“Without knowledge action is useless and knowledge without action is futile”-Abu Bakr.
We know our problems; we sometimes feel helpless and hopeless when facing them daily. The starkness of our political and economic reality is at times overwhelming — there is no Pyongyang inspired fake architectural “wonders” or charismatic leader with “a better future right around the corner” sales pitch to camouflage or pretty up the rot in our system. True, we know our problems, but most of us do not know how to access the solutions to the problems; most of us, even if we wish to contribute towards the solution, do not know how and when to take that first step towards action.
Thankfully, however, we Bangladeshis are rescued from the grimness of our current reality and are inspired towards action by the few amongst us who succeed against all odds; we are inspired by these magnificent beings to soar and lift ourselves above our daily problems so that we may glimpse the “what may” of a brighter future, instead of being bogged down in the “what is” of today’s bleak outlook. Our sometimes wavering belief that Bangladeshis and by extension Bangladesh are and is able to and can make giant leaps, has been strengthened by the recent endeavours of Bangladesh’s “Plus 2” (term coined by my friend Awrup Sanyal, which hopefully will disengage us from the “minuses” that have recently scarred our political dialogue and democratic maturity), Nishat Mazumder and Wasfia Nazreen, who bested an incredible lack of resources and the harshest elements imaginable to plant our country’s flag on the highest peak of the tallest mountain, Mount Everest. Thank God for these heroes — may they continue to climb higher peaks so that we may continue to stand on their shoulders to see a brighter tomorrow.
Thanks to our “Plus 2”, I was inspired to shake off the despondency peeking out through my last column Act Now, and look to those who are engaged in our public sphere for inspiration and attempt to come up with some initial action steps we can take to become more engaged with our political process and, over time, change the public sector into one that truly serves the public! My aspiration is that the readers of this piece will add to the steps below so that we may come up with a more exhaustive list.
Know Our History. A few months ago, I watched Naeem Mohaiemen’s intensely personalised documentary “The Young Man Was, Part 1; United Red Army”, a 70-minute film covering the 1977 JAL 472 hijacking in Dhaka by the Japanese Red Army, while briefly touching on the unrelated and unsuccessful air-force coup that occurred at the same time and place and its consequences. The film teleported me back to that period, and I recalled the anxiety — even as a 7-year-old — that my family and I were feeling for my late father’s safety as he was covering the hijacking as a journalist. Naeem’s film made me deeply aware of two unfortunate truths about myself — that I know very little about my country’s history and know almost nothing about my family’s involvement with its birth and infancy. So I started asking my mother, my mama and my chachas about the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s and reading about our history (and seeing the incredible gaps that are there); hearing about my family’s and their friends’ at times death defying struggles and experiences and learning more about our history, I appreciated how much our past generations have struggled to get us where we are. In our young country, it is likely that most of us from the post-liberation generation have at least one family member who played some part in our country’s birth and post-independence history — I believe a step towards our post-liberation generation knowing ourselves, and to feel that we are stakeholders in this country with a voice and a reason to participate, is to talk to our family members and elders and collect the oral histories about the part they played, and the struggles they endured, throughout our tumultuous pre and post independence period. Furthermore, collecting the oral histories of the participants in that history (and enabling researchers access to those histories and the letters and notes of our elders) will help us resist the propagandists of any “winner takes all” government from completely re-writing and re-inventing our history.
Our history, of course, does not start at independence. I was fortuitously reminded of that last month at TEDxDhaka (Bangladesh’s participation in a global set of conferences formed to disseminate “ideas worth spreading”), where I heard Samier Mansur passionately speak of Bengal’s long history of enlightenment and pluralism in his research presentation of the Bangladesh Pluralism Project (a simple online search would bring up information on the project). Connecting with this larger and more elevated history of Bangladesh and Bengal shows us, in Samier’s words, that “the ancient legacy of Bengal is one of plurality and prosperity, and there is no reason to believe that the future of Bangladesh won’t hold the same promise.”
Know Our Rights. One of the achievements of the current government is the enactment of the Right to Information Act on March 29, 2009 (the “RTI Act”) and the formation of the Information Commission. As detailed in the World Bank and others report “The Power of Using the Right to Information Act in Bangladesh: Experiences from the Ground” (available online), citizens of the country have started using the RTI Act to obtain their entitlements under public schemes that provide vulnerable groups various government services. The aforementioned report provides specific examples where ordinary people, sometimes with the assistance of NGOs, have used the RTI Act to penetrate the bureaucratic veil of the government to retrieve information, hold the public servants accountable and to obtain benefits from the government that were not being otherwise provided to them. The stories highlighted in the report provide powerful examples of individual and sometimes collective engagement in the political process and the benefits that come as a result of such engagement. I humbly encourage our readers to review the report and help in strengthening the demand side of seeking information under the RTI Act. These stories could also be highlighted in the newspapers and blogs. Keeping in mind the infrastructure challenges and the potential roadblocks that may be put up in retrieving information, each of us as individuals and as advocates for marginalized groups, could participate in demanding information and accountability from the government and enhance the potential of the RTI Act to ensure that entitlements go to those who need them most.
The current government also deserves credit for formulating the aspirational goal of “Digital Bangladesh” as a tool to bridge our resource limitations and to optimize delivery of services. We have seen this aspiration becoming reality as government bodies, NGOs, entrepreneurs and private citizens have contributed/are contributing to increasing the citizens’ access to statutes, law, government publications and information regarding citzens’ rights. Just like an informed patient who goes to a doctor after researching her symptoms and possible diagnosis, it is incumbent on us as citizens to understand the laws that impact us, so that we may better engage our advocates and representatives in upholding the law. Furthermore, we can spread such information and our opinions on social media sites which have proven decisive in creating public awareness and leading to public action in other countries.
Finally, it could be also expected that the election manifestos of the parties and candidates contesting the next elections would also be available for us to view; these manifestos could be useful tools for us citizens to hold the parties and candidates accountable to meet their pre-election promises after they are elected.
Knowledge into Action. Once we understand our role in the political process, we are able to initiate action. However, for most of us, coalescing what we know and directing that into individual and, together with other like-minded individuals, mass action is the most difficult step. Accordingly, I looked around and found heroes who participate and take action (some of which are highlighted below), so that we may follow their footsteps.
Find a Particular Problem and Do Something to Contribute to its Solution. A friend who has been deeply disillusioned with our politics has self-funded and started an internet talk show called “Nagorik TV” to highlight politically outlier opinions and to formulate a more positive dialogue in our politics. Another friend, a young woman who grew up in the “Occupy Movement”, has come back to Bangladesh and is trying to put together mass actions towards highlighting injustices such as the Limon case. A young colleague and close friend, frustrated with the dearth of legal information on the internet, self-funded a legal resource site where cases, statutes and legal articles are uploaded on a regular basis.
There are numerous entrepreneurs who have started various social impact entities that solve critical poverty/knowledge delivery issues. Many others are foregoing significant higher salaries in-for-profit organizations to have an impact through working for social organizations such as BRAC, etc. There are thousands of folks in Bangladesh who are doing similar things, and we can look to them for inspiration to start our own projects or to join them to solve a particular problem or problems in our system.
Find like-minded people and organizations. JAGOREE, an organization dedicated to involving the youth of this country towards finding solutions to problems such as lack of political accountability and road safety, is an organization that could create immediate change with more citizen participation and funding. JAAGO and Streetwise are organizations that provide education for street children. Volunteer For Bangladesh has done wonders in instilling volunteerism amongst our young, and is working towards “quality education for all”. Think Legal is a free on-line legal resource website, which brings legal information to the public. Green Forum, formed by professionals and Dhaka University students and alums, are helping many students and alum access leadership and soft skills.
Obhoyaronno, an animal welfare/rights organization, is working with limited funds and volunteers to alleviate the suffering of animals. On the legal front, Ain o Salish Kendra, BLAST, BELA (whose chief executive Syeda Rizwana Hasan recently won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award 2012) and others, are contributing mightily towards alleviating our citizens’ access to justice. There are numerous organizations such as these who are contributing to our society and improvement of our political process. These organizations are starved for volunteers and many are short of funds. Active engagement in civic organizations can provide a first step towards involvement in politics and government (for instance, President Obama was a community activist before he ran for his first election).
Act Now. For those who are able, we can go back to our villages and participate in grassroots social, economic and political movements. For most of us, we can initiate our activism by volunteering our time for existing civic or political organizations; if we are able, we may provide funds to organizations that are working to solve problems that are close to our hearts. When doing so, we may recognize that these are just initial steps towards us-the citizens- becoming engaged in the larger political process, which I believe is an absolute necessity if we are to ever have a government that truly serves its citizens and is “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
The time to act is now. To paraphrase the Nike slogan and a quote from the Buddha, “just do it, for what you will be is what you do now”.
Masud Khan Shujon is an aspiring writer, social entrepreneur and a lawyer.