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“Old” and “new” civil societies? reflections on NGOs, state and democracy in Bangladesh

David Lewis
p. 93-121


Much of the new profile of « civil society » in Bangladesh has been generated by international aid agencies and the « good governance » policy agenda of the 1990s, and focuses primarily on the increasingly high profile community of local and national development non‑governmental organisations (NGOs) which have emerged since 1971. But there are also local meanings to ongoing discussions of « civil society » derived from the struggle for independence and the construction of the Bangladesh state, local traditions of urban and rural voluntarism and the organisation of religious life. The concept of civil society in contemporary Bangladesh is therefore best understood as both a « system » and an « idea », as comprising both « old » and « new » civil society traditions, and by resisting the tendency to privilege only one (external, policy‑focused) definition of the term. By recognising these different understandings of the term, the concept of « civil society » helps to illuminate aspects of the changing relationships between citizens and the state, and the shifting dimensions of the wider institutional landscape at local, national and global levels.

Dans une large mesure, le nouveau profil de la « société civile » au Bangladesh a été dessiné par les organisations humanitaires internationales et les politiques de « bonne gouvernance » des années 1990, et repose essentiellement sur l'accroissement considérable du nombre d’organisations non‑gouvernementales (ONG) nationales et internationales depuis 1971. Mais le débat actuel sur la « société civile » implique aussi des acceptions locales, ayant leurs origines dans la lutte pour l’Indépendance et la construction de l’État bangladeshi, dans les traditions locales d'un bénévolat urbain et rural, et dans l’organisation de la vie religieuse. Pour comprendre le concept de « société civile » dans le Bangladesh contemporain, il faut donc le considérer à la fois comme un « système » et comme une « idée », comme un composé de traditions « anciennes » et « nouvelles » de formation d'une société civile, tout en évitant la tendance à ne privilégier qu'une approche en termes d'effet des politiques publiques ou des influences extérieures. La compréhension de ces différentes acceptions du terme de « société civile » aide à éclairer l’évolution des rapports entre les citoyens et l’État, et les transformations du paysage institutionnel général aux niveaux local, national et global.

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  • 1   An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the South Asian Anthropologists Group (SAAG) mee (...)

1This paper explores the concept of civil society in relation to Bangladesh politics and development1. Although sometimes dismissed as merely another political fashion, the subject is important because « civil society » – usually the English term, but sometimes translated into Bengali as shushil shamaj, literally « gentle society » – is increasingly a subject of public debate in Bangladesh at various levels. Most obviously, international donor agencies have pushed the idea of civil society in relation to the « good governance » political and institutional development agendas of the 1990s. At the same time, articles regularly appear in the newspapers in Bangladesh, which debate the possible meanings and roles of civil society. For example, the Daily Star (18 February 2000) carried a long article by noted academic Professor Rehman Sobhan setting out the potential role of civil society initiatives to challenge the prevailing pattern of confrontational politics in the country, which was then followed by an in-depth response by writer and journalist Iftekhar Sayeed (10 July 2000) arguing that civil society was simply another of the many « eccentric ideas » exported by the West which was leading people into a « wild goose chase ». Even the government has taken to mentioning the need, from time to time, for consultations « with NGOs and civil society » over a number of policy issues and the GO‑NGO Consultative Council (GNCC) was established by the government in the mid‑1990s, with the assistance of various donor agencies, as a committee to build better complementarity between government and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

2Bangladesh has an extensive NGO community and many of these organisations have enthusiastically embraced the concept of civil society as part of their own quests for identity and legitimacy. Some of these NGOs speak of constructing alliances between different groups within civil society in order to mobilise citizens in support of political or social objectives. For example Proshika, one of the country’s largest and most active NGOs, ran a campaign for pro‑poor financial reforms under the banner of « kaemon budget chai » (what kind of budget do we want?) which brought a range of individuals and organisations from political parties, trade unions and community groups – including landless rural women leaders – face to face with the Minister of Finance in 1997 and helped set in motion at least the rudiments of a more consultative budgetary planning process. Another current Proshika campaign against religious extremism and intolerance led to a demonstration in Dhaka in August 2001 by a broad coalition against the local use of unofficial fatwa rulings by rural community leaders against local women, in support of a High Court ruling which had stated that these were unlawful, but about which the government had remained silent.

  • 2   Perhaps to a greater extent than in Bangladesh, in India civil society has been deployed in supp (...)

3In common with many other countries in both North and South, there has been relatively little research by anthropologists (or other social scientists for that matter) on civil society in Bangladesh, either as an idea or an empirical reality, whether though ethnographic work, theoretical analysis or historical study. The concept of civil society and its recent rise is undoubtedly linked to Western development fashions, to which Bangladesh is particularly vulnerable due to its still dependent position within the international aid system. But the concept is more than just a policy import – it is a current idea with multiple meanings and histories that are both contested and continuously transformed. The concept of civil society may therefore have the potential to illuminate important aspects of Bangladesh’s social and political processes, both past and present2.

