It’s a little delayed because I was away in New Delhi last week, but I want to pay tribute in this blog to the great work that NGOs are doing in Andhra Pradesh, as demonstrated by those who participated in the Seva Mela October 7 and 8 during Joy of Giving week. I had the great honor of participating in the opening ceremony and talking to members of all 60 NGOs that attended. I was awed and energized by their commitment and creativity.
In the last two or three decades we’ve begun to talk much more than we used to about something called “civil society,” which encompasses the various forms under which individuals come together to pursue shared interests and purposes. While the phrase “civil society” has become more conspicuous recently, the phenomenon is certainly not new. In the western tradition, discussion of civil society can be traced back to classical Rome; I’m sure there is an equivalent for India. Associations of citizens have been a prominent feature of U.S. communities from the earliest days of the republic. in the early 19th century, a French historian visited the U.S. and commented on how Americans were much more prone than Europeans to form associations: “Americans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions, constantly form associations…The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodies; they found in this manner hospitals prisons and schools.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835)
Indian civil society has a strong tradition, which includes the nation’s wealth of religious and spiritual organizations and historical movements such as Ghandiji’s satyagraha movement. My impression, though, is that NGOs are not as deeply rooted a part of India’s civil society as they are in the United States. I am certainly not an expert, but I think this may be in part because Indians (like the Europeans de Tocqueville was familiar with) view the solution of problems in the society as the role of government.
For example, when the Consulate organized a panel discussion on “Solutions to Extremism: A Community Based Approach ,” I was struck that the discussion focused in large part on how the community could communicate with government better to enhance government effectiveness in combating extremism. It was an interesting and creative discussion, but it appeared to me that community action on such subjects in India is identified and defined in relation to action by government, rather than independently, because the fundamental responsibility for a solution is assigned to government. I don’t think that same understanding exists in the U.S., and I could imagine a panel discussing the same subject in the U.S. without mentioning government at all. (Of course it would all depend on the panelists—but for some, government might even be viewed as more likely to exacerbate than to solve the problem.)
If we are talking about the massive challenges that face us—like eradicating poverty or curbing climate change—a single individual is so powerless in relation to the scale of the problem, it’s natural to turn to government for leadership. What really impresses me about the activists I met at the Seva Mela and during all my travels in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa is that, while they know they don’t have the power to fix the big problem-- eradicate poverty or stop climate change—they identify the challenges where they can make a difference. The groups I met at the Zoroastrian Club included national organizations with many decades of experience and local organizations formed in the last few years and animated by a few committed individuals. What they had in common is that each had identified an issue to address and mobilized resources to make a difference. Many of them served discrete, vulnerable populations—children, the disabled, victims of domestic violence, people suffering depression—and provided services that changed the lives of the recipients. Others took steps to promote environmental awareness and recycling, promote civic action or encourage spiritual growth. India’s poverty rate may not be directly affected by an NGO that provides shelter for 20 homeless children or an organization that markets craftwork it has trained exploited women to fabricate, but they transform the lives of those children and women, and thousands of NGOs acting locally can change the world. The phrase “Think globally, Act locally,” has been used most by environmentalists, but it’s equally true when we’re thinking about how to confront poverty or other forms of disenfranchisement.
Another phrase that my conversations with the NGO members proved true comes from the Bible: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Everyone I spoke to clearly loved the work they were engaged in. Those who work for the good of others make small sacrifices, but they earn large rewards.