Bangladesh has some of the most innovative, effective, and imitated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the world. People in Bangladesh are divided on whether they think NGOs are a good thing or not, even if they recognize that they have played key roles in the country’s development. David Lewis and Naomi Hossain, both academics with a longstanding interest in Bangladesh’s state and society, discuss what makes Bangladesh’s NGOs so special and so large – as well as so divisive.
Naomi: Why is it so important to understand Bangladeshi NGOs, as the country turns 50?
David: Lots of reasons. First, the NGO community has been more interesting, influential, high-profile and distinctive than almost anywhere else. Second, NGOs provide a useful window into understanding the wider society, institutions and history. They emerged alongside the new state after 1971, sometimes supporting and sometimes challenging it. Third, NGOs have clearly played important developmental roles in Bangladesh on a whole range of issues – health, education, reproductive rights and services, and humanitarian relief. All accounts of Bangladesh over the 50 years mention NGOs, even if they are not always very well-informed about what NGOs have – and have not – achieved. And it’s always been important to learn from NGO failures as well as successes.
Naomi: To what extent is this distinctiveness about scale? For instance, when I think about BRAC now, it is so huge and diversified that it stretches the boundaries of the concept of an NGO. I can’t tell where it begins and ends. It’s like a multinational but without the profit motive – it has all these other inspirations and motivations. Why is there no equivalent of BRAC anywhere else in the world?
David: BRAC is definitely unique not just in its scale but also its comprehensive vision and refusal to stand still. I think one reason for this distinctiveness may be Bangladesh’s relatively compact geography compared to its large population. An organization can grow and achieve national coverage and infrastructural presence in ways that would be difficult elsewhere. For example, it’s hard to imagine a big organization like BRAC in Nepal because of its geography, or in Sri Lanka, because of its linguistic and ethnic diversity. There have been other very large national NGOs in Bangladesh too, like ASA, or Proshika, before it had its problems with donors, politics and management.
Naomi: It is interesting to think about whether these national organizations offering similar services and using similar but basically new social practices across the country, raising consciousness and awareness of human rights and women’s rights and so on – whether they helped Bangladesh achieve some national integration on these issues. The ideas and language of human rights, a sense of citizenship, that you can find now across Bangladesh.
But this arose from a brief historical moment when NGOs and civil society had unprecedented space to work all around the world, when governments like Bangladesh’s allowed foreign-funded organizations to flourish, because they saw their value. And as we are also seeing now, all around the world, that space is shrinking. It was a historical anomaly that enabled NGOs to emerge in the ways and at the scale they did in Bangladesh.
David: Yes, I think that’s true. NGOs appeared at the interface of two sets of factors: international aid, of course, as Bangladesh has always been subject to the activities of aid agencies and pressures of international policies. But NGOs also emerged from traditions of charity, self-help, activism and social movements. International aid has not been as strong a shaper of the NGO sector in Bangladesh as it has in many other Global South countries, because of the strength of those traditions, already present in Bangladesh. They also emerged from activist visions of the need for alternative, more participatory forms of development practice. We can connect these progressive development movements and the movements that contributed to 1971 – there was a ferment of ideas and practices and values and aspirations. NGO sectors in other countries (with the possible exception of the Philippines) have tended to be less dynamic in my view, partly because they’ve been more dominated by international organizations. In this sense I think Bangladesh has always been more in control of its own NGO sector.
Naomi: This is important because a lot of people simply assume that it was international aid that drove the growth of NGOs. It’s more complicated than that. Aid made it possible to channel this energy, this nationalist desire for development from idealists, including from those on the left. We all know the origin stories of organizations like ASA, which was set up by young radicals after liberation, and even BRAC’s founder Abed bhai self-described as a Marxist then. After Liberation, when Left politics was being suppressed in the 1970s, NGOs became one of the spaces where youthful radical energies could be absorbed.
Later, in the 2000s, when more and more NGOs turned to microfinance and did less to mobilize rural people around their rights, they were criticized by some people for turning to markets instead of building people power, and for helping to create a new NGO service delivery monoculture. But it was also a bid for sustainability – microfinance helped cover costs of their other activities, like helping women organize around their rights.
