The headline reads: “First Official Estimate: An NGO for Every 400 People in India.” Now, there are roughly 1.2 billion people in India, so, using the headline as an indicator, this translates into roughly 3 million NGOs. The source of this number, a recent study commissioned by the government, actually puts this number at 3.3 million. At first glance, this seems to be absolutely absurd. And I’ll tell you why.

First, let’s compare this to a few other Indian development indicators. The Center for Development Finance at IFMR estimates that there are nearly 1.29 million schools in the Indian education system. In Mumbai slum areas, where more than half of the city lives, an average of 81 people share a single toilet, according to local municipal authority figures, and still, according to the UN, more than 55% of the Indian population defecates outside. Primary Health Centers, the cornerstone of rural healthcare, each cover a population of 100,000 and number near 25,000, according to the most recent government data.

So, this 3.3 million number – it is possibly the largest number of active non-government, not-for-profit organizations in the world. And it actually also may obscure reality. The study, commissioned in 2008, used a very strict definition of NGO – taking into account only those organizations that were registered under one particular act and not its many variants. There could be many more than a mere 3 million.

Now, while I am a staunch supporter of for-profit social enterprise, I am also a believer in the necessity of NGOs. There are gaps in development that must be bridged, and these gaps will not be bridged by economic growth – inclusive or not – and the government alone. But one NGO for every 400 people? Seriously?

At first glance, the presence of so many NGOs seems like it’s a good idea. There is a large and quantifiable need in India for the work of NGOs, but it can’t be that they all are truly adding distinct value to the populations they serve. There must be some overlap. And the problem is that many of these organizations are ineffective, lack transparency, and are poorly managed. Thus far, there has been no effort to maintain an official database of NGOs operating in India. So we don’t even know who is doing what and where they are doing it.

The first step is to close this knowledge gap. GiveIndia and provide a good starting database of NGOs working in India, but even they admit their limitations in terms of reach. The next step is to find synergies between NGOs. Forging mergers and engineering acquisitions might be a good way to combine forces and create efficiencies. Wouldn’t India benefit more from a few, large-scale, well-managed, transparent NGOs rather than 3.3 million, small-scale, locally-driven NGOs? Wouldn’t more value be added to development as a whole if this were the case? Lastly, it’s time for the NGOs that aren’t adding much value to put themselves out of business. There’s no shame in it. This is survival of the fittest, and the ones that remain will be that much more worthy of funding in the future.

Photo Credit: Meanest Indian

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  1. Mandar Shinde Said,

    July 19, 2010 @ 8:25 am

    Agree with most of the points! An NGO for every 400 people sounds absurd. Why do we have Government authorities, then? All the efforts of decentralization of power (through Panchayat Raj, local bodies, etc) would bear no fruits unless people believe and get involved in Government initiatives. An NGO bridging Government and people, or an NGO educating people on how to effectively monitor Government schemes, could be most appreciated. However, NGO’s trying to build parallel systems in education, health, finance, etc, create a British Raj scenario. Let us first realize that this is OUR Government and we are equally responsible to make it work.

    A good idea of an NGO in education field: An NGO adopts a public school and runs it efficiently. Government funds such schools anyway, so no need for the NGO to run after donors. Also, the investment in the school by Government would be fruitful. Think!!

  2. Anneke Jong Said,

    July 20, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    Thanks for this article! This is actually a serious problem that very few in the non-profit world are talking about. I’m all for healthy competition, but when the market gets over-congested like that, there is a lot of duplicated overhead and limited adoption of best practices. It becomes a serious market inefficiency. I don’t know enough about the Indian NGO market to diagnose it, but here in the states, it’s become trendy to have your “own” non-profit. From for-profit successes looking to build “social good” cred to families who lose a member to illness and think the best way to honor them is to create yet another foundation dedicated to the disease, the wild proliferation of non-profits means less and less actual, efficient good gets done in our communities. This is where the NGO world could learn from the for-profit world: businesses that are duplicative should consider M&A and businesses that are failng to fill a true market niche need to admit it and close up shop.

  3. Brijdeep Singh Said,

    July 21, 2010 @ 2:13 am

    I had discussed about this number with a friend of mine who has worked with NGOs in India for many years. He asked to read this line again, “The study, commissioned in 2008, used a very strict definition of NGO – taking into account only those organizations that were registered under one particular act and not its many variants.”

    Essentially a lot of organizations in India like Temples, Religious organizations, Schools and Cooperative housing societies use this act. My building with less 100 residents is probably registered under the same act.

    In this light, the number looks a lot let alarming.

  4. Chittibabu Padavala Said,

    May 19, 2011 @ 2:43 am

    Nice article on a stunning fact.

  5. Is India Really a Hotbed for Social Enterprise? | The Just Life Said,

    June 21, 2011 @ 10:32 am

    [...] nonprofit organizations. A recent survey commissioned by the Indian government found that there is one non-governmental organization for every 400 people—which means there are about 3.3 million NGOs. Regardless of how great each NGO's impact [...]

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