Current discussions and debates on social issues related to race, caste, gender and religion in progressive circles have somehow managed to trickle into popular discourse. This means that even as many people are railing against the ‘revised’ norms of what is considered as decent, acceptable behaviour, they are being forced to adapt to this new normal, whether of their own volition or not.
One group where progressive values are supposed to inhere by virtue of their work and objectives is the non-profit sector. NGOs, by default, are expected to be paragons of decency, establishing fair and anti-discriminatory workplace practices, being ethical towards employees and beneficiaries, and putting their (donor’s) money where their mouth is. Recently, though, there have been a few disturbing reports of highly unsavoury behaviour at well-known NGOs in India, related to both sexual harassment and caste discrimination as well as unethical and unscrupulous acts. This has raised serious questions about whether NGOs have a massive blindspot when it comes to dealing with issues of sexism and racism in their own organisations.
Harassment cases in NGOs
At the centre of this storm is Amnesty India. Globally known for its fierce defence of human rights and exposé of various abuses by powerful states and institutions, Amnesty International is one of the most famous non-profits in the world.
However, in the last six months or so, two serious cases of discrimination have been lodged against the organisation’s India outpost. In September 2018, a detailed account by an ex-employee made a direct reference to the casteist behaviour and toxic culture at Amnesty India. Mariya Salim, an ex-consultant with Amnesty, narrated how ‘the understanding of senior managers about issues of marginalisation and discrimination and on-ground community engagement with the most disenfranchised was limited and their behaviour towards staff coming from diverse backgrounds such as mine was averse.’
According to this account, several complaints of workplace harassment and discrimination had been levelled against the savarna-dominated senior management, with Muslim and Dalit employees at the receiving end of wrongful behaviour by senior members. Verbal and mental harassment and daily humiliations were par for the course for employees from marginalised backgrounds. It is not clear if any kind of due process was followed to investigate these cases and if action was taken against the perpetrators. Campaigns to release Bhim Army leader Chandrashekhar Azad and in support of Rohingya refugees were solely focused on garnering missed calls and signatures from concerned citizens, instead of real impactful advocacy and activism.
Another concerning report came out in January this year as per which a Dalit woman was sexually harassed repeatedly by her manager. However, Amnesty dragged its foot on her complaint and the Internal Complaints Committee botched up the case in several ways, even breaching her privacy and being unresponsive to her questions and concerns. While the organisation did eventually fire him, the harasser continued to trouble her and tried to pressurise her into withdrawing the complaint. The survivor did not get much support from Amnesty and was laid off by them soon after, ostensibly due to a fund crunch.
This toxic work culture isn’t limited to India. A recent review into the work environment at Amnesty’s international secretariat in London found that bullying, public humiliation, discrimination and, other abuses of power are commonplace within the organisation. This external investigation was conducted after two employees committed suicide last year, one of which was directly attributed to stress and overwork.
MeToo is yet to hit the Indian development sector even though stories of sexual predators abound. One testimony published last year is about Mazher Hussain, a well-known name in this field and the founder of COVA, who sexually assaulted another senior activist during a flight. To no one’s surprise, he continues to enjoy the many perks and privileges that come with being a ‘respected’ name in this sector.
Such cases are not a rarity though. Last year, a survivor came forward about her ordeal when she was working with Centre for Health and Social Justice (CHSJ) in 2011. Repeatedly bullied and harassed by Abhijit Das, Satish Singh, and Subash Mendharpukar, she had to ultimately leave the organisation.
In 2000, a sexual harassment case was lodged against Rajeev Dhavan, a Supreme Court advocate, director at Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre (PILSARC), and a reputed name in progressive, activist circles. The survivor was constantly shut down by powers-that-be at PILSARC, the due process followed was a fig leaf to exonerate the harasser, and she was ultimately denied any semblance of justice. After being subjected to vicious slandering by the perpetrator and his powerful allies, the survivor was also asked to not go public with the case by several people for the greater good of his NGO. In other words, violence against a woman is justified so long as the abuser is apparently helping some other woman. Sexual harassment here mutates into a perverted charade where one terrible act is cancelled out by the existence of a not-so-terrible one.
The spectre of casteism
Caste discrimination within NGOs has been documented through testimonies such as this one by Cynthia Stephen, highlighting the skewed hierarchies within such organisations where upper-caste men (and sometimes women) dominate senior positions while Dalits and Adivasis are relegated to doing the actual fieldwork. Sexual harassment against such marginalised women is also rampant but victims rarely come forward because of the additional burden of their social locations, not to mention the fact that victims are rarely given the support when they, against all odds, do speak out.
