Bangladesh, no doubt, is a land where non-government organisations (NGOs) have flourished most. Some of them have done wonders in the economic and social sectors of the country over the past decades. Alongside the large NGOs - two of them being the largest in the world - a countless number of small and medium-sized NGOs have made laudable contributions to socio-economic uplift of the poor.
NGOs are also well known as more proactive than traditional functionaries-- a reality that has earned them considerable influence over almost all spheres of society and the legitimacy of a parallel force to reckon with. But this does not say all. There are controversies on the modes of receiving funds from the donors, the spending patterns, financial transactions and so on. Besides, there were allegations that despite the positives of NGO intervention, the resources that reach the target group are often believed to be far less than they actually should be. These are the grey areas that have grown unhindered in the absence of transparency and an effective overseeing authority. The government, in the absence of an effective regulatory body to oversee the activities of the NGOs in the country, is reportedly contemplating to set up a commission. It has been learnt that the proposal for establishing the commission aimed at bringing all non-governmental organisations under a single authority to hold them accountable and ensure transparency in their financial transactions has already been approved by the government. The purpose is to see that NGOs registered with various authorities are made accountable to a single agency, so that they can be closely monitored, and if necessary, their operations in respective fields can be regulated in a coordinated manner.
While effective measures to check the transparency of NGO operations is beyond controversy, partnering them in the government's development programmes should be a subject of increased attention. There are fields where the NGOs have worked relentlessly and the knowledge and expertise they have gathered through trial and error is invaluable. Important of all, unlike most government agencies which characteristically suffer from lack of institutional memory, the strength of the NGOs lies in their experiences from past activities, in particular field-level activities, with a readiness for corrective actions. Notable as they are as a parallel force, their experiences and expertise may be found rewarding to not only complement the inadequacies and fill in the missing links in governmental programmes in similar fields but reinforce those with innovative ideas that they have experimented with in their own programmes. On the other hand, to make their own programmes successful, the NGOs do need close liaison and coordination with the government machinery, particularly where utility services are required.
There are activities such as adult literacy, farm credit to small farmers, hygiene and sanitation, cottage industries, cooperatives for marketing poultry and dairy products and a host of other income generating and empowerment programmes where partnering with NGOs could be more sustainable than these are now.
In the ongoing pandemic-induced situation such a partnership can be multi-faceted. NGOs can deliver the services better provided they are properly made use of. In other words, given their institutional memory and work experience in rural and semi-rural areas, they can support government's programmes with innovative ideas depending on the ground realities. It is generally believed that taking the NGOs on board under a well designed and coordinated work programme will help the poor and struggling households to plan self-sustaining means of livelihood in this difficult time. It is heartening to see that the government. though lately, has decided to disburse substantial amounts to some lead NGOs under its next stimulus package for cottage and small businesses.
Partnership between the private sector and the NGOs can also be mutually beneficial. The fact that NGOs have a vast grassroots base across the country is a point that can profitably be made use of by the corporate sectors by way of teaming up with them in reaching out to the target groups. This can serve effectively even from a typical but economically viable business consideration. Besides, sharing of experiences in running development projects to alleviate the lot of the poor can also be seen as a plausible proposition.
In this context, it is also important for the NGOs to come up with their own programmes and the type of support and assistance they may be in need of, from both public and private sectors to better sustain their activities. Very little, however, is known about their activities in this pandemic time which should not have been the case. With their country-wide network reaching out to the grassroots, it is their prime responsibility to let the people know what they are doing and how. Given the proactive nature of their intervention, it is extremely critical that they devise ways and set examples based on proven results for themselves as well as others. At the same time, it is important that the government keep some space for them in its development programmes in ways that can be worked out through consultation.