2010 Virtual Edition: Lamia Karim

Postscript to Politics of the Poor? NGOs and Grass-roots Political Mobilization in Bangladesh

In writing this article, I had focused on the role of the developmental NGO as a provider of essential services to the rural poor, and as a vehicle for the instrumentalization of poor women for the political ambitions of NGO leaders. Since then much has occurred on the ground. In early 2000s, the government of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) investigated the leader of Proshika, Qazi Faruque on corruption charges. When the extent of his corruption came to light, Western aid organizations withdrew their support for Proshika, making it into a resource-poor organization. Faruque was finally ousted from the organization in 2009, and today Proshika is a non-player in local NGO activities.

In 2007, Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus decided to form a political party (a decision he later recanted) to challenge the political corruption in the country. Just as Faruque’s immersion in politics was seen as a threat by BNP leadership, Yunus’s call to politics was seen as an affront by the leader of Awami League that came to power in 2008. In the wake of the charges made in the Norwegian documentary Caught in Micro Debt that aired in November 2010, the Awami League government removed Yunus as the director of the Grameen Bank, and launched an investigation into the alleged mismanagement of funds. While Western leaders called upon the government to reinstate Yunus and not to “break” the Grameen Bank, the pioneering institution of microfinance, the Awami League government did not heed their demands, and instead brought Grameen Bank under government jurisdiction (see http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2011/03/lamia-karim-fall-of-muhammad-yunus-and.html).

By the 2000s then, it had become clear that while the state may outsource rural economic development activities to the NGO sector, it was less willing to tolerate NGO leaders’ political aspirations, especially if they challenged the political party in power. As noted in “Politics of the Poor,” NGOs are large vote banks. They constitute large voting publics who are dependent on these institutions for loans and other necessary services. If NGO leaders join politics, they can easily mobilize millions of borrowers and their families to vote in their favor.  It is this “fear,” among other considerations, that color the landscape of NGO politics in Bangladesh. If we are to take the lessons from the Bangladeshi NGO sector into account, what we begin to see is a shift in the evolution of the postcolonial state. In the 1980s and 1990s, the state was heavily dependent on foreign aid, and had to concede to the mandates of Western nations. In the intervening years, the export-oriented garment sector has grown, offering an alternative revenue source to the government. China, a country that does not impose social mandates as part of its business ethic, has become a leading economic partner with Bangladesh, and that has lessened to some degree the country’s former aid dependence.  It is in this shifting landscape of power alliances that that we have to comprehend the NGO and the state as structures in motion.

Lamia Karim is the author of Microfinance and Its Discontents: Women in Debt in Bangladesh (University of Minnesota Press, 2011).