Swami Agnivesh and Rev. Valson Thampu

The HIV/AIDS scenario reflects the contradictions of our world. While it is bad news for its victims in their millions, it is also good news for the entrepreneurs in the NGO world who have perfected the art of thriving at the expense of other people’s suffering. A well-informed wave has put it in a different context arguing that the real calamity for the NGOs in the field of relief and rehabilitation would be when there are no natural calamities like floods, earthquakes, cyclones etc., in the given years. Many have become rich in the name of poverty and for the sake of the poor. Charity has already attained the size and scope of an MNC operation. A British Member of Parliament, after visiting several NGOs and charities in India, remarked that the poorest and humblest among the NGO executives was the director of an 800-bedded hospital in the capital city.

There are two major reasons for NGOs prospering in our country. The first is the proverbial inefficiency and callousness of governments, both at the Centre and in the states. Our politicians are so far away from the life of the people that they are both out of touch with the realities and unconcerned about the needs and sufferings of the people. The bureaucrats live among files, phone calls and administrative intrigues, and have little to do with their fellow human beings. The current astronomical distance between the rulers and the people could not but have corrupted the culture of governance.

Governmental departments and agencies that are barely able to cope with routine work, get paralyzed in the wake of natural calamities, whether it be the super-cyclone in Orissa or the killer quake in Gujarat. There is a comic contrast between the promptitude with which money flows into the sarkari kitty in the wake of a disaster, and the tardiness with which the same is made to reach, if at all, the devastated people. Near-riot conditions prevailed in Orissa last year on account of this and the quake-affected people of Gujarat ran out of their patience and were reported to have marched to the state capital to air their anger. Most embarrassing was when they requested Mr. Clinton not to let the government come between them and whatever relief he intends to organize for them. Such is the trust the common man, cutting across party lines, has come to develop in their respective governments. This projects an embarrassing image of the country, its culture and character to the world at large which does not seem to bother anyone today.

The second reason why our NGOs thrive is the ‘charity-syndrome’ that influences overseas funding agencies and benefactors. This is an interesting sociological and psychological phenomenon and thus merits some attention.

‘Charity syndrome’ involves a complex of moral sentiments and historical circumstances. First of all, there is the romanticization and pseudo-spiritualization of suffering in non-western societies. Poverty and suffering in Asia and Africa is something that the western world is inclined to relate to from a distance. It helps some to fine-tune their public image while others find it an ideal venue for luxuriating in sentimentality. What sharpens the attractiveness of this experience is the vague inner unease that this destitution and misery, in a world of plenty, is the aftermath of colonialism and is not unrelated to the gross inequalities in the global scenario. There is hence, a moral and emotional link between one’s opulence and the poverty of these lesser neighbours of the global village. This breeds a vague sense of guilt that needs to be expiated through charity. The third ingredient in this syndrome is the emphasis in the western culture on doing something to make a difference, whereas we are conditioned to put up with anything and everything. Finally, there is also the psychology of charity: the gratification, albeit subconscious, of having people at the receiving end where one is the provider.

All this is music to the ears of our enterprising NGOs, whose charity-line has two major strings. First, they have an uncanny knack for guest mating what appeals best to the funding agencies. Second, they are adept at generating the propaganda and the sentimental climate to tilt funding priorities in their favour. It is this need that takes our NGO executives often to the western world. Relief and rehabilitation are a well-established priority as of now prompted by the poignancy of the media images that pour into luxurious living rooms.

In the case of HIV/AIDS, the western funding agencies and benefactors have a marked preference to finance care for its victims, rather than for promoting prevention or awareness-building. This is largely because the culture of caring, especially caring at risk, has all but evaporated from the western culture. It is natural that the sight of others doing what one dares not do oneself catalyzes one’s sense of charity. This has a powerful appeal that sends the hands of generosity deeper into one’s pockets. This is true to a large extent also of our urban culture. However, a special ward projected to be set up to care for the victims of HIV/AIDS in a premier national hospital could not become functional for long. No one was willing to work in this ward for fear of risk. This notwithstanding, some enterprising people have floated the idea of setting up a 250 crore AIDS care hospital in the NCT of Delhi for which massive fund-raising is now going on.

On the face of it, this is an ignoble initiative but overlooks the basic facts of the AIDS scenario. First of all, there is no viable cure for AIDS. Therapeutically, there is little that hospitals and doctors can do for AIDS patients. At best hospitals can help them in the event of opportunistic infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, oral thrush etc. Even if a cure were to exist, given the astronomical numbers of people who need help it is impossible to extend in-patient care to even a microscopic fraction of the affected people. What is needed especially in Afro-Asian societies is helping and preparing communities and families to take care of their infected members. Fortunately, it is safe to care for AIDS patients provided precautions are observed. This is feasible in the context of the family and does not need hospital facilities, except in the case of emergency interventions. For obvious reasons, this idea is unlikely to find favour with the NGO entrepreneurs in this field.

The government is happy to play the NGO card to opt out of its responsibilities for the welfare of the people. The State is meant to be the foremost instrument of care as well as the standard bearer of positive values in public life. Instead, it has degenerated into a wielder of power and the (mis)manager of resources. There is an assumption bordering on superstition both among the people and in the corridors of power, that only the NGOs can deliver the goods when it comes to serving people in need. The best that the government can do is to get out of their way. There thus exists a de facto collusion between the NGOs and the governments as the latter serves to legitimize the abdication of responsibility on the part of the former. Significantly, it is rarely that an NGO campaigns for the regeneration of the culture of governance with respect to caring for the poor, the sick and the affected along with working for the benefit of the lesser advantaged people in our society.

It may be noted in passing that in several Asian countries, it has become an established practice for the wives of powerful bureaucrats to head prosperous NGOs. This has had the effect of causing the speedy decline of the NGO movement into corruption and scandal. The practice of charity is a key religious motive. It belongs to the root of our humanity. For that very reason, we should be vigilant against any attempt to turn this sacred domain into a breeding ground for selfishness, corruption and ulterior motives.