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Sunday, August 4, 2013

Civil Society and good governance in the history of Bangladesh

Civil Society and good governance in the history of Bangladesh
The colonization of the Indian subcontinent had far-reaching implications for the economic and political systems that were inherited by both India and Pakistan (including what is now Bangladesh) at the time of
independence and partition in 1947. The prevailing conditions of underdevelopment and poverty across the subcontinent had deep roots in the colonial histories of plunder, oppression, and domination. As a result, a comprehensive understanding of civil society in Bangladesh is not possible without a historical perspective.

The state of Bengal, to the east of the Indian subcontinent, made a substantial contribution to the liberation of the subcontinent from colonial rule. During the colonial period, an enlightened generation emerged in Bengal in the early nineteenth century which creatively engaged in debate and action on major social issues and contributed to a range of educational, religious, and social reforms; language and literature; art and culture; and media. This generation practice played the role of what we now call a ‘think tank’ and formed the first conscious and active civil society in Bengal, providing revolutionary inputs to many spheres of life. This facilitated social progress in education and social welfare and also contributed to the rise of nationalism, which formed the basis of the Indian independence movement in the later half of the nineteenth century.        

The eastern, predominantly Muslim, half of Bengal became a province of Pakistan at the time of partition and became known as East Pakistan. The area lacked any real resource base other than its people and its highly fertile- though ecologically vulnerable- agricultural land. However, in the political sphere of East Bengal, there existed a strong tradition of political parties and social movements among its citizens, for whom the legacy of 150 years of anti-colonial struggle by civil society had left its mark. After 1947, East Bengal effectively became a colony of West Pakistan, and this quickly proved unacceptable to the majority of the population. The resistance that soon ensued generated a violent response from the West Pakistan authorities and produced a further period of political, economic and cultural domination. This was to last for twenty-four years, ending only with the Liberation War of 1971, which led to Bangladesh’s national independence.

Civil society’s struggle in East Pakistan was ignited by one specific act of cultural repression: the decision of the West Pakistan, including the eastern area, which was completely dominated by people who spoke the Bengali language. In fact, the ‘Bangalees’ formed the majority of the population of Pakistan at that time. Organized civil society in the form of student groups and citizen organizations coalesced into what became known as the ‘language movement’, which achieved its first victory in 1952 with the official recognition of ‘Bangla’ as a state language. However, this was not the end of the struggle, which gradually expanded beyond the cultural sphere to take on economic and political dimensions also. It would be very difficult to identify a single cultural, economic, and political movement in East Pakistan- from the language movement in 1948 to the war of independence in 1971- that did not involve a substantial contribution to civil society.

After 1971, a new set of organizations emerged within civil society that came to the aid of victims of Bangladesh’s liberation war, especially those who had to flee the country and take refuge in India. When the war ended, these organizations directed their efforts toward complementing the government efforts to carry out a massive relief and rehabilitation programme with international assistance. This enabled many of these new NGOs to sustain their organizational entities for several years after the war. In this way, it became possible for them gradually to change their focus from charity to welfare and development evolved into development NGOs, combining service delivery with a ‘civil society’ focus (Serrano 1994; Wood 1994).

While this group of post-independence NGOs were creating room for themselves as new actors in civil society, some of the traditional CSOs that had emerged during the period of struggle leading to independence- such as the student political organizations- became effectively cooped into the dominant mainstream political structures. This cooption had serious political consequences as Bangladesh’s fragile political system began to veer in an antidemocratic direction. These organizations therefore failed to oppose the highly controversial steps to centralize power that were taken by Sheikh Mujib’s ruling Awami League (AL) government in January 1975. The changes include the abolition of all political parties in order to reform a single party, which led to the abandonment of the multiparty system for a one-party system. The parliamentary system of government was replaced by a presidential form, and all but four national newspapers were banned.

The consequences of these political changes were disastrous for the AL for civil society, and for the country as a whole. The army took over power through a bloody coup, and Bangladesh lost its democratic process to a succession of military rules for fifteen years. As Sobhan (1997, 39) observes, during this period, a ‘spiral of negative events started from which Bangladesh did not begin to emerge till 1990, fifteen years on. ‘The traditional CSOs fell into deep crisis and became driven by internal conflict and fragmented by factionalism along ideological and party political lines. Many of the traditional Dos were to return to a more active role during the mass movement in 1990 to restore the democratic process, but by this time a new actor in civil society – the NGOs community- had emerged.

The typology of CSOs in Bangladesh developed by Holloway (1994) suggests that there are three different general categories in existence. In the first category are membership organizations that ‘only help themselves’ in the second are the non-membership organizations that ‘help others’, and in the third we find a set of largely spurious organizations that ‘do not help’ at all:

•    Membership organizations are indigenous organizations in the community, induced community groups, mass organizations, cooperatives, religious societies, trade organizations and professional associations.

•    Non-memebrship organizations are local institutions, NGOs, implementing organizations, People’s Organizations, support organizations, networks and forums, apex organizations, area-based benevolent societies, service clubs and non-profit companies.

•    Opportunist organizations ate those that lack legitimacy as genuine civil society organizatyions. These have been termed as ‘come’ and “Goes’ (set up by unscrupulous individuals for personal profit), GONGOS (Government-organized NGOs), DONGOS (Donor-organized NGOs), and BONGOS (Business-organized NGOs).


The above typology, although neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, provided a useful guide for understanding the general composition of civil society in Bangladesh.

Blair (1997) suggests that CSOs in Bangladesh are potential additional players in the political economy of a country in which he identifies the bureaucracy, political leaders, military, rural elite, and business community as the dominant actors. He classifies these potential additional players in two groups: one he terms traditional candidates and the other he terms newer civil society candidates.  Among the traditional candidates, he identifies two sub-groups: one he describes as coopted and includes groups of professional such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, teachers, labor unions, and students.  The other subgroups he calls missing groups, and these include the various organizations of market-oriented farmers, sharecroppers, and rural laborers. In Blair’s view newer civil society candidates are the various NGOs and umbrella groups that have become concerned with human rights, investigative journalism, the subordination of women, environmental problems, and issues of poverty among the rural and urban populations (Blair 1997).