4Civil society as an idea is neither straightforward nor new. Definitional debates about the meanings of the civil society concept would require a paper in themselves and have in any case been summarised effectively elsewhere (Hall, 1995; Keane, 1998; Van Rooy, 1998). At a general level civil society is widely understood as « the population of groups formed for collective purposes primarily outside of the state and marketplace » (Van Rooy, 1998: 30) or as « an intermediate associational realm between the state and family populated by organisations which are separate from the state, enjoy autonomy from the state and are formed voluntarily by members of society » (White, 1995: 379). The roots of the idea of civil society are multiple. The Scottish enlightenment thinker A. Ferguson saw civil society in terms of the growth of moral responsibility, a socially desirable alternative both to the state of nature and the heightened individualism of emergent capitalism. On the other hand Hegel argued that if the emergent organisations of civil society were not balanced and ordered by the state, they would become self-interested and unlikely to contribute to the common good. These approaches shaped the early evolution of the concept. Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth century account of the positive role played by associationalism in the United States brought an organisational focus to the idea of civil society. This perspective stressed the ideas of volunteerism, community spirit and independent organisational life as a form of protection against the state domination of society, and indeed as a counterbalance which could help keep the state accountable and effective. These latter ideas in particular have become highly influential today in discussions of social cohesion in Western societies and among international development donor agencies.

5There are two main problems which arise within this general frame of thinking on civil society. The first is its normative character, which implies that civil society embodies particular types of organisational forms and certain kinds of positive values. Such normative accounts of civil society as a « good thing » have been influential in the ways in which the concept has recently been taken up by policy makers around the world. This has led to efforts to « build » civil society where it has been considered « absent », and to strengthen civil society where it is thought to be « weak ». Such ideas are premised on the idea that civil society can balance the state and the market in political terms by reducing the abuse of power, and in economic terms by becoming a third source of social service provision. While such ideas may resonate usefully within industrialised liberal democracies – although even here they are hotly debated – they may have limited value in countries where the state itself remains weak and limited in its basic capacities.

6The second central problem is the notion of public space, which in civil society theory normally excludes the organisation and ties of family and kinship. Civil society is usually seen as being situated beyond the household, and for example Putnam (1993) argues that civil society is composed of groups whose horizontal ties cross‑cut, and can be contrasted with, these communities of kinship. This idea is drawn from Putnam’s reading of Banfield’s notion of « amoral familism », which painted a picture of nuclear families whose values led them to maximise short-term self interest at the expense of wider altruism. Putnam also argues that the organisations and networks of civil society generate horizontal relationships of trust and reciprocity, which can then form the basis for collective action, and contrasts these with the vertical relationships of patronage, which he sees as fostering dependence and self‑interest rather than mutuality. Beteille (2000) argues that the idea of civil society is both Western and modern and makes a strong link between civil society and citizenship. If civil society requires the characteristics of openness and voluntarism (in contrast to kinship or traditions of caste), he argues, then it is apparent that many NGOs in India do not necessarily embody these characteristics. Although NGOs are often taken to be key civil society representatives, many – particularly those with a local, less professionalised character – find it difficult to free themselves from the ties of kinship loyalties in their structure and management.

7A different strand of civil society thinking, which is far more ready to acknowledge conflict and ambiguity, has also been influential around the world. Drawing on the work of Gramsci, this perspective argues that civil society is the arena, separate from but enmeshed with state and market, in which ideological hegemony is contested, implying that civil society contains a relatively wide range of organisations which both challenge and upheld the existing order. Gramsci’s ideas about civil society were taken up by dissident intellectuals and activists in the resistance to totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. These two different civil society traditions can therefore usefully be distinguished – the liberal and the radical.

8It has been the liberal, organisational view of civil society exemplified by Tocqueville which has been most enthusiastically embraced by development agencies during the past decade in relation to countries such as Bangladesh, where NGOs have been extensively funded and efforts to build their organisational capacity and, sometimes, to widen their political roles have been made (Davis & McGregor, 2000). This preference can be clearly seen in relation to efforts by development policy makers to promote democratic institutions and market reforms in developing countries – the so‑called « good governance » agenda made popular in the early 1990s – which argues for building links of synergy between state, economy and civil society which would lead to balanced growth, equity and stability (Archer, 1994).

9As a « new policy agenda » took root during the rest of the 1990s, stressing good governance on the one hand and neo‑liberal economic policies on the other, NGOs became viewed as alternative or substitute service providers in health, education and agriculture, sometimes as part of privatisation policy (Robinson, 1993; Fisher, 1997). The dominance of this ideology obscured the potential value of other understandings of civil society alongside or in place of the neo‑Tocquevillian one. For example, a Hegelian concept of civil society may be useful in understanding how access to and exclusion from public space and citizenship rights is historically organised within colonial and post‑colonial contexts, while Gramscian ideas about civil society are relevant to understandings of organised resistance to systems of authoritarian repression. Drawing on the former, Beteille (1999) draws attention to the limited extent of citizenship rights accorded to « native subjects » by the British in India, while Jahangir (1986), drawing on the latter, highlights the long tradition of resistance in Bengal to colonial domination.

