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My Two Cents On NGO Fund

Bangladesh’s leading think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) called for a Tk 1 billion fund for local NGOs ahead of next fiscal budget. In a press conference CPD exhorted creation of a trust fund that will help the government to meet Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

This demand was made amid severe fund shortage as foreign sources are drying out and as govt creates all sorts of obstacle in the normal functioning of NGOs.

Government seems to have some issues with NGOs. Recently it introduced policies that indicate it is less interested to allow them operating freely in this country. A quarter within the government tried to cast aspersions on NGO activities. Some people like to term them as extended arm of extra-constitutional force.
Clearly, mistrust and fear drive a wedge between the govt and the NGOs.

In October 13 2016 it introduced Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Bill 2016. The bill drew a lot of flak from Civil Society Organizations, international rights bodies and press. The bill demands that govt review a project at any moment and cancel the project, NGOs need  prior approval from govt when their staffs travel abroad , NGOs register with govt body for receiving foreign fund and submit plans of their activities to govt, govt reserve the right to impose punitive actions and cancel registration in case NGO’s failure to comply govt-set standards. Human Rights Watch called the bill bears elements of an authoritarian govt.

Since the introduction of this bill, NGOs have been on the receiving end of low tempo of activities.

The best way to bridge the differences between government and NGOs is to engage them in govt funded development projects.

I worked with various NGOs. I am aware how NGOs are making differences at grass-root level. So, I second CPD’s position. However, I would like to differ slightly from CPD on the usage of this fund.

It was Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development that was the lighthouse to  show way for rural development and scaling up the riff-raff of the society. Akhtar Hameed Khan’s “Comilla Model” not only kick started rural development projects in Bangladesh,  it also received international recognition.

Then came the micro-credit revolution that demonstrated quite successfully that the have-nots pay back their loan.

The Jobra village model is now being replicated in almost all the continents to fight poverty and to prove that capitalism can play a role in empowering the poor in backward societies.

It is indeed a puzzling thing to many how the micro borrowers never default on repaying their loans while most of the big borrowers are loan defaulters.

I worked for sometimes in the development sector. Our industry and service sector are not developed enough to mop up the large section of the educated labor force.

The sector offers seasonal employment for many and remains a good source of decent jobs.

What is important is that it is a sector where the educated labor force serves the ordinary people by employing what they learned at the universities and colleges.

For aspirant bureaucrats, college teachers, university teachers, the sector provides an opportunity to learn about challenges at the societies as they spend a transition period before moving on to their respective fields at the later stage of career.

Development practitioners and researchers working on policies spend a significant time in this sector to share their insights, findings and recommendations on key policy issues with policy makers.

This kind of valuable input helps policy makers to formulate policies that will in the end benefit the desired group.

The fund can be best utilized to build and maintain infrastructures in rural areas. Right now LGED is solely tasked with undertaking such projects. LGED projects often reek of corruption. People spare no occasion to vent their anger on the poor quality of infrastructures.

In Sunamganj this year we witnessed how flash flood washed away a poorly-built embankment  causing sufferings to thousands of people in Haor areas. Later it was found that a politically blessed contractor had got the job to build the embankment.

Instead of LGED contractors, govt could outsource these tasks to NGOs. Public Private Partnership and calling for open tenders are the two ways the govt can proceed.

Transparency in awarding the contract and participation of NGOs and other construction companies will reduce the bout of corruption and increase the quality of infrastructure projects.

Teaming up with NGOs also has positive externality. Accounting firms will likely to bag more opportunities as government will want to oversee the progress and successful completion of projects done by numerous NGOs.

The proposed fund can also be used to hire third parties or firms to audit and monitor a given project.

Our annual development expenditure does little help to address people’s problems. It is meant to fill party men’s coffer.

If government is really honest about people getting benefits from its development expenditure then it should allow NGOs to implement annual development expenditures.

Education, health, infrastructure development, agro-business, market development, entrepreneur development are the areas where government can easily work with NGOs.

