New Internationalist

Local Heroes

Issue 332

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Aid - Bangladesh / LOCAL NGOs

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Local heroes
Bangladesh's local development organizations are world famous. They fill a desperate need. But, asks Afsan Chowdhury, are outfits like the Grameen Bank becoming victims of their own success, losing touch with the poor as their new skyscrapers rise over the slums?

We stood inside the brothel complex in Tangail town, 100 kilometres from Dhaka. Fifteen-year-old Shahana had just taken a client. I don’t exactly stand every day beside the thin bamboo-walled rooms of sex workers, listening to their ardent clients, but I tried to keep a nonchalant face. The young girl who had led us there, however, took pity and said: ‘Let’s go to the meeting place. Shahana will be over soon. If she had known you were going to come early she wouldn’t have taken a khadder (client).’

Towering over the slums: the new BRAC building as seen from the poor housing next door.
Shahidul Alam / Drik

I mumbled a grateful apology and we walked away to another area of the sex complex. It’s full of small shanties in which female sex workers and their families live. Pimps may spend the night for sleep or flesh but are not permanent residents. A bunch of children played in the only open space and I wondered if their games would be different from other children’s.

Then suddenly Shahana was there sitting next to me, her face a bit puffed and crudely done up. There was nothing on it to suggest that she had had sex for money with a man just a couple of minutes ago. Her hoarse voice and plump body were a dead giveaway that she had been given steroids, as a rounded figure is considered more alluring.

The view from the upper floors of Proshika's new high-rise office block.
Abir Abdullah / Drik

I was there with Abdullah, who works for Social Services Society (SSS), a local NGO which tries to get the children of sex workers off the prostitution market. The organization started three years ago, holding a school literally under a tree.

Abdullah’s outfit soon learned that they could not convince the sex workers through words alone that prostitution was ‘bad for kids’. Mothers find that once their bodies have declined, which happens all too soon, they are forced to live off their daughters working in the same trade.

‘We are always afraid that we will be beaten up, abducted or even killed,’ said Shimul, a slim girl still free from the terror of steroids. ‘And if we are, who will listen to us? We are whores.’

‘What’s your biggest dream?’ I couldn’t get more banal than that.

‘Get married, have kids, have a family.’ She couldn’t get more eternal.

A couple of kilometres from the complex was the SSS Rehabilitation Centre for the sex workers’ children. The Centre has taken a few years to establish itself but now attracts sex workers’ children from all over the country. They get food, shelter and education in return for a small payment by their mothers. The big difference, though, is the environment. Here they are just kids. There they are whores’ kids.

The girls and boys there talked to me about ‘liberating’ their mothers. ‘When we become educated and earn money, we will take our mothers away from prostitution. It’s a bad thing. People look down upon them like they do at dogs.’ The speaker, Moni, was eleven and stood with a protective hand on the shoulder of her brother, who was no more than five. For this small band of children at least, the world would not be dominated by shadowy sex for money and petty crimes.

The Centre is called ‘Shahana Home’ – only Shahana doesn’t live here any more. Her mother came and took her away. The girl who kicked off the programme is back where she began.

* * *

NGOs like SSS don’t change the world but they probably do show that change is possible. And in Bangladesh that message has taken many turns. With the global development market wearing less generous drapes, aid money is drying up and many small NGOs are dying. But others are flourishing. A select few have become almost uncomfortably successful: the large office buildings they have built, often in the midst of the poor areas they serve, are attacked by many as the visible sign that these organizations are no longer driven by any sense of social service but have become profit-generating companies.

The major NGOs themselves faced up to this question in a 1998 meeting soon after the construction spree began. Did constructing such behemoths not carry a message? Proshika and Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), two of the biggest organizations, responded frankly. Proshika’s answer was particularly important because it is led by Quazi Farooque Ahmed, then head of the Association of NGOs and well known for having mobilized huge numbers of people to topple the government of Khaleda Zia in 1996. He had made NGOs a political factor in Bangladesh for the first time.