10There are two other broader issues which are relevant to contemporary discussions of civil society. One is its essential fragility. This is reflected in Putnam’s (2000) anxieties surrounding the « collapse » of community in the United States, where associationalism has declined to the extent that people now go « bowling alone ». This view problematises and even contradicts the efforts of governments and funders around the world to « build » civil society because, even in Putnam’s account, the historical accumulation of social capital is conceived as a locally specific and essentially slow process. J.L. Comaroff and J. Comaroff (2000) also point out that there is an irony that while policy makers have become interested in how to « build » civil society in countries where it appears weak or non‑existent, such as areas of the developing world, a high level of anxiety is being generated in parts of the West where there is a belief that this scarce resource has somehow been « lost ».

11A second concern is whether a concept which clearly has its roots in the West has relevance outside this context. Hann and Dunn (1996) acknowledge that a more generalised notion of civil society as « the ideas and practices through which cooperation and trust are established in social life » (p. 22) is useful, but they are sceptical of its ability – at least in the concept’s narrower forms – to provide useful analytical insights even its original context of Europe. Hann and Dunn point critically, for example, to the way in which the civil society concept has come to imply a simplistic dichotomy with the state. Blaney and Pasha (1993), perhaps more realistically, acknowledge the increasingly universal relevance of the concept in relation to citizen rights within the post‑Cold War landscape, but they also argue for the need to locate the analysis of the idea and practice of civil society more fully within both local and transnational historical contexts and processes.

12In an influential paper on « the difficulty of studying the state », Philip Abrams (1981) wrote of the need to understand both the « state‑system », as constituted by the existing institutional structure and practice which was visible in any society, and the « state‑idea » which is projected and believed among people at different levels of society and at different historical points. It is possible to overcome some of the difficulties of studying civil society by using a similar distinction in which we disentangle the system of organisations and practices which may be said to comprise civil society in Bangladesh from the different ideas and perceptions of the civil society idea which also shape policy and practice.

State, NGOs and Donors in Bangladesh

13Unlike many other countries around the world where international and Northern development NGOs tend to predominate, Bangladesh has an unusually large number of « indigenous » development NGOs. One report recently estimated there to be in the region of 22 000 organisations (DFID, 2000). Most of these are local, very small and voluntaristic but a few have grown dramatically in the past two decades to become some of the largest indigenous NGOs found anywhere in the world, with multi‑million dollar budgets, high rise offices and not‑for‑profit business concerns. Between 20% and 35% of the country’s population is now believed to receive some services – usually credit provision, health or education services  from an NGO. NGOs began working predominantly in rural areas, but have now expanded their programmes into urban contexts. The reasons for this distinctively NGO‑centred organisational landscape in Bangladesh are varied, but include a combination of (a) the existence of local traditions of voluntary action, deepened through recent extreme experiences with natural disaster and war; (b) the massive influence of foreign aid since independence in the form of both resources and a foreign organisational presence and (c) the existence of a state formation that is characterised by limited service provision and a rigid bureaucratic character.

14Before Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation in 1971 there had long been traditions – as found in most societies  of community organisation and voluntary action. Private voluntary work was undertaken by better-off members of the community in organising schools or mosques and relief was provided for the victims of natural disasters. Religious charity has long been part of rural life. In the villages, the Islamic duty of zakat, the payment of one fortieth of one’s income to the poor, is an important part of social life for Muslim Bangladeshis and among Hindus it has long been customary to provide food to sadhus and faqeers (Zaidi, 1970). From the colonial period onwards, Christian missionary work embodied elements of voluntary activity in the fields of education and health, and contained antecedents of some of the community development approaches of contemporary NGOs. Self‑help village level organisations, such as the Palli Mangal Samitis (Village Welfare Societies) became common in many districts from the 1930s onwards, often encouraged by local administrators in a combination of local good works and the building of local patronage relationships. Later, in the Pakistan period, the village farmer cooperative model was introduced, although this was more a mechanism to distribute government patronage in the form of subsidised agricultural inputs than a spontaneous form of self-organisation by farmers (Khan, 1989).

15The national emergency which followed the independence war and the cyclone which came immediately afterwards was formative for the sector. Writers such as Korten (1990) have pointed out the ways in which large scale disasters may lead to collective efforts which provide the foundation for an NGO sector to emerge. The massive international relief effort which followed independence provided familiarity with and experience of the « aid industry » and facilitated subsequent access to funds. The opportunity to gain access to external resources led to a new group of organisations, often led by a single entrepreneurial founder‑leader, which built further on the local traditions of voluntarism and self‑help outlined above, as well as the growing influence of ideas such as those of P. Freire and E.F. Schumacher. At the same time, new vertical relationships were created between groups of local people and external service providers (Hasan, 1993; Lewis, 1993).