The biggest advantage of bringing the NGOs onboard in implementing development  projects is that government can easily fend off political influence, which is in most of the cases the reason for development benefits not reaching to target groups, while implementing development projects.

Specialized NGOs work for a target group should be on the first row of contenders getting public fund. Few years ago I watched a TV report that reported that a School for sex workers’ children in Netrokona would be shut down because of lack of funding.

Banks often do not lend to marginalized communities to start small businesses. Govt can easily provide fund to organizations that work with underprivileged and social outcast communities.

It is good to see the idea of NGO Fund is garnering support within the government. Finance Minister at a program said that he would consider attribute fund to research on physically and mentally-challenged people in the upcoming budget.

Our home grown NGOs now operate on farther afield. By no stretch of the imagination could they be described as “working for other countries’ interests”. NGOs recruit some of the finest minds and have a vast network. Government can use these tremendous resources to attain its development goals.

Let the next budget be a new chapter for opening cooperation between NGOs and govt. And with the efficient use of NGO fund, the left-outs in the society will have a chance to have greater market access, to overcome credit constraint, to get access to education, to get quality infrastructure and to avail affordable medical care.

La Semaine Dernière A Mes Yeux

(12 mai —- 19 mai)

Chikunguniya s’est déclaré au Bangladesh . Douzaines de malade ont été hospatilisés dans un mois.

Bangladesh est classé 103 parmi les 113 pays examines dans l’indice de règles de loi. L’indice est prepare par World Justice Project. Comme WJP a interrogé un grand nombre de ménage, l’indice est accueilli par tout le monde.

Les économistes et hommes d’affaires s’en sont pris à ministre de planification pour divulguer les données d l’inflation tous les trois mois. Au lieu de publication mensuelle, ce pas envoie un signal erroné à marché. Il y a des gens qui pensent que gouvernement a fait ça afin de projeter une bonne image de l’économie devant le monde.

Selon un reportage, de plus en plus de bangladais sont mis en prison au Mexique pendant qu’ils traversaient clandistinement la frontière entre Mexique et Étas-Unis.

Astroturfing The Truth

In this age of Social Media and easy access to information, flow of information  and light are vying for the throne of the highest speed.

Efforts have been greater than before to control free flow of information. Both the democratic and non-democratic regimes are keen to draw a lid on the source of information so that they can control or slow down the spread of information.

In the blink of an eye people get information and take their stand on an issue or on an ongoing debate.

Regimes irrespective of their creed want to bottle this genie and to employ it to shape public opinion.

The middle kingdom that witnessed the birth of newspaper is also the place where innovative techniques are being introduced to muzzle the freedom of expression.

A Chinese emperor first introduced newspaper in order to get information about what is going on in every nook and cranny of his vast empire. Better information means better decision.

The same China has recently introduced a 5-year-long cultural development and reform plan that aims to impose strict communist party control over internet.

This control of information often takes various forms. Recently Harvard University undertook a study on Chinese censorship program on Social Media.

Researchers Gary King, Jennifer Pan and Margaret E Roberts in their study titled “ How The Chinese Government Fabricates Social Media Posts for strategic Distraction, Not Engaged Argument” showed that Chinese government hires govt officials, academics , journalists to post fabricated social media post for molding public opinion in favor of the govt.

These paid internet commentators, known as 50 cent party members then reported to the Internet Propaganda Office of Zhanggong in Jianxi province. Researchers analyzed leaked e-mails exchanged between 50 cent party members and their handlers at Zhanggong Internet propaganda office to make out the nature of this social media censorship.

Astroturfing

50 cent party members report to Zhanggong Internet Propaganda Office. Image Credit: Gary King, Jennifer Pan, Margaret E Roberts

The paper showed how 50 cent party members pursued a program of “reverse censorship” on Social Media by avoiding controversial issues and by distraction to kill a focused argument.

