by John Samuel
When development goes corporate and global, the spirit of voluntary action goes straight out the window
Irony is the hallmark of our times, the organising chord of political and institutional discourse. When the army is directly involved in confronting militant groups or in situations of civil war, it is supposed to be involved in `peace-keeping' (remember the IPKF in Sri Lanka?). And when a country explodes nuclear devices or weapons, it is also in the name of `ensuring peace'. When the government wants to move out of the health or education sector, the official justification is that government wants to increase `people's participation'.
It's the same with voluntarism or voluntary action. When we say ours is a voluntary organisation, does it really mean that the organisation is run by voluntary action or the voluntary spirit? Isn't it obvious that anyone who chooses to be an activist has made a voluntary decision to do so? Isn't it ironical that an organisation with an annual budget of tens of millions of rupees, with professional staff drawing salaries at `market rates' and with corporate structures, should call itself a voluntary organisation? In fact, one needs a microscope to look for anything `voluntary' in most organisations that apply that term to themselves.
The spirit of voluntary action is as old as civilisation. It formed the basis of social ethics and community living. And all great civilisations and cultures emphasised the virtue of voluntary action, the act of going beyond oneself or one's immediate self-interest to live for or serve a larger cause. The essence of spirituality as practised by almost all religious streams encompasses an element of voluntary action. When the Bhagvad Gita says "Find full reward of right in doing right, let right deeds be thy motive, not the fruits thereof," when the Koran prescribes Zakat as an essential part of pious living, or Jesus says "You are the salt of the earth", the underlying spiritual essence is more or less the same. The Buddhist notion of Dhamma, the Confucian idea of Jen or the Christian idea of Charity encompass elements of voluntary human and social action.
The notion of Jen suggested by Confucius is particularly relevant. Variously translated as goodness, people-to-people benevolence, it is best rendered as human heartiness. Jen involves a simultaneous feeling of humanity towards others and respect for oneself, an indivisible sense of the dignity of human life wherever it appears. Jen implies everything that distinguishes human beings from beasts and machines and makes people distinctively human. Confucius says, "The man who possesses Jen, wishing to establish himself, seeks also to enlarge others."
The idea of voluntary action has very clear ethical and spiritual connotations. One's resolve to dedicate a part of her/his time, resources or life is a subjective choice, which each individual expresses in various ways. There are shades of voluntary action: right from giving food to an impoverished child, to helping an accident victim, or giving a contribution for the well-being of the poor, fighting injustice or being a political activist protecting the interests of the marginalised. As long as this is an individual choice or a subjective decision based on an individual's value system, there is no problem. But it becomes difficult when a subjective choice based on ethical principles gets institutionalised. This is because institutions are often governed by institutional interests and power relations. When individuals with strong personal convictions or voluntary spirit come together to form an institution, eventually there can be conflict between the institutional interests and the voluntary spirit/personal convictions of the people within the institution.
The tension between the spirit of voluntary action and the process of institution-building is evident in the voluntary sector. With the increasing flow of funds and the subsequent corporatisation of the voluntary sector, there is a growing crisis in the very ethos of voluntarism. It's inevitable, given the paradoxes involved in institutionalising a set of beliefs and values. There seem to be four crises, viz: crisis of values and ethics; crisis of legitimacy; crisis of leadership; and crisis of language.
There was a time when people got involved in social change initiatives or voluntary action primarily because of strong ideological or ethical convictions. There were religious missionaries, Gandhians, Marxists, socialists, liberals etc who influenced the social ethos with a strong sense of idealism and an ability to sacrifice personal comforts. Such voluntary activists inspired others and formed organisations for a larger cause. We have many inspiring examples, right from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Birsa Munda and from Pandita Ramabhai to Verrier Elwin. Many of them became pathbreakers for larger social reform movements. The entire freedom struggle acquired a social reformative function because of the spirit of voluntary action. Even after independence there was a strong stream of reformative voluntary action, led by leaders like Vinoba Bhave and others.
Now, however, social work has become more of a profession and less of a personal commitment. From the '70s, voluntary organisations began to be seen as agents of development. The mandarins and the experts in the international donor agencies not only funded them but also `streamlined' these institutions. Many of them felt that their `development' mission is too important a task to leave to committed voluntary activists. Professional skills began to take precedence over social commitment or personal conviction. In the late '60s and '70s social work colleges sprang up across the country. Management institutes began to realise the virtues of rural development. By the time we reached the mid-'80s, there were more professionals with the right skills and right language and less voluntary activists. Voluntary activists as a species were either transformed into `development managers' or faced extinction in the `professionalised' voluntary sector. Comrades working hand in hand for reformation and revolution disappeared into the melancholy of the '70s and '80s.
When we reached the '90s, `development' itself got corporatised and globalised. What is best for the third world is charted out by a set of `development experts' through a series of concept papers, strategy charts and country papers prepared and discussed in New York, Washington, London or Amsterdam. Once the blueprint is ready, they directly or indirectly hire or fire professionals to put their development blueprints into operation. Thus development becomes a packaged or designer `product' to be served almost like a hot beverage or chilled cola to the people. And social marketing became the `in thing'. In fact, this product-centred orientation made many of the international development organisations develop their own pet `brands'.
In the development market, people became consumers of development aid and `targets' to be covered. From time to time, the World Bank or UN mandarins will evaluate the macro performance and prescribe new medicines and operations for old ailments such as poverty, inequality, deprivation, environmental degradation etc. Many of the international aid and support organisations began to market and sell the `development' medicine prescribed by these worthies. Thus, many of these organisations were transformed into wholesale or retail agents of a development paradigm designed by a set of experts who are culturally, socially and mentally alienated from the so-called target population.
The erstwhile activists and community workers have gradually been replaced by line managers who will monitor development. In their enthusiasm to deliver the goods, somewhere along the way, values and ethics took a back seat. Viability, sustainability (read survival) and pragmatism took the front seats. People with any `ideological hangovers' or `ethical dogmas' became anathema to the proponents of a top-down development paradigm.
In the new scheme of things, ideas like participation, decentralisation and democracy have become strategies or tactics rather than ethical principles. In the course of the hyper-institutionalisation of social action, voluntarism itself ceases to become an ethical principle based on the subjective choice of individuals. Voluntarism has become an institutional strategy to strengthen the `outreach' mechanisms.
While in the '60s and '70s, an individual's convictions determined the choice of his career, in the '90s, career options and priorities determine commitment and personal convictions. Such a reversal of meaning and process makes voluntarism more an irony and less of an ethical choice. This would eventually lead to the privatisation of the development sector and make it a cosmetic corollary to the corporate sector. The ongoing crisis of values and ethics of voluntarism will undermine the very raison d'etre of voluntary social action.
The crisis of legitimacy and leadership are the direct result of the crisis in values and ethics. The gap between the self-perception of the voluntary sector and public perception is increasing in an alarming way. Though there are hundreds of genuine voluntary social change initiatives, the corporatisation of mainstream development organisations tends to create an entirely different image. Such a public perception may not be necessarily true. The substantial change in the public perception happened partially because of negative and sensational press coverage and partially because of tremendous change in the lifestyles of erstwhile voluntary activists and present-day development managers.
Till the early '80s there was a convergence between socio-political movements and voluntary organisations. Leadership of the voluntary sector emerged out of the larger social reforms and political movements. Many of the leaders of social action opted for constructive work through voluntary action rather than power politics and party dynamics. This meant that there was broad social legitimacy for voluntary organisations, as the majority of activists and workers represented the social and community ethos of their time. They identified themselves with the community and the people with whom they were working. They came from the communities and lived and worked with the people. This gave these organisations and leaders the moral authority to represent the larger interests of the people.
While the earlier generation of social activists learned from the communities directly, the new generation of development managers learned their lessons from books and figures. They derived their legitimacy from their professional pedigree and social locations.
While the activists of the '60s and '70s derived their power from the people and grassroots support base, in the '90s, development leaders derived their power from the institutional infrastructure and the extent of clout in international development circles.
The power of conviction, integrated with the power of the people and power of knowledge, was potential enough to challenge dominant power relations. That is why tens of thousands of young people responded to Jayaprakash Narayan's call in 1974. When leaders fail to inspire people with their lives, deeds and words, the organic link between society and leadership ceases to exist. The role models of top-ranking development professionals are not Jayaprakash Narayan or Niyogi or Safdar Hashmi. The visible urban-centric leadership in the corporatised development sector has begun to look more like vulgar imitations of the corporate executives of big industrial houses or transnational corporations. We cease to have leaders in the proliferation of managers driven by enlightened self-interest. That is what can be termed as the crisis of leadership.
The alienation of development professionals from real life situations and the deprived sections is partially responsible for the crisis of legitimacy faced by the voluntary sector. When someone writes a wonderful paper on the public distribution system, without ever being anywhere near a ration shop, it somehow fails to relate with real life needs and situations. Real life experiences and insights are increasingly being replaced by research studies conducted by `development tourists' from the the western hemisphere.
We are living in a time when experts derive their experience and perception through dehumanised institutional systems --proposals, reports, memos, charts, seminars etc. The Internet may be an effective means of communication, but it is far away from the sight of the deprived millions. There seems to be no more space or time for great sorrows and little happiness in an increasingly dehumanised development machinery. While the values of voluntary action are rooted in the micro-level everyday experiences of an individual, the logic of international development institutions is driven by macro trends and the sheer demand for and supply of funds. This contradiction is at the root of the identity crisis faced by many of us in the social change sector. Because as long as the people at large do not own the process of social change, the question of representation becomes very tricky.
The erosion of legitimacy is also because the people and communities have begun to see themselves as the beneficiaries or consumers of the development programmes, rather than seeing themselves as the changemakers. Unless people at large feel a strong sense of belonging to the social change initiatives, the long-term social viability and legitimacy will be in peril.
The internal contradictions within the development sector are often glossed over by cleverly manipulating words and their meaning. The progressive-looking words become the most effective tactics and strategy to subvert the value and spirit of voluntarism. When words become deceptive, meanings become elusive. Such elusiveness provides an intellectual shade for the subversion of values, experiences and beliefs in a corporatised world of development. The co-option of words is used to pave the way for the co-option of individual activists. It is far easier to interpret the crisis than to change the course of the ongoing subversion. What we need is a reinvention of the values and ethics that make voluntary social action a truly humanist endeavour.