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Critics say legislation gives too much power to the state to regulate activities

New NGO law may hamper growth in Bangladesh

ucanews.com reporters, Munshiganj and Dhaka

ucanews.com reporters, Munshiganj and Dhaka

Published: January 25, 2013 06:15 AM GMT

Updated: January 24, 2013 07:47 PM GMT

Critics say legislation gives too much power to the state to regulate activities
NGOs have provided vital aid to development in the last two decades (Photo by Chandan Robert Rebeiro)

Amid the bleak landscape of the country’s impoverished rural areas, signs of modest progress are beginning to show, largely through the efforts of local and international NGOs.

But civil society partners say the gains they have achieved in the last decade could be imperiled by proposed legislation that they say could infringe on freedom of expression and be used to target groups the government deems to be too critical.

In Santoshpara village just south of Dhaka, a narrow asphalt road now stands where a dirt track fit only for bicycles or rickshaws once stood.

Khorsheda Begum, 37, says he found a path to future success with the help of a micro-finance program administered by the Catholic social aid group Caritas Bangladesh.

“I’ve been a microcredit borrower for over 20 years,” she says, adding that she and her husband used the money to start a mechanic’s shop that has allowed the family to build a new home and send their children to school.

Begum and others in her village have also installed tube wells and sanitation facilities with the assistance of NGO programs.

Theis is just one of numerous success stories among the country’s 86,000 villages, home to 70 percent of Bangladesh’s 150 million residents.

Life expectancy has risen from 59 years in 1990 to 69 in 2010, according to data from the World Health Organization.

Last year, nearly 100 percent of school-aged children enrolled in educational programs – a two-fold increase from 10 years ago.

Moreover, infant mortality dropped from 97 deaths per thousand in 1990 to 37 deaths per thousand in 2010.

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The achievements come despite persistent poverty in a country with a per capita GDP of US$19,000 and annual economic growth of about five percent.

The country’s success in development stems from the work of NGOs, who have stepped in to meet the needs that the government has been unable to address. As a result, the government has usually given such organizations considerable room to operate without interference or restriction.

But new legislation drafted by the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB), which regulates foreign-funded NGOs out of the prime minister’s office, could threaten these hard-won gains and make operations more difficult for the nearly 50,000 groups operating in the country.

The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2011, is currently pending review in the Ministry of Law and is expected to be tabled in parliament this year, despite criticism at home and abroad that the law restricts freedom of expression and threatens the public interest.

Among the law’s requirements is a burdensome approval process for NGOs that demands multiple clearances for foreign-funded projects, a lack of clear timeframes for approving projects, vague grounds for denying approvals and the demand for renewing registrations for projects every five years.

The law also grants power to the government to closely monitor all NGO activity and seize assets if the government deems it necessary.

AKM Moazzem Hossain, deputy director of NGOAB, says the law is only meant to regulate the sector, not create difficulties for NGOs.

“We are taking measures to ensure transparency and to strictly monitor anti-state and terror-linked NGOs. Everything will be done according to the law,” Hossain said.

He declined to comment, however, on whether the new law could potentially slow down development progress and on why current anti-terror laws were not sufficient to regulate the activities of NGOs.

Critics of the proposed law say the move is politically motivated because the government sees some outspoken NGOs who regularly criticize the country’s corruption and human rights record as a threat to the country’s image.

International groups including New York-based Human Rights Watch, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and even the US State Department have condemned the government’s ban in July last year on three NGOs – Doctors Without Borders, Action Against Hunger, and the UK-based Muslim Aid – to stop them from providing assistance to unregistered Rohingya refugees.

Last month, Canada-based Lawyers’ Rights Watch (LRWC) wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that it was concerned about the new bill because it “infringes on the right to peaceful assembly and association detailed in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Declaration of Human Rights Defenders,” which Bangladesh ratified more than a decade ago.

“LRWC understands that the purpose of the Draft Foreign Donations Bill is to regulate NGO activities. We are concerned that its provisions may be interpreted and used by government officials to wrongfully curtail the legitimate activities of human rights organizations.           

In November, Forum Asia, a regional platform of 46 NGOs met civil society, government representatives and the international community in Dhaka to undertake and express concerns about the proposed bill. It also submitted a memorandum to the prime minister requesting more consultation and revision of the bill before it goes to parliament.

“The new regulation will stall development of the poor and needy. It will also trigger corruption among government officials who are likely to exploit the law for personal gains,” said Sayeed Ahmad, a Forum Asia spokesman.

Caritas Bangladesh executive director Dr Benedict Alo D’Rozario told ucanews.com that no government has ever tried to control NGOs in the past 40 years.

“I support monitoring of NGOs for corruption and irregularities, but it should not mean putting development at stake,” he said.

Shafiq-uz-Zaman, professor of economics at Dhaka University, says government should ensure transparency in NGO activities, but not seek to control them.

“There are internal and external audit systems to check their spending. Government meddling and control over their activities hamper socio-economic development and the poor and needy people will be deprived,” the professor said.

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