This distraction is at the heart of this astroturfing strategy that nipped in the bud  any collective action event that could lead to movement on the street.

So, the fake posts are part and parcel of changing a topic of discussion and thereby to shape the opinion of Social Media users.

This kind of distraction was also seen in Bangladesh. We witnessed in the February of 2013 how a doctored image of moon containing picture of a convicted war criminal caused mayhem across the country and took precious lives.

The perpetrators intended to set the fanatics against the govt by making them belief that the doctored image was a divine message from the God and it was a proof that the convicted criminal was innocent.

Moreover malicious posts on Social Media triggered communal attack  and made a heavy dent in the social fabric of the society.

In the pretext of fighting hate crime and fake posts govt introduced tighter regulations for the media.

In Bangladesh, another sort of media censorship is going on. Investors, Bankers, Economists and the press are left in the dark about vital economic data. Breaking the usual norm of relaying  inflation data monthly, Planning Minister disclosed it quarterly. This kind of revelation gives twisted data and sends confusing signal to the market. The move is a deliberate attempt to ,as some economists interpreted, project a-better-looking data to show the world that the economy is doing good.

Latest censorship measure aims the presspeople in particular. Govt ordered Foreign ministry to  instruct all its foreign missions to have a close eye on visiting Bangladeshi journalists and to report about their activities back home. Journalists viewed the move as a mean to put their patriotism under the scanner. This will drive a further wedge between the govt and the press.

Discussion is going on to drop the controversial section 57 of the ICT Act to calm down its critics.

On many occasions journalists fell prey to this section 57. Journalists were thrown into jails for digging the  past of influential people  and for carrying reports on corruption. Individuals were detained for posting critical comments on key political figures and for hurting “people’s sentiments”.

However, rumor says its content may be reintroduced in the new Cyber Security Act.

Brow beating of the press has frightened the media so much that they often prefer not to carry report on crucial issues.

Take for instance World Justice Project’s rule of law index. Hardly any media covered the story.

Bangladesh did terribly bad in this year’s rule of law index. This index is a testament that there is a gaping hole between what the government says and what it does.

Among the 113 countries surveyed, Bangladesh is ranked 103. This index is made up of eight indicators including absence of corruption, constraints on government powers and fundamental rights. Bangladesh scored pretty bad on all the indicators.

Bangladeshis here came to learn about this report through the column of a former bureaucrat. Ziauddin Choudhury who first brought the index to the fore in his Dhaka Tribune column claimed that this report was objective since  the report was  prepared delving into and analyzing a large sample of households.

What I construe from this hiding of information and increased censorship is that these tactics result in sluggish spread of information and provide government ample times to offer its version of story.

With the revolution of digital media, people have access to various sources of information.

So people’s view is not fixated on a particular explanation. Rather people get a panoramic view of an event. This in  turn made the efforts to mold public opinion pointless.

Stringent form of censorship and holding back information demonstrate weakness of a govt. A govt that is gradually losing its higher moral ground needs an iron hand in velvet glove. Is this the case with the current govt?

La Semaine Dernière A Mes Yeux

(4 mai — 12 mai)

La Banque centrale de Qatar a signé accord avec son homologue bangladais pour amplifier cooperation. Le bruit court que Banque centrale de Qatar va faire un versement de $1,8 milliards à la Banque centrale de Bangladesh.

Dans une conférence de Presse le parti d’opposition BNP a divulgué son plan de l’avenir, Vision 2030, comment le parti projet Bangladesh dans 13 années. Le parti a dit qu’il introduirait balance de pouvoirs entre Président et Premier Ministre. En plus, le plan met l’accent sur éducation, énergie, informatique, énergie et santé. Le plan a été accueilli réaction mélangée. Le parti en exercice s’en est pris au plan et a décrit l’idée de balance de pouvoirs comme la désir de chef du BNP de devenir le président et de faire son fils controversé le Premier ministre.

