The rise and fade of NGOs?

NGOs played a crucial role in the development of Bangladesh, but their role is now declining.

The rise and fade of NGOs?
Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of the non governmental organisation, BRAC, with students at one of the organisation's schools.

Bangladesh has long been known for both the numbers and influence of its non governmental organisations (NGOs). Reflecting on 50 years of NGOs reminds us of the great distance that has been travelled since 1971, both by the country and by its NGOs. Many NGO types have emerged, a wide variety of activities have been undertaken, and the NGO sector has seen many changes. The heyday of Bangladesh’s NGOs can now be seen as many years ago in the 1990s and whilst NGOs continue to remain relevant in contemporary Bangladesh, their importance has faded in subsequent years. 

1971 – 1975: The post-Liberation years

The origins of Bangladesh’s NGO sector are both local and international and can be found in the immediate years after the country’s independence war. Longstanding traditions of voluntary action had been shaped by experiences of natural disaster, resistance, and war. Continuing poverty faced by large sections of the population during the 1970s and 1980s led people to experiment with new forms of helping and community development. There was widespread disillusionment among activists with the government’s reliance on “trickle-down” economics for the poor, patronage links with rural elites, and general neglect of landless rural people.

International humanitarian relief following the 1970 Bhola cyclone and the 1971 Liberation War brought local activists and social workers into closer contact with the international aid industry. Through such interactions, many relief and development NGOs were established, mainly by the middle classes, and involved outside funding, with a range of influences including charitable goals, improving social work practice, innovating new approaches to tackling poverty, and professionalising aid delivery. Organisations such as Gonoshasthya Kendra (GK, established in 1972) BRAC (1972), Proshika (1976), and Samata (1976) each have their origins in these early years.

1975 – 1990: The military government years

The years of military rule saw a growing and increasingly diverse community of NGOs. For example, the Association for Social Advancement (ASA, 1978), Nijera Kori (1980), and the Grameen Bank (1983) were formed during this period.

By now two main tendencies were becoming apparent within the NGO sector. Some NGOs were humanitarian and developmental organisations primarily focused on the delivery of key services such as emergency assistance, health care, education, agricultural inputs, family planning, employment skills training, and savings and loans.

Others had become dissatisfied with their initial prioritisation of relief and service provision, and evolved new more developmentalist approaches focused on building sustainability and local capacity. Some NGOs also began to emphasise ‘small p’ political overtones – including community organising, grassroots group formation, rights awareness building, and social mobilisation – drawing on both local and international traditions of organising and advocacy. Such work aimed not only to meet people’s needs, but also sought to challenge the structural causes of poverty and inequality.

The military era saw some surprising successes in NGO work, including innovations over oral rehydration, some gains around ‘khas’ land reform and rights, the creation of an essential drugs policy, and the expansion of women’s empowerment, education and economic participation.

In part this dynamism reflected a rising global optimism about the potential of the NGO as a development actor. The growing international reputations of Grameen and BRAC placed Bangladesh at the forefront of this thinking, which was now also linking NGOs with the newly rediscovered concept of ‘civil society’. NGOs also suited the interests of other more powerful actors: on the one hand, the new neoliberal development policies which emphasised the private character of NGOs as service providers rather than their more radical objectives; on the other, the illegitimate governments of Generals Zia and Ershad both of which attempted to gain reflected glory from NGO development successes.

There was a reluctant co-existence and occasional partnership with the government during this period. NGOs manoeuvred for the space and resources to undertake poverty focused, community level work, particularly in neglected rural areas, while the regimes hoped that NGO success might bring them some legitimacy. By the end of the 1980s the government’s response to the rapid growth of the sector was the creation of an NGO Affairs Bureau to control flows of foreign funding to NGOs and coordinate and control their activities.

1990 to 2007: The years of ‘illiberal democracy’

After the 1990 fall of General Ershad (following a popular movement joined by the NGOs only at the very last minute) there were many who expected a new golden age for NGO work. Since this time now coincided with the new international donor “good governance” agenda, and its discovery of “civil society”, for a while at least it did. New and more sources of international funding became available, and both service delivery and advocacy work expanded.