16The second factor in the rise of Bangladesh’s NGO sector is the powerful role played by foreign aid. Bangladesh has since 1971 remained heavily dependent on international aid at a level of just under US$ 2 billion per year, according to Hossain (1990), although it is now declining both in real terms and as a proportion of GNP. There has been a large increase in funds going to NGOs, from US$ 120 million in 1991 to US$ 188 million in 1994‑95 (World Bank 1996). It is now estimated that NGOs receive about 17% of the total aid flows disbursed to Bangladesh (DFID, 2000). Nevertheless, the study reports that of the 22 000 NGOs active in the country, only 1 250 receive foreign assistance (DFID, 2000), implying that many of the country’s NGOs rely on voluntarism, government funds or philanthropy. Of those organisations which do receive foreign funds, the distribution is heavily skewed towards a relatively small number. Although there has been a proliferation of local NGOs in Bangladesh, figures indicate that more than 85% of all funds are consumed by a group of about ten large Bangladeshi NGOs. Of these, the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC) and Proshika are perhaps the best known. These NGOs are now comparable in size and influence to some government departments, bringing fears in some quarters of a « parallel state ». However, it is important to note that many of Bangladesh’s larger NGOs are achieving considerable success in reducing their dependence on donors, partly through levying administrative charges on their revolving loan funds which are used for credit programmes, and partly through increasingly successful business ventures – such as the Aarong department stores run by BRAC  the profits from which can be ploughed back into the organisation.

  • 3   The contrasting of « civil » with « militarized » society is another common way in which the ide (...)

17Thirdly, state failure is a commonly cited explanation for the growth of Bangladesh’s NGO sector. Although there were many international NGOs which arrived in Bangladesh in the wake of the humanitarian crisis of 1970‑71 produced by the aftermath of war and a massive cyclone. Hasan (1993: 94) shows that relatively few indigenous NGOs were established immediately after independence in the period between 1972 and 1975 when « there was a great deal of expectation that the government would take care of the rural people ». The rapid evaporation of such high expectations and the gradual narrowing of the available democratic political space led activists and social entrepreneurs to search for new organisational structures with which to address public problems and to build personal careers. The efforts of Sheikh Mujib, increasingly challenged by political opposition to his regime, to create a one party state in 1975, led to the reintroduction of military‑bureaucratic rule which lasted until 1990. NGOs became attractive to activists inspired by progressive political or developmental agendas, but who were unwilling or unable to enter formal political institutions3. Continuing levels of widespread poverty across the country led in the 1970s and 1980s to widespread disillusionment with the government’s efforts at rural development which consisted of half-hearted attempts to build formal village co-operatives, a reliance on trickle‑down economics for the poor and seemingly endless reorganisations of local government structures aimed at penetrating rural society more fully.

18The Bangladesh state can be characterised variously as both « strong » and « weak » depending on whether this is assessed according to its formal presence and power or the according to the quality of the services it provides to its citizens. According to Davis and McGregor (2000: 56) the state in Bangladesh remains a source of « considerable bureaucratic power, underpinned by a latent military threat », though extensively penetrated by wider social relationships of patron‑clientism, rent-seeking and corruption, and patriarchal ideology. McGregor’s notion of the « patron state » makes the argument that

19… the state is seen to organise the delivery of development resources so as to act as the patron of last resort, thus securing micro‑level patron‑client relations which contribute to the reproduction of poverty.

20While seeking to build and maintain strong patronage relationships, and directly or indirectly backed by the military, the state nevertheless remains weak in terms of citizen accountability, its capacities to provide social welfare provision or ensure an independent judiciary, to collect taxes or to represent the interests of the poor. In a similar vein Wood (1997) argues that Bangladesh could be moving towards having a « state without citizens ». The state has, as a result of these patronage relationships and the ideology of structural adjustment, « discarded » its responsibilities for service provision and citizen accountability through the « franchising out » of certain key state functions to NGOs and the private sector, which now cater – inadequately  to citizens as « consumers ».

21Following Migdal (1988), Sarah White (1996: 10) identifies Bangladesh as a « weak state » in a « strong society ». For example, the government’s repeated attempts through successive regimes to reorganise local administrative units, prohibit dowry or redistribute khas land (land which emerges from changing river and coastal systems which the government has earmarked for distribution to the poor) have all proved largely unsuccessful. In terms of legitimacy, the Bangladesh state is still 30 years later engaged in a search for a Bengali identity that is distinct from India and a Muslim identity separate to that of Pakistan. The existence of a range of social, economic and political interests which act effectively upon the state suggests a dynamic and strong society which is apparent from both the social entrepreneurship apparent in the formation of so many NGOs, as well as in the political mobilisation and widespread corruption. This view also draws on the work of Blair (1997) who suggested that the proliferation of interest groups in civil society potentially creates a political « gridlock » which can then paralyse democratic processes and economic life. In Bangladesh, interest groups in the form of political parties and associated groups frequently call for stoppages (hartals) and pursue political action outside formal political institutions. Indeed, the political opposition in Bangladesh has since 1991 routinely boycotted parliament, lending Bangladesh’s democratic institutions a hollow shell quality through which very little « real » democratic process is visible. White suggests therefore that « civil society » has encroached on the state which « ... is unable to guarantee the basic rights of any who have not the power to seize it for themselves » (p. 10). The logic of this position in policy terms is not to « build » civil society, as the good governance agenda has argued, but instead to strengthen the accountability and effectiveness of state provision.

