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Change the culture first

  • Published at 08:26 pm August 5th, 2018
Where is the flaw in the plan?
Where is the flaw in the plan? Photo: BIGSTOCK

Our NGOs are mired in a sea of confidentiality and bureaucracy

Recently, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) released a report on governance in the NGO sector. Reportedly, 19 suggestions were placed. 

As someone who has had the chance to see the sector from both the perspective of an NGO worker and a donor, I feel that unless this sector is opened to the media and faces full scrutiny, a plethora of incongruities will come out. 

Cosmetic changes will not add accountability to development, because, for decades, this sector has adopted some profoundly flawed practices which have been institutionalized to become known as the proverbial “development culture.”

The unwritten law is, once you work in the field, adherence plus defense of this culture is a must.  

Opening up to the media is essential 

The first necessity is to break away from the “media shy” tag, which is actually adopted to stay away from being exposed as deeply bureaucratic bodies where decisions are impeded by a farrago of superfluous regulations. 

The development culture’s major problem is that no decision can be taken unless it goes round and round in circles, via e-mails, to at least half a dozen dinosaurs, whose main objective seems to be sitting at a desk and wasting time. 

This deadly practice alone reduces the efficacy of development initiatives. Not a single development body in Bangladesh has regular media briefing or interaction sessions, deciding to stay beyond the curtain, only responding with impenetrable, incoherent language when questions are sent to them asking about particular irregularities.

Unless the media has access to the development sector, the change will never happen. 

What the government can do is form a specific development media probe body with the freedom and the mandate to ask critical questions about development, and get the right to look at development programs thoroughly from all angles. 

Sorry to say this, when you are terrified of the media, then there’s something you are trying to hide. 

A government-appointed watchdog

A non-partisan development watchdog, featuring prominent civil society members without any link to development bodies, members or defense forces, and academics from development studies from prominent universities, can be a start. 

The main task of this body will be to keep track of programs which are launched with lofty visions and objectives, and are heard no more. In many cases, programs begin with a bang but are silently ended with a whimper, quietly sidelined to avoid any public detection. 

The fund is used up, progress is hardly noticeable with a large portion of the money gobbled up by useless foreign consultants who have never had any in-depth knowledge about socio-political dynamics of Bangladesh. 

Keeping an eye on overseas consultants 

This ludicrous habit of hiring overseas consultants is another major defect of the development sector and this is done almost everywhere with massive amounts of money taken up by people who simply do not add any value to the work. 

Instead, these people, with little or no understanding of Bangladesh, come here, live in comfort, and sometimes just to be visible, fly to a field office and take condescending photos with rural people and then swiftly return to their city posts. 

Even if some stay in the field offices for a longer period, they are provided astronomically high daily allowance plus other facilities. 

The entire development sector sustains and perpetuates the utterly wrong belief that “foreigners are experts” and they know best. 

This horribly defective concept has been injected into the people over decades with such single-minded determination that it has become a mainstay in the “culture” which is carefully kept from public scrutiny. 

Even locally employed people are encouraged to put their voice behind this concept, which they do, fearing job loss. 

Just to give you a real life example: Once, I was working with CARE and, at one point, they hired a consultant to develop a communication dossier for Bangladesh which aimed to provide a lead as to how development done by the organization should be related to the masses. 

This guy, who has never worked in Bangladesh, came and went around talking to a set of pre-arranged people.

After gathering information, a bulky report was produced. A collection of views from countless quarters with no specific guideline. 

That report came to nothing, the money spent or, shall I say, wasted. 

Such practices are rampant in the development sector. Countless reports are made by all development bodies which, in the end, gather dust, and finally are sold by the kilos. 

And in the making of all these reports, foreign consultants are inevitably engaged with a large budget allocated for their work, upkeep, fees, and accommodation. 

My point is, if a strategy has to be made on Bangladesh then this country has plenty of experts now to carry out the work, why bring people who have never worked here or do not even know the basic history/pulse of the country? 

The NGO/development sector’s governance can improve once these deeply ingrained follies are addressed.  

Opening to media inquiry, hiring local experts to lead positions, monitoring by an independent watchdog can add transparency. 

And let me underline one point again: Development projects are still led by foreigners, sometimes without the right experience, and hardly by locals with skills, which instills the belief that we are not capable of driving development initiatives. 

Such prejudiced practices raise righteous indignation. 

The glass ceiling has to be shattered plus the sector has to come out of the deeply dysfunctional “foreigners know all and are beyond reproach” belief. They do not know all, otherwise they world wouldn’t be so torn. 

Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.