and fancies of this individual. (For example – a leading Indian NGO on education (better known internationally than within India) has no long term strategy or clear monitoring and evaluation system. If one fine day, the founder decides to work on improving the quality of teachers through training, then the whole system  starts working only around that. Yet, this organisation has won many awards). Quite a lot of others operate without any clear strategy or goals and work only in silos. Despite rising questions from the rest of the society, most of these NGOs are not ready to change or engage with the public (read middle class).…. which only feeds into the general distrust.

I recently met a 60 years plus Sarpanch (Head of the village local governance system or Panchayat) of Lata village in Uttarakhand (a newly created Himalayan state). This not so educated person told me, “Everybody in this country wants the others to change. We all want to earn quick money, we all tell lies and yet we look at others and say ‘they shouldn’t do it’. If you want any kind of change, you have to change yourself first.”

India’s middle class might be apathetic now, but they have a huge potential to change. But for them to change, the social sector needs to change first. A few scenes from my own experience:

  • An NGO working on education cannot have volunteer teachers (or para-teachers) who spell BLACK as BLECK and teaches kids that only one Emperor penguin lays egg while the rest huddle to give warmth to that egg.
  • A wildlife conservation NGO cannot have staff who throw plastic on the road or forests carelessly while stopping villagers (who they work with) from doing the same.
  • An NGO working on public health cannot be successful if they do not teach people how to manage waste.

Even though I am now a part of this sector and hence reluctant to pass hasty judgments on NGOs, I find it difficult to trust organizations which clearly miss out on the basics. Dealing with the over critical middle class means looking in the mirror, as well as changing middle class attitudes to philanthropy.

This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power

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