NGOs: A New History of Transnational Civil Society

NGOs: A New History of Transnational Civil Society by Thomas Davies. London: C. Hurst, 2014. 268pp., £20.00, ISBN 978 1 8490 4310 6.

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Beginning in the late 1970s, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have helped to create what has been described as an ‘associational revolution’. They have played a significant role within civil society, facilitating not just the transition of many communist and authoritarian regimes to democracy, but also the process of participatory development and good governance. Most of the literature on NGOs has documented their role since the 1970s in particular, but very little has been written on the history of the NGO sector itself. Thomas Davies’ work in this context becomes an important contribution for it takes a longue durée approach and provides a history of the NGO sector over the past two-and-a-half centuries.

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The central question that drives Davies is how to construct a new history of the transnational civil society that has come to play a dominant role in international politics and development in the last few decades. Davies’ argument is that the history of the transnational civil society is not limited to the last two or three decades, but ‘[has] a far longer history than traditionally assumed’ (p. 1). By combining both quantitative and qualitative methods, and by following a comprehensive historical analysis, Davies looks at the evolution of transnational civil society beyond the Euro-American narratives and constructs a more heterogeneous and pluralistic history by giving greater consideration to the ‘Eastern’ origins.

The book has three major chapters, describing the three major waves of transnational civil society. Davies begins by introducing transnational civil society as the ‘non-governmental non-profit collective action that transcends national boundaries but which does not necessarily have a global reach’ (p. 2). In this sense, the ‘institutions of transnational civil society are numerous, and include advocacy networks and social movements as well as more formally organized INGOs’ (p. 2). Following this introduction, the first chapter discusses the various factors that made the development of transnational civil society possible in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and explains how ‘the development of transnational civil society occurred in parallel with the development of the nation-state’ (p. 16). Chapter 2 looks at ‘the most neglected periods of the history of transnational civil society’ – that between the two world wars – and discusses the emergence of new INGOs (international non-governmental organisations) in fields such as business, humanitarianism, health and education (p. 16). The final chapter examines the contradictory role of the Cold War in splitting, as well as integrating, transnational civil society.

The book thus makes a significant contribution to the literature by providing a uniquely comprehensive history of transnational civil society. Its coherent structure and style make it a pleasure to read, and it must be recommended to students of sociology and political science.

Sarbeswar Sahoo (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi)

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@ Political Studies Review, Vol.13, No.4, November, p.595

International Aid, Civil Society and Politics of Development

Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013; How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy: The Future of Development Aid by Derek Fee. London: Zed Books, 2012.

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Debates on international development aid are not new; some have supported aid, some have opposed it. In his bestselling 2005 book, The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs urged rich nations to increase foreign aid to poor countries not just to end their ‘poverty trap’, but also to kick-start development. In contrast, William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo have strongly argued against aid and noted that it does more bad than good – ‘it prevents people from searching for their own solutions, while corrupting and undermining local institutions and creating a self-perpetuating lobby of aid agencies’ (Quoted in A. Banerjee and E. Duflo, Poor Economics, Public Affairs, 2011, pp. 3–4). The question here, however, is not about whether we should have aid or not; it is rather about what kind of aid we should have, how we should implement it and how aid can be made more effective in achieving its objectives. In Development Aid Confronts Politics, Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont heavily criticise the governance-oriented, technocratic and depoliticised approach to aid practised to date and insist instead on bringing politics to the centre of aid distribution and management.

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Exploring the history of politics in development aid, Carothers and de Gramont note that although aid was intimately related to Cold War politics, aid agencies in the formative years shied away from adopting explicitly political goals for they believed that socio-economic assistance would create domestic conditions conducive for political development and the spread of democracy. It was, however, observed that economic development, instead of bringing democratisation, ‘heightened political conflict, violence, and repression’, leading to authoritarianism (p. 29). The aid community did not have much choice: ‘[D]evelopmentalists on the ground stayed clear of “playing politics” in order to gain credibility with host governments and aid receiving societies’ (p. 50). Such apolitical and technocratic approaches to developmental planning, which often resulted in over-centralised power structures, were heavily criticised. As a result, aid organisations began to rethink their beliefs about the role of politics in the development process. Carothers and de Gramont seem happy that, today, most of the aid organisations have adopted and are actively pursuing political goals either directly with governments or indirectly with political parties and civil society organisations. Emphasising the indispensability of politics in understanding and crafting social change, the authors conclude that ‘aid programs should grow out of the local context and focus on feasible rather than best-practice solutions, that technical assistance should feed into indigenous processes of change, that projects should think about their place within the broader political systems, and that aid providers must focus closely on understanding how political and institutional change occurs’ (pp. 192–3).

