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July 13, 2003 

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NGOs in Bangladesh

A critical analysis of the work process

Saiyid Musharraf Hussain

It will not be an exaggeration to say that Bangladesh is awash with NGOs but whether or not it is a positive or a negative phenomenon has to be seen in the perspective of their contributions towards people's welfare.

Assessment of NGOs
Since early days of independence NGOs have been emerging in the development scene at a rather fast rate in the context of a hard reality that Government machinery has proved inadequate to meet the fast growing problems to meet the fast growing problems of a newly created country. Most of the early entrants were established to cope with relief matters and many of them turned later into organisations principally to deal with poverty reduction tasks. The most important mechanism adopted for poverty reduction is the micro-credit programme. Enthused by the success achieved by some of the pioneering NGOs in this field more and more NGOs grew up as credit delivery institutions. The operating strategies varied from one NGO to another but not to a considerable degree.
Some NGOs were set up not with a particular vision or goal but tailored to suit the needs for taking a ride with donors' hand-holding. Assessment of NGOs that has been carried out from time to time at Government or non-Government or donors' initiatives, shows that there are some cases where NGOs were created just to hook business that unfolded its prospect within the framework of a donor assisted project. Many of these NGOs have closed down their establishment or have turned into moribund institutions after the projects have come to a close. A good number of NGOs registered with NGO Affairs Bureau are inactive either because their honeymoon days with the donors are over or they are still unable but trying to enlist donor's co-operation. In the context of these experiences there are policy makers and development thinkers who hold the view that it is not all well with the NGOs and some of the optimism expressed about them in the donors' circle seems considerably misplaced. One phenomenon that is emerging, on the other hand, is that bilateral donors do not favourably view the NGOs who started with allegiance to one donors but now have acquired multifaceted interest in assistance from a variety of sources. This may not be altogether unjustifiable: one particular NGO following different strategies dictated by different donors, some of which may be conflicting at times, may be bogged down in a quagmire of complications. Thus what we see on the ground is a scenario that is not altogether positive about the performance of NGOs and one may draw the conclusion that many of them are not delivering the goods as efficiently as originally thought.

Issues to be addressed
Two particular issues have recently emerged that have led to the view that the operations of NGOs need to be brought within a framework of a harder discipline. One, there are NGOs who have demonstrated inclination towards political views, ideologies or even participated in politically biased activities. Two, NGOs are gradually veering towards commercially oriented activities thus deviating from their primary objectives. NGOs have gained popularity by demonstrating their ability to address the tasks set for themselves, mainly to address poverty alleviation. Some of these successes have however, stimulated the idea of opening NGOs though lacking in both expertise and logistics, not to speak of commitment. Some of the organisations have become so bureaucratised with a highly costly administrative apparatus that they are assuming the same characteristics of the Government for which the Government has been criticised, such as, cost inefficiency, over-sized bureaucracy, lack of accountability, transparency etc. The result is that the programmes they execute are highly expensive and the beneficiaries down the line have to suffer in terms of payment of high interests for loans which, otherwise, could have been brought down. There is no doubt that considerable justification exists for down-sizing and rationalising the administrative cost of the NGOs so that beneficiaries of their programmes stand to benefit more.

Actions needed
Government deserves appreciation for constituting the Task Force on NGOs which has submitted its recommendations. The implementation of these recommendations will greatly contribute towards bringing greater discipline to the operations of NGOs in Bangladesh thereby enhancing their efficiency. Many more issues than those covered by the Task Froce need to be addressed, for which it is felt that an NGO reform commission may be constituted by the Government. The composition of the commission should be broad-based including representatives from government, non-government and local government institutions, donors, civil society, women groups, professional groups etc. The whole gamut of issues may be addressed by the Commission and recommendations submitted for implementation. Before going into implementation, a parliamentary discussion may take place.

Concluding remarks
NGOs should be looked at not as green pastures for acquiring power, authority and money but truly as institutions for serving interests of the targeted people. Proliferation of NGOs indiscriminately should be discouraged and moribund institutions de-registered. Greater degree of transparency, accountability and qualitative rather than quantitative programmes should be encouraged. For all this what is needed is a set of reforms for which an NGO Reform Commission is recommended to serve as a platform for consultation to bring about a more healthy environment for NGO operations in Bangladesh.

Saiyid Musharraf Hussain is former Additional Secretary to the Government of Bangladesh.

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