The discourse over role of civil society

Rubayet Khundoker, Alvina Ruhi Mayesha, Nowshin Anjum, KM Emrul Hasan and Mostafid Arafat | Published: June 08, 2018 22:24:08

Before we start discussing 'civil society' extensively, let us give a brief definition of it first. What is the civil society? Even though we all may have our own personal way of defining it, there is also a very basic definition. Civil Society is a group of social actors who play a crucial role in making sure services are delivered, help the people know about policy decisions and programmes of the government that have a bearing on them. The group includes think-tanks, grassroots level associations, social welfare and human rights organisations, community leaders and many others. Basically, it is a group that neither belong to the public nor the market players in an economy.

A civil society plays an important role in development of a country. The 'civil society' concept has risen to prominence in development and policy discourse. As far as the Western perception is concerned, it is a sphere that helps ensure transparency in exercising the state power while fostering social relations based on mutual trust and welfare. Thus it aids economic growth. Now with Bangladesh qualifying for graduation from the least developed country (LDC) status to a developing one, we can ask the question as to what the civil society's contribution to this is.

Think-tanks are an important part of the civil society. Even though the term "think-tank" is difficult to define, we can roughly call it the group that consists of government-affiliated research institutions, university research centres, consultancies, an informal group of academics, government advisers and foreign experts. Think-tanks influence the policy outcomes in a country. A major focus of think-tanks in different developing countries is ensuring democracy and thus bringing about development through promotion of it. As such, think-tanks conduct research and thus aid development in a country.

Civil society organisations (CSOs) are large actors in the arena of civil society. The CSOs in Bangladesh are depoliticised and they are more interested in delivering services rather than playing a part in advocacy. They focus on development more than on civil engagement. CSOs emerged in Bangladesh around 1940s and their numbers have been on the rise since then. Although they focus on socio-economical development, CSOs in Bangladesh also include local community groups, religious organisations such as mosques, clubs and housing societies alongside voluntary agencies and development organisations. Thus CSOs also include NGOs. NGOs are officially established large organisations that employ professional staffs and operate at the international, national or regional level. NGOs are deemed a key part of civil society because of their important role in development. Living in Bangladesh, we all have seen NGOs working on many scales for rural development. Some examples of foreign NGOs in Bangladesh are Oxfam, Caritas and CARE. BRAC, one of the largest NGOs in the world (employing about 120,000 people), has worked for many development projects since its establishment in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank's microcredit programme is a great example of the civil society's contribution to development. Because of this, we could see many villagers take interest in entrepreneurship. It has also made life easier for them, as they can borrow money from a bank, which they were not able to do before.

To understand how the civil society has contributed to development, we first need to understand Participatory Development (PD). PD occurs when the local population is brought under the development projects of a region by NGOs, technical professionals and the government. PD is expected to make the development projects more sustainable and successful, since it includes the local population in the development process. It has become a more accepted method of pursuing development than the traditional methods. In Bangladesh, HEED (Health Education Economic Development), one of the largest development organisations, has launched its Participatory Development Programme (PDP) that supports the poor in breaking the cycle of poverty. Under the project, the concept of empowerment is the key parameter of providing development assistance. The logic behind this is that when people are empowered, they are able to improve their socio-economic conditions by taking initiatives.

Because of the PDP, women's mobility has increased and their husbands are more supportive of their mobility. Women's awareness on legal issues has improved. Participation of community leaders and local government representatives in workshops on legal issues has also improved their awareness. As a result, in the local arbitration process, influence of 'Fatwa' (Religious edicts) has declined tremendously. Parents now attach much more importance to children's education and are willing to sacrifice their interests for it. These are few of the benefits we reap from the PDP.

When compared with traditional forms of development, PD is sometimes criticised for being costly and slow. A project may take a longer time, if one has to engage, work and come to a consensus with local communities. In addition, PD is criticised for reaching out to a smaller population than what happens in traditional development.

CSOs have been successful in many endeavours which created a beneficial change in many regions. However, CSOs were criticised, because they undermined development in other regions. Instead of initiating any change by convincing countries to follow neoliberal approaches like privatisation and minimum government intervention, CSOs have increased debts, poverty and inequality between the rich and the poor in developing countries. These leave a question mark over CSOs' accountability. In Bangladesh, many CSOs give loans to rural people in villages only to get return almost double the original amount. Rural people do not have any other alternatives. Borrowers think they are receiving help, when in reality NGOs are only doing business.

We need to recognise that many CSOs in Bangladesh play a prominent role in getting people from wealthy families in high positions of them. Civil society in our country has failed to ensure equal access to health care for the poor in backward regions.

In many regions, people pressed for political and economic reforms (such as Arab Spring), this raised a valid question as to whether CSOs were actually necessary at all. Moreover, CSOs' plans were inflexible, since they did not take account of different circumstances in many countries. They followed a "one size fits all" approach for development, which created more problems. For example, UNDP donated money to Bangladesh to empower rural women of the country by increasing participation in the shopping markets. However, there were little to no women in the market, because it deviates from Bangladeshi culture. If UNDP took into account different norms and circumstances of different countries, this costly mistake could have been easily avoided.

There has been a debate over the nature and role of civil society. Academics are expressing concerns about the civil society's position in the political field of decision making, resource distribution and political authority. We have seen many examples of how civil society's work backfired. The people who are working as part of civil society and playing a big role in the decision and policy making process are those who have high income levels. But on the other hand, the people, who have marginal income levels and are just surviving, never get to be part of civil society or play a role in decision or policy making. The civil society is making policies for these people without letting them be part of the process, let alone be part of the group. Every person irrespective of their socio-economic position should be able to be part of the civil society. But this is not happening here.


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