Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 4 Issue 31 | January 28, 2005 |

   Cover Story
   News Notes
   A Roman Column
   Time Out
   Straight Talk
   Slice of Life
   Food for Thought
   Dhaka Diary
   Book Review
   New Flicks
   Write to Mita

   SWM Home

Cover Story

Let People's
Voices be Heard

There 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 divide.
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.

Activism on Call


The 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 as well."

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 not retarded".

"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


When 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.

Women 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 legal system.

But 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 matters."

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 religion.

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 and fulfil.

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.

Another 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 justice.

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.

The Deafening


There 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 of brotherhood".

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 a luxury.

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," Tripura said.

"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," he added.

On 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.

But 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."

Commercial 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.

Khushi 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."

It 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 of Bangladesh.

Nurturing the Hope
of the Future

Imran H. Khan

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.

Child 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 school.

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.

Children 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," added Habibunnesa.

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?" she continued.

Dr. 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." She continued.

The Rules of the Game


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."

Dr 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.

Role 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.

Activism 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 all there."

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.

Akhter 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.”

Corporate 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.

Raihan's 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.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005