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Although Derek Fee would agree with Carothers and de Gramont on how to make aid more effective, in How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy he asks a different question: ‘why development aid is alive and kicking despite calls from both Africa (the continent demanding the highest level of aid) and donor country leaders to bring the business to a logical conclusion’ (p. xi). He further asks ‘why an activity that was supposed to be time-bound has expanded way beyond its initial remit’ (p. xi). Integrating academic knowledge and a practitioner’s experience, Fee addresses these questions quite innovatively. He argues that it is not just aid dependency that has had many negative effects, but that the aid business itself is now in crisis and cannot continue indefinitely. It is thus necessary for both donors and recipients to rethink the development aid model and devise clear exit strategies. Fee suggests several initiatives (e.g. domestic resource mobilisation, trade liberalisation, regional integration, microfinance, remittances and non-governmental organisations, and philanthropic institutions), which he believes could act as policy options for replacing development aid and making countries sustainable. He concludes that although an aid exit strategy is important, it ‘should not punish people’ who have suffered poverty and deprivation. It ‘must be applied with compassion or it will be ineffective. It must [also] be time-bound but the time given to each country should be related to their base line of aid dependency’ (p. 232).

While Carothers and de Gramont have successfully brought politics to the heart of the aid business, Fee has convincingly argued for a time-bound and compassionate aid exit strategy. Both books are filled with rich historical analysis and empirical examples and the authors exhibit immense awareness of and sensitivity to the political context. Though some may criticise these books for lacking theoretical rigour, they nonetheless represent excellent contributions to understanding the modern aid industry and the way it has evolved over time. Both books are lucidly written and well-argued and should be recommended not just to students of sociology and international relations, but also to aid practitioners, civil society activists and public policy officials.

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@ Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Political Studies Review, Vol.12, No.3, Sept., 2014, pp.418-419.

 

Political Secularism, Religion, and the State

“Political Secularism, Religion, and the State: A Time Series Analysis of Worldwide Data” by Jonathan Fox. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 285pp.

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What role does religion play in government? What is the relationship between political secularism and religion? And, is the role of religion declining in the public and political sphere and the world becoming more secular? Jonathan Fox addresses these questions in his new book, Political Secularism, Religion, and the State. Drawing on from large-scale quantitative survey data from the round 2 of the Religion and State (RAS2) Project between 1990 and 2008 period, Fox argues that secular and religious institutions and actors are competing with each other for influence and it is in this competition that the religious forces are making significant inroads into the public and political life.

The book begins with Fox’s critical engagement with the much celebrated secularization theory of the 1960s, which predicted the decline and eventual death of religion in modern societies. According to Fox, while much of the debate has centred on either “for or against” the secularization theory, it has blinded us from a “third option” i.e. “whether it is possible to use elements of secularization theory to understand religion’s role in politics and society without accepting all aspects of the theory, especially the prediction of religion’s decline (p.16).” It is in this context, Fox introduces the concept of “political secularism” – defined “as an ideology or set of beliefs advocating that religion ought to be separate from all or some aspects of politics of public life (or both) (p.2)” – and discusses the competition between political secularism and religious actors – referred to as the competition perspective – to influence state-religion policy. Fox argues that understanding a state’s religion policy is vital as it demonstrates how a state deals with its religion. He identifies 110 religion policies through which states support, regulate and restrict religious practices and institutions. Based on a time series analysis of worldwide data, Fox concludes that state support for religion around the world is on the rise. Though this by itself does not disprove secularization theory, it shows that in the competition between secularism and religion, it is the latter one that is gaining significant influence in the public and political sphere.

