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New law threatens Bangladeshi NGOs

Protests are growing over legislation to control, silence or dissolve welfare groups

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New law threatens Bangladeshi NGOs

Women at a vocational training center run by the Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)

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Non-government organizations providing social welfare services in Bangladesh are protesting over the government moving ahead with what they say is a crippling new law.

NGOs would be forced to deal only with often corrupt and mismanaged state-owned banks, while there would be sweeping powers to dissolve organizations that oppose government policies.

In recent weeks, both local and international development outfits have staged street demonstrations calling for removal of several sections of the Volunteer Social Welfare Organizations (Registration and Control) Act 2019.

There were 2,472 registered foreign-funded local and international NGOs in Bangladesh as of June 24, according to government officials. In addition, there were 2,217 domestic and 253 foreign organizations registered under various state agencies.

One third of the more that 160 million people in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation live below the poverty line.

NGOs are involved in the fields of education, health, poverty alleviation, microfinance, environmental protection and livelihood training as well as the empowerment of women and fostering a greater awareness of human rights.

Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International says more than 30 percent of development protects in Bangladesh are implemented by the non-government sector. This role is crucial to Bangladesh attaining United Nations Millennium Development Goals, it states.

Khushi Kabir, coordinator of an anti-poverty organization called Nijera Kori, said: ”We are extremely worried and frustrated that our concerns were not deemed important by the authorities. For years, we have worked hard for development of the country, as support organizations for the government, and never against interests of the state.”

She added that parts of the planned new law are so loosely worded that they are open to misuse by government officials.

Thousands of NGOs already registered under existing laws would have to re-register under the new law and the number of districts where any single NGO could operate would be restricted.

If rules are alleged to have been breached, five-yearly re-registrations could be rejected and at any time NGOs could be dissolved. The executive committee of any NGO could be replaced with a five-member government-appointed committee.

NGOs would have to submit annual work plans as well as audit and activity reports together with tri-monthly bank statements to government authorities as well as being required to operate financially through state-owned banks.

But as well as most state-owned banks being subjected to allegations of mismanagement and corruption, they often suffer from a liquidity shortage.

While there are wide-ranging powers to dissolve NGOs, they would be blocked from initiating criminal or civil legal action in response to punitive government measures against them.

Shamsul Huda, executive director of the Association for Land Reform and Development, said the draft law was in line with the ruling Awami League’s unconstitutional tactic of targeting government critics. Huda said there had already been curbs on the media through the Digital Security Act.

Francis Atul Saker, executive director of the Catholic social services agency Caritas Bangladesh, said the government should not be "extreme" in the regulation of NGOs. He stressed that the proposed new law could be used to stop civil groups from speaking out against government malpractices.

Ershad Ehsan Habib, a deputy secretary of the Social Welfare Ministry, said the draft law is being reviewed by the government internally with scopes for redrafting.

"We have included feedback from various stakeholders with the draft of the law," he told ucanews.com.

The government would listen to public opinion including the views of NGOs, he added.

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