ASHA: critique of ngo's: bangladesh (fwd)

vidhi parthasarathy (
Tue, 10 Nov 1998 14:35:16 -0600 (CST)


The Civil Society and the NGOs in Bangladesh:
Need for a Realistic Paradigm?

By M. Rashiduzzaman*

There is nothing seminal in the twin mantras of civil society and non-
government organization (NGO) except that most aid givers and the funding
agencies insist on using the non-state voluntary organizations as the
alternative path to economic development, democracy building and social
change. Going back to the earlier understanding of John Locke and John Stuart
Mill, a civil society consists of the 'building blocks' e.g. voluntary
associations, public participation, which are essential for liberal
democracy. In the same spirit, a civil society has been conceptualized as the
"melange of associations, movements, political parties and other
organizations that allow people peacefully to transcend ties of blood and
kinship." It is also viewed as an array of coalescing voluntary activities,
presumably outside the state control. But actually the civil society is a
much more complex rubric of interactions, not always an idyllic and mutually
caring relationship between groups, and also between individuals and groups.
Historically, it has not always been civil or democratic either in the
western or non-western countries; it is also important to acknowledge that
the civil associations do not work as a linear progression of volunteerism.
The civil society and NGO paradigm deserves a more realistic appraisal,
saving Bangladesh from the frustration of unrealistic expectation.

The loquacity of the Bengalis who love poetry as well as politics is among
the diverse textures and rhythms of the Bangladeshi civil society. Few people
enjoy Adda (informal but animated gossips/debates) as much as the Bengalis
do. Such chitchat may float between politics, jealousy, support, hatred,
admiration, romance, literature and despair often over cups of tea, if other
goodies are not available! Still, Dhaka University's Madhu's restaurant, the
fabled student rendezvous, is the hailed ground where many national political
movements were brainstormed. The eloquent dinner parties that come alive in
the posh neighborhoods of Dhaka City, and the family gatherings, the social
and religious occasions that bring friends and relatives together are also
the ingredients of the larger network that touch most Bangladeshis. Political
groups, businessmen, factions and their leaders, religious mentors, teacher/
student groups, the neighborhood mastans, and the Tadbir (influence) peddlers
abound in Bangladesh, and they have their space in the civil society. In the
last two decades, thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
including women's associations, cooperatives, teachers' associations,
development groups, minority activists, civil rights institutions and
intellectual fraternities have made themselves more visible in Bangladesh;
sometime they work with the government but they also oppose it when needed.
Nor can we exclude the ulama, the fatwa givers, different religious leaders
and groups, although the secular establishments do not readily acknowledge
their presence in the civil society.

There is always the 'other Bangladesh' behind the official regimes and
bureaucracy. Well known as it is, General Ayub Khan's martial law government
in 1958 banned all political parties, but in former East Pakistan (to a less
extent in West Pakistan) informal political groups and their secondary
leaders were active underground while their stalwarts languished in jail.
Sometimes the religious meetings and matrimonial gatherings were used as a
cover to discuss politics. In 1975 when the one-party (BKSAL) system was
introduced, it did not produce a one-party society in Bangladesh although its
upholders were active across the social and political spectrum. Even during
the two military-led regimes that followed the 1975 bloody coup, informal
party activities did not vanish while they were officially disallowed. But it
is equally true that numerous civilian leaders came forward to legitimize the
military regimes in Bangladesh, and accept offices under the martial law
authorities. It is an open secret that General Ershad's coup was planned with
bureaucratic support and a passive acquiescence by the rest of the society.
Neither General Zia nor General Ershad had any difficulty in getting enough
civilian leaders to become ministers and many accepted civilian positions
under them. So, in its interactions with the military-led regimes, the civil
society did not behave in a singularly democratic manner!

It will be unrealistic to visualize a civil society that ignores the network
of different religious groups, and ethnic minorities who fight with each
other as well as coexist for their mutual survival. Bangladesh has about 12%
Hindu minority, with a sprinkling of Christians and Buddhists that makes the
nation a religiously diverse community. Contrary to a single and unified
civil society, there are different layers of it; each characterized not only
by its taxonomy but also according to the religious, cultural, ethnic and
caste entities. A secular constitution did not generate a universally secular
Bangladesh society where people totally forgot to display their sectarian
loyalties. On the contrary, most look-alike Bangladeshis narcissistically
magnified their religious and parochial (e.g. district) loyalties
disregarding the much publicized non-religious and homogeneous nationalism of
the new state. All the post-1975 political regimes acknowledged, though
opportunistically, the Muslim sensibilities that permeated the Bangladesh
society, despite the opposition of liberal and secular groups in the country.

