As the waters drain from the plains of Bihar and Bengal, the rivers in Bangladesh have been rising, and more than half of its 60 districts are under water. Dhaka television shows army top brass distributing 40 tonnes of foodgrain and another 1,000 bags of relief material. But the submerged are in millions; more than 30,000 admitted for intestinal diseases and there’s severe shortage of drinking water and food. Commodity prices have shot through the roof; 1kg of dal is 70 taka, the poorest quality rice 20 taka—up by 35% in the last four months.
The government, with hardly 10 advisers, has neither the reach nor the experience in governance for disaster relief; the army is trying its best, but does not have the support of the political parties, who have not got into flood relief. The politicians are upset at the actions taken by the government to bring the corrupt to justice, including several from the two main coalitions, and don’t wish to cooperate. Businessmen, wary of threats of action for economic offences, have either gone away, or are being discreet. NGOs are active in relief, but do not have adequate relief materials.
Dhaka itself, protected by its embankments, is a rich city. Traffic is chaotic, as expensive cars and SUVs jostle for space among posh apartment complexes where each apartment is worth at least a quarter million dollars. There is so much money in Dhaka that one has to rub one’s eyes and look at the misery and the television set to realize it is the same country. The ordinary urban people one talks to complain about the money made by the privileged few in the last decade. They feel squeezed between the urban rich and the rural poor.
Economic growth has touched this country very selectively. The GDP figures speak of a continued growth of 5% or more for several years now, but income disparities, measured by Gini coefficients, have risen sharply, and per capita incomes of the lowest 20% have barely risen in the last decade.
The above does not necessarily lead to a positive comparison with India. In every social development indicator, Bangladesh is ahead. Access to sanitation as well as drinking water in rural areas is far greater. Life expectancy at birth as well as infant mortality figures are better than in India. Population growth is under greater control. Most importantly, data on underweight children and prenatal and postnatal anaemia show that there has been deterioration in India (NFHS III) and improvements in Bangladesh. By all accounts, there is greater outreach of health, education and nutrition in Bangladesh than in India.
These successes are due to the programmes of the several NGOs that are very active in Bangladesh. The story of the microfinance groups, Grameen Bank and Yunus, is well documented, but there are several others that are equally active. Among the more prominent is the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (Brac). This is different from Grameen in that its banking activities are only one aspect of its interventions. It runs more than 14,000 schools, primarily for girls, where a curriculum of non-formal education re-educates dropouts for a period of up to 30 months, and brings them back into mainstream schools. It has also revived traditional village crafts and markets these products in urban areas. It provides inputs to make these products more suitable for the urban consumer. The revenues go back into its initiatives. There are other major NGOs, such as Proshika, and several more, that work in the areas of health care and education. The important aspect of the interventions is that the state has allowed them a free hand to provide these services. As Yunus admits, the state has created the space for NGOs to provide these services, or perhaps, the state has yielded its duties to these organizations. There is a department of the government that provides coordination, ensures that there are not too many overlaps, and that NGOs with a good track record are able to expand their services.
In India, we continue to look at such interventions with suspicion. There is now a bill to regulate microfinance institutions that would regulate self-help groups. The banking sector would like to mainstream these groups into the organized sector, for they see a successful business model. The attempts are to regulate and to bring the NGOs into accountability to the government, rather than providing them space to operate.
Perhaps there is still an opportunity to look at alternative models. Decentralized governance is not necessarily the only way to deliver public services. And public participation is not through panchayati raj alone. Self-help and microfinance groups, public-private partnerships, as well as NGOs are alternatives. NGOs are delivering much-needed social services in Bangladesh. It seems we could learn a lot from them.
(S. Narayan is a former finance secretary and economic adviser to the Prime Minister. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org )