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4 Key aspects of an enabling environment

4.1 Introduction

The term ’civil society’ in Bangladesh has relatively recently taken root. Formerly translated as shushil samaj which carries connotations of privilege and intellect (which does not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the population), it is now more commonly referred to as ’nagorik samaj’ which implies citizenry. Bangladesh, with a population of over 150 million, is often described as having a vibrant civil society but this is increasingly contested based on the understanding of the word ’vibrant’. Bangladesh has the largest number of NGOs in the world (over 2,000 are registered under the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) and an estimated further 300,000 associations and societies are registered under various other registration laws)[12] but most of these are active in direct service or welfare provision and as such contribute substantially to development. Where the understanding of vibrancy includes the notion of active involvement in policy dialogue then only a very small percentage are involved and around a rather narrow set of themes.

There are, however, growing numbers of unregistered campaigning networks and citizen groups and evidence of a re-engagement in the movement spirit after a couple of decades of domination of the scene by service provision NGOs[13] (the exception being the women’s movement, cultural movements and professional associations which gathered momentum during this period). Over the last five years there has been a noticeable shift in the common understanding of civil society beyond NGOs not only to include these non-formal CSOs but also media, professional associations, trade unions and faith based organisations. But with these, there remain concerns based on their perceived motivations (commercial, political and religious). Political parties may be theoretically considered as part of civil society but not in practice. The following chapter identifies some of the key external factors which hinder and enable CSO activity with a special emphasis on the changes in the last five years.

4.2 Legal and political environment

Bangladesh benefits from having a progressive Constitution (1972) although many of the provisions are not adhered to. It provides for freedom of operation for NGOs and they flourished in the years post-independence and especially with external donor funding following the restoration of democracy in 1990. While many citizen groups choose to operate as informal unregistered entities in order to avoid the burden of bureaucracy and surveillance and to preserve their independence, many register under the numerous and confusing registration facilities in order to confirm legitimacy and organisational identity.[14] The multiple means of registration results in scattered information and data and compromises oversight and support. However, District Commissioner approval must be sought before starting operations at local level which suggests that sub-national data may be more reliable. Furthermore, District, Upazila and (now) Union-level Coordinating Committees are mandated by law and these development committees not only serve to monitor NGO activity but also contribute to building relations between government organisation and NGOs.

NGOs which get funding from foreign donors must register every five years with the NGOAB. They are required to provide information about each proposed project and are subject to annual audits. Their submissions also require approval from the Home Ministry as well as the Ministry most closely connected to the activities proposed, which may result in some hindrance[15] where their action may be perceived as critical of Government (particularly apparent in local government and rights work). NGOs are also subject to random visits by National Security Intelligence tasked with ensuring there is no ’anti state activity’. There is evidence that some working on human rights and openly critical of the Government have experienced harassment and have been denied project permission. The Government finds the watchdog activities of CSOs threatening and political parties relentlessly seek to influence and co-opt these.[16] The NGOAB is under resourced and overstretched so its activities which are supposed to include support to the sector are reduced to a control role and the process of registration can be very slow. A new Societies Registration and Control Ordinance (2011) is under consideration and there are concerns that this may limit NGO freedom.

There is no statutory requirement for CSOs accountability to their constituents and although their constitutions require Boards and Annual General Meetings, these are often tokenistic. The NGOAB focuses on NGO financial affairs and necessary government approvals and concerns itself less with their governance. Consequently accountability of funded NGOs is primarily to their donors. Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB)’s 2007 NGO Accountability Report noted several deficiencies in NGO governance including: i. the lack of accountability to the population and client groups without opportunities for complaint and little space to influence, ii. lack of transparency in use of funds, iii. centralised decision making and weak Board oversight, iv. weak management and financial competencies and v. corruption in seeking government contracts.

