Friday, January 25, 2008

Free Market NGOs in Bangladesh

There's an article in the January/February issue of The Atlantic about Bangladesh. Authored by Robert D. Kaplan, it's called "Waterworld," and it starts out with a long, perhaps sensationalist account of what Bangladesh might have to look forward to because of global warming -- a scenario which wasn't very surprising to me at least. (This much we knew from Al Gore.) There is also a bit about the growth of Islamic extremism -- and that too wasn't at all surprising for those of us who have followed Bangladesh even off-and-on.

What was interesting, however, was Kaplan's account of the role NGOs play in making an otherwise dysfunctional country work. To begin with, Kaplan argues, central government has always been rather weak in Bangladesh because of the geography and climate:

Yet Bangladesh is less interesting as a hydrologic horror show than as a model of how humankind copes with an extreme natural environment. Weather and geography have historically worked here to cut one village off from another. Central government arrived only with the Turkic Moguls in the 16th century, but neither they nor their British successors truly penetrated the countryside. The major roads were all built after independence in 1971. This is a society that never waited for a higher authority to provide it with anything. The isolation effected by floodwaters and monsoon rains has encouraged institutions to develop at the local level. As a result, the political culture of rural Bangladesh is more communal than hierarchical, and women play a significant role.

Four hours’ drive northwest of Dhaka, the capital, I found a village in a Muslim-Hindu area where the women had organized themselves into separate committees to produce baskets and textiles and invest the profits in new wells and latrines. They had it all figured out, showing me on a crude cardboard map where the new facilities would be installed. They received help from a local nongovernmental organization that, in turn, had a relationship with CARE. But the organizational heft was homegrown. (link)

Later Kaplan goes on to mention Grameen Bank and BRAC, both of which blend the idea of social uplift with free market principles, and have had widespread success in Bangladesh as a result:

The credit for coping so well rests ultimately with NGOs. As familiar as their work now is, NGOs in Bangladesh represent a whole new organizational life-form; thousands of them fill the void between village committees and a remote, badly functioning central government.

Of course, this enhanced role raises ethical questions, not least because many of these Bangladeshi humanitarian enterprises have for-profit elements. Take Muhammad Yunus, who, along with his Grameen Bank, won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering micro-credit schemes for poor women: Grameen also operates a cell-phone and Internet service. Then there is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, which, besides doing bounteous relief and development work, operates dairy, poultry, and clothing businesses. Its head offices, like those of Grameen, are in a skyscraper that is some of Dhaka’s most expensive real estate. Yet to focus on the impurities of these NGOs is to ignore their transformative powers.

“One thing led to another,” explains Mushtaque Chowdhury, BRAC’s deputy executive director. “In order not to be dependent on Western charities, we set up our own for-profit printing press in the 1970s. Then we built a plant to pasteurize milk from the cattle bought by poor women with the loans we had provided them.” Now they’ve become a kind of parallel government, with a presence in 60,000 villages. (link)

We've had several posts on the Grameen Bank over the years, particularly after Muhammed Yunus won the Nobel Prize for his work, but there's been less about BRAC.

I went to the BRAC homepage, and found a link to a YouTube video, with one young woman's answer to the "Davos Question." An interesting idea -- though I have to admit I wasn't overwhelmed by BRAC's entry.

Just as I was interested in what readers had to say about Pratham in a post on education in India last week, today I'm interested to know what people have heard about BRAC.



Blogger Natasha Khan said...

I noticed that your are a professor. I actually had an unrelated question for you. I have an academic film series that I would like to bring to professors attentions. As a professor what is the best way to reach professors (media,catalogs,phone,conf, etc.). Thanks so much for your knowledge sharing. :)

5:25 PM  

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