Voices be Heard
is a constant struggle to better the social, economic and
governmental structures in Bangladesh. Sometimes, however,
the means of fighting against the injustices in our country
are counterproductive, and end up exacerbating the situation
rather than helping it. Every now and then, hartals, riots,
bomb blasts, killings and muggings, all integrate into the
main issue at hand -- society's dissatisfaction with the current
situation and their irresistible urge to do something about
it, no matter what the consequences. But in every struggle
for the sake of justice, the biggest challenge for the marginalised
and oppressed is to attain the power to speak out.
'Let People's Voices Be Heard' the theme of the recent conference
on human rights and governance organised by Manusher Jonno
(MJ) summed up this daunting challenge.
Manusher Jonno, a human rights and good governance initiative,
has been supporting civil society organisations, NGOs, private
sector organisations and state institutions to create conditions
for establishing human rights and good governance in Bangladesh.
MJ focuses on giving voices to people who are otherwise either
denied or violated of their rights. It aims at greater involvement
of people in the decision-making processes that affect them.
It catalyses actions that promote human rights and good governance
and stresses on challenging factors of society that perpetuate
poverty and social exclusion.
The MJ initiative started in July of 2002. Participating NGOs
range from local to national and international, who shared
their experiences and learning at the conference. As of June
2004, MJ has 61 funded partners, some of which are Bangladesh
National Women Lawyers Association, Mass-line Media Centre,
Resource Integration Organisation, Save the Children UK and
Steps Towards Development.
We live in an era of dramatic change and transition, in a
world that is being transformed by complex financial systems
and revolutionary information technologies into a vast global
marketplace. Globalisation is creating new patterns of interaction
among people and nations, promising extraordinary opportunities
for material progress in larger and freer communities. But
it is also threatening to bring about many existing challenges
before the international community while deepening the economic
There is now near-universal recognition that respect for human
rights is essential to the sustainable achievement of the
three agreed global priorities of peace, development and democracy.
This includes the rights of political choice and association,
of opinion and expression, and of culture; the freedom from
fear and from all forms of discrimination and prejudice; the
right to employment and well-being and, collectively, to development.
It is with this in mind that many of Bangladesh's activists,
civil society and intellectuals spoke out against injustice
by advocating human rights and good governance. Presenters,
panelists and moderators cumulatively worked towards creating
awareness by speaking about and sharing their experiences
not only in their work environment, but also on a personal
level. The result was an intensive, but successful three-day
rapport on how to make Bangladesh a better place for all.
RIGHTS: LOCAL AND GLOBAL PERSPECTIVES
Activism on Call
plenary session on 'Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives,'
dealt with the issues and rights concerning religious minorities
and indigenous communities. Sara Hossain, Supreme Court Advocate,
spoke about the rights belonging to the various indigenous
communities and strongly opposed the military occupation in
the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
"I see no reason as to why I, as a citizen
of this country, should go through the military checks and
attain all kinds of permissions in order to visit those areas,
which happen to be a part of Bangladesh," she stated.
According to Hossain, the media plays a very
important role by allowing these communities to better understand
their rights, thereby enabling them to fight injustice. "We
should take advantage of media, the various NGOs in the country
and the organisations like Manusher Jonno, for instance and
have them portray the truth, which many courts and law enforcers
in the country are unable to do," she said.
Hossain stated that religion was being used
as a pretext to breach laws and create strife between people,
thereby violating human rights in the process. She mention
that the day the court was going to give its hearing on the
banning of the Ahmadiyya books, the entire area was filled
with religious fanatics. She said: "One may call them
extremists or fundamentalists. They were lined up in the courtroom,
spreading a silent tremor within everyone present, including
the judge. This was done only to prove that they could have
their own way, and would go to any level possible to get the
judgement inclined towards their own wishes."
Advocate Shahdeen Malik stressed that the
creation of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) violated human
rights, despite the fact that they were initially there for
public protection and security. "It's sometimes a wonder
and ridiculous to have the atrocities committed by RAB splayed
all over newspaper headlines every other day," exclaimed
Malik. "Not only do we know the exact name and the identity
of the person who gets killed by RAB, but also the exact time
Asma Jehangir discussed the issue of human
rights from a global point of view. "It's a wide subject
and rather vague," she began. "Trying to establish
a proper attitude towards human rights is like trying to catch
one little fish in the ocean." According to Jehangir,
one cannot always get everything done in courts. "One
has to develop hunches and intuitions to have a firm stand
and fight it," she said. "I have worked in both
the levels, from grass-root to the United Nations. Believe
me when I say that human rights are respected much more in
the grass- root levels rather than within the higher officials."
