Published in Dhaka Tribune on Thursday, 26 October 2017 

Screws tighten on NGOs

Shariful Islam

Rights and advocacy-based NGOs face funding crunch after new regulations come into force

After decades of successful collaboration with the government, non-government organisations (NGOs) are currently experiencing an existential crisis in Bangladesh.

Asian Development Bank in its profile of Bangladesh states that from relief and rehabilitation, microcredit loan programs, and education to strategies for water treatment and agriculture, NGOs have found a niche for themselves in the gap between society and state, seeking to promote the people’s welfare through grassroots initiatives and development programs.

But between the new NGO law the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2016 (FDRB) that came into effect on October 13, 2016 and Bangladesh attaining the middle income status from the World Bank, NGOs now find themselves in an uncomfortable position – running out of funds and enduring bureaucratic delays and tighter scrutiny from the government.

Talking about the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said: “NGOs are not only supposed to praise the government’s positive work but also criticise its shortcomings.”

The law is causing difficulties for many NGOs, especially the rights and advocacy-based ones, observed Iftekharuzzaman, who termed the law contradictory to the rules of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

There is also a funding shortage from foreign donors and development partners for rights advocacy programmes following the new NGO law, where one of the provisions allows the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) to suspend the registration of an NGO or to close it down if it makes any ‘derogatory’ remarks about the constitution or constitutional bodies.

Terror financing is the worst thing that such NGOs are doing, while some other NGOs are involved in conspiracy against our apparel sector

According to recent data from the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB), as many as 2553 NGOs have registered till July 12. The NGOAB estimate reads that the average annual registration during the Awami League-led government’s 1996-2001 tenure stood at 121, while the number dropped to only 78 in each of the last three years of the party’s current tenure. It is obvious that NGO registration numbers have been gradually declining.

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After attaining the lower-middle-income country status the government has started showing an authoritarian tendency towards NGOs, alleged the insiders.

The government is yet to clarify about the role of NGOs in helping to implement Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The government had previously partnered with the NGOs on achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2015.

In an effort to be involved in the process, NGOs formed a platform called Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh under the leadership of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), an independent think tank, to help implement SDGs.

CPD’s Distinguished Fellow Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, convener of the platform, in a recent conference, titled “NGO’s role in achieving SDGs”, said: “The efforts of the NGOs coupled with government initiatives can play a vital role in achieving SDGs.”

Abul Kalam Azad, chief coordinator of SDG affairs at the PMO, urged NGOs to make plans individually to achieving SDGs. Azad then hinted at approving new NGOs soon, but experts said it would take more time.

Many experts said the government took a strict position after allegations of NGOs taking political sides emerged. Some ruling party leaders said many NGOs work as a pressure group and supported civil society positions during the parliamentary elections.

NGO face funding crunch

As NGOs in Bangladesh are mainly dependent on foreign assistance, global economics and politics play a vital role in how development funding is allocated in donor country’s budgets.

Many NGOs, mostly the small ones, have been forced to close their operations because of a funding crisis, say insiders. Monir Hossain, an NGO project

coordinator in Gaibandha, said: “A number of NGOs have suspended their work in many projects in the area since they are not getting enough funds. Many of the NGOs only have offices here without any work.”

TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said: “The development partners have shifted their priorities towards the Middle East crisis and Africa. We have to bear in mind that developed countries are also going through a recession. There is also a changing attitude in the political discourse in Europe and North America.”

“The donors now want to provide money to sectors related to human rights, instead of the service sector,” said Towfikul Islam Khan, Research Director of CPD.

However, NGOAB Director General (DG) Khandakar Rakibur Rahman said they are keen to promote small-scale local NGOs by providing them with support including funds.

CPD’s Dr Debapriya proposed the government to create a yearly trust fund of Tk100 crore for the NGOs: “NGOs have been dependent on foreign donors but it is not possible to achieve SDGs by only depending on foreign aid-run organisations.”

Abul Kalam Azad said he would advocate for the trust fund at the ministerial level.

Controversy surrounds some NGOs

NGOs in Bangladesh

Critics of the NGO sector have occasionally raised concerns about some NGOs, especially those receiving funds from Middle Eastern countries, alleging they could have links to terror financing.

Dhaka University Economics Department Professor MM Akash said some NGO are doing controversial work in the name of development.

“Terror financing is the worst thing that such NGOs are doing, while some other NGOs are involved in a conspiracy against our apparel sector,” he claimed.

“In order to tackle such controversial activities, the capacity and power of the NGOAB has to be increased,” he added.

When asked about the allegation of terror funding, NGOAB’s Khandakar Rakibur Rahman said: “Our respective departments are working in this regard.”

He stressed on capacity building of both local NGOs and NGOAB in this regard and asked the local NGOs to maintain a close link with the bureau for providing better services to the people.

Talking about engaging NGOs in SDG implementation, he said, “The process is ongoing.”