Reflections on the NGO sector
The recent decades has seen something of an upsurge in the interest and attention on the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Bangladesh. One reason for this renewed enthusiasm about NGOs stems from the fact that the sector, it is argued, has contributed to the transformation of the country from an abjectly poor 'basket case' of the 1970s to a forerunner in innovations in social service delivery (especially targeting the poor) in the 1990s. The performance of NGOs has also been subjected to close scrutiny in the process. Some analysts have been quite critical of particular dimensions of their operation - including the overtly political role and political party engagement of selected NGOs. In this brief note, I attempt to proffer a short review of the NGO sector in Bangladesh with a view to eliciting the major trends and tendencies concerning the NGO operations.
Not with standing the popular use, the term NGO denies any universally accepted definition and is bedevilled with conceptual ambiguity and widespread ramifications. One broad way to define NGOs is to include all such organisations, that remain outside and beyond the direct remit of the government or quasi-governmental agencies, with the mandate of providing targeted services (both financial and non-financial) to the local communities. The legitimacy and legal character of NGOs considerably vary in Bangladesh. NGOs are differentially registered under several government 'authorities', notably, the Department of Social Welfare, Department of Women's Affairs, Directorate of the Cooperatives, Registrar of Joint Stock Companies, and the NGO Affairs Bureau (in matters relating to the receipt and management of foreign funds and external donations). In analysing the distinctiveness of NGOs, some analysts have tended to posit NGO performance vis-à-vis that of the government agencies, and noted a few conducive features of NGO operation: (i) NGOs commonly follow a participatory approach and flexibility in their day to day operations, which help them to remain more grounded and attuned to local contexts; (ii) NGOs can serve difficult-to-reach (and/or 'un-served') communities and localities, where the presence of traditional and hierarchically organised government agencies is relatively weak.
The growth of NGOs in this country can be traced back to the relief and rehabilitation phase of the Bangladesh economy and polity during the early 1970s at the immediate aftermath of the War of Independence. Based mainly on an analysis of the major trends and characteristics, the mainstream literature has attempted to identity some distinct episodes in the evolution of NGOs; one such attempt by David Korten has identified four 'generations' of NGOs while probing into the genesis of the sector – the first generation: NGOs put emphasis on relief and rehabilitation work (1971-72); second generation: developmental efforts of NGOs are aimed towards community development (1973-75) with a number of sectoral activities (e.g., agrarian reform, health); third generation: also known as 'sustainable systems development', where the NGOs extend the breadth of their programs, ensuring sustainability through undertaking large-scale programs, complementing the national development systems and involving various organisations and institutions (1976-to date); and, fourth generation: which entirely depends on the development phase of NGOs in realising their vision of society characterised by strong people's movements.
On the other hand, the commonly observed weaknesses of NGO operations include spatial limitation; inadequate transparency and good governance; the 'patchwork-quilt' phenomenon (service delivery in already better-off regions, inequitable concentration); inability to reach the poorest of the poor; antagonistic attitude towards the state; palliative nature of service provision/inability to facilitate basic change; limited ability to influence macro policies; inadequate accountability.
Any attempt to reckon the performance of NGOs in Bangladesh is a herculean task for several reasons: firstly, NGO operations are complex, multi-dimensional, and widely varying, which make standardised appraisal and generalisations difficult; secondly, systematic and organised information on the performance of the sector is scanty, and it is also difficult to access the existing (limited) data.
From a quick review of the key literature, the following observations may be made on the performance and accomplishments of NGOs in the past several decades: (i) proven catalytic role in development programs and projects especially in the following areas: health, agriculture, agrarian reform, irrigation, and micro credit services; (ii) limited but encouraging cases of collaboration and complementary role of NGOs with the government in selected national (sectoral) programmes - notably community health service delivery (e.g. the mass immunisation scheme, the social forestry programme); (iii) less effective results in projects attempting major structural changes and reforms including land and agrarian reforms and sustainable natural resource use; (iv) securing credit and financial capital for the difficult-to-reach communities and localities, and thereby dispelling the traditional formal banking notion that 'the poor are not bankable'; (v) promoting collective action and empowerment among the most vulnerable groups – notably poor rural women by systematic nurturing of 'social capital' through such activities as group formation and associated capacity enhancement practices, access to basic human development services, and partnership and networking; (vi) facilitating (limited scale) entrepreneurship and commercial activities in the rural areas, and thereby contributing to the process of graduating from subsistence to a degree of 'take off' and economic consolidation of the participating households.
As noted earlier, of late, an increasingly visible political role and party political engagement of some NGOs have instigated concerns and debates amongst the analysts. The 'political role' essentially stems from the fact that (i) various empowerment programmes are ultimately political in nature; (ii) these NGOs sometimes cannot avoid conflicts with the conservative forces (patriarchy, vested interest groups); and (iii) there are allegations about NGO involvement in partisan politics. Some recent examples of strong political role by NGOs include the following engagements: election monitoring; voters' education programme; participation in mass movement; facilitating court action/proceedings; candidate promotion in local election; training of advocacy groups; promotion of national level policy changes for better local governance; movements towards transparency in law making; and training of local government political leaders – notably female Union Parishad members.
One issue that has dogged the relevant literature concerns NGOs' relationship with the government. It has been argued that the relationship has been that of a 'reluctant partnership'. Government agencies often view NGOs as competitors, and not complementary service providers, and the two entities have their respective views on each other. The government stereotypical views of NGOs read that the NGOs lack accountability; practice insufficient inter-NGO co-ordination; spend too much money on their operations; and rely too much on foreign funds. On the other hand, NGOs think the government is rigid, bureaucratic and tries to over regulate NGO activities; needs unnecessary approvals/procedures; lacks appreciation about differences in approach and style; and does not differentiate between NGOs with proven record of performance and less committed NGOs. However, as noted earlier, there have been encouraging examples of successful government-NGO collaboration in Bangladesh in the recent decades especially in the fields of social development including primary health and education service delivery.
As evident from the preceding discussion, the genesis and current trends of NGO operations in Bangladesh would come out to be chequered and intriguing even to a cursory observer. Despite many limitations, NGOs have played a significant social development role since independence, and thereby, consolidated their position as a prominent actor in the broader socio-political canvass of the country. Although it is now clear that NGOs are 'here for good', it is nonetheless difficult to predict the future trends. A summary of recent analyses on the subject alludes to one or all of the following possibilities: NGOs gradually venturing more into commercial schemes while continuing to subsidise development projects with social objectives; continuing to take a more 'liberationist' stance including the hope that greater self-awareness among the rural poor would lead to recognition of their inherent collective strength; and a degree of intensification of the 'structural reformist' role – at least by selected NGOs – attempting gradual alteration of structure of assets and exchange through facilitation and building up of local community organisations.
The writer is Chairman and Professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka; and former Country Representative, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Bangladesh Country Office. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org