Recreating the Commons? NGOs in Bangladesh

Edited by Farida Chowdhury Khan, Ahrar Ahmad, and Munir Quddus

Editorial Preface

Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) are a global phenomenon and defined, for the purpose of this book, as a legally established private not-for-profit enterprise in a developing country that was created for a social cause, conducting its operations without any discernable governmental initiative, direction or influence. Generally they are civil society organizations that spontaneously come into existence to address specific needs in a community – they are “cause” driven as opposed to being “mandate” or “profit” driven.

NGOs have existed as indigenous self-help organizations throughout history across the globe. However, in the later part of the 20th century they have demonstrated a level of creativity, growth, and success that was largely unexpected by most development experts. Many have been pleasantly surprised at the inventiveness and successes of NGOs and generally these organizations have received wide support from the society. Many NGOs are involved in disaster relief or charitable work but most are engaged in “capacity building” or supplying services that are complementary to public provisions of health, education, advocacy, financial services and employment generation. NGOs are seen as organizations that transform the social space into one that is more democratic, harnessing a voice for marginalized and excluded groups, and empowering those that are the weak and vulnerable in national politics, economics, and culture.

All NGOs work closely with established institutions in the public and private sector, foreign governments, and international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. They can, however, be differentiated into international or local NGOs. Amnesty International is one of the best-known international NGOs in the arena of human rights with a global presence whose work has earned the organization worldwide admiration and even a Nobel peace prize. Transparency International is another example of an NGO dedicated to increasing awareness of corruption and malfeasance around the world. Some of the largest and best known local NGOs are located in Bangladesh. Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), Grameen Bank, Proshika, Nijera Kori, and Association of Social Advancement (ASA) are the five largest NGOs accounting for the majority of activity within the country (DFID, 2000). Although local NGOs began as indigenous experimental programs, they have evolved over time into organized and complex programs with multiple objectives, relying primarily on international funding.

NGO activities often complement the public sector by focusing on poverty reduction efforts. A large number of NGOs seek out the marginalized, the minorities, the poor and the needy – segments of the society that do not have access to public services or cannot afford market priced private sector products. NGOs at all levels – local, regional, national, and international have been highly successful in filling the gaps in safety nets that are typically the purview of the state and in mobilizing for meeting specialized needs of particular underprivileged groups. In 2007, Grameen Bank received the Nobel Peace Prize for its successes in breaking large groups of people out of poverty and hence providing the prerequisite for a lasting peace.

According to many experts, the efforts of NGOs are responsible for the social and economic betterment of many in Bangladesh. The nation is widely known as one of the least developed and having one of the highest population densities. Described by Henry Kissinger in 1971 as a hopeless “basket case,” Bangladesh was expected to be perpetually dependent on foreign aid and prone to natural disasters. In recent decades the nation has pleasantly surprised many observers with the strength of its institutions and progress made in many areas of social development including primary schooling, health care, life expectancy, women’s health and employment, reductions in poverty, and reduced fertility rates. Did the myriad of NGOs that have flourished in the country since its birth play a major role in these achievements? What are some of the success stories? What are some of the failed attempts?

NGOs are said to have transformed Bangladesh not simply by providing the safety nets and assisting in building the necessary infrastructure needed for development but NGOs have transformed society in Bangladesh in various different ways. Those who applaud NGOs do so because these organizations have provided essential services in health, education, and credit, filling in where the state has failed to provide such public goods. It is also widely acknowledged that NGOs have been instrumental in advocating the causes of various groups at the national and international level and in the creation of a new civil society in Bangladesh. Critics on the other hand say that NGOs have created a web of dependency in that, operating at the grass roots level with loans and providing a culture of grants or refinanced loans that have enabled the poor and those who rely on NGOs to take these services for granted. By targeting vulnerable groups, and particularly women, they have changed gender dynamics within the household and community and often angered traditional patriarchy and other hierarchies. NGOs are said to have empowered women and created new forms of social networks, although skeptics say that NGOs have bred a secular feminism which is imported and out of touch with women’s organic roles in their communities. Religious groups have also had conflicts with NGOs while various religious NGOs have competed with secular NGOs for clients.