She also explained that the UN is made up of governments of
various countries of the world, and hence is "slow, if
"An activist always has to stay thick-skinned,"
said Jehangir. "He/she should never give up and continue
with the activity as long as possible." Although the
world has progressed technologically, Jehangir claimed that
it is like "moving a mountain if it comes to changing
the mentality of a society. If we do not have open minds,
we won't be able to relate ourselves with others and thus
feel the need to have human rights."
Breaking the Culture of Repression
a man threw acid on Rina (not her real name), she reported
it to the police. But, instead of implicating the true culprit
-- her husband -- in the crime, she named a different man
altogether. She figured that if her husband went to jail,
the family would lose its breadwinner, and no one would want
to marry her daughters. Months later, when Rina realised that
the whole strange chain of events had taken place because
her husband wanted to remarry, she decided to tell the truth
about her attacker. But by then her testimony had become unreliable
and her case became weak.
are caught up in such vicious circles all the time. They are
taught to be dependent on men and to submit to them. They
are kept ignorant of their basic human rights. They are made
to think themselves the weaker sex. Eventually, they become
it, and the cycle of oppression and violence continues.
The concept of "violence against women"
has become stereotyped to the point of becoming clichéd.
The first -- if not the only -- pictures the words will bring
to one's mind are those of rural women draped in sarees, their
faces hidden in the shadows, battered and bruised. Or images
of the many cases filed (according to newspaper reports),
or, on a slightly more positive level, pictures of women's
rights organisations holding up placards and taking out processions,
demanding justice in a handful of cases.
But, in reality, they are just that -- a handful
of cases. The highly sensationalised cases, that finally get
a verdict after a long drawn out legal battle, don't represent
the hundreds of others that never make it to the public eye,
or even to local courts. The violence against women and girls,
wives and daughters-in-law, that don't only take place in
villages but among the urban, educated and, even privileged
classes. Violence that is not always visible. Violence that
is never talked about.
Violence against women transcends all boundaries
of class and creed, age and relationships. It can happen to
any woman, anywhere. Even educated and otherwise strong women
remain in abusive relationships due to the pressures of an
unaccepting family, an unforgiving society and an inefficient
violence is not only about bleeding wounds and acid burns
but also about incidents many people don't even refer to as
violence, that many women simply accept. Marital rape, for
example. For a woman, who, from childhood has been taught
to obey and be submissive to men, be it father, brother or
husband, and for a man who has been conditioned to be dominating,
to exercise their authority over women, is marital rape really
a crime? Does it even exist? Not in our legal system.
While on pen and paper we seem to have enough
laws protecting women and their rights, their effect is obviously
questionable. Some issues are just swept under the rug as
"private" affairs between a married couple or "family
Yet others are veiled under the pretext of
religion or simply ignorance. Many husbands -- and even some
wives -- actually believe wife-beating is permitted by religion.
At the workshop on violence against women,
moderator Dr. Shahnaz Huda, professor of law at Dhaka University,
noted that, even after years of fighting for women's rights
and protesting violence against women, we still seem to be
where we started. With time -- whether due to political corruption
or impunity -- even more, new forms of violence like dowry-related
crimes and forced suicide, which did not occur decades ago,
have sprung up. And so the workshop focused not on what or
how many, but on the root causes as to why these crimes occur
and what can be done to prevent them.
Oppression of women came with the beginnings
of patriarchal society where men compelled women to stay in
the house, do domestic chores, bear and raise children, said
gender specialist and researcher Dr. Maleka Begum, keynote
speaker at the workshop. Eventually, women also began to believe
that was what they were supposed to do. Many of these began
to be seen and enforced as laws, many, apparently, based on
Here the political parties also play a crucial
role, said Dr. Maleka Begum. For, while politicians talk about
women's rights to gain popularity, when it comes to amending
laws in parliament, they never do it for fear of losing votes
to religious conflict. Which is why crimes like marital rape
are not recognised in the constitution, why bills and amendments
on women's rights are never passed in parliament.
