Category Archives: Community Organizing

The Indian Government’s Attack on Nonprofits

New Orleans     In recent weeks the conservative, communalist Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken steps yet again to attack nonprofits, especially those with any extensive ties to foreign donors.  Technically, these were changes in the law for those organizations registered under the FCRA, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, but they are part of a larger political agenda that had been part of Indian politics for decades and has also become a more intense attack on what remains of India’s historic commitment to a diversity of religions and freedom of political expression.

Several years ago, the highlight of the focus was the attack on Greenpeace, largely for its opposition to a giant coal-fired plant near the megacity of Chennai, but that was just the point of the spear.  Thousands of nonprofits were delisted at the same time, ostensibly for technical issues, but it was hard to disguise the pattern.  Visas were refused to many attached to nonprofits.

The new version of the FCRA is more draconian and chilling.  All organizations with an FCRA registration will now be required to establish an account at the State Bank of India through its branch in New Delhi, and all financial activity is restricted to that account, so that the government can monitor it fully.  Administrative expenses that were allowed to be 50% of the grant were dialed back to 20%, largely in an effort to restrict the level of compensation that nonprofits staff might be receiving via foreign grants.  No sub-grants from an FCRA qualified organization may be given to other organizations, including nonprofits that are properly registered in India to only accept contributions domestically, nor can there be a re-granting of money received by an FCRA nonprofit.  The new law does allow an organization to surrender their FCRA number, but the assets will be transferred to the appropriate governmental agency.  Any new staff or board members will to give their Aadhaar details, which is the 12-digit biometric number containing an Indian’s full set of demographic details, which is also chilling.

The headliner this time around has been Amnesty International, which has indicated that it is withdrawing from India because of harassment by the government.  Amnesty had tried to recast its operations as a private corporation rather than FCRA qualified, but the government blocked that path as well.  Observers in India note that in the hyper-Hindu focused BJP government much of the attack is on religious funding and affiliated organizations as well.

The fear of foreign funding isn’t new in Indian politics.  Indira Gandhi shut all such funding off when she declared martial law from 1975-1977.  In an amazing unprecedented and never repeated decision, Misereor, the funding arm of the German Catholic Bishops, granted a community organization in Kolkata the equivalent of more than twenty years funding in advance before the cutoff.  Times change.  A report from the US-based Council of Philanthropy carries the cutline:  Until new rules are released by the Indian government, current guidance from legal experts recommends that all funders cease making grants to India.

Estimates from India-based think tanks believe these actions could push 100 million Indians back into poverty.  Others express amazement that the new coalitions and inputs from donors to offset the pandemic’s effects in India will be undone.  The consensus seems to be that these actions are another step downward in India’s reputation as a secular democracy.  Certainly, the new law seems to have much in common with the actions taken and the threats perceived by authoritarian governments around the world over the danger of nonprofits to their power.


Old and New Social Movements

Pearl River     Every month in the 50th anniversary year of ACORN, I’ve been talking on the radio to veteran organizers and others with unique perspectives on the organization, its history, and contributions. Recently, I spoke to Bob Fisher, Professor of Community Organization at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work on Wade’s World.  Fisher for many years has been one of the foremost scholars and students of community organization, dating certainly to his now classic work, Let the People Decide.   He was also the editor of the 2009 book, The People Shall Rule:  ACORN, Community Organizing, and the Struggle for Economic Justice. 

            Fisher made a number of interesting observations in the course of our discussion.  The first involved the emerging differences between old and new social movements.  These differences are often stark with newer social movements having structures that are more fluid and network-based, than firmly organizational with membership and internal accountability arising from the base.   Leadership and leadership styles also tend to be looser.  Some would say that leadership is flatter and less hierarchical, but in many ways that is not the chief characteristic as much as newer movements, having less structure, allow for greater decentralization and a variety of voices to speak for the movement.  This practice contains both strengths and weaknesses that Bob and I didn’t explore in our discussion.  Social media has also emerged as a demarcation line in new and old movements, where these great communications tools often substitute for organizing itself, allowing quicker response to issues, but not necessarily the sustainability to see the issues through to win change or see victory.

Fisher was kind enough to see ACORN as a bridge between the old and new in many ways, especially ACORN’s ongoing work in Britain, France, and other countries where the classic door-to-door model is being enhanced with social media tools.  Referring to ACORN, he spoke of these tendencies as post-Alinsky, referring to Saul Alinsky, whose work from the 1950s to early 1970s, is often credited with founding modern community organizing.  In making this case, he argued that ACORN’s use of mobilization tactics, political action, ideology, and anti-racism were all elements of a post-Alinsky development in organizing, as well as the organizations flexibility in responding to issues and campaigns.

Fisher also noted that ACORN’s ability to combine models, strategies, and tactics in merging community organizing methodology with direct union work and utilization of service as a membership-building tool, rather than a raison d’etre was distinguishing.  Bob was fascinated by our increasing ability to advance the concept of ACORN as a “union in the community,” citing the fact that in Britain ACORN is called the ACORN Union, our Irish affiliate calls itself CATU, the Community and Tenants’ Union, and the ACORN union in India claims more than 50,000 members.

As part of the 50th anniversary commemoration, it was exciting to talk with Professor Fisher about the next fifty years, and not just the last fifty.