Bangladesh suffers from confrontational style partisan politics and history indicates that each election ushers in a new parliament which systematically overturns or curbs legislation made by its predecessor. The two-year period of non-political Caretaker Government (2007to end 2008) saw a number of initiatives to operationalise key public interest oversight mechanisms (which had been provided for in the Constitution but not actualised). However, since resumption of political government, these have either been disempowered through resource restrictions, undermined by further amendments or have ceased functioning altogether. Over the last two government periods, the Opposition has taken to boycotting Parliament sessions leaving ruling parties to dominate legislative proceedings and undermining Parliament’s role to check Government. Moves to establish All Party Parliamentary Groups have seen limited success.

The Constitution provides for parliamentary democracy but genuine representational politics remains aspirational. It is only evident around election times. Patron client relationships prevail in all tiers of elected Government. Voter behaviour has tended to coalesce around these relationships and past loyalties rather than around issues, although the last local elections (2011) and recent Municipal and City Corporation elections suggest a shift in attitude towards fairness, trust and accountability as key determinants for voting preference. Bangladesh is ranked 134 out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. A continuous ’blame game’ plays out between elected representatives and bureaucrats over the control and misuse of resources. However, there are a number of donor funded projects and movements for good governance currently operating which deliberately seek to build an understanding of the advantages of increasing accountability to the electorate. This and a change in the type of people contesting elections away from the Dhaka based landed elite has led to signs of closer connection between them and their electorate with many spending more time in their constituencies and becoming more accessible.

The highly centralised form of governance operating in Bangladesh is considered a major hindrance for effective delivery of services to citizens and for meaningful engagement to influence and monitor service delivery. Only 2% of the national budget is allocated for local government services. All government offices have their headquarters in Dhaka and all 29 civil service cadres are controlled from the capital. This means that decisions as local as recruitment of primary school teachers or local road improvement as are all made centrally.

The Right to Information (RTI) Act 2009 provides a significant breakthrough in terms of accountability and transparency. Pressure for this provision was largely spearheaded by coordinated CSO and media action using the India RTI Act as a model. The RTI gives oversight authority to the Information Commission and intends to simplify procedures for citizens to seek information from Government and non-government service providers. However, compliance is still being tested. Requests for information have to be official and take time, information is not well documented, archived and accessible and few offices have appointed the required information focal points.

Although there are promising signs that citizens are beginning to be aware of and using avenues for engagement with Government beyond the ballot box, a recent survey of youth showed that 76% believed they have little influence over government decisions and were unaware of their capacity to influence.[17] The observed positive albeit small change is attributed to the work of rights based NGOs, mobilisation activities of social movements, new local government legislation which has opened up invited spaces but mostly to the efforts of the media which has been referred to as the ’bulldog of the people’.

The provision of new invited spaces, particularly at local level, has led to a shift from confrontation and contestation expressed through claimed spaces to a more collaborative approach of working with Government for mutual benefit. Nevertheless the use of the space is in its infancy and strategies of engagement in both invited and claimed spaces are unsophisticated (tabling of multi-point demands, rallies, human chains and gherao[18] rather than evidence-based lobbying and strategic influencing).

4.3 Economic and social environment

There continues to be widespread poverty in Bangladesh and as a consequence there are considerable funds in Bangladesh for service delivery NGOs providing for basic needs. There is less attention to those promoting mobilisation, accountability and advocacy. Based on interviews with DPs the growing emphasis on numbers (targets) among donors has contributed to this preference for service provision over purely rights-based programmes (which enjoyed support in the first part of the decade), not least of all because of concerns about attribution and the combined issues of a preference for conventional economic returns on investment and inadequate instruments to measure results (process and behaviour change). Although this does not apply to all the DPs, when required to collaborate in jointly funded programmes, the targets-focus becomes difficult to resist. Two funding intermediaries provided evidence of moving from funding rights based work (their raison d’être) to service delivery to satisfy their donor’s desire for numbers.

