NGOs in India: The Challenges of Women's Empowerment and Accountability

Monica Thiel (Tilburg University, Tilburg, Netherlands,

South Asian Journal of Global Business Research

ISSN: 2045-4457

Article publication date: 1 March 2013




Thiel, M. (2013), "NGOs in India: The Challenges of Women's Empowerment and Accountability", South Asian Journal of Global Business Research, Vol. 2 No. 1, pp. 149-152.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Non‐governmental organizations (NGO) activity in India has a rich history of balancing NGO identity and focus with the state government. Over the past 30 years, NGOs have focussed on self‐help groups (SHGs) for women's empowerment in outreach for local development work. In his book, NGOs in India: The Challenges of Women's Empowerment and Accountability, Patrick Kilby describes how NGOs in India can obtain greater empowerment and accountability for women and other marginalized groups.

Patrick Kilby is a political scientist with the School of Archaeology and Anthropology in the College of Arts and Social Sciences at the Australian National University. In this book, Kilby draws on his expertise in socio‐economic development in Asia. His data findings on case studies of 15 NGOs and in‐depth interviews with 80 women's SHGs demonstrate greater empowerment and accountability strategies; not only for NGOs in India, but also for organizations and business leaders seeking to promote greater economic development in South Asia and abroad.

The topics of accountability and empowerment play a central role in how NGOs demonstrate advancing the interests of the poor and socially disadvantaged. NGOs operating in rural areas concentrate on gender and poverty microfinance models for community intervention. Kilby provides a useful analysis to improve economic and social situations of the poor and other marginalized groups. Individual and collective theories of empowerment play a critical role between individuals obtaining resources and self‐transformation. Statistical measurement of women's empowerment through perceptions, variables and causal factors are discussed to reveal how women moved from the household to participation in social, economic and political domains within the local community.

Selected studies of NGO case studies reveal financial struggles, institutional defeats and dependence upon donor funding for social and economic empowerment of women and children in SHGs such as the Karnataka Integrated Development Service, Chaitanya Institute for Youth and Rural Development and India Development Service. In addition, the India Development Service encountered many challenges with government funding due to decreased program support for the poor along with various employee pay rates based upon government program requirements. The Pune Waste Pickers Program demonstrated successful measures to move away from small donor programs to investment funds. This provided women with a role in the empowerment process. “It had given them agency and enabled them to be able to negotiate with police and officials and make decisions around the work of the Union” (p. 91). Despite decreasing donor support and rapid economic development, each NGO case study highlights various strategies to sustain program funding. For example, the Reorganization of Rural Economy and Society expanded commercial operations for core support, Mysore Relief and Development Association reestablished local operations to obtain greater access for state resources, Grama Vikas developed long‐term donor support and the Chaitanya Institute for Youth and Rural Development created microfinance operations.

Kilby addresses the challenge of empowerment and its correlation within power relations and individual and collective theories of empowerment. Empowerment can only be analyzed through the lens of disempowerment. Empowerment is located within relationships and cannot be managed as a service unless empowerment is engaged and actively reciprocated within the relationships of the local community and the NGO. The author proposes that empowerment and accountability will remain key issues in the future and it provides guidelines on how “empowerment work can be strengthened and advanced” (p. 137).

Kilby provides a framework for identifying empowerment based upon interview responses. His data findings reveal that empowerment is “more about access to choices and decision‐making that poor women have in both their household and community life” (p. 138). Therefore, development practice should include community psychology as a tool to foster “a much wider range of social and political domains in their family and community lives” (p. 138). Kilby acknowledges limitations of the study in that it did not depict how the women view the caste system or other dependent relationships. However, the study provides useful information of how women view themselves in their local community and with their families.

The book addresses NGO structural limitations. For example, the NGOs did not have “formal mechanisms for accountability to the aid recipients” (p. 103). Most NGOs from the study revealed that giving power to the women is “difficult and unusual” (p. 112). The NGOs did not see “accountability to aid recipients as ‘part of an empowering process’ and the NGOs perception of empowerment was disconnected from the aid recipients’ perception of empowerment” (p. 145).

The marginalization of women is formed in the home. However, NGOs avoid household relationships in their strategies and outreach approaches. The NGOs brought resources into the households of marginalized women for empowerment without changing the household relationships that sustain marginalization of women. Therefore, the focus of NGOs is on resource access for social change without household relations change. “Strengthening of capacities is of course, crucial to the liberation of the oppressed. But is it possible to achieve that without removing the structural constraints on their capacities?” (Mohany, 1995). According to Kilby, household relations change is a vital and a necessary component for social change because the marginalized in rural India are included in economic development, but are excluded from social and political engagement in the household and in society. The SHGs effected change in the recipients’ social relationships. The recipients received greater social control in their families and local communities. The results of SHGs in NGOs found that women were able to engage with others in society because they were able to wash twice a day and change clothes so they would not have the appearance of dirty waste pickers. Although the women were dependent upon a more educated person in the group to keep records and other administrative tasks, confidence and self‐awareness developed.