David: Yes – and we sometimes forget that microfinance was also originally about challenging exploitative rural moneylending and indebtedness and tackling poverty, gender inequality and powerlessness. Part of the microfinance story is a critique of those kinds of oppressive institutions – all that often gets forgotten. For example, Khushi Kabir (founder of Nijera Kori, one of the few major NGOs that does not offer credit) has often talked about how in the early days young idealists drew on their connections with people in power to focus attention on rural poverty and powerlessness in a variety of ways. We also sometimes make over-simplistic assumptions about the role of international aid, which of course has more than one form. Many of these NGOs started within aid relationships that were originally shaped as much by principles of solidarity and activism as by the more usual geo-political or charitable motivations of foreign aid.
Naomi: We’ve talked about how Bangladesh’s NGOs emerged in a context where governments gave them space and aid was available. Neither of those things are so true now. What does the future look like for Bangladesh’s NGOs?
David: NGOs still have their strong domestic roots and drives, but in my view international development trends and fashions have now moved on, and this has affected the resources available to the sector and restricted its scope. While NGOs and civil society were fashionable in the 1990s, today’s foreign aid is much more strongly focused on the role of business and the private sector. I think many Bangladeshis today also identify NGOs with an old-fashioned way of thinking.
Naomi: Finance and technology are very important now. It’s what I call Drone Development – that you can kind of ‘flick a switch’ and monitor poverty from Space with your dashboard – we’re never going to get too close, we’re just looking at you from far away. This is such a different approach to that of NGOs and civil society, which implies getting involved with people more directly.
David: It’s also a changing view of what ‘innovation’ means. In the 1980s, NGOs were often praised as innovators, but that idea was not so much about technology or business and more about social organizational innovation. Today’s version is more like an ultra-technical, turbo-capitalist version of development innovation. Earlier celebrated NGO innovations like microfinance or oral rehydration were simple, viable ideas that emerged from engagements with real people’s lives.
I think the most promising NGO futures are those delinked from the aid system – this is where interesting things are most likely to happen. Although the profile and power of NGOs has mainly diminished, there’s still a diverse smaller scale non-governmental sector operating in Bangladesh. There are potentially productive tensions between different tendencies towards activism, volunteerism, and business and social enterprise.
But there are also many contradictions. You’ve got organizations providing childcare services to factory workers that may produce positive social outcomes but arguably also enable the garment industry to continue to exploit its workers. You’ve got other NGOs working with radical movements and campaigning groups around worker rights, and others partnering with the government to promote reforms – a whole spectrum of different ways in which organizations are trying to work, some of them trying to balance several things at once. We both know people who try to combine NGO jobs with personal activism, because the aims of each are aligned, even if their ways of working are not always so.
Some NGOs will probably return to their humanitarian origins. The Rohingya crisis has been a huge magnet for NGO activities. It once again illustrates how government and NGOs can’t be easily disentangled in their responses.
Naomi: I was in a meeting of academics talking about the future of NGOs in Bangladesh just as COVID-19 broke, early 2020. We all came to the conclusion that humanitarian and crisis response would be a way of NGOs remaining relevant and valued. Not that NGOs were very visible in the COVID-19 response.
David: There are obviously huge questions about different ways of working in those humanitarian spaces that that need to be challenged, rethought, and reinvented. Hopefully most NGOs won’t go in one single direction. But it’s also a space where international agencies continue to hold considerable power.
Summing up, if we look back, we can identify moments during the past 50 years where there was some dominant idea or vision about the NGO sector’s role in development. But I think that’s probably now gone and that what we have today is a bunch of different kinds of NGOs, informed by many different sorts of values, and doing different kinds of work. And that’s ultimately a good thing. I remain quite optimistic about the fact that there are organizations trying to challenge the current narrowing of civil society space, and continuing to expand the possibilities of what an NGO can be – whether focused on an activist agenda of rights, on business development and employment creation, or on relief, charity and welfare.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Photo: Community maternal and child health training given by Brac, Bangladesh 2006. Credit: AusAid on Flickr.