Rio+20: Knocking at the door
Rio Plus 20 is knocking at the door. Governments, UN agencies and NGOs are spring-cleaning their arsenals to negotiate crucial documents in the build-up to the summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 2012, three decades after the groundbreaking Rio Earth Summit in 1992.
The road from Rio to Rio+20: The global situation
The UN General Assembly Special Session or ‘Rio Plus 5’ summit, cynically dubbed ‘Rio Minus 5’, was a disappointment. The World Summit on Sustainable Development at Johannesburg in 2002, was no more encouraging, with poverty deepening and environmental degradation continuing, at least in several parts of the developing world.
At Rio+20, new agreements will likely be drawn up, on overseas development assistance (ODA), technology transfer, the millennium development goals (MDGs), consumption patterns, green energy and technology transfer and other related matters. We need to prepare ourselves so that Bangladesh’s voice is heard there, as a developing country with reasonable economic growth, as one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change and environmental degradation, and as one of the leaders of the developing countries’ club, the Group of 77 (G-77).
The status of Millennium Development Goals in Bangladesh
International negotiations are no doubt crucial for us, but we really have to clean up our own house. We have achieved some gains with regard to the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina proudly proclaimed at the UN General Assembly recently. Nevertheless, we still have a long way to go. Extreme poverty is still rampant. The scourge of malaria, particularly in the forest and adjacent areas, although reduced, is yet to be obliterated. The government’s target of achieving universal primary education by 2013, is not even remotely likely. In several sub-districts of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), for example, literacy rates are lower than 25 percent. Empowerment of women has seen some progress, but patriarchal attitudes and non-progressive social perspectives still stand as major stumbling blocks.
A glance at the big players and their mutual relationship
We need to take a close look at the major actors in development in Bangladesh and the synergies and dysfunctionalities in their relationship. The biggest players here are the government, the NGOs and the donors. Loan-providing multilateral international financial institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank, its private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and its littler regional sister, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), are also occasionally lumped in with the ‘donors’. I choose, instead, to regard them as ‘lenders’. The IFI-lenders’ role is also crucial, but I will not discuss their role in this article, both for reasons of space and time, and because my forays into that un-enchanted world of mega financing have been limited, indirect and basic. Likewise in the case of the private sector. Perhaps another day, in another article, when my horizon is widened, if ever.
Donors, lenders and government agencies
The tripartite relationship between bilateral donor, government agencies and NGOs, is far from what it should be. Government officials often find the relationship with donors (and IFI lenders) tedious. The attitude is not unlike that of a poor son-in-law, who has to grudgingly accept financial assistance from his rich father-in-law. Our officials often vie with one another to demonstrate their ‘patriotism’ by ‘acting tough’ with donors, but seldom with lenders. Donors and lenders too are often unhappy, as huge sums of their funds go unspent or under-utilized due to what they see as inefficient conduct on the part of government functionaries. Clearly, most government officials have neither the training nor orientation nor interest to oversee development work. Evidently, NGOs are, relatively speaking, more efficient in handling development work, especially where it requires intense and sustained social interaction with rural communities. The government would do well to consider ‘out-sourcing’ the developmental responsibilities of civil servants, and thereby enable the latter to do their primary job of administration, for which they are more suited, in a better way.
Perhaps civil servants are best suited to engage in, or monitor, only such development work that requires large-scale construction. No wonder, a few years ago the NGO Affairs Bureau – which monitors and regulates foreign-funded development activities – wished to make it compulsory for around half of all NGO-initiated ‘development’ work to be ‘visible’; perhaps implying construction work, grand office buildings and large numbers of ‘beneficiaries’ working in a peri-urban area, in the nature of some of our garments factories! We must thank the wiser elements among our bureaucratic and political decision-makers in preventing that from happening. So far.
Government agencies and NGOs
Government agencies generally look askance at NGOs, and often talk about ‘avoiding duplication’, a hallowed phrase in bureaucratic and political circles. Whilst this concept may be applicable as regards micro-credit- oriented NGOs – many of whom do much more ‘banking’ than ‘development’ – it is ridiculous to imagine that there is any overkill where it concerns healthcare, education, human rights, women’s rights, minorities groups’ and indigenous peoples’ rights, capacity-building and awareness-raising, among others. Imagine community leaders telling the deputy commissioners: “Sir, we are getting over-educated and over-healthy, please prevent the NGOs from drowning us in their duplication work.” NGO work is necessary because the state won’t, or can’t, provide some or all of the services that the communities need. Perhaps some day…. But until then? Do we continue to deprive our disadvantaged and excluded citizens from their right to development?
In the plains districts, the district officers (Deputy Commissioners) and their sub-district counterparts (Upazila “Nirbahi” Officers) monitor NGO activities (elected district councils are yet to be reconstituted in the plains districts). In the Chittagong Hill Tracts, in terms of the 1997 “peace” accord and post-accord laws, it is the regional and district councils that have the legal mandate to monitor local development. Yet, in the Hill Tracts too, it is the district and sub-district officers that have been entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring NGOs. NGO coordination meetings chaired by Deputy Commissioners are known to begin and end with harangues, diatribes and homilies against local NGOs, especially if the number of ethnic Bengalis in their “beneficiaries’ list” is smaller than what they consider to be ‘equitable’ and ‘non-discriminatory’. In a recent meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on the Ministry of CHT Affairs, to which CHT NGO representatives were invited, the MPs are reported to have echoed the sentiments of the district officers. Uncanny?