22The NGO sector in Bangladesh is diverse in terms of organisations and approaches. Most NGOs in Bangladesh can still be broadly situated along a continuum which runs from primarily economic activities such as service delivery, credit and income generation to more radical « political » approaches which emphasise Freirean notions of « conscientisation » and « empowerment ». For example, the Grameen Bank, established by a Chittagong University economic professor initially as an « action research » project, went on to develop a model of credit provision for landless women without demanding collateral as an alternative to traditional moneylenders who demanded high interest rates and other favours or formal banks which catered only to the elites (Holcombe, 1995). On the other hand, Nijera Kori is an example of the more radical empowerment-based NGO, which has been active, for example, with a strong local political protest against shrimp production in the south west of Bangladesh and with the struggle to gain access to government khas land for the landless. However, the majority of NGOs have opted for the credit-based approach which is both economically sustainable and highly attractive to foreign donors (Hashemi & Hasan, 1999).

23Until recently, the NGO sector remained somewhat isolated from elements of wider society and made little explicit reference to the idea of civil society in terms of discourse or practices. For most of the 1980s, the activities of NGOs tended to be met with scepticism by activists, the middle classes and the media, which saw NGOs as self-interested and accountable only to foreign donors. Confining their work instead to narrowly defined development activities, most NGOs played no role in the mass movement against General Ershad between 1987 and 1990, belatedly lending their name to a statement of support in the last days of the campaign when it was finally clear that the government was going to fall. From the mid‑1990s this has begun to change, with the global fame of the Grameen Bank and the efforts of NGOs such as Proshika to seek a higher public profile and to build alliances with women’s organisations, the media, trade unions and political groups. This was encouraged by the « good governance » aid agenda, which has supported the addition of a third type of strategy for NGOs – that of policy advocacy and influence. For example, the Proshika added a new dimension to its work with the creation of an Institute for Development Policy Analysis and Advocacy (IDPAA) in the early 1990s. IDPAA and its allies have campaigned on a wide variety of social, political and environmental issues.

24The mass movement which emerged against the Khaleda Zia regime in the mid-1990s also made it clear that some NGOs, through the umbrella organisation Association of Development Agencies in Bangladesh (ADAB), were indeed prepared to play a more proactive role in national politics. In the election of 1996 ADAB coordinated a Democracy Awareness Education Programme through which 15 000 trainers ran awareness raising workshops across the whole country, contributing to an impressive voter turnout of 74% (Ashman, 1997). While these kinds of activities have generated only low levels of conflict with established interests, others have not. For example, the efforts of Gono Shahajjo Sangstha (GSS) to promote its landless group members as candidates in local union parishad elections in Nilphamari was met with violent resistance by local landlords, who burnt down the NGO’s schools, attacked staff and members and conducted a house to house search to confiscate books and publications (Hashemi, 1995). Partly as a result of this more « political » role, public perceptions of NGOs have increased dramatically in recent years, but there has been a price for increased political involvement in that certain organisations – such as Proshika and Nijera Kori  are often identified in the public mind (rightly or wrongly) with the ruling Awami League political party. Also, local critics of the role of the aid industry in Bangladesh are critical of this new idea of shushil samaj – popularised in the press by some radical, but still donor-funded NGO leaders – as just another example of the ways in which powerful local clients of the aid machine are seeking to insinuate a new vocabulary of potentially suspicious outside ideas into social political life.

25The expansion of NGO roles into new societal « spaces » is not confined to the political sphere. Economic activities by NGOs are also growing. For example, BRAC has recently established its own university, partly in response to the closing off of public space within the old universities which have been paralysed by continuing political violence. New private universities for the growing urban middle class are also proving highly profitable, tapping a market where high fees are nevertheless lower than alternatives overseas. Many NGOs have trading concerns (such as printing, clothes, computer services) through which they are progressively reducing the dependence on foreign aid and building a stronger local resource base. These business concerns, while raising NGO profiles, also bring accusations of profiteering for personal gain from sections of the public, and allegations of unfair competition from the business community.

26Bangladesh is commonly regarded as possessing a « strong » civil society in terms of its NGO sector. But such a view oversimplifies because (a) all too often only NGOs are equated with « civil society », thereby ignoring other organisations and forms of action (Howell & Pearce, 2001); (b) analyses of civil society in Bangladesh tend to see it as a new phenomenon and pay insufficient attention to wider historical and political processes (Hashemi & Hasan, 1999); and (c) because it is generally unwise to assume – as liberal accounts of civil society tend to do  a simple dichotomy between civil society and the state, between kinship communities and civil society, or between vertical and horizontal ties. The following section briefly explores some of this complexity.