This study by Karthik Navayan found that of the 34 development agencies covered, only 2 provided information to queries – through the RTI Act – on their internal social diversity. Most didn’t respond or evaded the question by stating that NGOs weren’t covered under RTI. The two organisations that did respond, PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) and National Foundation of India, gave data on gender diversity but not caste and the positions held by employees.
Save The Children’s pretext was the Indian version of the ‘I don’t see colour’ non-excuse – since they have an inclusive policy, they apparently do not ask for caste or religious details from potential recruits. But the fact of the matter is that it is not difficult to find out such specifics from the person’s surname and not soliciting information doesn’t mean that the person will not face discrimination within the workplace on the basis of their identity. Action Aid India’s social diversity breakup is quite telling– upper-caste Hindus make up 55 per cent of its employees.
Diversity (or lack of it) issues
That the development sector suffers from a chronic, and hypocritical, lack of diversity is an open secret. The development glass ceiling is well established: a 2015 report by Dasra, a philanthropy foundation, reveals that across 328 non-profits, about 53 per cent of employees are women but only 34 per cent are in managerial positions. Besides, 13 of the 74 organisations headed by men had no women on their board. Gender disparity is seen between organisations led by women and those led by men. In the former, 75 per cent of female employees have managerial roles, whereas the number is 15 per cent for men-led organisations.
Caste and religion continue to be huge blindspots with a severe lack of representation, not only in the higher echelons of power but also in the employee mix. Preaching inclusivity and diversity to others when there’s no effort on their own part to correct such obvious wrongs is quite rich. That casteism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc., are real issues in Indian society is certainly not news to such organisations. Why, then, has there been no concerted initiative to reflect society’s unique, diverse demographics in their own organisational makeup? It’s not just a to-do, it should be the natural order of things, especially for those that consider themselves to be a part of civil society. The key word here is ‘society’, not some twisted hegemonic idea of a male, Brahmanical supremacy.
In these times of increased privatisation and withdrawal of state from the basic services of healthcare and education, NGOs often prove to be a lifeline for some of the country’s most vulnerable populace. At the same time, it cannot be denied that the sector is plagued with several issues pertaining to lack of accountability and transparency in operations, low salary and benefits, precarious nature of work in the form of contracts, unsafe and exploitative work conditions, unethical labour practices such as indiscriminate firing, and blatant discrimination against minorities and marginalised groups.
Like most organisations, NGOs also operate as an exclusive club, where members routinely engage in gatekeeping against new entrants to ensure that their power and privileges remain intact. Instead of attempting to elide the skewed, existing dynamics of the society where they are located, they merely reflect it, reproducing the same composition of hierarchies that is a normalised feature of an unequal nation.
In his book NGOs in India: The challenges of women’s empowerment and accountability, Patrick Kilby identifies four types of NGO accountability: towards donors, the state, recipients, and its values. Perhaps a fifth one needs to be added: accountability towards the universal values of fairness and equality. Because, right now, there seems to be an overwhelming gap between what NGOs preach to the world and what they practise within their hallowed domains.
Correcting such wrongs is not rocket science – the minimum is to follow existing laws such as the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace, not just in letter but in spirit as well. Then there are the internal systems and mechanisms that need to be firmly in place to ensure that ‘merit’ isn’t used to gloss over the systematic exclusion of people from historically oppressed groups. Diversity isn’t something that one does to get good press and social media accolades; it is merely reflecting how our world is. And when discrimination does occur, redressal mechanisms should be fair and robust, sensitive to the needs of the victims, and cognisant of how power dynamics work in the real world.
Like corporations, NGOs should disclose the number of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination cases and list out the verdicts and actions taken. Employee breakup by gender, caste, religion, location, etc., as well as details of board members should be voluntarily published regularly.
Equally important is to foster a workplace culture where social and economic differences are recognised and used as a guiding principle to ensure a safe working environment for all. Of course, cultivating and sustaining such a culture isn’t easy. But it is necessary. Unless NGOs are content to have two sets of rules, one for themselves that gives them a free pass for their oversights and glaring mistakes, and another for the rest of the world. Having women and queer and disabled individuals in leadership and managerial positions will be a good start. There is no reason why upper-caste men need to dominate the organisational structures unless one believes that they are inherently better than everyone else.
NGOs have always claimed to change lives for the better; it’s time they take stock of their own internal flaws, walk the talk, and effect some much-needed change for themselves.