Argument

Western Accolades Are Egging Autocrats On

The Gates Foundation is giving an award to Narendra Modi. That's a big mistake.

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi gives a speech at the Kevadia Colony of Narmada District in India on Sept. 17.
Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi gives a speech at the Kevadia Colony of Narmada District in India on Sept. 17. Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

On Sept. 2, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced that it was honoring India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his efforts to build toilets and end open defecation in the country. The move has already drawn controversy from inside the foundation—but the leadership is pushing ahead anyway, preparing for the ceremony in New York next week.

The opponents of the award are right. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the idea behind Swachh Bharat (Clean India), Modi’s flagship project, itself. Open defecation is a serious problem: In 2015 it was estimated that 522 million Indians—over a third of the country—still defecated outside. Sanitation often gets left behind in the endless search for funds, but improving health starts with the availability of running water and a toilet—such as the 92 million toilets the project has installed.

But rewarding the Indian government as it slips deeper into despotism is a mistake—and one that points to bigger problems in the way the West characterizes and rewards development work.

For one, much of the approach to development remains at best technical interventions, lacking a deeper systemic approach to social change. The fawning over developmental data to vindicate authoritarianism has been a recurring theme over the past two decades, especially as Western developmental work has grown increasingly “regime agnostic.”

The rise of the Chinese and Indian models of development are routinely cited because of their supposed ability to circumvent lengthy democratic processes and get the job done.

As a result, dignity is awarded by benefactor’s checkbooks,  not the needs of the public. And authoritarians are seen through the lens of their ability to meet developmental targets and not through conventional indices of governance or access to civil liberties and expression.

In so doing, people are reduced to numbers, their quality of life is measured by its proximity to agreed-upon targets. These habits are paternalistic and selfish. They are also immensely condescending to the difficulties faced by local activists and movements on the ground working to address the challenges of their environment. When activists talk about intersectionality and internationalism, they ask their allies to consider their needs, and to not thwart their efforts by imposing outside goals and agendas of exactly the kind that this award prioritizes.

There’s also the very peculiar practice of giving awards to leaders from the developing world so that the group that gives the prize has more space to operate in that country.

The lack of oversight emboldens corruption and a lack of accountability and transparency all around. And the prioritization of leaders over the public means that even if an organization like the Gates Foundation believes it is embarking on the right course of action, the access purchased by such awards removes the organization’s need for accountability at the grassroots, where the real nitty-gritty of this work is done and hard questions could be asked.

Not only it is difficult to see these awards as anything other providing a stamp of approval for authoritarians, it also establishes development as fundamentally top-down.

And these are especially critical times to be playing these games in India.

It’s been a month and a half since Modi’s government laid siege to the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir, where India has long contended against both Kashmiris demanding self-determination and Pakistani interference.

Not only did India unilaterally revoke Article 370, ending the semi-autonomy of the state, it also blacked out communications and travel for 8 million people, arrested 3,000 people, including children, and has severely restricted reporting.

To circumvent the details of these increasingly illiberal policies, Modi has obsessed over his image and controlling the message. Not only is the media being heavily censored, the government also routinely restricts access to official events as well as labeling any content deemed as unfriendly or critical as “anti-national.”

Modi’s award is partially born out of the success of an immensely powerful PR campaign that his party and his government have embarked on over the past decade. He has been able to build a populist narrative around the need for strong, decisive leadership despite the immense failures of his economic policies.

Earlier this year, Modi even received the first Philip Kotler Presidential Award for having “improved his country’s image and visibility on the global stage,” a prize an Indian news site alleged was coordinated by a “state-owned Saudi firm eager to expand its footprint in India.”

This is the story of Modi’s India. And Gates is playing right into it.

And to top it all off, there’s the awkward point that Modi’s success with Swachh Bharat is not so clear, too. Though some statistics show the act of open defecation has reduced, ample reports show that this was thanks to coercion and fines—an approach that works only in the short term.

Other reports showed that toilets were often not connected to running water, which created new headaches for villagers.

One study published earlier this year found that in four states, almost 25 percent of people in houses with toilets still defecate in the open.

Perhaps that’s a metaphor for Modi’s plans for the country as a whole. The orders come from the top. People obey out of fear. And everyone ends up in the shit anyway.

Azad Essa is a journalist based in New York City.

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