Unpacking « Civil Society »: « Old » and « New » Civil Society in Bangladesh

27The tendency simply to equate the high profile NGO sector in Bangladesh with a resurgent civil society brings the danger that the long history of state/society struggles in the country are obscured. What Hashemi and Hasan (1999: 130) call « traditional » civil society organisations – students, lawyers, journalists, cultural activists, etc. – have historically played a monumental role in the struggle for Bengali nationalism, for building a secular society and for democratic rights. In fact the movement against the military dictatorships of Ayub Khan and H.M. Ershad, and even the war of independence, were often led by civil society organisations rather than narrow political parties.

28The role of these « old » pre‑NGO civil society organisations of course changed over time as what began as a relatively diverse range of citizen groups and interests gradually became part of a narrower, organised political movement under the Awami League party.

29Organised resistance in the cultural sphere in the form of the « language movement » in the 1950s – which asserted the Bengali language against the Urdu imposed by the West Pakistan leadership – gradually took on more explicitly economic and political dimensions and then later became absorbed into the post‑1971 state apparatus. It also took the form of a nationalist civil society rooted in the democratic struggle for autonomy and eventually independence (Rahman, 1999). As Jalal (1995: 90) shows, after the liberation of Bangladesh, Mujib was able to use the Awami League’s party organisation at least in part to « establish state control over society ». Jahangir (1986: 44) describes the ways in which the Awami League government by 1975 secured the « suspension or destruction of rival trade unions, student and youth fronts » and the control of « pressure groups and potentially alternative points of organised political power ». In Blair’s (1997) distinction, this eventually led to the cooption of much of « traditional » civil society into official organisations and party‑affiliated groups in the fields of rural development, welfare, arts and culture. Jahangir (1986) also describes the militarisation of Bangladesh’s « civil » society in the 1970s under the military regime of Zia Rahman in the sense that military priorities took precedence over social priorities for example in changing budget levels.

30But it also contributed to the emergence of « newer » organisations of civil society in the form of development NGOs, pressure groups and various umbrella organisations which are concerned with poverty, civil rights, gender and democracy. The broadening of these struggles against military rule at the domestic level, and later in support of a greater level of engagement between citizens and democratic political institutions, has gradually broadened and diversified civil society action to include a wide range of organisations and viewpoints with many of the NGOs as well as a ranger of other secular and religious organisations taking part (Rahman, 1999).

31The boundaries between state and civil society, arguably always ambiguous as Hann and Dunn (1996) point out, are constantly shifting over time. Such blurring of boundaries is apparent in the ways in which elements of « old » civil society were absorbed into the post-1971 state, but it is also apparent among many of the « new » civil society organisations. Although the relationship between NGOs and the government is still normally characterised as one of tension and distrust, White (1999) argues that the oppositional relations between NGOs and the state are largely « mythic », linked as they are through family ties, contracting relationships and an often overlapping dependence on foreign donors. At the same time, the depoliticisation of development problems through the now ubiquitous policy language of government/NGO « partnership » brings NGOs and state together into relationships of collaboration, for example in state contracting to NGOs for service delivery – what Sanyal (1990) has termed « antagonistic cooperation » and the World Bank (1996) terms « pursuing common goals ». S. White (1999) argues that both common interest models of state and civil society partnership and simple oppositional models of civil society balancing the state therefore need re‑examining.

  • 4   The support of the Nuffield Foundation which provided a grant which helped finance this fieldwor (...)

32Religious organisations and philanthropic activity may also be included in civil society, and here the distinction between old or new may easily become blurred. On a recent return visit to my own place of village fieldwork in Comilla in August 2000, I found a substantial growth since the late 1980s of NGO‑based activity in the area by at least four different organisations, co‑existing with other forms of organised self-help, individual elite philanthropy and local patronage at the community level4. For example, a village association had been started amongst a small group of the better-off youth to provide sports facilities and a youth club, and to generate savings. A local doctor who had left the village many years ago for a successful career in Dhaka, and who had earlier funded the village madrasar school, who was now ill with cancer, had provided funds for an orphanage to be built in the village. Another successful villager who became a chief of police in Dhaka had established a secondary school in his name, and secured municipal funds for its running costs through his relationship with local political leaders in the nearby town. This link was now part of a wider effort to bring the village under the local municipality which would bring new services such as a gas supply to the village.

33Earlier, we saw how relationships within civil society may be characterised by conflict as well as by harmony. The work of NGOs in rural Bangladesh has generated some well-publicised cases of violent conflict between local religious groups and NGO field staff and clients. These cases have sometimes been used as evidence that NGO programmes which challenge local gender norms – female literacy and education, awareness raising in relation to women’s rights – are proving influential. In 1994 women NGO field workers were assaulted in Manikganj and Sitakanda, and more recently in Brahmanbaria BRAC schools and staff were attacked (Rahman, 1999). For some, this is evidence of clashes between the forces of local religious conservatism and NGOs as purveyors of Western modernity, perhaps best symbolised by growing numbers of female NGO field staff now visible riding motorcycles in remote rural areas. Others have sought to explain such incidents as part of ongoing disputes over patron-client relations or land‑related conflicts in which NGOs are merely convenient scapegoat targets, perhaps by threatening established interests by positioning themselves as « new patrons » as Devine (1998) has argued. Religious organisations may also be considered a part of civil society, and such cases are examples of intra-civil society conflicts we would expect to find within radical theories of civil society.