The book provides innovative empirical and theoretical insights on the relationship between secularism, religion and the state. Readers will benefit greatly from the author’s skills on how to analyse large-scale datasets. The book has successfully combined empirical data with theoretical interpretations and will be useful to students and scholars of sociology of religion and comparative politics.

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Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo (Indian Institute of Technology Delhi) for Political Studies Review (Forthcoming).

Talking Politics

Bhikhu Parekh in conversation with Ramin Jahanbegloo (2011) Talking Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 129pp, £18.99, ISBN 9780198071549

Talking Politics is the outcome of a series of Ramin Jahanbegloo’s interviews with Bhikhu Parekh, a prominent British-Indian political philosopher and theorist who has made significant contributions to the understanding of modern Indian culture and political thought. In his conversation, Jahanbegloo explores Parekh’s personal as well as academic life, and discusses a range of issues, including his early experience in India, his perspectives on liberalism and cultural diversity and his contribution to political philosophy.

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The book is divided into five sections. Part I deals with Parekh’s personal life and his journey from a small town in Gujarat to his current academic prominence and entry into the House of Lords. Parekh interestingly discusses about his adventurous marriage and experiences with the caste system as well as his impressions of England and association with Isaiah Berlin. In Part II, Parekh talks about his views on political philosophy and his critique of liberalism. To him, liberalism, which is grounded on reason and individualism, is a narrow concept; it does not consider individual’s “social embeddeness” (p. 59) and is incapable to “engage in intercultural dialogue” (p.58). The limits of liberalism are further explored in Part III where Parekh discusses about cultural pluralism, multiculturalism and the immigrant communities in Europe. According to him, although “all societies display some [cultural] diversity” (p.65) all of them are not multicultural. Multiculturalism represents a unique way to manage this diversity and pluralism in society. He also distinguishes between cultural and moral diversity and argues that liberalism is hospitable only to the former. The latter “is viewed with suspicion, even pathologized, and the cultural minorities are pressured to adopt dominant liberal values” (p.66). Apart from this liberal imposition/homogenization, Parekh argues that the lack of recognition of “the other” contributes as well to identity and integration-related problems. As a way forward, Parekh, drawing inspirations from Gandhi, advocates for intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue (Part IV). Specifically, in the Indian context, Parekh believes that a sense of “shared citizenship” (p. 117) and “inclusiveness” can not only address the existing intolerance between communities but could also strengthen the Indian identity as well as its democracy (Part V).

This book is unique in structure and style. The conversational mode presents a lively content that is quite interesting to read.This slender volume has gone beyond expectation to present coherently Parekh’s life and thought for which Jahanbegloo must be congratulated.

 

SARBESWAR SAHOO

Max-Weber-Kolleg (Erfurt) and Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi)

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@Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Political Studies Review, Vol.11, Issue.1, January.

 

REVIEW: Civil Society and Democratization in India

Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests, by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Abingdon, Routledge, 2013, xvii + 199 pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978041565291

India is rightly celebrated for the depth and diversity of its civil society. While debate persists over the precise nature of civil society’s links to democratisation, few dispute that civil society in India, as elsewhere, exercises a useful, if imperfect, check on the abuse of state power. Sarbeswar Sahoo focuses not on civil society’s watchdog or policy-advocacy functions, but, instead, on the capacity of associational life to deepen democracy by creating avenues for meaningful participation and collective action by poor and marginalised people. This is an area of even greater controversy, with its own scholarly subgenre, to which Sahoo’s book makes an important contribution.

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Sahoo’s underlying concern is whether, how, and under what conditions civil society can pursue a politically transformative agenda. Sahoo’s empirical material consists of organisational case studies of three ‘well-established NGOs’ from Rajasthan, all working in the state’s ‘tribal belt’. They are Seva Mandir, which focuses on implementing rural development projects and programmes; Astha Sanstha, ‘which represents a unique mix of Left and Gandhian ideology and is involved in a variety of indigenous people’s movement[s]’ (p. 10); and the Rajasthan Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad (RVKP), which is affiliated with (and propagates the Hindu nationalist ideology of) the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, while engaging in direct service provision in adivasi communities.

