(Published in Sify.com, on 23 March, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/how-are-ngos-using-our-money-news-columns-mdxmptdahcg.html)
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The hysteria over Kony 2012 broke out in phases – first, there was the rage over this man Kony, whom not many people seem to have heard of; second, the cynics entered the scene; third, the man behind the video and the charity Invisible Children, Jason Russell, was apprehended by police for masturbating in public and vandalising cars. He has now been diagnosed with “reactive psychosis”, attributed to the 100 million-odd pageviews the YouTube video has garnered over the last few weeks.
Each of these phases, to me, is reflective of a particular aspect of the manner in which many of these charities, not-for-profit organisations, or NGOs as we call them, are run.
I first heard of Kony a few years ago, while doing a course in international journalism that drew students from all over the world. The only film I’ve seen that has spoken of the horror perpetrated by his regime is Machine Gun Preacher, and that one, I thought, didn’t focus quite enough on the victims. As friends began to post links to Kony, and tweets and retweets celebrated the film, I realised just how many people had never heard of this monster. But from viewing sample clips, it was obvious that the film had been produced at some cost. Was that really necessary? I was to find out that the parts that truly hit home were the ones that required minimal expense – eyewitness accounts of the things Kony did.
I saw this super-slick 30-minute film only last week. To my surprise, and disappointment, the film seemed to be largely about the achievements of Invisible Children. Worse, most of the film, produced at donors’ cost, featured Russell’s 3-year-old son playing cute and hero-worshipping his father. This outraged hundreds of Ugandans too, who had gathered to watch a screening of the film last week. Their stories had taken the backseat.
As blogger Grant Oyston points out, the film hints uncomfortably at the White Man’s Burden. As a reaction to Oyston’s post, Invisible Children offered to fly him out to Africa, to see for himself, again at donors’ cost. Yes, a blog post that goes viral, planting doubts in people’s heads, can be damaging. But is it damaging enough to warrant the $3000 it will cost to persuade the blogger he is wrong, especially when Oyston had acknowledged that it was important for people to learn about Kony?
The third phase, to me, smacks of the self-righteousness that seems to go with running an NGO. There’s a sense of “Look what you’ve done”. I mean, here’s this guy who highlighted the atrocities committed by a brutal man, and the cynics have put him under a burden of stress and exhaustion that has got him hospitalised and will put him out of commission for weeks, or even months.
It is perhaps the scale of spread of the Kony film that pushes everything to do with it, and with Invisible Children, into the news. But the events associated with the making of the film are common enough to most NGOs I have come across – the decision-making regarding the channelling of funds, the response to criticism, and the sanctimoniousness.
It must take an awful lot of effort to establish and run an NGO, and to dedicate one’s life to bettering other people’s. And that may be why those who question them are immediately frowned upon, why one feels just a little guilty even as one wonders where all the money goes. But, surely, there is something an NGO owes to the people it claims to help, and to the people contributing to that cause, with their time and/or money?
The NGO presence in my city multiplied around the time the tsunami hit. I was covering the event for a radio station on 26 December 2004, and as the sands of the long, wide beach were swallowed up by stagnant water, people ran about screaming and crying as they searched for or found missing relatives, and residents of the area brought out flasks of tea for the men conducting rescue operations, I saw people walking around with donation boxes.
Over the next few weeks, local newspapers and local editions of national dailies carried stories of survival, of rebuilding, of a city coming together at a testing time. Soon after, reports began to filter in of NGOs expanding their offices, buying new computers, and spending on infrastructure. When questioned, many said they needed facilities to cope with the volume of work they had undertaken. In such a scenario, it is perfectly understandable that NGOs would need to bolster their staff strength. There are only so many students and volunteers who will work for free. But surely computers and larger offices can wait?
When the row over Kiran Bedi overcharging people who had invited her to speak at events broke out last year, several NGOs claimed they had been sent inflated invoices by her. The Indian Express said in a report that non-profit organisation Aviation Industry Employees Guild paid Rs 31,578 for her executive class ticket, Charities Aid Foundation India paid Rs 26,386 for a business class ticket, and the Andhra Pradesh Secretariat Women Employees’ Welfare Association paid Rs 25,163 to fly her down. While the country was furious at the idea of Bedi using these means to divert funds to her own NGO, shouldn’t we also be raising our eyebrows at NGOs shelling out tens of thousands of rupees on a single speaker, however high her profile may be, and however inspirational her career may be?
I’ve found, quite often, while booking cinema or flight tickets online, that the option ‘I’d like to contribute to a worthy cause’ has been ticked by default, and I’ll have to look out for it, and unselect it if I’m so inclined. I’ve been harassed by volunteers at events I discovered were fund-raisers after getting to the venue. But one can take that kind of sneakiness, if one were sure the money was being put to the right uses. Sadly, too often, it isn’t.