What did I learn from the coalface?

In collaboration with the Bangladeshi CSOs, we all learned what are the essential elements of a civil society organisation, what standards we should expect from it, and how it should relate to foreign donors. There were, not surprisingly however, many kinds of CSOs. This period in Bangladesh coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and equally the collapse of the Communist Party of Bangladesh. The Peasant Front of the Communist Party had many similar objectives to the more radical CSOs in Bangladesh, but it believed in committed membership in the organisation, taking power in local government, and it forswore any assistance from outside, particularly foreign donors. Anguished reappraisals took place as the Peasant Front thought how to re-design and re-brand itself to deal with the same poverty and marginalisation that the CSOs addressed.

Similar reappraisals took place as CSOs battled with the ideas of business and capitalism, at one time an anathema but now gradually being accommodated. Money lending, for instance, once the despised tool of the capitalist class and the reason for downwards spirals of poverty, was now accommodated in microfinance. If the tool was used well, and with integrity, it could be the basis of an upwards spiral of self-help.

Donors in Bangladesh generally thought that they knew better what was good for the country and good for the CSOs, and behind their arguments they always had the power of their funds. I attended many valuable and informative discussions between CSOs and donors, but in too few cases did the arguments of the very competent CSOs prevail. Usually, donors wanted to support the government, claiming that the CSOs were not sustainable, instead of working to help their sustainability.

What happened to it all?

Bangladesh has developed substantially. Its scores on various development league tables are very impressive, and much of this has come from the work of CSOs, which have, in different ways, managed to sustain themselves.

CSOs/NGOs have lessened their dependence on foreign funding principally by working on microfinance, where services in lending allow them to attract a small return in interest which can fund the organisation’s existence. The bigger NGOs - BRAG, Grameen Bank3 — have grown exponentially and have brought their competence and professionalism to many Asian and African countries. The battles between government and NGOs/CSOs have continued without change, unfortunately. The PRIP Trust has continued to the present under the management of Aroma Dutta.

Government, CSOs and NGOs have learned more about disaster relief management and disaster preparedness. All the recent natural disasters have been much less destructive than previous ones because of such preparedness.

OCA — to find out what capacities NGOs and CSOs need and how to get them to them — was pioneered in Bangladesh and is now a standard tool for working with CSOs (see Figure 10.1). There is now a large number of training courses from INGOs and local NGOs to build capacity where a weakness has been identified. This is now standard for INGOs that specialise in CSO support, like Pact.

And, on a personal note, my wife was now working for UNICEF and my three children spoke Bengali to each other, and occasionally English to their parents. 1 eschewed four-wheel vehicles and rode a motorbike through the dense, dense traffic, and lived to tell the tale.

Organisational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT)

How do you score your CSO against these model statements (1 is high, and 5 is low)



  • 1.1.
  • 1.1.1.

Executive Committee/Board/Trustees

An independent governing body (Executive Committee/Board/Trustees) provides oversight to the NGO

1 2345


The Executive Committee/Board/Trustees make policy for the NGO

1 2345


The Executive Committee/Board/Trustees represent the interests of the constituency

1 2345


The Board helps the NGO with fundraising, public relations, lobbying

1 2345


The Board makes sure that the NGO’s activiies reflet Board policy

1 2345




There is a clear and understandable vision and mission for the NGO

1 2345


The vision and mission are clearly understood by the staff, the Board/Executive Committee/Trustees, the constituents, the volunteers, and sympathetic outsiders

1 2345


The activities of the NGO reflect and focus the vision and mission of the NGO

1 2345




The NGO has a recognised constituency

1 2345


The NGO has regular and participatory links to its constituency

1 2345


The NGO have the constituency to manage their own affairs

1 2345


The NGO recognises its constituency as partners in its work

1 2345


The NGO combines advocacy for its constituents with its service delivery work

1 2345




The NGO is clear about the functions of the Director and the functions of the Executive Committee/Board/Trustees

1 2345


Decisions are clearly communicated to these they affect

1 2345


Leaders take decisions after consultation with those who will be affected

1 2345


Leaders help staff undersand their contribution to the NGO's mission/purpose

1 2345


Legal Status


The NGO is legally established

1 2345


The NGO complies with all the legal requirements of its legal identity and registration

1 2345


The NGO is aware of any concessions and allowances that it has a right to (tax etc.)

1 2345


Management Practices


Organisational Structure


The NGO has a clear and communicated organisational structure

1 2345


The staff of the NGO have clear job descriptions

1 2345


The job descriptions are used in staff appraisal

1 2345


Information Systems


The NGO collects baseline information aboutits constituency before starting work

1 2345


The NGO has a regular system for collecting information on its programme activities

1 2345


The NGO regularly collects information on the impact of its work following the baseline information

1 2345

Figure 10.1 Extract from Organisational Capacity Assessment Tool (OCAT)

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