Whilst CS engagement efforts are considered by the CSOs to be resource-light and donors claim that this activity is essential, paradoxically their access to funds is shrinking. CIDA and Danida have both recently closed their windows for small project funding and the changed priorities of these and other DPs have resulted in peremptory closure of funding even for well-respected and effective CSOs. The desire to contain transaction costs (more with less) has further limited fund availability by increasing the size of available grants (often beyond the absorptive capacity of these types of NGOs) and reducing the numbers of grantees. There is more competition for conventional DP funds which continue to be largely project or contract type arrangements. These privilege large over small, established over emerging, scale-up over innovation, Dhaka-based over local organisations and those which are effective professional ’bidders’. CSOs outside of the NGO sector such as movements, Trade Unions and non-formal volunteer based organisations as well as ones considered high risk such as political parties, some activist groups and faith based groups are largely excluded from conventional donor funding and depend on membership fees or individual or interest based philanthropy.

Some CSOs have successfully tapped Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives of local and international private sector companies and international civil society Trusts and Foundations but increased efforts for resource mobilisation and diversification carry high opportunity costs. CSR tends to favour support for service delivery and welfare grants over support to advocacy.[19] National corporations and get tax relief on donations provided to the social sector but this policy requires application for this special status.

The tax status of CSOs remains confusing. The Tax Act 1984 indicates that ’income that is applied for charitable or religious purposes is generally exempt from income tax’ but the subsequent Finance Act 1999 implies that they are required to pay tax on all earned income. The lack of clarity and inconsistency in applying the law enables case by case tax exemption and some pay tax on earnings on training, consultancy etc and others do not.

This can be negotiated by the NGOs which have the means to employ tax lawyers. The National Revenue Board has given tax exemption in the past to some larger NGOs.

The media has diversified and expanded significantly in the last five years. There has been a mushrooming of private TV channels (now 18 with a further 10 pending in the pipeline) which operate through satellite or cable networks. Audiences are growing and these TV stations are increasingly catering for the public appetite for current events programmes and Talk Shows in particular. These purposively seek to be platforms for debate across political parties and generally include eminent civil society representatives. Some invite audience participation through telephone or SMS or online polls. Nevertheless TV channels providing 24 hour news coverage are vulnerable to periodic shut downs by the Government[20] and the increasingly popular Talk Shows receive threats if they are perceived to air ’provocative statements’.

Community radio licenses were granted for the first time in 2010. There are over 30 online news outlets and several internet based radio stations. Local cable TV has been used to air live Union Parishad meetings and an Open Budget Meeting to increase participation and local accountability.

Freedom House[21] ranked Bangladesh media as ’partly free’ in 2011. Media staff report some intimidation by National Security Intelligence, party activists and police. The Government may still use national security legislation and sedition laws to restrict activities. The Special Powers Act (1974) allows detention for up to 90 days without trial and journalists say it has been used against journalists critical of the Government. The National Broadcasting Policy is currently under review and contains some elements of concern such as proposals to keep national figures beyond criticism so compromising the increasing trend of holding them to account.

Mobile phone network covers 98% of the country and the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission data shows that there are over 80 million active mobile phone subscribers in September 2011. It cannot, however, be claimed that this equates to 50% penetration as multiple SIM card ownership is widespread.[22] The highly competitive market among the six operating companies has resulted in mobile phones and calls being among the cheapest in the world. Bangladesh has become a hub of innovative mobile based services for development. As well as the more conventional provision of SMS information by Government, NGOs and telephone providers, users are also inputting current data on development, corruption, and good practice.[23] Internet penetration is estimated at 0.6% but with the increased use of mobile phones to connect to the internet, this is likely to be an under-estimate. Under the current Government’s Digital Bangladesh initiative, all 4,520 Union Parishads have computers and internet access for public use.

Internet based social networking is widespread but surprisingly there is little evidence of internet based activism in the four thematic areas of the present study. It was only active for the CHT land rights issues and may result from activists having less access to other platforms for debate as well as international interest in the issue.

