A diverse civil society is an important party of any society. It is where new ideas are generated, where alternative new political leaders may emerge, and where government and businesses can be held more accountable.
On Wednesday, June 22, 2016, University of Liberal Arts (ULAB) organised a public lecture on “The decline of radical development NGOs in Bangladesh” at its own campus auditorium in Dhanmondi, where Professor David Lewis of the London School of Economics & Political Science's South Asia Centre/Department of Social Policy came out with the observation as the Keynote Speaker.
The event was inaugurated by Professor Imran Rahman, vice chancellor of ULAB, who also presented the introductory speech. Professor H M Jahirul Haque, pro vice chancellor of ULAB, Lt Col Md Foyzul Islam, registrar of ULAB, along with faculty members and students were all present at the programme.
Professor David discussed the issue of NGOs and development in Bangladesh, where his particular area of concern was with analysing the history and legacy of a specific group of Bangladesh's development NGOs. These NGOs were concerned with grassroots rural social mobilisation approaches - as distinct from the more common NGO roles of credit delivery, services and contracting work. He called this 'the radical NGO sub-sector' because these organisations were, and in some case still are, concerned with addressing the structural causes of poverty, gender equality and social justice.
He explained that this group of organisations, which includes NGOs such as Proshika, Gonoshahajjo Sangstha (GSS) and Samata, were at their peak during the 1990s and
early 2000s. However, they have now mostly faded from view, or evolved into organisations primarily engaged in microcredit delivery work.
The reasons for their decline, he suggested, included several factors such as the difficult political environments in which they had to operate, which made them vulnerable to co-option; the disruptive practices of some foreign donors, which either neglected them in favour of more mainstream NGOs, or else over-funded them creating rapid expansion that damaged and in some cases helped destroy them; and weaknesses with their leadership and management systems, which reduced their accountability.
He also added, this decline was not however inevitable. An organisation such as Nijera Kori is still working effectively in the radical tradition. This example shows that the radical NGO tradition is still possible if an organisation makes the 'right' decisions - keeping close the grassroots, building proper management systems, and resisting donor offers to over-expand and scale up too fast.
The challenges faced by these NGOs are not only restricted to a country such as Bangladesh. In the UK, the recent collapse of the NGO Kid's Company highlights a very similar set of problems of organisational weaknesses, lack of accountability, and political co-option.
Professor Lewis concluded the lecture saying that today there are many small rights based NGOs working on human rights, environment, disability and many other important issues. There is also a large number of mainstream service delivery NGOs. But we cannot afford to forget the legacy of Bangladesh's sub-sector of radical development NGOs if we are to continue to work successfully for structural change led by the poorest people themselves.
He also emphasised on the need to learn from the decline of the radical NGO sub-sector and how to bring about the changes needed for such an organisation sector to survive, thrive in the near future.