Having worked with NGOs for some years, I have developed a healthy dislike for them – mostly for the city based, brahmin led ones. District NGOs and the people based ones still do garner respect.

I recently worked with an organization that calls itself a research institute but wouldn’t qualify on any front. The organization grew from modest means over a short period of time. The organization could be called a BINGO – i.e. a business interest NGO. The decision-making is simple and dictatorial but now cleverly camouflaged under the guise of democracy.

I learnt an important lesson about democracy in this organization. According to the esteemed decision makers in this group, majority wins. So a combination of the organisation’s director, his wife, his best friend and two of his PhD students, whose lives depended on the PhD, was an effective decision-making tool from his point of view. Voices of dissent were classified as ‘low quality’, ‘self oriented rather than organization oriented’, ‘ill-informed’ etc.

The organization also had some interesting approaches to work. Salaries were ‘need based’, so if someone needed to visit her parents in Australia every year, she’d walk away with Rs. 45,000 a month irrespective of her experience, background or education. If someone else (never mind that she had swindled money from her earlier job) had a sob story about her husband’s business going kaput, a story further saddened by him abusing the given lady, then she got a cool Rs. 70,000 salary. However another woman who was separated and ‘issueless’ was chided for her greed when she asked for more than 30,000 because she had no mouths to feed and no husbands to keep. The maid, however, got the standard Rs. 1500 after the standard squabbling and bargaining. Logic, of course, was kept aside for most parts of these transactions.

The organization also believes in modest austerity or austere modesty – whichever worked. This concept basically meant that anything that was expensive, owned and spent by the decision makers and their families, were a necessity, and anything owned by the ordinary worker was an extravagance. Employees were expected to practice this in real life too while those born with rich parents and family income were just expected to feel guilty at regular intervals.

The organization was pro-poor. One employee after working there for several months, wanted to know what the meaning of pro poor was. Of course no one knew and neither did it seem to particularly bother anyone. Its website enhancing value was not to be disputed, though.

It’s interesting that after years of apartheid, history repeats itself in India. In this particular organization that I worked, gender and caste biases were dealt with in a rather unique way.
Whether pro-poor or not, the organization was pro-vegetarian, but rather than  imposing vegetarianism on the organization, the director cleverly laid the blame on the owner of the house. The owner being brahmin had strictly forbidden meat-eating on the office premises, and the organization, in spite of its pro- poor, equitable, secular blah had agreed rather readily, considering as I suppose, it met their own pro-vegetarian needs.

The director’s wife was, incidentally a doctor pretending to be a teacher (neither of which she could do too well) She could however roll her eyeballs heavenwards in a trance (read nirvana) like state, could balance in several complex and unesthetic yogic poses while insisting others do so as well.

The director insisted that he and his two male brahmin consorts were the only ones ‘up above’ who could and did have access to all the knowledge, science and wisdom of the universe while the rest – either female or of a lower caste/religion belonged ‘down below’. This of course, he expressed with a great deal of stammering and stuttering. When asked to have an objective assessment of quality that could be uniformly applied to all, his response was – well unavailable.

Now this organization has an obscene amount of funds and is studying accountability and such.     What can one say about such organisations? They leave me speechless – that’s why I write about them, I suppose………………..



  1. This comment below reminded me of this NGO I worked with…….
    Why women in science don’t want to work at universities
    Louise says:
    March 20, 2012 at 9:24 pm
    Dear Curt

    Thank you for writing about this issue.
    I want to share a story about what happened yesterday that made me, female grad. student, doubt whether I want to be part of academia. It is just an example of what happens much more often.
    I joined the coffee-hour at the institute that I am visiting at the moment. The people present were all men. Two are professors, one is the director, the other one just got hired. The other men present were lower in status (visiting fellows and grad students). The director was clearly sucking up to the newcoming professor, I thought he behaved like a small boy towards him. The newcoming professor in his turn was letting the director know that his sucking up was welcome by complimenting the director on his ‘geat villa’ and the other men were onlookers who could sometimes get a word in (always commenting in favour of the professors) when the director was not speaking.
    I have to say…this makes me sick. The constant need that these men have to establish the hierarchy. I see it happening all the time.
    I like to nonetheless be present at the coffee-hours (also at my home institution) because I want to know what is going on and i want to be able to join in and have some influence myself. But this sucking up to each other is something that I think is embarrassing, even though the men seem to think that it is normal behaviour. It also clearly follows a pattern in that the lower in status suck up to the higher in status and that the equal in status suck up to each other. These men behave like apes.
    This is what is most devastating for my fun as a grad student. I refuse to take part in this sucking up contest and I fear that I will have to when I go on in academia. I also think that it must be a male thing because I see this happening in all male groups. I have never sat in with an all female group (they just aren’t there and whenever there is another female present at a coffee meeting she usually doesn’t dare to say anything. I have often seen women who do say something be put in their place by sexist jokes, so I understand these women’s silence although it pains me to see that they let themselves be conditioned to shut up) so I have no idea if women would behave the same.
    What also happened is that I made a joke yesterday (I will not be shut up), teasing the director a bit about his stories and his villa, and nobody laughed. I think that they had no idea what to do with it and decided to ignore it and go on with their sucking up game. Probably I acted in a way that was not appropriate for my status? In a normal situation the person being teased would have laughed and would have made a joking remark back.
    They are not only playing the sucking up game, but are serious about it too.
    The knowledge that I will be joining these men and will have to play their game makes me sick. (Let alone the sacrifices etc… ) I have seen other female grad students leave for similar reasons (one said “I am not going to work with these 50 year old geisers”) and others because of a lack of confidence, which is something that is probably enforced by the sucking up game.I feel my confidence dropping in these situations, but I have my stubbornness that keeps me from walking away.


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