Bangladesh has a strong history of voluntarism and philanthropy but these were seriously threatened by the massive NGO penetration of the 1980s and 1990s. Recently there is a re-emergence of voluntarism through both formal (organisation-based) and non-formal means. In both, it is youth and retired persons who are particularly active. The former stems from the under-exploited desire for contemporary youth[24] to become involved in community service and activism. These upsurges of interest are regarded as resulting from increased disenchantment with partisan politics, an emerging confidence in ’people power’ and use of new communication technology.

Academic freedom is largely respected but politically sensitive topics are discouraged. There is, however, remarkably little independent research activity and highly publicly regarded Think Tanks and Research bodies are very few in number. There is criticism that they capture invited civil society space and are remote from the pulse of mainstream opinion. Products of the Dhaka elite and their use of ’high’ Bangla, English and academic language further fuels these criticisms. They are few in numbers and get asked to speak publicly on a range of issues leading to questions of privileging opinion over evidence.

Bangladesh is regarded as a high power distance[25] country and is still patriarchal. However, there are signs of change. Women have been appointed to Cabinet positions and for the first time a woman has been selected as Deputy Speaker. Fifty-seven women parliamentarians have been appointed to parliamentary standing committees. Women contest general seats in local government as well as reserved seats with some success.

Civil society space in national dialogue continues to be dominated by a few ’well known faces’, often representing family dynasties and often Dhaka centric. Age and academic provenance command respect and confer status. The language of dialogue tends to exclude the main population. There are efforts to change this and websites and documents are more frequently translated into Bangla than in the past. These power issues make it difficult for young and unknown people to actively take part in policy dialogue and underscores the importance of social and political capital accumulation to enable meaningful participation.

Political parties and politicians are increasingly accessible but remain hard to influence. They are key actors in setting policy directions and debating and approving legislation. Increasingly CSOs are recognising this and directing their advocacy efforts towards them rather than just the Government and bureaucracy. While there have been positive experiences of engaging with them on issues through caucuses, study tours and international workshops, translating that into action inside the parties and in Parliament is another story.

The DFID commissioned study on their engagement with civil society (2011) noted polarised views regarding NGOs’ role in civil society. Youth and business persons expressed concerns about NGOs lack of independence, vested interests and questioned their assumption that they legitimately represented people’s voices. The study concluded, ’Whether these are justified opinions or not are not the issue but NGOs’ effectiveness (in policy dialogue) will be compromised if there is not a wide constituency of support and sphere of influence.’

Table 2 Summary of key enabling environment for each selected theme
Key factor Local government Primary education CHT land rights Food security
Political will Despite rhetoric (e.g. in manifestos & five-yearplan) little at central level. Growing at local level Education is a public good so consensus across parties that it is a priority which must be addressed Current Government is supportive of the Peace Accord 1997 but seems to prefer to remain in-decisive because of the various vested interests in the CHT Government drafted Food Policy and invited selected NGOs (e.g. ALRD )for comments
Invited space opportunities Extremely limited at central level. Legislated for at local level and showing early signs of operationali-
Invited spaces have been provided as a result of consistent claims. CAMPE and other networks now have established invited space Invited spaces present as a result of the Peace Accord but felt to be somewhat tokenistic as decisions not made Discussion on food security includes CSOs which are involved in service provision but is closed to alternative views
Claimed space opportunities Limited action-considered risky. Insufficient coalition building. LGAs beginning to develop skills/capacity CTG and post Government have provided opportunities for CSO to claim space. Active local and national level advocacy CHT CSOs have to use these to get their position known-rallies and international support and compared to the other themes much internet advocacy Lots of public protest about food price rises

