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 IndianNGOs.com 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