The new decade began promisingly, with a further expansion of NGO activities and funding that contributed, alongside the government’s policies and interventions, to Bangladesh’s significant gains in social development – particularly in maternal health, girls education and family planning. As Amartya Sen has argued, such achievements were strongly linked to the country’s distinctive and high profile NGO sector, where there was an active focus on improving gender equity in a pluralist landscape of both public and private development actors.

In retrospect, this period, in which a spirit of local NGO creativity had been allowed the space to interact productively with international resources and ideas, represented the high point for development NGOs.

But as the decade progressed, it also became clear that all was not well in the new electoral democracy. Another movement, including some leading NGOs such as Proshika, emerged against the first BNP government during the mid-1990s. This made NGOs vulnerable to the accusation that they were becoming too involved in national politics, and lacked proper accountability. The NGO umbrella organization Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh (ADAB), which was helping to coordinate protests, came under particular criticism.

With the BNP returned to power following the 2002 elections, the new government looked for ways to punish some of the NGOs involved in the earlier protests, and the sector became more politically polarised. Other social tensions were becoming apparent. Some BRAC schools were also attacked in 1999, most likely the result of a local dispute over resources, but seen by some as evidence of a clash between religious conservatism and NGOs as purveyors of Western modernity, evidenced for example by the growing numbers of female NGO field staff working in public places.

Up until 2007 the era of ‘winner takes all’ electoral battles between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party brought political hazards for NGOs, particularly those doing advocacy and campaigning work. Although the NGO sector continued to expand and thrive, it became less diverse and more monocultural in the sense that service delivery work was now the main business. There was a narrowing focus on microcredit as the main NGO service, despite the growing evidence that microfinance had limitations as a strategy to reduce poverty. The number of radical NGOs focused on structural and rights issues became fewer.

At the same time, the NGO sector was further undermined by the sometimes inter-related factors of an increased availability of funding, the sometimes overbearing influence of the donors, and several high profile NGO corruption scandals. These further undermined the legitimacy of the NGO sector, particularly among the new emerging urban middle classes. For example in 2008 the Norwegian and UK bilateral donors cut funds to Samata.

The 18 month period of top-down reset provided by the 2007-8 military-backed caretaker government ushered in a different kind of politics. Elected at the end of December 2008, the Awam League government became installed as a longer term alternative to political gridlock created by the electoral ‘back and forth’ that had been the norm during the 1990s and the early 2000s.

2008 to present day

There is still a diverse range of NGOs operating in Bangladesh today, but their centrality has faded. There are several reasons for this. Today the line between NGOs and the private sector has blurred, with the growing popularity among donors of business-centred development approaches, and there is less interest in civil society and governance issues. NGOs are now seen primarily as contractors and market-based service providers. Even microcredit has come to be seen as a service that can just as easily be provided by the private sector or by government as by NGOs.

The term ‘NGO’ itself has lost popularity, partly as a result of corruption scandals and public mistrust, and partly because wider development fashions have changed. At the start of the twenty first century new importance started to be given to impact philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and new forms of ‘not-for profit’ organization. BRAC no longer saw itself as an NGO but now called itself a ‘social business’, and the Grameen Bank a ‘specialised financial institution’.

Today’s challenges of rising inequality, increasing environmental fragility and reduced political freedoms remind us of the continuing need for an effective, engaged and pluralist NGO sector.

However, in line with trends across many other countries, civil society space has been narrowed – which has impacted upon NGOs. For example, a new and restrictive NGO law was passed in 2016 and the government’s 2018 Digital Security Act has been used to detain activists and journalists – including writer Mushtaq Ahmed (who died in jail after 10 months without trial) and cartoonist Ahmeed Kabir Kishore. The human rights organization Odhikar is an example of an NGO which has been subjected to media intimidation and regular funding delays by the NGO Affairs Bureau. Coupled with the declining interest among foreign donors in the old civil society and good governance agendas, there is a less favourable environment for NGO activity today.

But Bangladesh still contains a lively NGO sector, made up of different kinds of NGOs, informed by many different sorts of values, and doing different kinds of work. We can remain optimistic about the fact that there are organisations trying to challenge the current narrowing of civil society space, and continuing to expand the possibilities of what an NGO can be.●

David Lewis is Professor of Anthropology and Development in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics. He is the author of the book, “Bangladesh: Politics, Economy and Civil Society”