What lessons should be learned from the success and failures of NGOs in Bangladesh that can be applicable to other nations in the developing world? This book, a collection of papers from a wide range of practitioners and academics, attempts to shed some light on these important questions.

This edited collection of papers from an international cast of academics and practitioners from Australia, Bangladesh, Thailand, the UK, and the US offer insights into NGOs in Bangladesh from a variety of disciplines and perspectives. The authors have all studied and worked extensively with NGOs in Bangladesh and bring their expertise and experience to the various chapters compiled in this first volume on the role of NGOs in Bangladesh.

The book is divided in three sections. The first section provides a historical background for NGOs – how they came about, their evolution and growth leading to their current presence in the country. The next section assesses how NGOs have collaborated and contended with the state and religious groups in Bangladesh. The final set of chapters constitute a sampling of the kinds of changes made by NGOs in Bangladesh – from good business practices to their economic contribution, and the provision of services that are otherwise absent.

In the first section, Chapter 1 provides an introduction to the role of NGOs in development and looks at the specifics in Bangladesh. This chapter is written by the editors and refers to the papers that follow where appropriate. Chapter 2 explores the origin of the NGO sector and in Bangladesh describes the historical development of NGO activities, showing how these activities have expanded over time. In Chapter 3, the author asserts that Bangladesh represents a vital site of contestation between the competing traditions of secularity and the religion and discusses how NGOs are implicated and in and give new meaning to nationalism in the country.

The second section examines the intersections of civil society, NGOs, and religion. Chapter 4 contends that Islam as a religion does not oppose development. The main reason of opposition, if any, lies in the inability of the culturally insensitive western models and projects developed by foreign consultants and expatriates, but implemented by NGO managers, to accommodate the religio-cultural values and norms of the people of Islamic society. Chapter 5 explores the informal processes that enable NGOs to thrive as organizations of social change. It focuses on the experience of a particular NGO (Shammo) and explores three crucial areas that have enabled its success – political mobilization, brokering skills, and avenues of influence. Chapter 6 traces the resistance to and backlash against NGOs from religious groups, including gender aspects of these events. It recognizes the importance of services provided to the poor and women in Bangladesh and suggests that the donors and the state in Bangladesh should formulate their policies keeping in mind this problem of the NGOs and their clients in Bangladesh. Chapter 7 analyzes the conflicts and contradictions released by the processes of democratization and globalization in Bangladesh as they are played out between two competing groups of rural patrons: the clergy and the developmental non-governmental organizations. The author argues that good intentions of feminists who are often linked to NGOs are constrained in their ability to offer an autonomous critique of NGO practices because of their structural dependence on such NGOs. Chapter 8 inquires into the problems and prospects of Religious NGOs (RNGOs) in Bangladesh in gaining trust, assistance and financial resources from donors, the state and public. Two Buddhist, one Christian, one Hindu and one Islamic NGO were studied. It is found that RNGOs face many common problems. Chapter 9 situates women’s activism in Bangladesh within the intersecting forces of rising religious extremism, state politics, and global capitalist development. Women’s groups in Bangladesh work within the “NGO paradigm,” which has been alternately critiqued as critical to nation building or as transmitter of imperialist neoliberal development policy. Taking into account heterogeneous motivations and implications of NGO-driven politics, this chapter explore the kinds of activisms, collaborations and resistance are possible.