A Jhenidah Police a fait une incursion dans une cachette de terroriste présumé. Police a tué 2 terroristes présumés et arrêté 3. A Rajshahi Police a fait un raid dans un champ de riz. Presque Six personnes, dont un pompier, ont été morts pendant qu’une suicidaire présumée faisait exploser et Police tirait aux terroristes présumés.

A Mymensingh , un imam du la minorité musulmane Ahmadia a été attaqué par des fanatiques. Des femmes ont surpris un des agresseurs.

Un viol de deux étudiantes a bouleversé tout le pays. Le viol s’est déroulé dans un hôtel le 5 avril et les coupables sont identifiés comme fils d’un bijoutier qui possède une grande bijouterie de Dacca, son ami et chef d’une compagnie de loisirs. La Police les a appréhendés de Sylhet quand ils essayaient de s’enfuir à l’étranger.

Bangladesh Fund

I grew up as a kid hearing brand names like Islam Group, Rahim Afroj , Concord. It was the heyday of those companies. Products and services of these companies managed to reach overseas markets.

Soon I started to hear legends. A Bangladeshi construction company built an airport in Saudi Arabia. Another company built residential complexes in Iraq. In Libya, Bangladeshis built bridges, roads and set up utility facilities.

Those glorious days are bygone. Soon these success stories started to sound like myths. Now war-torn Libyan shores are occupied with hapless Bangladeshis, who are poised to  take a perilous boat ride to cross the Mediterranean sea in a bid to reach their dream destination.

On Nat Geo, I watch how the Indians are building the eye-dazzling mega-structures of Dubai. From design to construction of these engineering marvels, Indians dominate at every stage. As I am watching the Indians on TV, image of world’s one of the great structural engineers, F R Khan, struck my mind. He was a Bangladeshi-American who was behind the construction of several skyscrapers in USA.

Where are those F R Khans now?

At home, I see foreign companies are providing credits to finance our own infrastructure projects. Foreign companies are now even constructing flyover and highways. I have no issues with foreign companies and I am not against their presence. But what did happen to our construction companies? Cronyism and unfavorable business climate make it difficult for them to grab these opportunities at home. Moreover, their failure to tap foreign market partly stem from lack of govt support.

No wonder that corruption and cronyism hold them back at home and absence of government incentives clipped their wings from having a firm footing abroad. One may eventually ask what this incentive should look like that will ultimately stimulate them to explore overseas markets.

The solution is around us. Our development partners invented it. Now it is time to replicate their model.

Let us create a “Bangladesh Fund or Bangla Aid”, whose purpose  will be to help other aspiring economies to meet their developmental goals. With this fund, we can help them building infrastructures. And those infrastructure projects  will be implemented by our very own construction companies. Our engineers, planners, architects will get a chance to employ their skills and serve the people of our friendly countries. We produce all the quintessential ingredients needed for any infrastructure project.Production facilities for these ingredients, i.e. cement factories, are underutilized. A construction boom abroad will open new alleys for their export.

In addition, this fund can be used to boost RMG export abroad. Right now, RMG export is destined to only few countries.We have been striving hard to find new destination. But most of our effort is concentrated on the developed countries or the new economic miracles. We did little to evaluate the potential markets in Asia, Africa and South America.  This fund can be used to finance setting up malls in the less developed countries. The mall or shopping centers can meet the need of growing urban middle class by offering them Bangladeshi garments.

This fund can also help relocation of RMG factories or setting up joint ventures in those countries. We can easily provide assistance to Nepal or Laos or Sierra Leone to solve their infrastructural problems. At the same time, we can initiate a study to explore business potentials in those countries.

Bangladeshi RMG items, home appliances have huge demand in these countries.  Credit constraints often hold them back from importing Bangladeshi goods. We can provide them credit using this fund to import Bangladeshi goods.