These are well-chosen case studies, conforming as they do to three recognisable ‘types’ of civil society. There is a sense, however, that perhaps these categories were too firmly entrenched in the author’s mind before he began his field research, thus allowing a certain degree of ‘confirmation bias’ to creep into his analysis. This is evident in the support that Sahoo expresses for the two key elements of the Left critique of India’s ‘NGO sector’. First, he accepts with few qualms the widely held position that NGOs are ‘agents of the broader project of neoliberalism’ (p. 9). Evidence for this generalisation is sorely lacking. Certainly, NGOs perform some functions formerly monopolised by government, and thus contribute indirectly to a kind of shrinking of the state. But this is hardly an indication of neoliberal intent, let alone adherence to the market fundamentalism that afflicts some extreme neoliberals. Besides, there are plenty of NGOs working to build resistance to the adverse consequences of a less-regulated economy, including rapid environmental degradation. Indeed, a (leaked) 2014 report prepared for the Prime Minister’s Office by the Government of India’s (domestic) Intelligence Bureau identified many professionally managed NGOs – that is, not just ‘movement’ groups – as enemies of India’s development, because they dared protest against questionable industrial and infrastructure projects in many parts of the country.

Sahoo seems equally taken with the second part of the Left critique – that service-delivery NGOs pre-empt the radicalisation of subaltern groups. According to one of the sources Sahoo quotes, NGOs working in Rajasthan’s tribal areas had ‘pacified the fire with people and depoliticized development at the local level’ (p. 9). Such an accusation grants NGOs far too much credit for being able to accomplish something as complex as ‘depoliticising’ anything. The stereotype of the overly professionalised, out-of-touch NGO is badly out of date. These days, even staid project-implementing NGOs can end up doing genuinely political work. Mainstream NGOs, including Seva Mandir, that worked as implementing partners on the United Progressive Alliance’s flagship social protection initiative – the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) 2005 – were, whether they liked it or not, participating in something fairly revolutionary: assisting labourers to demand their wages, and encouraging villagers to demand answers from local officials about development expenditures. This did not require NGOs to pursue a radical agenda of their own devising; their course of action was spelled out in the procedural requirements found in NREGA. Some did this with more vigour than others. The effects were also highly variable. But apolitical the process was not.

By the same token, even excellent NGOs such as Astha, which sees itself at the movement end of the organisational continuum, are sometimes less radical than they might seem, which may well represent a pragmatic adjustment to prevailing political conditions. Astha too must produce reports for its funders and for government regulators; it too works with public-sector entities, and in any case benefits from the pool of experienced development professionals working in and around its home district of Udaipur, where over the past four decades, a cluster of small and large NGOs has grown up around Seva Mandir, one of the first organisations founded in the area.

While the line separating mainstream and movement-oriented civil society formations may be more blurred than Sahoo is willing to concede, he is justified in drawing a sharp distinction between the patently communal RVKP and the other two associations. This is true with respect to all three analytical categories Sahoo invokes in the book’s subtitle: institutions, interests, and ideologies. Through its links to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the RVKP is institutionally different from the resolutely non-partisan Astha and Seva Mandir. It also represents, and is controlled by, a very different set of interests, including those for whom social change is something to be resisted rather than fostered. Even if one were to grant that the RVKP shares a culture of managerial competence with Seva Mandir, and a strong sense of mission with the activist-inclined Astha, these parallels are dwarfed by the stark gap in terms of political ideas that separates ideological chasm separating this Hindu chauvinist organisation from the other two groups.

Readers will benefit greatly from the author’s sensitive interpretation of the case material, even if some of the book’s conceptual and theoretical foundations receive more reverence than perhaps they deserve. Sahoo’s book will be a stimulating read for anyone attempting to understand the political significance of civil society groups, in India and beyond.