The final section of the book provides various examples of the social and economic contributions of the NGO sector. Chapter 10 discusses what role NGOs have had in the protection of human rights in Bangladesh. Chapter 11 re-examines the existing debate on the relationships between social capital and the microfinance drawing on the experience of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and the Grameen Bank (GB) of Bangladesh. Three questions are addressed: (a) do microfinance institutions cultivate and therefore augment social capital or they rely exclusively on the existing social capital? (b) Does the creation or augmentation of social capital alleviate poverty? And (c) Does microfinance empower women? Chapter 12 looks at how the not-for-profit sector in the UK could learn from Bangladesh particularly in the use of new informational technologies to create effective cross-sectoral partnerships and sound business policies. The final chapter, Chapter 13, carries out an economic analysis of the contribution of BRAC, the world’s largest NGO, to the Bangladesh economy.

The editors are motivated by a need to understand how the presence of NGOs has increased phenomenally in Bangladesh, what kinds of changes they have made in the political, economic, and cultural life of the nation, and what kind of role they are expected to have in its future. The editors are grateful to the Executive Committee of Bangladesh Development Initiative for encouragement, support, and assistance. They are also indebted to the panel of reviewers who assisted in selecting and revising papers. These reviewers include Tanweer Akram, Syed Saad Andaleeb, Ishtiaq Hossain, Ainon Mizan, Rahim Quazi, Salim Rashid, Ali Riaz, Dina Siddiqui, and Elora Shehabuddin.

Table of Contents:Editorial Preface: Farida Khan, Ahrar Ahmad, and Munir Quddus

Section A: The Context

Chapter 1: Introduction to NGOs in Bangladesh Munir Quddus, Praire View A&M University, Ahrar Ahmad, Black Hills State University, and Farida Khan, University of Wisconsin- Parkside

Chapter 2: NGOs in Development: An Overview of the NGO Sector in Bangladesh Sajjad Zohir Researcher, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies and Executive Director, Economic Research Group, Bangladesh Reprint from Economic and Political Weekly,. 39(36), 4109 113.

Chapter 3: Organisational success and the informal politics of social change. Joseph Devine, Lecturer, Economics and International Development, University of Bath, Bath BA2 &AY
Section B: Civil Society and Religion

Chapter 4: “Islam, NGO and Development: The Shaping of Conflict Models in Bangladesh” M. Mannan, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Independent Univeristy of Bangladesh, Dhaka.

Chapter 5: Clashing Values in Bangladesh: NGOs, Secularism and the Ummah Goef Wood, Dean of Social Sciences, Bath University, Bath UK.

Chapter 6: New Threat to Development? The NGO (Non-Governmental Organisations) -Fundamentalist Conflict in Bangladesh Mokbul Morshed Ahmad, Assistant Professor, Regional and Rural Development Planning, School of Environment, Resources and Development, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.

Chapter 7: “Democratizing Bangladesh: State, NGOs and Militant Islam” Lamia Karim, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Oregon-Eugene, reprint from Cultural Dynamics, Vol. 16 (2 and 3) October 2004, pp. 291-318.

Chapter 8: For God s sake: The Religious NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) in Bangladesh Mokbul Morshed Ahmad, Assistant Professor, Regional and Rural Development Planning, School of Environment, Resources and Development, Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.

Chapter 9: Challenges for the Women’s Movement in Bangladesh: Engaging Religion, State and NGO Politics Elora Halim Chowdhury, Assistant Professor, Women s Studies Department University of Massachusetts, Boston, Boston MA 02125
Section C: Social and Economic Contributions

Chapter 10: Role Of Local Ngos For The Promotion And Protection Of Human Rights In Bangladesh Ershad Karim, Senior Research Officer. Technical Support Secretariat. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Person.

Chapter 11: NGOs, Empowerment and Social Capital: Lessons from the BRAC and the Grameen Bank Ali Riaz, Associate Professor, Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University, Normal, IL.

Chapter 12: The Bangladesh innovation take-away: How the not for profit sector in Bangladesh is breaking new ground in social entrepreneurship Harriet Skinner Matsaert Reprint from nfpSynergy Report. July 2006. Available online at.

Chapter 13: BRAC’s Contribution to GDP Debdulal Mallick, Lecturer, School of Accounting, Economics and Finance, Deakin University, Burwood, Australia