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Political entrepreneurs or development agents:
An NGO's tale of resistance and acquiescence in Madhya Pradesh, India

Vasudha Chhotray

SARPN acknowledges the University of Manchester as a source of this document.
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NGOs have been lauded both for being political entrepreneurs- facilitators of transformative politics- and also development agents- implementers of participatory development. However, not many believe that NGOs can successfully combine both these roles. This view arises from a larger cynicism of the development machinery that constantly strives to exclude 'politics'. In India too, NGO-state relationships affirm that politically confrontationist NGOs have frequently been oppressed. This article presents a case study of an NGO in a central Indian state that, over an entire decade, was able to combine development work regarded as legitimate by the state with practices resisting state action in development. It demonstrates that the 'depoliticisation' of development is not always a successful state project with predictable consequences. Moreover, the NGO's seemingly dual stance was itself unreal, as resistance and acquiescence were interwoven with one another in subtle ways. The article rejects familiar binaries deployed to study NGOs, i.e. of state-civil society or mainstream-alternative development, and focuses instead on key junctures in the NGO's life history. It concludes that NGOs, operating within appropriate political conditions can be both political entrepreneurs and development agents, and indeed, this synthesis holds the key to their power.


NGOs, the world over, have been regarded positively both for their capacities as 'political entrepreneurs' and 'development agents', but there is growing cynicism in their abilities to combine these two roles. As political entrepreneurs, NGOs have been known to act as catalysts of radical change, through their association with grassroots struggle in various forms. As development agents, NGOs have increasingly become key partners both of governments and donor agencies in implementing development programmes, particularly those of a participatory orientation. The definitive mainstreaming of participatory development during the last decade has accompanied growing pressures on NGOs, many of which may have started out as small and informal cadre based organisations, to compete for development funds, formalise their organisational structures and 'scale up' their work. All this seems to have compromised the inclination and ability of NGOs devoted to development, to engage in acts that are radically transformative.

In fact, such cynicism afflicts development in general, perceived as an activity or set of relations that is divorced of 'politics'. This understanding is of politics with a capital 'P', as the 'discourse and struggle over the organisation of human possibilities' (Held 1984: 1), rather than the entire range of politics with a small 'p', from arbitrary interest seeking to organised electoral party politics, all of which regularly mediate development. Development outcomes therefore have frequently been proved to be conservative and preserving of status quo. The definition of what legitimately counts as 'development' by the state, through the use of law, and by the institutions of international development cooperation, through the general production of policy discourse, seems to be fundamental not only to development outcomes, but also to development processes, and the interactions between a whole host of governmental and non-governmental actors. The many guises in which the development machinery defines and excludes politics have been conceptualised as 'depoliticisation' in academic parlance (Ferguson 1990, Harriss 2001, Kamat 2002).

For NGOs, the problems of pursuing development that internalises politics as a radically transformative process are manifold. NGOs, notwithstanding the staggering diversity of organisations that comprise this category, are by no means exclusive of the state. They operate within its laws and are dependent upon its resources. The equation of NGOs with 'civil society', especially by donors motivated to aid processes of democratisation and participatory development, is unhelpful. Not only does such a tendency disregard the profound interrelationships between state and civil society, especially in the developing world (Kaviraj and Khilnani 2001), it has actually been known to 'undermine the formation of civil society' due to the 'bureaucratic logic of international development that funds NGOs regardless of their capability of bringing about democratic change' (Igoe 2003: 881). Moreover, the collapsing boundaries between 'mainstream' and 'alternative' development imply that to weigh NGOs' performance against a scale measuring 'alternative' development will probably lead to disappointment, and not much else (Pieterse 1998).

These trends point to the analytical difficulties of studying NGOs. In particular, it is difficult to appreciate the potential for change available to NGOs by their unique positioning in the interface between governments at different levels (both elected representatives and bureaucrats), local communities and foreign donors. It is my purpose here to argue that a dichotomy between the roles of NGOs as political entrepreneurs and development agents seriously limits the consideration of such potential. In this article, I will present case study evidence of an NGO in a central Indian state, Madhya Pradesh, to argue that NGOs need not, indeed cannot be, either political entrepreneurs or development agents. The article will show how, over an entire decade, this NGO has been able to combine development work regarded as legitimate by the state with practices resisting state action in development in general. In the process, it will demonstrate how and why the 'depoliticisation' of development is not always a successful state project with predictable consequences. The article will reveal that the NGO's seemingly dual stance was itself unreal, as resistance and acquiescence were interwoven with one another in subtle ways. In this analysis, I will avoid the familiar dichotomies of state-civil society and mainstream-alternative development. I will focus instead on the factors that constituted key junctures in the NGO's life history- of composition, location, legislation, organisational interrelationships and politics- and contributed to its local power and effectiveness. The article will conclude with general implications for the nature of as also limits to NGO power.

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