Hooked up to the world. The Grameen Phone initiative has taken mobiles into villages that have never had access to conventional telephones.
Abir Abdullah / Drik

Neither Quazi Farooque Ahmed nor Salahuddin Ahmed, Deputy Director of BRAC, sounded apologetic: it was an assured performance. The size of the buildings had no relevance; they were offices and nothing more. Building them was neither a waste nor a show of splendour but was saving millions of taka in rent and would reduce dependence. Why did some people want NGOs to be small, dependent and begging for money?

This need for independence is a big issue for all NGOs, though only the biggest can do anything about it. ‘We know the donors may move away but we will not and we need to protect our programmes,’ says Salahuddin Ahmed. ‘And the only way to do that is to become self-reliant. We have to generate money for our projects. We have no option but to branch out into business. Yes, that brings its own logic but we have to accept that for the sake of our work.’

Less than 50 per cent of BRAC’s funding now comes from foreign aid. Its founder Fazle Hasan Abed is emphatic: ‘By 2005, we shall not need any foreign donations – though we may need funds for our non-formal education programme, which can’t earn for itself.’ BRAC has made news with its plan to float a bond on the stock market, thereby becoming the first NGO to support its operations by raising funds from investors. This is a world away from charity tin-rattling. It is a whole new development ball game.

The Grameen Bank’s activities are another indication that Bangladesh’s ‘local heroes’ have travelled a long way. The idea of microcredit – loaning small amounts to the poor without collateral – was made internationally famous by Grameen and its leader Muhammad Yunus, particularly after former US President Bill Clinton, who had used the Grameen model when he was Governor of Arkansas, suggested Yunus should be given a Nobel Prize.

But Grameen is about a lot more than microcredit these days, having spawned a host of business activities. Grameen brought cellphones to the poor in a highly publicized venture, for example – women rent the phones then charge other villagers to use them, which has the double benefit of giving an individual a small business income while also making phones accessible to isolated communities. Grameen has also invested in the information-technology sector and for once the beneficiaries are expected to be poor people – it is planning to set up Internet kiosks in villages. Yunus may have his detractors but he certainly has vision.

Most of the big NGOs are like Grameen in that they are driven by a charismatic individual; in a way they are expansions of the self. Yet they have brought into the public domain key issues like the right to an equitable healthcare system: public issues pushed by personal dreams.

‘We have no option but to branch out into business. Yes, that brings its own logic...’

In an environment where their most able potential recruits are usually skimmed off by UN agencies and transnational corporations or lost to migration, the larger NGOs often can’t sustain their momentum without the charisma of the ‘Great Leaders’.

Yet NGOs are not publicly accountable and this makes them vulnerable to weak management and unsustainable growth. The major aid donors bear some responsibility for this. They have never encouraged in NGO partners the accountability they hound governments for all over the world.

What is clear, though, is that local NGOs are now a fundamental part of the development landscape. According to BRAC’s Salahuddin Ahmed, their relationship with the Government has changed over the years. ‘In the 1970s, NGOs were relief-and-rehabilitation-oriented and were not bothered by the Government. In the 1980s, as NGOs moved into the phase of development and poverty alleviation, they encountered serious opposition from the Government. This was the decade of conflict. But as we stepped into the 1990s, we came across what could be called the period of collaboration. Now NGOs work jointly with the Government.’ He added that the relationship was more productive but the threat was that they might be co-opted into the ‘official world’ instead of representing civil society.

Bangladeshi NGOs are in a league of their own. They arose in the first place and continue to grow now because neither the Government nor the often myopic mainstream aid agencies have been able to deliver people’s basic needs; they have filled some of the huge holes left by inadequate public provision. Many forces have been at work to cut a path which will lead people to the promised land where the belly is full and the children chant in schools.

And in the process a whole new ball game has been invented.

Afsan Chowdhury is a Dhaka-based journalist.


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