The formation of a platform with as many as 500 non-government organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations (CSOs) is a gigantic step, the like of which was never taken before in this country. Its purpose, as eminent economist Wahiduddin Mahmud succinctly puts, is to create ‘a collaborative relation with the government’ and find ‘effective solutions for issues such as graduating to middle-income country, fourth industrial revolutions, climate change impact, Covid-induced challenges facing the health sector’.
This is going to be a fitting tribute on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence to its celebration from players whose contribution to nation-building and development has ever remained complementary and crucial. Bangladesh is home to the world’s largest NGO, Brac and two other internationally famed — one bringing the only Nobel Prize for the country — NGOs with widespread networks at the grassroots level of the country. Sadly one of this is now surviving precariously.
At a time when the country languished in poverty, poor hygiene and insanitation, a number of international organisations contributed enormously to address the acute scarcity of drinking water by providing tube-wells and the problem of open defecation by supplying sealed latrines often free of charge or at a nominal price. Thus the living standard of the rural people received a shot in the arm. Some NGOs still play an appreciable role by imparting primary education to children of the most underprivileged and extreme poor families.
However, once the much-vaunted credit facilities for the poor has fallen into considerable disrepute. Only a rare few could improve their position by successfully using the loan they received. But the majority turned paupers as pressure from group members proved too much for them to pay the high interests. It so happened in cases of many of the poor borrowers that they took loans from several NGOs to pay interests but ultimately discovered themselves financially completely ruined.
In this context, the mushrooming of some fake NGOs must not go out of sight. They simply devised various ploys to swindle unsuspecting rural people. At some point multi-level marketing (MLM) companies took over those swindlers and still these are active in various rural areas.
Such unethical and loathsome financial transactions only reinforce the need for genuine NGO practitioners to put their act together and avoid overlapping of programmes in order to help the underprivileged and the most vulnerable overcome their constraints. This is an area where neither the civil society organisations engaged in developing theories on nor NGOs taking up programmes for inclusive development could make a breakthrough. In the absence of any asset for collateral, the extreme poor remain outside of credit facilities.
It is exactly at this point, the role of the government comes to the fore. A well-developed national database can be of help in identifying people disqualifying for credit on account of lacking in collateral. While the big issues like fourth industrial revolution and climate change are concerns for all, for the underprivileged the urgency is to manage three square meals and a sustainable livelihood.
So the need to pull the hapless out of the rut is overwhelming. One way may be acting exclusively for developing them on their proper identification on the basis of the database as human resources. This calls for training, at times retraining for these people to become employable with enterprises to be set up by the local government in collaboration with the NGOs. Reports have it that allocation of homes for the homeless has in several cases been made to relatives of local representatives depriving the deserving people. If NGOs are involved and monitoring by CSO representatives can be ensured, this kind of nepotism can be avoided.
The top-down approach — one that imposes welfare programme for the poor and vulnerable — has failed. Now it has to be replaced by a bottom-up approach where the intended beneficiaries are given the freedom to make choice of works or entrepreneurship they are comfortable to undertake. Most often the NGOs are blameable for not heeding to the target groups’ interests and aptitudes. Where there has been a happy meeting between local workers’ aptitude and interest with the patronage received from NGOs, the collaboration has worked wonder. When sea-grass or palm-leave baskets from Gazipur capture European market, it is a bold statement of the idea generated by an entrepreneur and at the same time it also puts a signature mark of the local artisans most of whom are illiterate village women. There are many other such instances.
Evidently, here lies a vast area for exploration and if the collaboration between and among the NGOs, local government and the CSOs can be geared up free from political clout, there is no reason why the fate of people lurching at the bottom of society cannot be improved significantly. In development index, the country may have risen two points up; but if the poor become poorer as against stunning symbols of affluence such as palatial residence and offices of skyscrapers, human development loses its meaning. So investment many times larger than before is needed at the grassroots level where the government, CSOs, NGOs and the intended beneficiaries will work together as partners.