Apparently, protocol insists that we cannot ‘train’ leaders and people’s representatives, but civil servants can be and are trained. It is, however, obvious that our civil service training institutes are yet to impart in their trainees an adequate understanding of under-development, under-privileged and disadvantaged (read “backward” in the context of our constitutional provisions on equality and non-discrimination). NGOs working on primary education, forestry and socio-economic development in the “remote” hill and forest areas are perplexed as to how they can increase the number of Bengali “beneficiaries” in these areas, since most Bengali settlements are located in or near urban or market centres or major highways and waterways, and which, in essence, are ‘remote’ to the hill and forest communities. One NGO worker exclaimed privately in exasperation, “Well, if we are to satisfy the deputy commissioners and the intelligence officials (who closely monitor NGO activities to ostensibly screen ‘terrorist’ and other ‘anti-state’ and ‘discriminatory’ activities), we will have to start another Bengali settlement programme in the remote regions of the CHT.” Surely, we do not want that, not after the experience of the 1980s, whereby we have not only impoverished the settler and local populations, ‘minoritised’ and marginalised the CHT Bengali and indigenous residents, but have sowed the seeds of ethnic tension in the CHT that might take decades to undo, if at all!
Donors and NGOs
The relationship between foreign donor agencies and fund-receiving NGOs can be cordial, tense, or in plainspeak, hypocritical. There are two major factors, among others, that create severe complications. One is the ‘sector-orientation’ of major donors. The other is the adherence to the Paris Principles (resulting from the 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness). These principles favour governmental, rather than non-governmental actors, and similarly prefer corporate-style-managed and large, to small, and more community-oriented, NGOs. No doubt, such a perspective has some logic, when the effectiveness of the expenditure of taxpayers’ money is being accounted for. However, this also leaves insufficient flexibility to deal with countries such as Bangladesh, where governmental agencies suffer from huge dysfunctionalities in service-delivery, and where micro-credit-oriented NGOs rule the roost (the latter did facilitate women’s empowerment to some extent, but I remain unconvinced about the success of their poverty-reduction activities, which have often led to further marketisation and monetisation of rural micro economies, but not necessarily reduced, let alone eradicated, poverty).
In theory, donors’ wish to ensure that a long-term niche is carved out, whether in water and sanitation, healthcare, education or other sectors, is not unsound. But this may also mean that NGOs, especially the smaller ones, who seek funds for the ‘minor’ sectors, or sectors not promoted by the concerned donor agency, like culture, human rights or capacity-building, may have to accept projects in undesired sectors just to survive and pay their employees’ salaries! I occasionally refer to these NGOs as ‘aloo-kochu’ NGOs (potato and taro or yam NGOs). Let us assume that some NGO wanted to work on ‘tomato-farming’ or other matter (read culture, capacity-raising, etc), but could not find any funding for the desired subject matter. They therefore become “alu-kochu” NGOs.
The other problem with donor recipes is that if only larger NGOs are funded – e.g., to save administrative costs, as it might cost the same or even less to monitor a few large NGOs rather than several small ones – the smaller NGOs will never be able to raise their organisational strengths and capacities. Donors, at least some of them, may insist that their supported NGOs raise their self-dependent capacities, but if that is largely fund-raising through micro-credit, that may have its own dynamic of “playing games with poor people’s money” and further impoverishing them. Perhaps, with the small leftward or ‘centre-ward’ trend that we recently saw in elections in some Western European countries, the appropriateness of several aspects of the Paris Principles can be re-thought out and re-negotiated. Or so some hope.
Development rights and duty-bearers
Ultimately, there can be no better service-provider and duty-bearer for delivering basic development services to citizens than the state, at least in the developing countries like Bangladesh. Of course, the market can, and often does, fulfil several of these development gaps left by the state. But that is only for those who can afford it. Impoverished and disadvantaged communities – including indigenous peoples and certain minorities – are all too often left out, whether it be security (they cannot hire private guards), healthcare (they cannot afford to use private hospitals and public hospitals are overcrowded) or education (they cannot access the better institutions in the cities). Therefore, a balance has to be assessed and apportioned, between the state, NGOs and the market. In Bangladesh’s journey towards a middle-income country, these inequities – coupled with the threats of climate change, intransigent partyism, cronyism, corruption and administrative dysfucntionalities – need to be carefully considered and a more workable and synergetic relationship established between the government and NGOs. Only then can these two, in alliance with the citizenry, sit squarely with donors and lenders, look them in the eye, and negotiate a better deal for our citizens, to achieve sustainable and equitable development.
Devasish Roy Wangza is the Chakma Raja and Chakma Circle Chief of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an advocate at the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. He is also associated with several NGOs dealing with development, environment, culture and human rights in Dhaka and in the Hill Tracts.