A week after the Modi administration added a layer of scrutiny to grants the Ford Foundation disburses to Indian organisations, it has now cancelled the licences of 8,975 non-government organisations for not filing annual returns declaring their foreign funding.

It turns out that the Indian government itself has been an indirect recipient of some of this funding.

From 2010 to 2014, the Ford Foundation has distributed $50 million to organisations in India. A little over $6 million of this, or around 13% of its entire funds, has gone to at least 25 non-profits working to implement government programmes, according to the list of beneficiaries available on the foundation's website. These programmes include key initiatives of the Ministry of Rural Development such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Ministry of Women and Child Development's Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls.

After it was started in 1936, the Ford Foundation philanthropy was for several decades among the most significant funding organisations in the world. In India too, it has been a formidable funder, even contributing to the Green Revolution in the 1960s that played a vital role in helping the country become self-sufficient in food. But over time, the foundation has been contributing smaller amounts to fewer organisations. The government itself is now only rarely a direct recipient of its grants.

Targetting Setalvad

The latest controversy began on April 15, when the Gujarat government, while examining the financial records of activist Teesta Setalvad, claimed in a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs that the Ford Foundation had been sponsoring anti-national activities and should be scrutinised.

“It is revealed during the course of investigation that Ford Foundation, established with the stated goal of promoting communal harmony, democratic principles and social justice, has been indulging in covert activities of promoting interests that are completely contradictory to the said goals,” said the letter, which appears to have been leaked to a television channel.

On Thursday, the Modi government requested the Reserve Bank of India to put transfers from the Ford Foundation to Indian organisations on its watch list. Apart from being cleared by the Department of Economic Affairs in the finance ministry, the Ministry of Home Affairs will now have to scrutinise each grant and see whether these might be used for anti-national activities.

Ford emphasises that it has no intention of political funding.

"We wish to affirm that the foundation does not fund political parties," it said in an email statement. "The foundation does, however, work with a range of other entities, including non-governmental organisations, government and quasi-government entities, universities, and for-profit entities, depending on the needs of the particular work involved.  This includes engaging for-profit entities to provide services to the foundation and its grantee communities."

Recent examples include, it said, a contract to provide professional services to farmers in rain-dependent states on how to improve the marketing and sale of their agricultural produce, and another to increase internet connectivity for poor rural and urban communities.

A look at the beneficiaries 

So what exactly has the Foundation funded with its $50 million in India?

The Foundation has a few broad categories for grants, including health and sexuality, deepening media access, and increasing community access to livelihood and resources.

Almost half of the 206 grant recipients in India between 2010 and 2014 are non-governmental organisations receiving funds for the normal course of their work – training, expanding projects and establishing new ones. These received 38% of the funds.

Nine grants cornered 13% of the total funds disbursed in the last five years. These were for organisations such as the National Foundation for India and the South Asian Women’s Fund that will in turn distribute grants to others working on specific projects in India. Meanwhile, 22 foreign organisations got 12.4% of these funds.

Around 25 non-profits working on government schemes got 12.7%.

The smallest grant in this period is $15,000 to an organisation that arranges for mobile crèches for the children of construction workers in Delhi. The two largest, $1.4 million each in 2011 and 2013, are both to Stichting and Hivos, international humanitarian organisations that will in turn were to make grants to promote rainfed agriculture in India.

Unlike its early days, the Foundation does not seem to have funded the government directly very often in the recent past. When it does, these grants tend to be small.

In 2013, for instance, it granted the Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatan a sum of $75,000 “for implementing a ‘safe district’ model through programmes that increase police and legal responsiveness and spread awareness among elected representatives on gender-based violence”. The organisation is an initiative of the Gujarat State Horticulture Development Corporation, the Gujarat Women and Child Development Department and an independent non-profit, Janvikas.

Eleven years earlier, in 2002, another Gujarat state organisation, Gujarat Ecological Educational and Research Foundation, received $122,000 to expand its joint forest management programme,  when Narendra Modi, who was then chief minister, was its de facto head.

Filling governance gaps

It is not clear yet whether organisations working on government schemes will be affected by the new regulations.

Recipients of Ford's grants include Professional Assistance for Development Action, better known as PRADAN, which has worked closely with the government for much of its 30 years of existence. In August 2013, it signed a two-year memorandum of understanding with the central government for training officers working for the National Rural Livelihoods Mission.

This service will come for free for the government and any state governments that want to work with them as the Ford Foundation has given $590,000 to PRADAN for a period of four years to create a resource centre for the mission.

Vanangana, a non-profit that received $310,000 from Ford in 2010, is another. It worked with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme in Uttar Pradesh, where in collaboration with the local government, it adopted 30 villages in a block and helped increase participation of women in the scheme from 4% to even around 80% in some villages.

“We used the funds to campaign for people to come and use the scheme as it was new at the time,” said Madhavi Kuckreja, a founder member of the organisation. “We had to explain to them that this was a rights-based law and that people had a right to livelihood. Where does the government have the time to do all this? They [promote NREGA] on walls, but this is a marginal part of how mindsets change.”

In PRADAN’s case, Ford Foundation has paid only for the salaries and maintenance costs of a team of four people who will travel across states and work with government officials in charge of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission to implement the scheme in the manner most suitable for that area.

“This is just training support for the Livelihood Mission,” said D Narendranath, a programme officer on this team. “We will not do work on the government’s behalf. They have staff and we train them in the states where we have field programmes. That is the condition under which Ford Foundation gave us funding.”

The foundation has also granted substantially to organisations working on the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls and the Society for Self Employment of Unemployed Youth in individual states such as Rajasthan and West Bengal.

No overt agenda

Organisations that have received funding from Ford claim that it is among the least intrusive of all their funders and does not influence their work after having given them funds.

"In our experience of receiving grants from Ford Foundation, it is one of the few funders today to support the work and vision of the organisation rather than pushing its own agenda on them,” Kuckreja said. “Today many funders see community-based organisations as mere implementers of their targets, and not in the beneficiary mode of development. The Foundation is not in a steering position with donors.”

Narendranath concurred.

“PRADAN has been in touch with the Ford Foundation for last 30 years and it is the most non-intrusive of these,” he said. “The foundation is not a huge funder. They don’t have too much money, so they support strategically so that they have more impact. This is a very unfair enquiry.”

The foundation on its part has said that it has not heard from the government and when it does, it will take prompt action.

"If the government suggests methods by which we can strengthen and improve our grant-making processes, we will take swift and appropriate steps to incorporate them," it said. "We are confident in our work and compliance with law and look forward to a constructive outcome. Most importantly, we appreciate the privilege of supporting the people of India and look forward to continuing to do so."