34Like NGOs, religious organisations may also see themselves as acting in pursuit of the public good in response to local problems. For example, during 2001 in the Gopibagh area of Dhaka’s Mirpur district, the leader of one mosque has helped organise a community initiative designed to resist the problem of organised crime – believed to be linked upwards to political parties – experienced by local traders and residents in the neighbouring streets. Having issued whistles to local shop keepers and provided wooden clubs to the congregation of the mosque, the activities of local touts and extortionists are believed to have been successfully reduced. A number of those accused were pursued and then beaten to death by a group of angry citizens carrying out a form of « instant justice ».

35Conflicts within civil society are not confined to tensions between religious and secular organisations or perspectives. In the 1980s, the efforts of one NGO to campaign for an essential drugs policy which would limit the importation of costly branded products primarily for use by urban elites and would draw up a list of widely‑used medicines which could be produced more cheaply locally was opposed by the medical profession association since the status quo delivered extensive kickbacks to many Dhaka-based doctors (Chowdhury, 1996). Such cases – along with recent highly publicised cases of the fall from grace of one major NGO-GSS, over an alleged corruption scandal – also serve to remind us of the dangers of the liberal vision of an too‑benign view of civil society and the existence of what Keane has called « uncivil society » – though of course such judgements about actions taken by organised groups in pursuit of their own or a community’s interests very much depend on the values and beliefs of the observer.

36While earlier analyses of the rural power structure by NGOs (for example, BRAC’s 1978 study of « The Net ») emphasised patron-client relations as a problem – such the need to challenge rural informal moneylending institutions through providing an alternative source of low cost loans – both Devine (1998) and McGregor (1990) emphasise the role of NGOs themselves as potential patrons. In addition to opening up new political spaces, some NGOs may have also come to occupy more familiar older ones as they – rather than government or traditional moneylenders – become important in distributing resources and mediating with other power structures on behalf of « the poor ». There are allegations increasingly heard that certain NGOs have begun to encourage their group member clients, whom they provide with credit and other services, to vote for a particular political party at the coming general election in return for continued support from the NGO. The idea of NGOs as patrons is supported and developed further in a recent paper by L. Karim (2001) who finds evidence that some NGOs have use their economic power as lenders to exercise political power by delivering votes to political parties.

37Furthermore, the internal structures of NGOs may also reproduce patron-client ties within. Some advocates of civil society have seen organised groups as microcosms of democratic governance and egalitarian practice, which are then likely to contribute to wider norms of reciprocity and trust. For anyone who has worked with the larger NGOs in Bangladesh, such expectations are not widely observable. As White (1999) argues, the informal familial terms of address common in NGOs of « bhai » and « apa » contrasts with the formal « sahib » of the government office, yet also reflects the personalised, charisma-driven power relations which exists within NGOs. Wood (1997) sees patron‑client relations as being transferred from wider contexts of social relations into these NGO structures despite the appearance of these structures as rational bureaucratic systems, yet also acknowledges the practical role of kinship and patronage networks in the recruitment of staff by NGO leaders in order to ensure loyalty and reduce risk within an often hostile wider institutional environment.

38The crucial turning point for bringing the « old » and « new » streams of civil society closer together, and into a more mainstream position in relation to the general public, was the « people power » protests which brought down the military regime in 1990 and returned Bangladesh to a democratic system. Although they joined at the last minute, the NGOs were publicly seen to play a political role alongside the rest of civil society concerned with challenging the « military » with the « civil ». Today there are tentative new links between old and new civil society in the form of alliances which stretch between left-leaning NGOs, trade unions, women’s organisations and sections of the press, such as the Oikabaddo Nagorik Andolan (United Civil Society Movement) in which Proshika and a range of other civil society actors mobilised more than half a million people in February 2001 with a comprehensive set of demands to government on democratisation, human rights and poverty reduction.

39Whether the state – and ultimately the donors – have « captured » NGOs and civil society in Bangladesh, as Hashemi and Hasan (1999) imply, or whether society has « captured » the state in White’s (1999) Migdal‑derived model, is a question that requires a more detailed analysis than is possible here, and depends on distinguishing more carefully both the strong and weak characteristics which can co‑exist simultaneously within the Bangladesh state.


40Much of the discourse of civil society in Bangladesh which emerged in the 1990s clearly originates from the agendas of international donor agencies. These agendas have included the ideologies and policy of structural adjustment, the policy of mixed provision of welfare services, in some cases at least models of citizen action designed to improve processes of democratic accountability. This paper has attempted to explore the limits of such conceptions of civil society, which despite some positive aspects, fail on the whole to address a range of complex realities.