But violence is not ingrained in men, said
Monira Rahman, executive director of the Acid Survivors Foundation,
for every man is not violent. It is learned behaviour. According
to the accepted social norms and perceptions of masculinity
and femininity, men, among other things, are taught to be
unemotional, sexually active and to dominate over women. Those
who do not conform are ridiculed by society. Thus, violence
often becomes a logical end to the social expectations of
the sexes or the gender roles they are expected to perform
We need to work with men as well as women,
said Rahman, in order to understand how men work, what their
needs are and to make them understand those of women. If we
are to stop violence against women, men must participate in
the process and a holistic approach is necessary. Not only
through policy-making, but through the teaching of life skills
can men and women be educated about gender rights and healthy
relations, the role of the family and freedom of opinion of
women. It is also important for men to participate in the
process because, be it the legal system or the media, lawmakers
or the private sector, it is all controlled by men, and if
any changes are to be made, they need to be included in the
process, Rahman pointed out.
important aspect we need to focus on, said Dr. Firdous Azim
of Naripokkho, is the process of justice. Getting the harshest
punishment in any single case is not what is important. The
whole process of justice must be responsive and transparent,
she said, making it easier for women who are victims to get
justice, from reporting it to the police, to getting proper
treatment at the hospital and fair judgement in court. The
media also has a role to play, said Azim. Instead of sensationalising
only a few cases, as many as possible should be publicised
and followed up by a sensitised media.
Also necessary are proper coping mechanisms,
she said. It is not only after a crime occurs that we should
react to them. In order to prevent them, we need to campaign
throughout. The anti-acid campaign has been one such example,
where movements by various groups and organisations has served
to increase awareness of the crime.
Finally what is needed is a clarification
of concepts as well as laws. What is domestic violence? What
is marital rape? Is it a crime? What about sex workers? What
rights do they have? Why should a rape victim be made to marry
her violator and accept him as the legal father of her child,
if any? Most people don't even know that compromising in criminal
cases is illegal. Only when we know what is what will we know
whether they are right or wrong, whether they are crimes to
be reported or not and whether there is any hope of getting
The reasons behind violence against women
are manifold and multi-dimensional and each one must be addressed
in order for the remedies to be effective. But it is only
when a woman knows her rights -- the right to decision-making
in the family, the right of a married woman to visit her parents,
the right not to be beaten, the right not to be forced into
having sex, even with her husband -- when she knows what she
is entitled to, will a woman know what to fight for and what
to fight against. For this, women need to be educated - and
so do men. In the fight for the exercise of her rights, the
support of the family, society and the legal system is essential.
The ultimate duty to protect women and their
rights, as Dr. Shahnaz Huda pointed out, lies with the State.
The initiative of bringing about change through educating
people, passing laws and enforcing them, and giving exemplary
punishment must come from the government. Something, that,
right now, seems like a far cry.
OF THE MARGINALISED PEOPLE
are some things that many people take for granted -- the right
to exist peacefully in a country where they belong, the right
to walk on the street without being subjected to ridicule
and harassment, the right to identify themselves with a certain
religion or culture, the right to expect the support of family
and friends. Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights states that "All human beings are born free and
are equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason
and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit
It is unfortunate, however, that of all the
social problems that Bangladesh faces, one of the most salient
is regarding the rights of marginalised people.
Prashanta Tripura, Regional Coordinator of
the Chittagong Hill Tracts Programme of CARE Bangladesh and
Dr. Nazneen Akhter, Executive Director of HIV/AIDS and STD
Alliance of Bangladesh (HASAB) are fighting for the rights
of different target groups but their ideology is still the
same. They want a better life for those who consider the inherent
human rights that so many people accept as natural, to be
Tripura's focus is mainly on the issues surrounding
the indigenous people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, while
Akhter incorporates various minority groups, including commercial
sex workers, people infected with HIV/AIDS and other STD's,
transgender people and homosexuals and drug users.
At the workshop on the rights of the marginalised,
Tripura presented the history of the Paharis and the problems
they face. There are 11 official tribes within the Pahari
population: Bawm, Chak, Chakma, Khyang, Khumi, Lushai, Marma,
Mro, Pankhu, Tanchangya and Tripura.
