The Financial Express, August 3, 2010

After Indian companies, it’s the turn of desi NGOs to go multinational. While The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and CUTS International have set up affiliate organisations in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America to present the perspective of developing countries to developed countries and foster south-south cooperation, Pratham’s US and UK affiliate charities are dedicated to raise funds from local communities to finance education of poor children in India. Similarly, while PRIA (Society for Participatory Research in Asia) operates from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka for training and capacity building of local people, Barefoot College invites poor women from Africa, train them to become solar engineers and usher in a change back home.

Says TERI director-general RK Pachauri: “We forayed abroad to highlight the perspective of developing countries on pressing issues like energy and environment.” TERI’s presence from Japan, Malaysia and the Gulf to North America and Europe helps the NGO to work at the ground level at these locations. Set up in 1974, TERI with its 700 employees engages in research in energy, environment, forestry, biote-chnology and the conservation of natural resources and consults with governments, institutions and companies across the world.

Similarly, CUTS International (Consumer Unity & Trust Society), which was set up in 1983 as a rural development communication initiative in a garage in Jaipur, Rajasthan to bring out a wall newspaper, Gram Gadar, now has centres all over the world at locations like Hanoi, Lusaka, Nairobi, Geneva and London.

Says founder and secretary-general Pradeep S Mehta, who went to Scindia School in Gwalior and St Xavier’s College in Kolkata before graduating in law from Rajasthan University: “We opened affiliate oragnisations in Africa at the request of civil society organisations there to spread pro-trade and pro-development message. It’s good for south-south cooperation.” CUTS has of 100 full-time staff and 300 volunteers.

Their reasons why NGOs venture abroad are diverse. Pratham USA and Pratham UK are focussed on raising funds to help Pratham offer quality education to poor children in India. Pratham’s campaign Read India reached 33 million children in 19 states in 2008-2009. Says eminent educationist Madhav Chavan, who taught at Houston and Mumbai universities before co-founding Pratham in Mumbai in 1994: “Our presence abroad helps us raise funds for our work in India.”

Having an overseas affiliate alone does not always help, but it lays the foundation for seeking funds in a legitimate and transparent way.And when your board of directors boasts of the who’s who of the corporate sector like Ajay Piramal, Narayanan Vaghul, Mukesh Ambani, Rajat Gupta, Kumar Mangalam Birla and Gunit Chadha, fund-raising for a cause like education is less difficult.

Fund-raising is the primary reason behind the overseas ventures of Tilonia, Rajasthan-based Barefoot College too, also known as Social Work and Research Centre. Referring to US-based NGO, Friends of Tilonia, founder and director Sanjit Bunker Roy, an alumnus of Doon School and St Stephen’s College in Delhi, says: “Friends of Tilonia is more an online platform. It helps us in fund raising by promoting the sale of goods produced by rural artisans at the Barefoot College.”

Barefoot College works in solar energy, water, education, healthcare, rural handicraft, communication, women’s empowerment and wasteland development.

With financial help from Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme, the college trains women even from Africa, Latin America and other Asian countries to become barefoot solar engineers. Roy’s Barefoot College has come a long way since it was set up in 1972 on 45 acres and an abandoned tuberculosis sanatorium procured from the government on a lease of Re 1.

Set up in 1982, PRIA focusses on participatory research, citizen-centric development, capacity building, knowledge building and policy advocacy. The NGO operates from Afghanistan to Cambodia, working with partners to undertake training, research and consultancy work. Interestingly, its website spots translation icons of Arabic, Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese and German.

Says founder and president Rajesh Tandon, an alumnus of IIT-Kanpur and IIM-Calcutta: “An Indian NGO working abroad though its affiliate organisation or foreign partners is still an exception and not the rule. The government should create an enabling environment for Indian NGOs to go abroad and work.”

He adds that the government could, for example, invite NGOs more often to join foreign delegations the way foreign governments do. There is usually government-government partnership and industry-industry partnership, but no NGO-NGO partnership.

It could be helpful from people’s point of view, particularly in situations like the one prevailing in Afghanistan. May be it’s time for Indian diplomacy to acquire a non-governmental edge, too, for itself, if not for NGOs

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