In the actual display of inter-communal relationship, the civil society can
be ugly as well as good. During the communal riots of the 1940's and I950's
in what is now Bangladesh, local goondas, sectarian leaders, arsonists and
property looters who actually perpetrated the acts of violence, were very
much a part of the civil society. It is also true of the communal rioters in
India and Pakistan, but most civil society inhabitants were not the actual
perpetrators of the Hindu-Muslim violence. After the destruction of the Babri
mosque in India by the Hindu fundamentalists, there was a fear of massacre of
Hindus in Bangladesh, which did not happen although there were many incidents
of Hindu temples and properties being attacked, and destroyed. Without the
cooperation and support of the large segment of the community leaders, it
would not have been possible to deter widespread killings and wanton pillage
at that time.

Bear in mind that democratic opportunities themselves do not readily make the
civil society a charmingly simple and altruistic environment. In fact, the
contradictory forces and beliefs under the blessings of democracy may turn
the civil society into "million mutinies". Stemming from the tradition of
hartal politics, Bangladesh now has a distinct political class of protestors
whose loyalty and services go to the highest bidders among the political
leaders and parties. Gone are the days when the universities, colleges,
bustees, factories and schools used to supply voluntary protestors; now many
of the same groups have turned themselves into mercenary agitators,
terrorists and armed activists hired by different parties. Any realistic
assessment of the civic environment cannot exclude those bounty hunters from
the social precincts.

More disappointingly the student-supported partisan power struggle has all
but decimated the quality of education and politicized most academic
institutions including the leading ones. The student groups are armed, their
frequent gun battles and bomb explosions haunt the Dhaka University as most
other campuses. The campus lawlessness recently turned into vicious,
deliberate and massive rape incidents by a group of allegedly politically
connected students at a major university. The academic institutions, with the
burgeoning hoodlums there, were on the downhill slope, and despite frequent
posturing, the politicians have done little to alleviate peace in the
academic institutions. Even numerous teachers have become the open or
discreet supporters of different parties, and the ordinary citizens,
distraught though they are, haven't taken any bold initiative to correct the
chaos of the universities and colleges. While the political institutions
remain weak and the politicians were unwilling to mend their ways, both the
students and teachers, significant components of the civil society, will
suffer from the slow motion tragedy.

The civil society survives in alliance with power, not in the vacuum, and its
actors often side with the vested interests. The landlords, moneylenders, the
religious leaders and the village matbars who run the community-based
services maintain political connections, and frequently work in cooperation
with the bureaucracy. It is a common knowledge that informal groups and
factions provide the infrastructure of the rural civil society in Bangladesh.
Their major objectives were to get into the Union Council/Upazila, of the
local government system. As a common occurrence, the latent personal
rivalries and factional competition energize themselves during every
election, national or local. The proposed village-based tier of the new local
government will further politicize the Bangladesh civil society. One of the
prominent opposition leaders has recently demanded that a non-political
authority should supervise the anticipated Upazila elections. Thanks to the
better road communications that connect most villages through cars, buses,
coaches, scooters and rickshaws, the leaders of different social
organizations, factions and religious organizations now easily travel to
Dhaka to influence the government and receive resources from it. The
government also uses such traditional leaders and groups for mobilizing
public support. It is difficult to imagine such civic establishments and
their leaders completely outside the orbit of government/political influence,
in one form or the other.

The return of parliamentary democracy in 1991 also introduced complex
attitudinal changes in Bangladesh politics. Significantly, it proved that
even prolonged military led regimes did not create a militaristic society in
Bangladesh. It was rumored in Dhaka that General Ershad was finally edged out
of power in 1990 by the military generals who refused to support him anymore.
But the students, teachers, and the activists in 1991, instead of selflessly
priding themselves in their pro-democracy movement, were demanding payoffs
from the new government that was unable to satisfy all those factions. Yet,
Bangladesh had no serious constraint in resuscitating the parliamentary
institutions in the country compared to the post-Soviet and Eastern European
countries. Indeed, the Bangladesh civil society demonstrated its resilience
to reabsorb democracy after decade-long military-led regimes. But over-
politicization and over-articulation of grievances unleashed by hartal and
mass movements weakened the network of institutions and values that hold the
civil society together. For the last 30 years or so, lawlessness, vengeance,
and victimization followed the major civil unrest in former East Pakistan and
Bangladesh. Both in 1991 and 1996, Bangladesh, for sometime, looked like a
post- revolutionary restless community where student leaders, activists,
demonstrators, teachers and mastans were scrambling for political favor from
the new regimes.

