Civil society is an important element of the democratic and development processes. It provides a vital link between the citizens and the state.
One of the principal functions of civil society is to maintain a watchful eye on the activities of public officials. Civil society includes those organisations that are separate from the legislative, administrative and judicial power of the state. In Bangladesh, like many other countries, the civil society also plays a significant role in articulating people’s interests in various areas of common public interest to the government. In recent times, the civil society has contributed in molding public opinion on issues concerning socio-political and economic lives of the people. In the past, the civil society also played a pivotal role in the country’s emergence as an independent nation state. After independence, the civil society has been active in socio economic development of the country and nurturing the newly established democracy in the country and struggling for the reestablishment of the democracy particularly during the successive military dictatorships. Even under the elected governments, the civil society played a crucial role in the socio economic sector and is also helping in shaping public opinion on formulating public policies on matters of common interest.
However, there are also concerns about some of the roles of the civil society in Bangladesh. These concerns arise from the nature of Bangladesh’s hostile and turbulent politics and the fact that the activities of the civil society often extend beyond the country due to globalization and other influencing factors. However, still it is imperative that the civil society needs to play a constructive role so that it can complement the efforts of the government.
Organisations that are known as civil society in Bangladesh include citizens’ organisations of various types and nature, like citizens’ groups representing different geographical locations, socio-cultural organisations, professional groups, the labour unions, chambers of commerce and industries, lawyers’ associations, and even small local clubs and development NGOs. The Constitution of the Republic guarantees a number of fundamental rights including the right to association. This right is the basis of the formation and existence of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs).
The CSOs on their part serve as a vital mechanism for promoting solidarity, encouraging mutual aid, and fostering individual and collective initiatives to solve problems in the public domain. A CSO formed and if it wants to receive legal status and access to government funds or foreign donations, it must register with relevant government agencies. Registration laws and regulatory provisions together define the legal domain under which CSOs operate. These laws may be classified under two broad categories: laws of incorporation and regulatory laws. “Laws of incorporation,” enabling organisations to function with a management structure and legal status, include the Societies Registration Act, 1861; the Trust Act, 1882; Co-operative Societies Act, 1925; the Companies Act, 1913 (amended in 1994). Other facilitating laws are Voluntary Social Welfare Agencies Ordinance, 1961; Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Rules, 1978; and Microfinance Regulatory Law, 2006. Generally CSOs functions in Bangladesh include expressing the interest of social groups and raising awareness on key issues in order to influence policy and decision making; shaping public policy through advocacy campaigns and mobilizations of people; undertaking activities for socio-economic and cultural development; watchdog functions and promote accountability and transparency; and promoting and safeguarding human rights and welfare of women, ethnic groups, minorities and other marginal groups. It has been observed that civil society organisations like, community-based groups, non-governmental organisations, professional associations, regional bodies, trade unions etc., become active when they identify issue or issues that are likely to affect their organizational interest or the interest of the larger society. It may also be mentioned that some CSOs that are created for carrying out research turn out to be useful resource centers in providing broader perspectives, identifying alternative approaches for solutions to issues that ensure higher policy effectiveness and resource efficiency. On the other hand, a large number of CSOs are formed for the purpose of addressing a particular issue and their main objective is influencing of the adoption of public policies addressing the concerned issue, along with the general purpose like creation of public awareness and mutual support base for that particular issue.
As mentioned earlier, the various CSOs are established on voluntary basis by the citizens of the country for furthering particularly the socio-political, economic and cultural interests of the people. These CSOs are generally registered organisations. The management and operation of these organisations are guided by the approved organisational constitutions. The managements are responsible for running the day to day functions of the organisations. Activities of these organisations are planned by the organisations and they implement those functions and activities. The funding sources include overseas project based finance; donation and income from assets that have been developed over time and also assets donated by some private individuals. These organisations generally audit their accounts.
However, the CSOs in Bangladesh have some weaknesses. Some of these include increased politicisation and manifestations of the divisive politics currently existing at the national level; weak mechanisms of accountability and transparency; a large number of them (NGOs) in most of the cases are project focused and their operations in overwhelming cases are determined by the project that they undertake and most of their operations are funded by other than their own sources; perpetual leadership and management meaning the person or the group of persons played the leadership roles in establishing in overwhelming cases tend to lead these organisations for years. As such, because of the said weaknesses the CSOs in Bangladesh in many cases are judged and evaluated from partisan and international donors’ developmental perspectives. These perceived notions limit the wider acceptability of many of the CSOs as neutral organisations and only pursuing for general wellbeing particularly of the common people.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude)
The writer is the Professor and Chairman, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka and Member, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh