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When green warriors battle GDP crusaders

As foreign-funded NGOs working in the field of environment face accusations of thwarting economic progress, a Canadian example holds vital lessons for India

Rupa Subramanya 

Recently, India's Intelligence Bureau has, according to a leaked report, allegedly labelled Greenpeace India a "threat to national economic security" for interfering in the country's domestic politics by supporting radical environmental causes that would be detrimental to India's economic development.

This has caused an outcry from activists, commentators, and others, who find the official Indian reaction displaying a uniquely Indian paranoia - reminiscent of Indira Gandhi's famous allusion to the "foreign hand" harming Indian interests.

Yet, consider a country as different from India as you could imagine in which an eerily similar debate has been playing out for the past several years.

As reported in 2012, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) - Canada's spy agency - expressed concern that "multi-issue extremists" and other activist groups posed a threat to "critical infrastructure" and could damage the Canadian national interest.

Greenpeace was one of the NGOs specifically named by CSIS. Around the same time, Joe Oliver, then environment and current finance minister of Canada, speaking of foreign-funded NGOs, put matters even more starkly, warning of the danger that such groups could "hijack our regulatory system to achieve their radical ideological agenda". Specifically, Oliver was concerned about the anti-jobs and anti-growth implications of the agenda of these NGOs and their foreign donors. The Conservative government, and Oliver in particular, was expressing its ire against foreign-funded NGOs trying to halt the development of Canada's "tar sands", which bear rich deposits of oil that however are dirtier than conventional sources.

According to Canadian researcher, Vivian Krause, up to $300 million have been pumped since 2000 into Canadian NGOs by major US foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, Hewlett, Packard, and Gates among others - some of whom are also major donors in India.

The legitimate concern is that with their deep pockets, these large US based foundations - who can muster resources that dwarf those of any Canadian donor - can have a disproportionate impact on the state of the debate in Canada. In particular, the danger is of skewing the discourse in favour of the agenda of US-based environmental activists who themselves would not bear the brunt of any possible economic damage caused to Canada by pursuing an excessively stringent environmental policy.

The Canadian experience should give pause to assorted leftists, activists, journalists and commentators in India who heap scorn on the legitimate concerns raised about the potentially damaging effects foreign-funded NGOs could be having on the prospects for rapid economic development in India. And for those suspicious of the timing of this leaked IB report in the early days of the Modi-led government, recall that Manmohan Singh during the much publicised protests in 2012 against the Koodankulam nuclear reactor in Tamil Nadu gave exactly the same warning that foreign-funded NGOs could be having a detrimental effect on India's economic development. In recent years, an average per year of a massive Rs 10,000 crore or approximately $2 billion has flowed into Indian NGOs, according to data declared under India's Foreign Contributions Registration Act (FCRA). And this is probably an underestimate given that shockingly 40 per cent of the NGOs don't fulfil their compliance requirement under Indian law.

In their response to the IB's allegations, Greenpeace India claims that the NGO "stands for people-powered sustainable development". Further, in all of Greenpeace India's interactions with the media, they repeat like a mantra that they receive no money from "government or from corporates" but rely principally on donations from individuals in India.

These statements, while true in a legalistic sense, are incomplete at best. According to Greenpeace India's data disclosed by law under the FCRA, about Rs 10 crore was received from foreign institutional donors in fiscal year 2012-13.

In 2011-12, the latest year for which we have data, Greenpeace India's annual report discloses an operating budget of about Rs 24.7 crore.

Assuming their budget in 2012-13 was similar in size, that means that a whopping 40 per cent or so of the money they spent comes from foreign donors. Thus, Greenpeace India's "people-powered" agenda is driven in no small measure by foreign dollars.

Abhishek Pratap, senior energy campaigner with Greenpeace India told me that Greenpeace India has never claimed not to receive foreign funds and puts the figure around 37 per cent of their budget for the fiscal year just ended. But it's noteworthy that this aspect of their financing isn't given much prominence.

For instance, in their 2012 annual report, there's a section devoted to individual fund raising in India while, the large amount of money received from foreign donors merely shows up as a line in the balance sheet.

Greenpeace India's biggest foreign donor is Greenpeace International, the Netherlands, which gave just under Rs 9 crore. The next biggest foreign donor is Climate Works Foundation, the US, which in the same fiscal year gave about a little more than a crore (all other donors gave very small amounts).

Climate Works, in turn, receives its funding from three American foundations, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the McKnight Foundation. These are the private charities set up thanks to the fortunes of the two families behind the Hewlett-Packard corporation and the 3M corporation respectively.

So while it's technically true that Greenpeace India receives no corporate money so far as is publicly declared, a large chunk of the monies they do receive come foreign institutional donors who themselves receive money from foundations many of whom get their vast resources from huge inherited corporate fortunes. It's more than a little ironic that Greenpeace India has a signature campaign against coal mining in forested areas while at the same time they're indirectly living, in part, off the proceeds of 3M, whose mining operations in the United States have also come under environmental scrutiny.

Pratap says he wasn't aware of 3M's activities and their connection to Climate Works via the McKnight Foundation.

More pertinent is to note that, far from being a conspiracy theory, it's self-evident to common sense that a large foreign donor pouring its own hard-earned resources into an Indian NGO is doing so to further its own agenda, not an Indian agenda, even if those agendas may overlap at some points. Pratap says that Greenpeace India sets its own "agenda" and isn't swayed by any possible agendas of its donors. Further, their board of directors, not donors, decides how monies are spent, he claimed. The more basic point is such influence between donor and recipient, if it does exist - whether of a foreign foundation funding an NGO or, say, an oil company funding an energy research institute - would be very difficult to establish.

Any possible convergence of interests between donor and recipient would most likely be implicit, rather than explicitly laid out in publicly available deliberations. While denying any influence by any outside entity on Greenpeace India's activities, Pratap asked, why are people coming after us? Shouldn't they be probing the "vested interests" and motivations of corporates? He believes that the IB's allegations are politically motivated and intended to further a "corporate-driven agenda". But what are the agendas of foreign-funded NGOs and their large foreign donors in India?

As it happens, I once worked as a summer intern in Canada for a Canadian NGO whose parent organisation is now under scrutiny by Canadian tax authorities for allegedly using monies received from the US to pursue a domestic political agenda. In India, we need to start holding NGOs, especially those that receive large foreign contributions, to the same standards of accountability and transparency that they rightly insist governments and corporations must live by.

Such NGOs, if they wish to be seen as credible, should tell us why they accept money from the foreign donors they do, whether those funds are "tied" in how they're supposed to be used and exactly what expectations these foreign donors have of how the recipient will help further their own agenda in return for the monies they've given. Canadians have already begun asking who funds their NGOs and why. We in India had better start asking such questions quickly.

First Published: Thu, June 12 2014. 23:40 IST