The landscape of NGOs: the horizons of delivery
Liberation in 1971 raised new expectations about a new state with the impetus to create a just and poverty-free Bangladesh. Numerous NGOs were established in the aftermath of the war for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation for the suffering population. After the war ended, the infrastructure of Bangladesh was in chaos (Sisson and Rose 1990; Umar 2004). It was within this scenario that developmental NGOs stepped in as service providers, especially in rural areas where the war had affected the population most, occupying an infrastructural vacuum in the newly independent state.
The primarily Western aid organizations preferred rhe Bangladeshi NGO sector as their aid allies, bypassing the bureaucracy and corruption of the struggling state (Karim 2004). Under the military regimes of Ziaur Rahman (1976-1981) and General Ershad (1982-1990), the country’s development regime began to shift firmly towards a market-oriented development model influenced by the Bretton Woods institutions’ focus on neoliberal, market and privatization-oriented policies and interventions (Lewis 2011a; Khatun 2016).
Western funders pressed the government for deregulation and privatization, and the military regimes proved receptive and ready to compromise (Hossain 2017a, b). The NGO sector expanded, especially during General Ershad’s regime. He used the sector to legitimize his rule and promote his party by ensuring some level of service provision in rural areas, and to oppose the BNP and Awami League, as well as the critical leftist parties. This normalized NGO operations as service providers and, in 1990, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) was established to oversee and later control the flow of foreign funds to organizations, introducing a system in which state control increased over time.
A popular mass-mobilization spearheaded by students, professional groups and political parties brought down General Ershad’s regime in 1990. The mobilization was assisted by a change of allegiance by the main international donor, which now favoured trade liberalization and ‘good’ democratic governance (Feldman 2001, p. 59; Lewis 1997, p. 36). It opened a new playing field for NGOs and offered them an additional site of action: the local structure of governance (Karim 2011, p. 98-99). It is important to note that while other civil society actors came together to oust the military government, most NGOs played no role in the mass movements of the late 1980s. The middle-classes and the media, which saw NGOs as self-interested and over-accountable to foreign donors, belatedly loaned their name to a statement of support in the last days of the campaign, when it was clear to everyone that the government was going to fall (Lewis 2004, p. 310).
Two interconnected processes were introduced in the initial years of the new nation and the development of the NGO sector, and they continue to impact Bangladesh society today. The first was the founding of the organizations that now dominate the sector, and the entire service provision sector. BRAC (1972), Grameen (1976) and Proshika (1973) were all established in the early years of the new state by people wishing to help the nation overcome the effects of the war and a string of natural disasters that hit the country up to and through the 1970s and 1980s, with the aim of modernizing the country through the rural population (Karim 2016, p. 463). The emphasis on service provision and, later, micro-credit - with women seen as crucial conduits for change potential - dominated early activities and continues to be the core of the organizations’ work, alongside health and education. These large NGOs receive the majority of the sector’s donor funds and dominate the sector, including a booming micro-finance institution industry under a neoliberal agenda, driven by installations of intimate debt relationships (Karim 2011, pp. 98-99; Kabeer et al. 2012; Rahman, 1999; Karim, 2008).
The second important aspect was that many on the political left, and other academics and intellectuals, went into the new sector on an aspiration to build the new nation from below (Lewis 2017, p. 6). This, however, drained a lot of capacity that could have been used to develop a democratic party culture and political organizations promoting parliamentarian and governmental values of debate and discussion, instead of antagonism, distrust and hostility. These two processes impact politics and society today, where the organizations have developed into large-scale, almost co-operative-like entities, active in all corners of the country, in a variety of governmental sectors within and beyond Bangladesh. The antagonistic relationship between the Awami League and the BNP and their respective leaders, who occupy the political space and, as we will soon see, actively prevent criticism, dissent and discussion of political and organizational alternatives by implementing a line of security-oriented laws, regulations and practices.
After democracy was introduced, the NGO sector grew and expanded in all areas of the country. In 1990, eight projects were approved, with more than BDT200 million released for activities. The height of interventions was in the years 2007-2008 during the military caretaker government, with 1,462 projects approved and BDT36,617,993,216 released for activities. In 2017-2018, 910 projects were approved projects and more than BDT36 billion released for activities.4 Today, a majority of public services are run by NGOs funded by foreign donors or the government. The growth and expansion of the sector have created what some have labelled a ‘franchise state’, where the NGOs, in practice, act as an outsourced state provider (Davis 2001; Rahman 2006). For example, in 2015, 334,000 persons aged 15 years and older were employed in the NGO sector, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.5 BRAC, a prominent example of a state franchise, has more than 44,000 full-time staff, and more than 100,000 community health workers reaching 110-million people through service delivery programmes; the organization is active in 11 countries in the world (BRAC 2016). And this is just one of several large and thousands of small organizations working in Bangladesh today.6 Although civil society in Bangladesh has come under increasing criticism for not being attentive to the plight of their constituencies and end-beneficiaries, the Rohingya crisis of 2017 that saw the influx of up to 700,000 people fleeing persecution, rape and killings from Myanmar altered practices and somewhat revitalized organizations, such as BRAC, in the public eye. The crisis channelled external humanitarian relief resources into Bangladesh. Civil society, in close collaboration with international organizations and the UN, became heavily involved in assisting the refugees. BRAC returned to its roots, leaving the longer-term developmental potential of the organization, (re)focussing attention on humanitarian activities relief, established in the early 1970s when addressing the consequences of natural disaster and war of Liberation (Lewis 2019, p. 1894).
The ongoing crisis, however, is not met with adequate funds or other resources from the government of Bangladesh or the international community. The inherent ethno-religious politics of the conflict in Myanmar and the systematic, state-sponsored killing, rape and oppression - including widespread use of forced labour - creates a very uncertain situation for the refugees and also potentially lays the foundation for more widespread conflicts, based in religious differences and territorial disputes (Islam 2020; Rashid 2019; Ullah 2011; Utpala 2010). Although solidarity with the plight
Political antagonism in Bangladesh 85 of the Rohingyas as fellow Muslims is a popular motivation for assisting the refugee population, the fragile situation in the refugee camps and the Cox Bazar area is a similarly strong motivator for state intervention to alleviate and resolve the crisis (Lewis 2019, pp. 1892-1893).
The burgeoning NGO sector was able to set the tone for development politics in the decade after democracy was reinstated in 1990 (Blair 2000, p. 187). The NGOs, including the few active human rights organizations as well as the wider civil society, have since increasingly been influenced, defined and divided along the all-dominating party-political configurations and antagonisms.