"The major problems faced by the people
of the CHT -- unresolved political issues, widening social
inequality, widespread livelihood insecurity -- have deep
historical roots that cannot be eradicated in a matter of
years. While the CHT Accord of 1997 was widely seen as a historic
step towards finding a framework within which to resolve the
long-standing problems of the CHT, to date the implementation
of the Accord has been a slow and contested process,"
"Pahari political leaders, regardless
of whether they support or reject the Accord, continue to
call for the repatriation of 'settlers' to areas where they
would not be encroaching upon the ancestral lands of the Paharis.
On the other hand, to date, no major political parties of
Bangladesh have demonstrated any desire or political will
to entertain such a demand. The civil society of the country
as a whole has also been quite silent on this issue,"
the national level, Tripura stated that ethnic groups are
not constitutionally recognised as communities who have a
separate language and culture, which in turn acts as an obstacle
for them regarding indemnity from discrimination and legal
safeguarding. At an institutional level, the indigenous communities
feel that the government is not always quick to viable action
towards their rights and needs. On an economic level, Tripura
stated that areas inhabited by indigenous peoples as well
as monopolies in trade and commerce are controlled by Bangalis.
At the societal level, indigenous people are often subjected
to stereotypes and discrimination. They remain alienated from
the majority population.
Adivasis are not the only people who feel isolated from the
rest of society, as Akhter pointed out in her presentation.
There are many different kinds of minority groups that, apart
from being subjected to estrangement, also do not enjoy certain
basic rights. "It is too unfortunate to see the realities
where the society does not allow some people to live with
their dignity and often discriminate and isolate them with
the very disempowering words 'marginalised', 'socially excluded'
and 'vulnerable'...and by reason they are devoid of enjoying
their rights as human beings," Akhter said.
People with HIV/AIDS, for example, not only
face the stigma of having a deadly disease, but also have
to face discrimination in all aspects of their life.
Akhter said, "There is strong evidence
which suggests that HIV-infected women are at risk of domestic
violence, when tested positive, women are susceptible to violence,
abuse from spouses and other family members as well. The HIV
positive men and women are equally devoid of their rights
to residence, property, inheritance and face denial of custody
of children in the case of an HIV orphan."
sex workers are also ostracised from society. They lack access
to housing and social security as well as education and health
care. Their profession has forced them into a category, which
is either badly protected or completely unprotected by law
enforcement agencies. They are often subjected to harassment
from both law enforcement agencies as well as community people.
There have been many instances in which a commercial sex worker
has been raped and the case has not been properly investigated.
Being victims of sexual harassment and physical
abuse without any form of justice being served is also common
occurrence within homosexuals and transgenders. According
to Akhter's presentation, starting from a very early age,
these people are stigmatised by their families and friends
as societies such as ours not only look down on them, but
also hold a kind of disgust and hatred for people falling
into this category.
One of the panelists of the workshop, Dr.
Nafeesur Rahman, Executive Director of the National Forum
of Organisations Working with the Disability (NFOWD), mentioned
the importance of incorporating disabled people into the category
of marginalised people. He mentioned that there were not many
facilities for disabled people. To support his argument he
gave two examples. One was that even in new buildings such
as Basundhara city, which prides itself on its modernity,
there is no access for people who are handicapped and disabled.
The other was that Bangladesh spends a great amount of money
on sports events such as cricket matches and the Olympics,
which mostly come up with empty results. However, in the Special
Olympics, Bangladesh came in fifth, even though they were
given little to no funding. The Special Olympics team only
got a sum of 15 lakh taka after they came back.
Kabir, Coordinator of Nijera Kori stressed that it is also
crucial to make sure the rights of women within these marginalised
communities (especially within the indigenous population)
should not be put on the back burner. According to Kabir,
adivasi women are even more marginalised because they are
a minority within a minority and their needs are sometimes
overshadowed. Their rights and the problems they face are
not seen as a primary issue. After all, when fighting for
rights, a community should make sure that all its members
are being equally represented. In her conclusion, Kabir said,
"Unless we are all willing to be frontline soldiers in
this fight for rights, there is no point in being here today.
We cannot only just talk about the issues that we have to
overcome, we have to take action."
is those few frontline soldiers that are fighting to make
a difference. Regardless of class, creed, gender, sexual orientation,
health status, profession, cultural background, all people
of Bangladesh hold the universal right to exist in the land
they know as their own, and enjoy basic human rights, without
any stigma or prejudice being attached to them. Unlike those
who enjoy the freedom and liberty of being a part of the majority
population, these groups of people are fighting to have their
voices be heard and fighting for the right to remain what
they are, without encountering harassment, prejudice, stigmatisation
and alienation. It is these soldiers that are taking action
and breaking the silence that plagues the marginalised population
Nurturing the Hope
of the Future
In a country where almost half the population
is under 16 years of age, and 17 percent of which is below
five, child rights should be on the top of any Government
or NGO agenda. The situation is compounded by the fact that
we have one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world.
