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Autopoises for the bleeding heart(s)

Ashok Khosla
Voluntary effort and non governmental action has a long and quite illustrious history in India. It provided a large part
of the impetus for the freedom struggle and the independence movement throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Its roots, of course, go much further back in history.

Indeed, the formal systems of government introduced by the Moghuls and later refined by the British were relatively
isolated phenomena in the history of India. A large part of the sub-continent’s social and political activity was based
for much of its history on more informal, community-based or religion-based organizations. The Golden Ages were
always periods when people counted, and their institutions flourished.

It is difficult to imagine that the five decades since national independence are seen by people in our country, other
than a very few privileged ones, as a Golden Age. Their count has certainly gone up, but neither they nor their
institutions have been able to influence the course of their own lives in any significant way.

NGOs (independent sector, people’s sector or civil society organizations) in India have tried to play their role in
development activity. Their inputs have ranged from national level policy inputs (by “think tanks”) to actual action on
the ground (by “grassroots agencies”). The spectrum of activities between these two extremes is covered by
thousands of civil society initiatives, some working in large metropolitan cities and others working in the remotest rural
community. But very few have received the kind of support from the formal sector that they needed or deserved, and
even fewer have been able to make much of a difference, except perhaps at the local level.

The non-governmental sector has been marginalized for many reasons. Those who have success to power, money,
status from the existing systems of governance will not easily give it up. They are even less inclined to permit others
to undermine this access by demonstrating more effective methods to achieve results. Thus, current intellectual and
political paradigms tend to invest primary legitimacy to the agencies of formal government, no matter how
incompetent, unproductive or corrupt they may be.

And, of course, the independent sector itself cannot deny its own share of the blame. As for any other sector, there
are good organisations in the independent sector, and not so good ones. Whatever their motivations, they have not
thus far been able to establish the kinds of financing systems that would give them the independence they need to
implement their self-reliant theories. Worse, they have shown little inclination to set up the systems of quality control,
accountability and self-regulation without which no sector (other than government) can for long be taken seriously.

The concept of sustainable development is particularly relevant for NGO action. By the nature of their work and
approach, independent organizations tend to have a holistic and largely cross sectoral view of the world. While they
are often deeply concerned with the immediate survival issues, many of them have a strong inclination also to take
the longer view. They tend to have broader social, environmental and economic attitudes, all of which are in
consonance with the requirement of a form of development that can be sustained. If there is one fundamental
principle guiding the thought and work of the independent sector, it is the need to promote self-organizing systems.
Whether at the local/community level or at the national/sectoral level, self-organizing, self-regulating systems are the
primary salvation for a society now encrusted everywhere with formal and externally imposed rules and regulations.

As the major champion of self-organization, the independent sector acquires the responsibility of applying this basic
principle to its own affairs. The cybernetic concept of autopoietic systems provides a solid starting point for further
work in this are. But even before the theory of self-organization is worked out in greater detail, the community of
independent sector organisations can immediately benefit from the latent power of their collective capacities.

The independent sector now needs urgently to establish its own mechanisms for ensuring the responsibility and
accountability of its actions. Consortia and networks are meaningless unless they are designed for the larger
community interest, and must not be allowed to be hijacked, as so many of our institutions are, for the good of a few,
or for the cult of a personality.