Indian NGOs - The Marketing Debate


Increasingly, NGOs are drawing on marketing techniques, such as paid advertising, branding, celebrity endorsement programmes, and audience profiling, to project their messages and to attempt to influence policy. Whilst this trend has been widely accepted in countries like the United States and the UK, many Indian NGOs engaged in advocacy work are, on the basis of political ideology, questioning its suitability in India.

To gain some insight into this debate, I asked the interns from the National Centre for Advocacy Studies—an advocacy training and resource centre based in Pune, India—for their opinions. Below I have articulated their viewpoints, and I will now leave it in the hands of individual readers to decide which side they support.

In opposition to marketing in the NGO sector

In 1976, the government of India incorporated the word “socialist” into the preamble of the constitution. This was done to reflect the significant role that the people of India played in gaining independence from British rule, and to ensure the continuation of citizen participation and the protection of their rights in the development of modern India. But in recent years, the government has been failing to sustain its socialist promises by allowing consumerist and capitalist forces to take the lead role in India’s economic development.

For example, at present in eastern India, hundreds of people belonging to one indigenous community are under threat of displacement due to proposed expansion of an alumina refinery and plans for a new bauxite mining project by UK-based company Vedanta Resources. This indigenous community has already suffered from human rights violations—especially to water and health—as a result of significant pollution and poor management of waste produced by the refinery currently in the area. In spite of these concerns—which have been raised by prominent human rights groups such as Amnesty International—the Indian government has continued to approve plans to allow the refinery to expand its capacity six-fold. This is just one example of the type of privatisation activity that is being permitted across India—a case of the Indian government prioritising economic gain over and above the protection of its citizens.

It is the responsibility of NGOs to hold the government to account for facilitating this type of development and fundamentally, for failing to uphold its socialist promises. But marketing is not an appropriate way to do this in India, say some with whom I spoke. Many people in India consider marketing and capitalism to be two sides of the same coin. Advertising, the media, and celebrity culture have powerful associations with private corporations, such as PepsiCo and Tata—the very corporations which are adversely affecting the lives of thousands of citizens across the country in a ways much like the Vedanta Resources example. By endorsing marketing tactics, NGOs will be seen as embracing capitalist tendencies, and therefore contradicting the socialist ethos they are striving to sustain. Already, NGOs in India are suffering from public criticism—embracing marketing will only intensify this, and will throw the future of the sector into question.

Furthermore, in India, NGOs have a long history of working with common people, educating them about their rights and encouraging them to fight for their recognition. With a population of 1.2 billion, this is the only way that positive and sustainable change will happen in the country. If NGOs go down the marketing path, they will lose contact with the grassroots in favour of formulating strategies and campaigns which are geared towards the country’s middle classes. NGOs should stick to their roots and do what they do best—focus on empowering the disenfranchised, and encourage mass mobilization to hold the government to account.

In sum, marketing may indeed work for NGOs in capitalist and consumer-driven countries like the UK and the U.S., but it is not suitable for a country like India, where people are fighting to bring back the socialist ideology which they have been promised.

In favour of marketing in the NGO sector

Whilst it is vital that NGOs seek to represent the interests of the common people in India, their role is to facilitate change and produce outcomes. If they are to stand any chance of success when advocating the government about the power of private enterprise, they must embrace marketing tactics. If they do not, they are engaging in a lost battle. So say others in my informal polling at NCAS.

It is widely accepted that NGOs in India are suffering from a crisis in confidence amongst the general public. This trend can largely be attributed to the fact that the sector is viewed as operating in an unprofessional manner and is largely unaccountable to anyone. But if Indian NGOs are to be effective in advocacy, they must strive to obtain public credibility, to ensure that policymakers and private leaders are forced to listen to the position of the common people. To achieve this, NGOs make a concerted effort to act more professionally and show consistency in their work. Marketing techniques such as advertising and branding are clear strategies through which they can achieve this.

The sector is also having difficulties engaging the country’s youth in taking an active interest in social issues. This is a big problem, and it raises fundamental questions about the sustainability of many NGOs, and about the futures of the marginalized groups they are working for. Marketing techniques, such as magazine advertising and celebrity endorsement programmes, if endorsed by NGOs, will help to draw the attention of India’s young middle classes, and encourage them to become more engaged and socially aware.

Although many NGO workers in India are against marketing due to its links with capitalism, they are being too idealistic—it is futile to cling on to an ideology which is clearly disappearing. These NGOs must ask themselves: is it more important to hold the government accountable for failing to uphold its constitutional commitments, or is it more important to address the reality on the ground? By refusing to go down the marketing route, NGOs are becoming increasingly disengaged from the rest of Indian society, and further marginalizing the people that they are claiming to be working for.

What does the audience think?