It is clear to most people that there are entirely too many NGOs in Bangladesh.
It is also apparent that many of them exist for the sake of existing. This applies to many of the small local NGOs no one has ever heard of. But these non-players, at worst, are harmless entities that affect the country neither negatively nor positively.
But it is not the small fry that the government has gone after with its latest law. It is the foreign-backed NGOs -- the well-funded, formidable organisations that usually back up their claims with some sort of research, and have well-educated, qualified people on their staff.
Not to say they are always right in their assessments, but when these NGOs speak, the world listens. Much of what they say makes us look bad, and Bangladesh is having none of that.
And in the face of being told things it does not want to hear, the government has done what it does best -- clamped down on freedom.
While it is true that NGOs are hardly the worst of the problems that Bangladesh faces, foreign organisations that take an interest in Bangladesh are, for the government, some of the most irksome bodies out there.
They are the ones most likely to lay bare the ugly truths about the activities that go on in Bangladesh aided and abetted by the government itself -- the corruption, the incompetence, the miscarriages of justice.
The average Bangladeshi already knows most of these things, of course, and hardly ever finds foreign NGO-findings surprising. Most of us locals have been numbed into a kind of stupor where the facts no longer cause sufficient outrage.
But the foreign-backed NGOs don’t play the game the government wants them to play. They play their own game, and it is not a very convenient one.
So, it was only a matter of time until a law came along that stopped these agitators from talking too much. Like a hammer that sees everything as a nail, our government has stomped on freedom of expression, and is now expecting the problems to go away.
The law is the law
In spite of the pleas from media and civil society, on October 13, the president went ahead and gave consent to the new bill.
It is called the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill. The bill basically makes it a requirement for all NGOs that operate through foreign funding to submit for approval their activities to a bureau under the prime minister’s office.
Only after the NGO has gained approval from the NGO Affairs Bureau can it undertake and implement projects. But that’s not all.
The bill includes a provision that lets the government cancel registrations of NGOs for making statements it deems malicious or derogatory. Such objectionable statements may include, but are not limited to, statements that seem to criticise the constitution or constitutional bodies.
The specifics of what constitutes derogatory statements are rather vague at this point, and perhaps deliberately so. The law gives the NGO Affairs Bureau quite a bit of wiggle-room to operate and interpret things as it pleases. It now has the power to monitor and assess activities of these organisations and shut down the ones it finds unpalatable.
The specifics of what constitutes derogatory statements are rather vague at this point, and perhaps deliberately so. The law gives the NGO Affairs Bureau quite a bit of wiggle-room to operate and interpret things as it pleases
The law has drawn flak from all corners. This newspaper recently ran an editorial making a case that restricting NGO freedom was a “slippery slope.” International watchdog group Human Rights Watch has called for a repeal of the law calling it “a law that would make an authoritarian regime proud,” and accused the government of “treating NGOs like the enemy within.”
The government strikes back
A ruling party leader’s answer to these concerns was that freedom of speech only applied to individuals, not NGOs. He went on to say that NGOs did not have the right to criticise, for instance, the parliament.
And what about the possibility of playing fast and loose with what constitutes as a “derogatory” statement? The MP says those rules will be formulated after consulting with the stake-holders involved. A quip was also made about how if NGOs wanted to talk like the opposition party, they should enter politics.
NGOs are not the problem
Like a bad workman who blames his tools, Bangladesh has now chosen take action against the NGOs that work here for the general betterment of the nation.
To do that, the government has, regrettably but predictably, taken measures to throttle free speech, and stifle healthy debate on government policy. It has resorted to a policy that arbitrary, oppressive, and undemocratic.
NGOs are not perfect. Nobody is. Sometimes their findings miss the mark, and sometimes their criticisms of the government are not fully justified. But it does not bode well to shut them down or silence them.
If our government wants to move beyond criticism, it needs to take a long, hard look at the country it runs, and actually work towards improving lives here. There is so much work to be done, from fighting poverty and corruption, to building infrastructure, to rooting out terrorism.
There are many challenges ahead. Fighting NGOs should not be one of them.
Abak Hussain is Editor, Editorial and Op-Ed, Dhaka Tribune.