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act-now“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.

Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

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.

Photo courtesy: Jaago
Photo courtesy: Jaago

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.

21 Responses to “Act now: Steps towards greater engagement”

  1. Peer-Jada Qureshi

    Salaam to you, Mr Masud Khan. Inclusive, inspirational and in-depth are some adjectives that spring to mind when I read this – a “series” is well called for on each of your sub-headings. Your broad-ranging article is well thought out and instructive and leaves me wanting more. We need thinkers and do-ers like you with “supra-national” experience to bring people together in a workable solution – for it is surely time. Your work on Amadeyr Cloud and commercial and legal expertise are well-noted. I hope these will spread and inspire the new Bangladeshi Professional, Business, Social and Political Moghuls to direct their energies creatively. This feeling reminds me of the translation – “Because of time humans are at loss – except those who do good works and join together in Truth and patience.” Peer-Jada Qureshi (UK and International Lawyer and Social Entrepreneur).

    • Shujon

      Dear Mr. Peer-Jada, thank you for your kind words (and your more importantly your support in our joint endeavors). InshAllah, we will join together in Truth and patience. Warmest Regards, M

  2. ATM Shamsul Huda

    I basically agree with you that social change must emanate from below and cannot be imposed from above.One of the reasons for our dysfunctional politics is that the voice of the people at the grass-root are ignored too often. Small initiatives of the type you have mentioned do not register positively with our political masters and bureaucrats at all levels. However, the efforts and initiatives must go on and success will come. I can see the difference between now and 1972 in people’s attitude with regard to the role of the state and its various functionaries. People generally are aware of their rights and they want more and better service delivery from the state.

    • Shujon

      Dear Huda Uncle, thank you for your feedback and your vote of confidence/optimism that “success will come”. Regarding your point about the citizens’ awareness of their rights and demand for better service delivery, I saw that point superbly demonstrated by a recent pilot conducted by BRAC on the Right to Info Act. After the pilot was completed, I visited the pilot site in Mymensingh and spoke (a) to the BRAC volunteers who informed the villager citizens about RTI/assisted those who needed info from the public officials to file a demand for such info, and (b) the UP Chairman and various other officials at the Upazilla parishad who were on the receiving end of such demands. At a very subjective and observational level, I noted the various successes of the pilot including a significant increase in the number of RTI applications–however, the most promising impact I noted (which probably will not be reported) is the behavioural impact/change in the public servants. Although initially the public servants’ responses to the information requests were as expected (from annoyance/resistance at the villagers’ requests to outright offensive behaviour towards the villagers), as the demand by the citizens under RTI increased, dynamics between the citizens and the public servants dramatically changed. As the citizens understood that they had rights to such information and the public servants had a duty to them, their normal “hat in hand” behaviour evolved to becoming more persuasive/demanding-akin to a customer at a customer service center (this I garnered from talking to a large number of volunteers); an even more positive change occurred with most of the public servants who went from being dismissive (their usual response to citizen interactions) to not only becoming more forthcoming but also, in the words of the volunteers and some of the citizens I spoke to, more “bhodro” (offering tea and actually talking to the citizens, even when the info was not readily available). Even though this is based on a one day trip and some 30 odd conversations (and some reading and research), it pointed me towards the possibility of behavioural change in the public sector that may occur over a very short period. Anyways, we are now planning to do a pilot with Amadeyr Cloud, where we will (a) develop audio video content regarding RTI Act and their rights thereunder, general citizen rights (what it means to be a citizen/customer of the government, how one can exercise them), entitlement programs (including forms for such programs which can be autofilled by the users, and then printed at the BRAC village office), the reasons for getting birth certificates, etc., and how to get them/the forms for them, etc.; (b) upload the programs on our Tablets which the volunteers can take door to door and even leave with certain households overnight (to passed from household to household over a week) so that the households can watch the videos and understand them at their own leisure, and (c) as the basic info of the participants in the program will be already inputed into the Tablet, all the entitlement application forms and the RTI request form can be auto-filled in, printed at the BRAC village office and then delivered to the applicable office. I would expect that as demand for information (and greater understanding of citizens’ rights) increase, public servants behaviour generally will also change to accommodate a more demanding and aware client base. I will send you e-mails and keep you updated on how that goes. Warmest Regards,

  3. Minnat Khan

    I agree that if we’re not part of the solution, we are part of the problem so we should act now. Thank you for reminding us that we can all be productive in some way!

  4. Milton

    I want the writer to tell us how we, the young generation can help the poor and the needy. We have no one to lead us.

    • Shujon

      Dear Messrs. Gazi and Milton, please take a bit of time and look up the websites/FB pages of some of the organizations I mentioned. At the very least, you may be able to volunteer your time to the organization that is closest to your heart/cause that you are most passionate about. If you have funds, you may be able to sponsor a child or two for JAAGO or Streetwise. And, of course, all action starts at home – so, a small step could be sponsoring your staff’s childrens’ education. Wasim, a close friend of mine, has been sponsoring a number of children of his employees so that they may be able to complete their education all the way to university. There are many heroes amongst us who are doing their bit to help folks. You can also check out the wonderful work being done by http://www.amardeshamargram.com/ and http://www.amadeyrcloud.org (I am blessed to be part of this wonderful organization). Warmest Regards, Shujon

  5. Raihan Mujib

    Thank you Masud Khan for this uplifting piece. However, can I suggest you to stick to in future? Quite a few of the sentences in this article are so long that I lost track at many a point. Hope you won’t take it otherwise.

    • Shujon

      Dear Mr. Mujib, thank you for your very valid feedback. Look for crisper/shorter sentences for the next piece:-)
      Warmest Regards, Shujon

    • Sadat Karim

      I also agree with Raihan Mujib. The sentences in the piece were too long. I tried to read the piece to my daughter; she said she didn’t understand most of it as she forgot what was said in the beginning by the time i ended reading a sentence to her.

      But personally, I loved the piece. Such a positive one!

      • Shujon

        Dear Mr. Karim, I love the fact that you tried to read the piece to your daughter–will definitely work on making my next pieces crisper and less clunky:-).
        Warmest Regards, Shujon

  6. Mishu A

    The work of Jaago is a splendid one. The school children raising money to help the deprived is really encouraging. Keep it up.

  7. Amanta

    We need each and everyone to come together and help the poor especially the children.

  8. Sonia

    We are a nation of 15 crore people. If half the well-offs come forward to help the deprived and the poor, there will not remain in any poverty on our soil.

    All it needs is us to come forward.

  9. akku chowdhury

    I agree with you fully “ACT NOW” yes and we need to. We must act in our own way with our own ability to make life a little better for the next person. The youth leadership is what we need for that. Thanks Masud Khan for sharing this with me and yes as Buddha said and you quoted so awesomely at the end of your article “just do it, for what you will be is what you do now”.

    • Shujon

      Dear Akku bhai, you are one of the “doers” I take inspiration from and hope to follow in your and the other “doers” footsteps.
      Warmest Regards, Shujon

  10. Farmanul Hoque Chowdhury

    Young people to exercise their right to participation (to be involved, to lead and to take action) in improving their health and well being around the world. Participation may mean being actively involved in the planning, implementation and evaluation of development activities, programmes and policies that affect their lives.The Youth of Today is a consortium of leading organisations working together to increase the quality, quantity and diversity of opportunities for young people as leaders of change in their communities. So, basically for country’s well being if you people really interested to work than I want to join with JAGOREE.

    ( by the way for your kind information I lived in the UK and any kind of co-operation you need don’t hesitate to contact with me, thanks)

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