 

Rob Jenkins

Hunter College & The Graduate Center, The City University of New York

rjenk@hunter.cuny.edu

# 2015, Rob Jenkins

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Rob Jenkins (2015) “Civil society and democratization in India: institutions, ideologies and interests,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics, 53:2, 226-228

Confronting Secularism in Europe and India

Brian Black, Gavin Hyman and Graham M. Smith (eds) (2014) Confronting Secularism in Europe and India: Legitimacy and Disenchantment in Contemporary Times. London: Bloomsbury Academic. 208pp.

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Confronting Secularism in Europe and India emerged out of two international conferences held in 2011 by the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at the University of Lancaster. The central questions in this book are: How is secularism understood in Europe and India and what is its relationship with religion, state, democracy and violence? How has secularism managed religious and cultural diversity and what challenges have it faced? Can secularism continue to provide a foundation for political legitimacy or is there something beyond secularism? Addressing these questions, the editors have structured the book in relation to four sets of issues: (1) political secularism, (2) secularism and religion, (3) secularism, religion and violence, and (4) beyond secularism. A comprehensive introduction by Brian Black sets the tone of the book and critically outlines the debate.

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The issue of political secularism is addressed by Bajpai and Bhargava. Bajpai argues that in contrast to Europe Indian secularism is not hostile to religion; it recognises the rights of groups as an extension of ‘values of liberal citizenship’ (p.26). Bhargava similarly argues that Europe has a lot to learn from Indian secularism and the way it has managed religious diversity. He advocates for ‘contextual secularism’ that emphasizes ‘multi-value doctrine’ (p.56). In second section, discussing the relationship between secularism and religion Hyman argues that Anglo American secularism did not emerge out of an opposition to religion as it has been perceived. For him, ‘modern secularism had a closer relationship with early modern states, which had an established religion’ (p.7). Similarly Chatterjee argues that Indian secularism was infused with religious values.

In the third section, Wenman criticizes liberal secularism and discusses the way in which violence, particularly terrorism, is associated with religion. Sutton similarly criticises the secular Indian state of not being neutral or protective of minority groups and being responsible for many religious riots in India. Given this crisis of secularism and in finding ways to deal with religious diversity, the last two chapters by van der Zweede and Pecora try to go beyond secularism to look for answers in Habermas’s ‘post-secular society’ and in Nandy’s ‘critical traditionalism’. In order to over this crisis, the authors broadly agree that secularism must reinvent itself to deal with differences, reengage religious politics and appreciate the deep pluralities of social and cultural life.

The essays in this book provide innovative theoretical and comparative insights on the relationship between secularism, religion, democracy and violence in Europe and India. Taken together they make an invaluable contribution to literature and must be recommended to students of politics, religious studies and sociology.

 

Sarbeswar Sahoo

Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India

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@ Political Studies Review, Feb 2016, 14: 1, p. 94

The State of India’s Elementary and Higher Education

This paper seeks to examine the state of India’s education system and the various problems it is facing in the present context. The paper is divided into two parts. In part one, the paper examines the state of elementary education and argues that while the government has played a major role and taken several steps to universalize elementary education, such as expanding the school system, building new class rooms, hiring more teachers and providing incentives like free text books, uniforms and mid-day meals, it has not been successful in addressing the low quality of learning in our schools. In the second part, the paper discusses the various problems that our higher education system suffers from. It argues that except a few institutions like the IITs and IIMs, the quality of education in our public and private institutions is very poor. The funding constraint and the inability of the state on the one hand and the policies of neo-liberalism on the other have led to the mushrooming of private self-financing higher educational institutions who consider education as a saleable commodity rather than a social good. The requisite to generate revenue has forced these self-financing institutions to offer programmes in areas that have higher demand. As a consequence, only certain subjects like engineering, medicine and commerce have flourished whereas humanities, social sciences and the basic sciences have suffered; ultimately, as Tilak has pointed out, this has produced “a distorted, unbalanced and unsustainable higher education system”. Not just commercialization and commodification, the higher education has also been affected by declining autonomy and academic freedom. Given these trends, the challenge before us today is how to meet the increasing demands for education, ensure its quality, restrict profit-making in education and restore the autonomy and integrity of our education system.