The same argument can hold true for our pharmaceutical items. Bangladesh produces some cheapest medicines in the world taking full advantage of  WTO provisions about intellectual rights. African countries like Nigeria is flooded with counterfeit drugs. Relations between two countries thawed in recent years. Bangladeshi drugs can supplant these useless drugs from the shelves of Nigerian pharmacies. This fund can facilitate their distribution in African countries and can finance setting up medical centers, clinics , diagnostic centers in that region.

Now come to the crux of the matter: how the fund will be created?

Every year we witness part of our development expenditure remains unutilized or used in politically-motivated projects that yield little benefit to us. This money could be set aside for the creation of “Bangladesh Fund”. Initially, we can make do with a fund of $150-$200 millions as it aims to finance infrastructure projects and to promote exports to little-known destination. With the success of initial projects , the fund will pick up the steam and others will pitch in.

Prime minister’s relief fund could also be thought of as a potential source. We know that not every year natural calamity strikes Bangladesh. So one year’s unused relief fund could constitute Bangladesh Fund.

Bangladesh Fund

Bangladesh Fund

Bangladesh bank maintains a fund for new entrepreneurs. It is called Equity and Entrepreneurship Fund (EEF). Recently, scam marred the EEF. It was reported on the press that political thugs were misappropriating the fund creating fake companies. Like PM’s relief fund, the fund sometimes remains unutilized.  The unused fund can be diverted to create this “Bangladesh Fund”.

Association of Banks, BGMEA, Insurance companies and Export Promotion Bureau can also contribute to this fund as it will create new opportunities for them in future.

Now let us come to address another crucial issue regarding Bangladesh Fund. Who will manage the fund?  Prime Minister’s Office and Ministry of Foreign Affairs can jointly manage the fund.  The bulk of the task will be done by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in consultation with stakeholders. PM’s office will have the final say on any policy decision.

Management of Bangladesh Fund

There has hardly been an instance when new ideas did not meet stiff resistance in this country. I expect the same kind of opposition as in this case too. Extreme caution should be exercised so that the “Bangladesh Fund” will not meet the fate of public banks. It should not be a digestive tube to nourish the party loyalists and the corrupts. Rather, it should be a bridge to connect countries by meeting their infrastructural and developmental challenges with Bangladeshi assistance.

 

La Semaine Dernière A Mes Yeux

(28 avril —- 4 mai)

Dans son rapport, Amnesty International note que gouvernement bangladais étouffe liberté d’expression au Bangladesh. Amnesty s’en pris à la section 57 de la loi de l’informatique. Amnesty a divulgué son rapport au propos de Bangladesh à Delhi parce que les dirigeants de Amnesty ne sont pas arrivés à obtenir visa bangladais.

Global Financial Integrity a mis à jour sa base de données sur blanchissement. Dans son rapport actuel, beaucoup de Bangladais ont blanchi argent à l’étranger parmi les pays de Sud Asie. D’après le rapport, en 2014 les Bangladais ont blanchi presque $9,11 milliards.  Dans une décennie, depuis 2005 jusqu’à 2014, presque $75,85 milliards ont été blanchis. La nouvelle a causé polémique dans le Parlement.

Journaliste pakistanais Hamid Mir est retourné le prix décerné à son père Waris Mir par le gouvernement bangladais pour son rôle pendant la guerre de l’indépendance en 1971. Waris était prof à l’Université de Punjab. En 1971, il et ses étudiants se sont rendus à Pakistan de l’Est ( Bangladesh) et témoigné l’atroce par l’armée pakistanaise. Il s’est insurgé contre l’atroce et a écrit chronique dans les quotidiens pakistanais contre les actes brutales de l’armée pakistanaise. Le gouvernement de Sheikh Hasina lui a attribué le prix « Ami de l’indépendance» en 2013. Le prix a été décerné à titre posthume. Dans un communiqué, Hamid Mir a dit que les relations entre Pakistan et Bangladesh se sont tendues dans les années récentes au lieu d’améliorer. C’était au contraire de ce que Sheikh Hasina a promis pendant attribution de ce prix. Donc, il est retourné ce prix.