Nearly 40 percent of school-age children are never enrolled
school. The enrolled children on average have two years education
and only 14 percent of those enrolled in primary school reach
the fifth grade.
At one of the workshops titled 'Human Rights
and Governance: Local and Global Perspective,' Afsan Chowdhury,
Director, Human Rights and Advocacy, BRAC, said, though most
people are passionate about child rights, it is not a concept
that has been integrated sufficiently into our system. His
paper focused on the issues of going beyond advocacy to programmes.
rights have to be equated with human rights. According to
Chowdhury, though the concept of rights emerged from the West,
by the time it came to us it had evolved into a different
form. The main equation of governance, which Chowdhury refers
to as 'stage play', is about bureaucratic imagination. And
bureaucracy never has the habit of looking at child rights
from a 'human rights' perspective. It is the NGOs that have
taken it up as a doctrine. At the end of the day, the main
concept of 'rights,' as in the West, is yet to be established
here. Afsan regretted the lack of help from the government.
He noted that though called NGOs, it is these organisations
that have been trying to maintain a close link with the government.
However, in a career that spanned 25 years he had yet to find
one government official who had helped in any way.
One forum under BRAC noticed that students
from poor families in one of their schools did not have any
meal before coming to school. The forum decided that in order
to educate the children properly, they must feed them at least
one meal a day. For the last six months BRAC has been successfully
doing this by going from house to house and collecting Tk
5 from each house. Going around just 25 homes provides them
with sufficient money to feed all the children in their entire
Afsan asserted that the issue of child rights
for most people, whether in government organisations or NGOs,
is only a job -- a form of income. Though, most of us are
pushing for this issue, little has been done to establish
their rights in reality. Things will not change unless we
start working from the heart. The establishment of child rights
must become a nationwide campaign.
U. M. Habibunnesa, Programme Head, Justice
and Violence, Save the Children UK, discussed juvenile justice,
another topic in the 'rights' arena. Why does one have to
resort to the highest court to protest and say that the child
has rights too? The penalty connected with juvenile crimes
should not be confused with the punishment meted out to criminals.
in our society are under attack in two different ways. They
are either the victims or the perpetrators. So they are either
suffering from being exposed to violence, acid attack and
rape or are themselves committing such crimes. When we hear
about these children who carry arms or do drugs, we skulk
away. Even the parents of these children leave them to the
rashtro (State) to deal with as they have gone astray. "We
need to take responsibility for them. After all, they are
our children," asserted Habibunnesa.
Habibunnessa also brought up the sticky issue
of safe custody. What is our definition of safe custody? When
a young girl has been raped and her assailants threaten to
kill her she is asked to expose the criminals. But what security
can we offer her? We claim that we are offering her 'safety'
by sending her to safe-custody or police custody to a 'safe
home'. There are about seven such places in Bangladesh under
the title of Safe Homes. In these homes, there are about 217
girls, all below 16. Though these girls are victims and not
criminals, they are put in an environment which curtails their
freedom. "These girls hardly have the chance to see sunlight,
as they are incarcerated within the walls. They cannot even
talk to anyone if they wish. Their freedom is the first casualty,"
Bangladesh being a poor country has made certain
laws regarding the work that the children do because it is
a necessity for their survival. But when they do something
wrong, they are put in confinement, no special treatment has
ever been thought of regarding juvenile delinquency.
Around 4000 children have been arrested all
over Bangladesh in the year 2004. Of them different NGOs have
managed to release 1954 children so far. "The situation
is that, the government arrests these children and NGOs try
to get them out of jail. It has become a game," said
Habibunnesa. "The more serious issues underlying the
crime are ignored. It is like an iceberg where only the tip
is visible and we react to that. We need to address the submerged
mass. Why are these children committing such offences?"
Naila Khan, Head of Shishu Bikash Kendra, Bangladesh Shishu
Hospital, emphasised on health issues of the children. When
our health system is concerned, 'our health ministry is outsourcing
everything.' They are not calling the different NGOs or social
organisations to meetings to discuss what can be done. They
are going at their own pace.