The book's findings reveal a greater need for “clear processes of accountability” (p. 141) in that the recipient could end the relationship with the NGO and there were no options for the recipients other than “moral suasion” (p. 106). The aid recipients did not demand accountability from the NGOs. Therefore, the NGOs established and practiced accountability apart from the aid recipients. Most, if not all NGOs, see themselves as promoting community interests. However, there is no accountability held up to NGOs by its recipients. For example, Kilby discusses how this lack of accountability is driven by a “values system” instead of representing the representative constituency (p. 20). Most NGOs concentrate on accountability to their values, but lack “explicit mechanisms for being accountable to their values” (p. 133). Moreover, NGOs mediate between citizen and state and are based on the values of the social and historical setting coupled with the Indian State Government that determines the scope and nature of the work of development NGOs can undertake. Furthermore, funding requirements changed the outreach and recipient aid strategies of NGOs because NGOs in India face accountability to donor pressure and the state and not from the aid recipients.

The author's findings “support the argument that empowerment is primarily a social and psychological phenomenon and is related to access to social resources and power, involving complex interrelationships between the personal and collective domains of women's lives” (p. 109). Empowerment is about the expansion of personal agency with access to resources “less of an outcome of empowerment” (p. 139). According to Kilby, the women identified greater with the “social resource in the form of the support from the SHG to which they belonged” (p. 139). Thus, empowerment is found within a social climate and not in resources.

The book addresses the ideas of empowerment within a sociological and psychological framework to increase self‐help and self‐esteem changes of aid recipients’ lives that lead to social change. This framework does not fully capture the aid recipients’ consequences of social change and how the other actors change as the recipients change. Social relations previously deemed improper invites societal change without control or inclusion from the aid recipient. Kilby argues that greater levels of empowerment cannot occur without aid recipients involved in the accountability decision‐making process. Nevertheless, if NGOs and business leaders give power to the aid recipients this may expand risk management. Thus, NGOs and business leaders should learn how to manage meeting the needs for the public while addressing the needs of the recipient groups.

Three key findings of the book indicate that greater formal accountability mechanisms “inform the agency's strategic direction, as well as its project work” increased empowerment performance (p. 142). Second, “empowerment is strongly identified with personal agency” (p. 142). Third, empowerment and accountability are ineffective without incorporation of the social climate. Kilby encourages the reader to address and include social marginalization within economic development practice for greater recipient awareness of “important determinants of sustainability of the empowerment for the members of the SHGs” (Balasubramaniam and Barani, 2012). The author generates critical knowledge to the development field of NGOs and business leaders engaged in economic development with the marginalized and poor in that economic development should include social development with the recipients’ active engagement for effective accountability and empowerment. Highlights of the book include empowerment and accountability within organizational values and community psychology theories and practices within a local and historical context for NGO microfinance and SHGs. The author utilizes a broad analysis within a large data set instead of a few case studies for breadth of changes across communities and groups. However, there is a lack of greater discussion concerning other key community members engaged with NGOs and their role in empowerment and accountability for women. The limitations of the research study framework do not include other key actors and the author focusses on poor women and not women across castes and income levels.

The book's findings specifically address the need for “accountability as an alternative discourse, not for transparency reasons” and how accountability and empowerment requires a downward shift of power for effective accountability (p. 143). The focus of funding relationships and predictable project deadlines can omit the vital social aspects of empowerment and accountability. Furthermore, development practice is not effective without social development.

NGOs and business leaders should provide a more flexible approach that permits the inclusion of formal social relationships, which aid recipients for greater accountability and empowerment. NGO resources for social change, accountability and empowerment without social development will not empower the marginalized and poor.

This book is valuable and reasonably priced due to its approach and data findings that address how social relations, power, accountability and empowerment impacts development and business practices in India and abroad. Overall, the book creates a new approach for NGOs and business leaders engaged in development practice including academics, students and practitioners of subjects and disciplines such as Gender Studies, Management and Leadership Studies, South Asia Studies, Community Development Studies and International Development Organizations.

About the reviewer

Monica Thiel is a doctoral candidate in Social Sciences at Tilburg University, The Netherlands. Her research interests include sustainability, corporate social responsibility and social construction. She received her M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary, USA.


Balasubramaniam, R. and Barani, G. (2012), “The impact of self help groups on the empowerment appraisal of poor employees in Tamilnadu, India – an analytical study”, European Journal of Social Sciences, Vol. 31 No. 2, pp. 24150.

Mohany, M. (1995), “On the concept of empowerment”, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 30 No. 24, pp. 14346.

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