L’Inde a mis en orbite GSAT9 , un satellite qui sera utilisé par tous les pays de SAARC sauf Pakistan. Le satellite aide à améliorer le système de télécommunication dans la région. En plus, il fournit les infos sur météo et minéral. Pakistan s’est retiré de GSAT 9 en citant que le pays poursuit son propre projet de satellite.

Le fond de l’investissement de Norvège, le plus grand dans le monde, a décidé de ne pas financer les projets de Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited «BHEL». BHEL met en place une centrale charbonnière à Rampal, prêt de Sundarbans, un site patrimoine. Le pas de BHEL est violation de critères fixés par Norvège, qui décourage l’investissement dans fabrication des armes, fabrication des armes nucléaires, des mines et les projets qui heurtent la nature.

Lessons From Bhutan

Small dragon kingdom Bhutan has deferred the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal  Motor Vehicle Agreement( BBIN MVA).  The BBIN MVA requires that vehicles of member countries move without any obstacle on the roads of other countries.

The agreement deemed useful for bolstering trade for landlocked countries like Nepal. However, Bhutanese law-makers and  businessmen strongly oppose the idea as Bhutanese motor vehicles  face unlawful  levies and other obstacles while plying  on member countries’ roads. The agreement in question does not lay out clauses that address these issues.  Moreover, the MVA could destabilize the traffic system of Bhutan with the influx of vehicles coming from neighboring countries. For this reason the Bhutanese authority even demanded that MVA fix number of vehicle enter the dragon kingdom.  The MVA could also have serious environmental ramifications, as pointed out in the report of parliamentary panel.

Tshering Togbay’s People’s Democratic Party however assured the BBIN members that  after the 2018 general election  it will  revive the MVA and exhorted others to go ahead with the deal without Bhutan for the moment.

As Bhutan put aside the MVA, the prospect of BIBN MVA got stuck into the potholes of the road of regional connectivity. Now renewed efforts of the  member countries will be needed to patch the agreement.

Several factors came into play behind shaping the decision of Tshering  Tobgay’s govt:

First, job security of the Bhutanese people.

Second, dragon kingdom’s environmental safety.

Third, internal security of a small country that is sparsely populated.

Being a nascent democracy, Bhutan set an example to its bigger neighbours. Bangladesh could learn a lot from Bhutan. For the sake of national interest, Bhutan did not hesitate to roll back its decision taken in 2015 BBIN summit.

Bhutanese parliament also did not like the idea that govt could insert convenient clauses into MVA once it got its approval.

Two bigger economies of BBIN are marked by the presence of huge unofficial trade of goods. Obviously when the BBIN MVA will come into being, stakeholders of this unofficial trade will tap the full potentials of it. It is still unclear how far this MVA will bring the unofficial trade into the mainstream and how it will accelerate regional trade.

This clandestine trade remains a major source of income for the the political parties in this region. Recent rise in incidence of smuggling is an indication. As govts in this part of the world failed to rein in organized criminal groups and to curb corruption, it is unclear how they will ensure that these groups will not use the connectivity infrastructures for their gain.

Primarily the focus is on the cargo-trailers. But personal cars can also take advantage of it. In that case monitoring and regulating the movement of vehicles will become a cumbersome affairs.  With the security lapses, smuggling, drug trafficking , money laundering etc will become much more easier than before.

Since there is a lack of political goodwill to try the criminals of other countries, unwanted groups or criminals may use this regional  road network to flee abroad.  In this circumstances, this MVA may further deteriorate the law and order situation.

It is also not known how this regional road network will operate when regional tensions will reach the boiling point.

Clearly, people’s verdict and careful weighing the costs against the benefits are needed to push forward with MVA in Bangladesh. Like Bhutan, Bangladesh should leave the matter to the next elected parliament  and wait for the final say of the people’s representatives.