Indeed, Bangladesh civil society was politically divided at its birth in 1971,
and its extended families were drawn apart in the aftermath of an armed
struggle. Gradually, the edge of the liberation war and the 1971 bitterness
began to heal, but the politically conjured history and national identity
disputes gave a fresh lease of life to the acrimony between the perceived pro-
liberation and anti-liberation forces, and they have again opened the old
political wounds. You cannot develop a healthy civil society when one group
will scorn the other, whether it's for politics, religion, caste or race.

What concerns me is that the Bangladeshi civil society comprehension is glued
to the modern NGOs while neglecting the traditional but less conspicuous
organizations of civilian cooperation. We don't as yet have an objective
definition of NGO that is acceptable to all concerned. The United Nations
description of NGOs as non-profit entities that collectively help each other
out of their own volition is a broad and idealistic concept that includes
most voluntary organizations except possibly the profit making ones,
competitive parties and the underground fraternities. It may be more
realistic to visualize the non-governmental organizations according to their
stated and unstated goals, their participants, the sources of funding, and
their actual performance.

Bangladesh civil society had non-governmental, voluntary and self-sustaining
relationships and organizations long before the plethora of new NGOs arrived
there. Such community-based arrangements and traditional leaders included the
informal council of elders (often known as the panchayats), the shalish, the
religious trusts, the local matbars, the landholders, religious leaders and
even the moneylenders. Also, such grass roots services included orphanages,
schools, colleges, mosques, temples, churches and places of prayer and
religious instruction. Whenever necessary, the rural leaders also lobby the
politicians and bureaucrats for building roads, supplying drinking water,
preventing flood, fighting epidemics and relief distribution during natural
disaster. The large NGOs, well funded and well organized, have undercut those
traditional leaders, relationships and organizations; though not
democratically chosen and sometimes accused of hostility towards social
change and economic development, they command influence in the civil society,
and still ready to assert themselves.

Indeed a dichotomy has been unfolding in Bangladesh between the Muslim ulama
and the NGOs working as the intermediaries of the Western funding agencies.
Conservative Muslims who look upon those voluntary organizations as cultural
adversaries have challenged the NGOs. And in the last few years, in several
towns and villages, the ulama have used fatwa to discourage the NGO work,
particularly those supported by the Christian Missionaries accused of
religious conversion of the poor people. The focal point of most fatwa had
been the family, marriage and divorce, and purdah, which included women's
personal status in relation to the rest of the community. The core
disagreements between the religious leaders and the NGOs deserve a resolution
through a dialogue between the two sides. Only an interactive acceptance will
increase the NGO capacity to work for a social mobilization where women could
participate without any serious hindrance from the conservative challengers.

But the NGOs are facing a swirl of protests that will adversely affect their
ability to work with people. The bureaucrats blame that the voluntary
associations are chipping away their authority, and their command over
development resources was dwindling. It is well known that the NGO-led
achievement in a particular sector and by a certain leader cannot always be
successfully replicated in other walks of life and in different parts of the
country. Most NGOs are not self-sufficient, nor do they have any clear
accountability; and their primary funding comes from the external sources,
also partly from the Bangladesh government. Their overhead costs are believed
to be higher than the government run development projects. The NGO legitimacy
springs from the assumption that they work outside the government
bureaucracy, and they are essentially non-partisan. But the main opposition
parties criticized some of the NGOs for their alleged partisan campaign in
the 1996 election. Such a challenge would make the voluntary organizations'
work difficult as non- political actors of the community.


Too much expectation from the externally funded and highly visible NGOs, and
too much dependence on them undermines the spirit of volunteerism in the
civil society. Realistically, the civil society and its building blocks
cannot replace a government; but they may complement it by engaging the
bureaucracy to be more productive and efficient. When the civil society gets
institutionalized, the spirit of self-help becomes a myth, and the NGOs
become just another form of government. By any stretch of their
configuration, that's far from what the civil society and the NGOs are
expected to be!

This article was recently published in the HOLIDAY, Dhaka, Bangladesh. M.
Rashiduzzaman writes from Glassboro, New Jersey, United States of America.