Another alarming issue is the increasing death
rate at childbirth. During childbirth an injection called
fedipheron, is administered to quicken the labour period.
This drug is now being administered to all mothers in labour
in most rural areas. Some of the mothers cannot even pronounce
the name of the drug, but they are taking them to have easy
labour. As a result, the new-born has complications after
birth. "This may be a reason why people in our country
are becoming so stunted, while in most other countries people
are getting taller," said Dr. Naila. Some of these babies
also become mentally retarded. "About 80- 90 percent
children in Bangladesh know nothing about sex education,"
"This is the highest rate of illiteracy in any country."
The Rules of the Game
MEHREEN AMIN and AHMEDE HUSSAIN
Poverty, Politics and Governance: Where does
Bangladesh stand and the way forward?
While explaining good governance, Dr Salahuddin M Aminuzzaman,
chair of the department of Development Studies, Dhaka University,
said, "Governance denotes how people are ruled, how the
affairs of the state are administered and regulated as well
as a nation's system of politics and how these function in
relation to public administration and law."
Aminuzzaman classified the history of Bangladesh's political
governance into four distinct phases: Civilian control of
the civil and military bureaucrats, military control of political
system and civil bureaucracy, military civil service partnership
and elected civil political regime.
Describing our political culture as "confrontational",
Dr Aminuzzaman said, "All major parties bank on populist
approach of rhetoric, symbolism and sentiments as the major
instruments for mobilising voters."
In fact, in his paper, Aminuzzaman portrayed
a grim picture of our major political establishments. The
parliament, he said, is populated by MPs, many of whom have
allegedly made financial 'investment' in their nomination
by their party, and in their subsequent election. Dr Aminuzzaman
said that the wealth of the candidates is a more important
factor determining electoral nomination and success than local
credibility, and their ability and willingness to represent
the interest of the constituents.
The professor also observed that, "though
the parliament is popularly elected by a free and fair election
under the caretaker government, it is still far from being
vibrant, effective and participatory."
The situation is even worse for marginalised
people. "At both the national and local levels, the elite
has achieved tight control over resources and opportunities
distributed by the state and through the imperfect markets
of the private sector," Professor Aminuzzaman observed.
Major poverty alleviation programmes have
also come under Aminuzzaman's scathing criticism. He says
that all these programmes in the country are loosely co-ordinated
and lack an adequate institutional framework. Dr Aminuzzaman
also identified the "key constraints" to good governance
and development in Bangladesh as dominance of a small elite
in politics, lack of effective representation of the interest
of the poor, lack of transparency, widespread corruption and
poorly performing institutions.
The solution, Dr Aminuzzaman added, lie with
the establishment of pro-poor governance. "If poverty
is to be reduced in Bangladesh, it is necessary that the poor
themselves become a stronger voice in society." The key
ingredient to this, he asserted, is political will.
of International Institutions in Promoting Good Governance
Dr. Atiur Rahman, Chairman of Shamunnay, in his paper gave
special emphasis on three institutions that are dominant in
policy-making and agenda setting. They are the International
Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and the United Nations Development
Programme (UNDP). Rahman listed quite a few challenges of
governance in Bangladesh that these institutions have been
quite vocal about. These include: high levels of corruption
in the public sector, lack of democracy in party politics,
weak parliamentary traditions, inordinate power in the hands
of the executive, ineffectual and weak judicial system, the
culture of political 'Godfathers', poor quality of social
services and a poorly developed representative local government.
Rahman said that while these institutions
are addressing the challenges of governance stemming from
different socio-economic crises, their initiatives are not
always enough to bring about long term benefits for the people.
Rahman believed that had these initiatives come from within,
the nature of participation in both designing and implementing
these reforms would have been far more effective. He was also
critical of certain conditions imposed by these institutions
such as the requirement of hiring costly foreign consultants
rather than local experts and demanding immunity for 'all
their deeds and misdeeds'. Rahman pointed out that these institutions
should not force Bangladesh to adopt policies and programmes
that may not be conducive to our cultural, social and political
realities. "International institutions are welcomed to
participate as partners in most of our development efforts.