Very little, isolated protests on GM and HYV crops, use of land for non-food crops, adulteration of food etc
Public interest Growing Present and increasingly at school level with parents and teachers The issues are still not taken up by mainstream population. It is a marginal issue with interest from human rights CSOs only Food prices a major concern
Media interest Growing but considered difficult Supportive and proactive media Media covers the issues quite well Media leads on highlighting many issues (few isolated CSO voices)
Research and studies Very limited Some more needed. Regular Education Watch Reports helped to establish a benchmark Insufficient – and the existing research is academic-need for it to be simplified Very minimal
Legitimacy of CSOs[26] Building this slowly but in infancy Established for larger and older organisations, However poor performance and corruption among some contracted implementing NGOs has tarnished the overall CSO reputation CHT CSOs command legitimacy in CHT and in invited spaces but not so well known outside of these arenas The CSOs vocal on food security are mostly those involved in provision, speaking on behalf of their beneficiaries CSOs with alternative views e.g. anti-GM crops are isolated

[12] NGOAB records accessed on CSOs are registered under six other offices of government: Department of Social Welfare, Department of Cooperatives, Office of the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies and Firms, Micro-credit Regulatory Authority, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs and Department of Youth Development and there is no definitive number but estimates are reputedly quoted as between 250,000 and 300,000.

[13] Especially micro-finance.

[14] As noted in Footnote 13, there are seven different ways in which CSOs can register.

[15] CSOs that are critical of government policies are sometimes branded as anti-state and are harassed in many ways, including the blocking of disbursement of foreign funds, delays of project approval, and even cancellation of registration (NGO Law Monitor – Bangladesh. During this study several CSOs spoke of this kind of harassment and surveillance and spot visits e.g. the approval of one project supporting LGAs had been delayed by over a year. In May 2012, the Government announced that it was contemplatng cancelling the registration of 10 national and international NGOs which are said to be engaged in unauthorised activities in the CHT area. The CHT Ministry has ’blacklisted them for carrying out suspicious activities’.

[16] CSOs told us during the course of the study that party activists regularly pay visits to watchdog groups or more covertly undertake surveillance of their activities.

[17] British Council Bangladesh: The Next Generation’ (2010).

[18] A Bangla term to describe holding officials in their offices by surrounding the building in order to make a protest.

[19] Although advertising support in CSO publications, sponsorship of events and CSR inspired subsidised rates e.g. for TV promotion, media supplements etc are increasingly tapped.

[20] E.g. TV channels airing live broadcasts of the Opposition Rally on March 12th, 2012 were shut down by Government for 24 hours.

[21] Freedom House is a US-based CSO which supports democratic change, monitors freedom and advocates for democracy and human rights round the world. It produces annual ratings of countries based on the freedoms they experience.

[22] BBC claims there are actually 70 million users (personal communication).

[23] The Horizontal learning Programme encourages LGER to share good practice via SMS, Shiree (DFID funded Economic Empowerment of the Poorest programme) has recently launched a change monitoring system collecting monthly data from beneficiary households through mobile phone. The Underprivileged Children’s Educational Programs’ ’Let the Children Speak’ programme encourages children to upload photos they have taken of problems they face on to a public web portal.

[24] British Council commissioned the study with more than 2,100 men and women aged 15-34 years including rural, urban and across socio economic strata including employed, unemployed, household workers and students. It found that 95% of youth are willing and able to be involved in social work (including activism) but only 31% of urban youth and a disappointing 6% of rural youth actually participate. Full study ’ The Youth of Bangladesh; status, aspirations and attitude study’ 2010 can be accessed from

[25] High power distance refers to an element of the analytical framework developed by Hofstede which describes the extent to which people defer to authority and perceived.

[26] Included as an external factor as this is the CSOs legitimacy as perceived by civil society and state. While CSOs may try to ensure this, ultimately it is dependent on a number of factors many outside the control of the CSO. For example, views of NGOs among ordinary citizens include that they are involved in business, are self-serving and corrupt. This is a difficult image to slough off.

This page forms part of the publication 'Support to Civil Society Engagement in Policy Dialogue' as chapter 7 of 20
Version 1.0. 03-01-2013
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