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Having reached this juncture, where Bangladesh is poised to make an even greater leap towards economic prosperity, some have argued whether NGOs have anything more to do in this country.
When the World Bank declared Bangladesh as a lower-middle income economy in 2015, some of us can remember its first president in Bangladesh Just Faaland and his joint work with economist Richard Parkinson. The duo saw what a difficult path awaited the new nation in The Test Case for Development (1976):
‘It must be the fond hope of most educated people that man can control events and his own future. There is little to give credence to that view in the situation of Bangladesh … Nature, not man, is in charge of the situation in Bangladesh … All of this would not matter if Bangladesh were rich in natural resources and under-populated, if it were effectively governed, and if its social order and economic system were geared to growth, but none of these things obtain.’
Four decades after the publication, the World Bank once again discussed Bangladesh, this time for its success in alleviating extreme poverty. In recognition of the success, its president Jim Yong Kim was present in Dhaka for the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October. He observed, ‘Bangladesh has shown the world that a long list of hardships can be overcome… its people have shown that innovation, commitment, setting goals and visionary leadership can accomplish feats that few dared to imagine.’
The chief of the same global body celebrated a change that, forty years earlier, was unimaginable to his predecessor.
As Faaland-Parkinson rightly observed, Bangladesh did not have the adequate base of large-scale industrial and agricultural production or mineral resources of high value for taking the mainstream path to development.
The nation therefore cut its own unique path, which closely tied social development with economic progress. Income generation for poor households through small initiatives, earning opportunities for families living in extreme poverty, huge migration from low-income groups for wage labour abroad, increasing the involvement of women in income-generation activities, increased disaster preparedness, around hundred per cent children enrolled into primary schools, reducing the size of the average family, a number of outstanding successes in health – including eradication of polio and smallpox, prevention of night blindness, controlling diseases like tuberculosis and diarrhoea– all these apparently smaller and unremarkable successes and achievements brought a sustained change in the life of millions of people living in poverty. The combined impact of the changes is reflected in national progress indicators, as well as in fulfilling the country’s MDG target of bringing poverty rate down to 29% three years before the target.
The innovations and initiatives of normal citizens have played the most significant role in these changes. The government’s long-term policies and their fairly consistent spending in areas such as education and health have provided support, and not-for-profit social and development actors and the private sector have also played a big role. NGOs particularly played a crucial role of bringing innovation into rural poverty reduction, and in establishing platforms through which people living in poverty, particularly women, can access basic services and exercise rights.
Having reached this juncture, where Bangladesh is poised to make an even greater leap towards economic prosperity, some have argued whether NGOs have anything more to do in this country. The reality is NGOs are no less important in current Bangladesh than they were any time in the past. The USA, with all its prosperity, has more than 1.5 million active not-for-profits. With socioeconomic changes, the nature of social problems will change shape. The key challenges we see now in Bangladesh are rapid urbanisation, quality education for the 21st century, climate change, youth employment, increasing inequality, huge lifestyle changes and their psychological consequences. The impact of these factors will only intensify in the coming years, and the nation will need to be adequately prepared to tackle them. Not-for-profit social organisations will play a big role in tackling them.
Financing has always remained one of the biggest challenges for NGOs. A large portion of NGOs draw their finance from international donors. Bangladesh’s preferred status as a darling country of choice by donors is changing with her steady progress though. In parallel, new crisis pockets which increasingly demand humanitarian relief are emerging globally. Donor assistance is now often directed to communities struggling with more dire situations such as war and famine. How can then Bangladeshi NGOs finance its activities with such dire constraints? Two major way-outs in this regard are:
BRAC’s social enterprises have proved that intelligently-developed commodities and services can play a strong role in social good. Aarong, BRAC’s flagship social enterprise initiative, not only involves 65,000 artisans across the country, but its training centres have also provided a platform for thousands of skilled people to become independent entrepreneurs for the last four decades. Aarong’s profits are partly channelled for the growth of the enterprise and partly support BRAC’s other social development initiatives.
The basic concept behind social enterprises such as Aarong is to develop and sell high-quality commodities and services for the richer segments in society, and then spend the surplus on social development causes. NGOs facing a curb in donor funding will need to explore areas where market gaps exist and private sector players are reluctant to get on board because there are not enough profits.
Our government needs to bring NGOs as part of their Annual Development Plan implementation activities and for good reasons. The government’s present target is to achieve the status of an upper-middle income country by 2030-31. This will require the per capita income to rise to an ambitious USD 4,136. This target has to be combined with the Sustainable Development Goals to ensure equity-based progress. The government has planned the process out in the current seventh 5-year plan. Many challenges make this a tough target to achieve however- the major ones being reduced donor assistance, bureaucratic hurdles, delayed implementation of projects and a lack of innovative models for solving social problems. Utilising NGOs’ capacity of innovation, programme implementation and grassroots mobilisation can be an important tool for the government in ensuring equity-based development.
There are already ample examples of GO-NGO partnerships in our country. The government’s partnership with the ICDDR,B and BRAC to spread the oral saline formula to the grassroots is probably the best known of these. In a more recent example, 23 NGOs are working in a government-led partnership to rid the country of TB.
These GO-NGO partnerships are happening only in the donor-funded projects though. It is time to involve the social development organisations in the national revenue funded programmes also.
It is also important to note that NGOs are never an opponent of the government. NGOs, particularly the service-focused ones, are merely a sector that works through the policies and laws and under the guidance of the state in a complementary capacity. Social organisations are able do things quickly, because of the nature of the organisational culture, which the government sometimes finds difficult because of its structure and capacity. On the other hand, most NGOs do not have the capacity of working at a scale as large as that of the government.
It is the centuries-old tradition of working for the common good with a voluntary spirit that lies at the heart of forming NGOs or any other social organisations. Their necessity does not end with whatever great progress a nation or society achieves. The hundreds of NGOs that have been serving Bangladesh’s people for decades are expected to continually adapt to the changing realities and needs. The government should also come forward to become part of the solution and embrace them to increase the effectiveness of both parties.
As one of the country’s major development actors, our demand is equity-based growth for our country. To avoid the risk of Bangladesh’s economic growth creating massive inequity, NGOs will continue to be relevant. The question is whether we are willing to evolve and are ready to do such partnerships.
Asif Saleh is senior director of strategy, communication and empowerment at BRAC and BRAC International.