But the key to setting our agenda according to our realities,
constitutional obligations and people's aspirations should
be always be with us." Rahman further said that most
creative efforts of human development have been pioneered
by indigenous social entrepreneurs. International institutions
should therefore try to recognise and bolster these creative
options instead of forcing formulaic solutions.
and Media for 'Good Governance'
Farida Akhter, in her paper, criticised the generally accepted
definitions of the good governance agenda. The basic criticism,
she said, is that it is based on Western notions of liberal
democracy coupled with free market economies as the best option
for countries like Bangladesh. This definition, she added,
assumes that corporate NGOs with donor support and interference
contribute to good governance. But, asked Akhter, do we want
a "political and social change or some superficial changes
that fit into the globalisation agenda of the present day?"
This brand of good governance results in the privatisation
and 'NGOisation' of public services. This in turn undermines
the responsibilities of the state in its responsibility to
provide basic services to citizens.
Akhter acknowledged the positive role of media
in generating activism: "Newspaper reports have led to
many protests, campaigns and even movements by political and
social activists…There are many instances of the movements
by garment workers, women's organisations and environmental
organisations who have benefited from media reporting".
She talked of the risks taken by journalists while trying
to report important socially relevant issues and challenging
the different organs of the state.
But then, she questioned, was the media completely
free of any influence? She mentioned that one criticism of
the media's overzealous bashing of the government's failure
has been to shift the state's normal duties of providing basic
services to the private sector and to the NGOs. The media,
she added, assumes that there is no governance problem in
the private sector and the NGOs and that all of government's
failed tasks can be taken over by these two sectors. Thus
they have no accountability to the people.
One particular failing of the media, Akhter
mentioned, is that it does give any importance to global issues
that affect the local scenario. She alluded to the invasion
of multinational corporations in the seed sector whereby hybrid
seeds and genetically modified seeds have been introduced
to Bangladesh's farming that has destroyed the indigenous
varieties and farming practices. "There were genuine
resistances against the hybrid seeds, but those were not highlighted
enough. On the contrary, media projected false and manipulated
success stories. The stories of miseries of the poor are reported
but the miseries of the farmers affected by pesticides, fertilisers,
hybrid seeds and so-called development projects are not at
Akhter blamed the media for giving only the
positive sides of development projects such as the construction
of roads, highways, bridges, etc., but completely ignoring
the issues of displacement, landlessness and eviction caused
by them. She gives the example of the Jamuna Multi-Purpose
Bridge which adversely affected thousands of people and whose
stories were not reported by the media.
also pointed out the media-hyped role of micro-credit which,
she said, has not reached the poorest population: "The
bottom 15 percent of the population are out of micro-credit,
also the sick, disabled and the destitute are not 'good candidates'
of micro-credit programmes. So what kind of poverty alleviation
do micro-credit programmes claim? The high repayment rate
and the focus on women is a 'success' in papers of the micro-credit
giving organisations but in real lives of women this has become
an additional cause of violence against women.”
Governance: Social Accountability
Under this banner, Ananya Raihan, a research fellow of Centre
for Policy Dialogue, in her paper, talked about the challenges
and prospects of social accountability. Raihan stated that
there is hardly any research on this subject and no awareness
among the corporations or the stakeholders.
One of the important revelations of her research
was the cluster of statistics on the gender dimension of corporate
social accountability. According to her, 56 percent of companies
in Bangladesh do not prefer women employees and only 39 percent
of women employees with children receive some facilities from
the company. Women employees moreover, are relatively more
victimised through various forms of harassment.
Raihan gave examples of corporate governance
practices in Europe and the US. These include: employee-owned
firms, employee stock ownership, institutional ownership,
representing particular groups, farmer-owned co-operatives
in agriculture and agro-based industries, mutual funds and
widespread state ownership. The basic premise is that ownership
of the organisation does matter how socially accountable corporate
governance can be. One of the strategies the presentation
suggested is sharing ownership with workers by direct shareholding
or through the equity market. This stake could be funded by
bank loans in the same way that commercial banks finance share
purchases by the elite of Bangladesh. Raihan added that with
the help of public credit, the opportunities for access to
the market increase, thus widening the ownership of wealth.
paper advocated the development of 'social enterprises' through
which the poor will be equity owners. The management of the
enterprises will be run commercially and profits will be used
to reduce poverty and for social development. This could be
possible by legal provisions so that NGOs and CBOs (Community-based
Organisations) function as corporate entities with shareholder
participation by the poor and ensuring their accountability
to the poor.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005