41Civil society in Bangladesh cannot be really understood without exploring the organisational and moral diversity of civil society, the ways in which state and civil society are often closely interlinked with each other in relations of both cooperation and conflict, and the manner in which these changing relationships within both « old » and « new » civil society have played out over time. Nor can we ignore the ways in which a range of conflicts are reproduced within civil society itself, and the need to acknowledge the existence of elements of « uncivil society ». The concept of « civil society » has normative dimensions, but these are clearly open to contestation and negotiation. For some NGOs, the language of civil society has been attractive because it has helped with the process of legitimising relatively new organisations which have recently begun seeking to build clearer links with the rest of « society ». In some cases this is linked to the wider process of trying to build new forms of support and legitimacy and disengaging with the international aid industry either through necessity as the availability of funding becomes tighter or by choice as the need to construct a clearer local identity becomes more apparent.

42This dominant discourse of civil society obscures both the contemporary diversity and the historical complexity of « civil society » in Bangladesh. Recent analytical accounts are becoming more sensitive in providing a critique of the imported donor model of civil society which tends to obscure issues of patronage, conflict and power and which privileges the « new » civil society represented by the country’s high profile NGO sector (White, 1999; Davis & McGregor, 2000). A relativisation and broadening of the definition of what constitutes civil society in Bangladesh to include a wider range of organisations – such as religious groups – and a wider range of practices – such as patronage – can offer analytical insights into the complex, shifting and ambiguous nature of the boundaries between state, civil society, kinship networks and the market.

43Local meanings of the civil society concept already encompass far more than simply the identities and activities of the NGOs. One example of a distinctive local civil society innovation is the set of principles and mechanisms which have been adopted since 1990 of the ninety day neutral caretaker government, appointed in order to oversee elections to ensure fair elections. This was an outcome of the engagement between citizen groups and the state in the mass movement against General Ershad. The system was successfully operated during elections in 1991 and 1996, although in 2001 there has been considerable controversy surrounding allegations from the defeated Awami League party that the caretaker government did not observe impartiality and was this time captured by opposition interests.

44It is necessary to go still further beyond the activities of NGOs and the governance models of foreign donors to include an examination of local institutions and religious groups. This would include a close investigation of the transnational flows of what might be termed « Eastern aid » from the Gulf states which, for example, has for many years been strengthening the power of village madrasar schools and local religious leaders. The analysis of areas of transnational resource flow would also need to include the increasingly important economic role of remittances from Bangladeshis resident overseas. Such flows may also have organisational implications. A recent newspaper article in the weekly Dhaka newspaper Friday advocates the creation of a new transnational Bangladeshi non‑governmental organisation which can harness « the energy and expertise of the non-resident community ». For example, Bangladeshi organisations in Britain were highly visible in mobilising resources in the 1998 floods, and in the United States are active in current lobbying the US government and international community over immigration issues. The transnational dimension of civil society is an increasingly important area for analysis and as Ferguson (1998) shows, the increasing importance of horizontal, transnational identities and linkages complicates further the idea of a simple state/civil society dichotomy.

45Despite the growth of local and international civil society debates in relation to Bangladesh, the deepening of democratic process beyond the merely formal remains elusive and patronage is still the institution that is most useful for understanding social and political life in Bangladesh. There is too frequently a confusion in the literature between « society » and « civil society ». If society has encroached upon the state, can we say, as White (1999) seems to argue, that « civil society » has also done so? In Putnam’s version of civil society, patronage and kinship are explicitly excluded from the horizontal ties of trust and reciprocity which characterise it. In Gellner’s (1996) writing, civil society stands in opposition to the « tyranny of cousins ». If one takes on board the essential idea of civil society and its necessary relationship to modern citizenship and democratic institutions, it is clear that much so-called « civil society » in Bangladesh is really nothing of the kind.

46There is still something to be learned from other local « versions » of the civil society concept, if only as a keyhole through which to observe and analyse important political processes and social relationships. A more inclusive, locally adapted idea of civil society might acknowledge the role of vertical social relations, the blurring of boundaries in Bangladesh between civil society and household and kin networks as well as with the state and the market, and ongoing relations of conflict and contestation. Within such a view, civil society therefore becomes a potentially useful entry point for the analysis of important social, economic and political themes, such as the changing expectations on the part of citizens towards the state, the changing influence of transnational actors on social and economic realities and the changing nature of the patronage systems which help to structure political and economic life in Bangladesh.

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1   An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the South Asian Anthropologists Group (SAAG) meeting on September 12‑13th 2001 at University College, London, where I was particularly grateful to Filippo Osella for his very useful discussant’s comments.

2   Perhaps to a greater extent than in Bangladesh, in India civil society has been deployed in support of an idealized past. Gupta (2000: 164) has shown the ways in which a « contemporary conjoining of tradition with the concept of civil society » among social movements fed by disillusionment with the state has built a romantic vision of « society » and « cultural roots » which appears to unite both conservative and radical elements within Indian society. In their counter-arguments to this type of perspective on civil society Gupta, Mahajan (1999) and Beteille (2000) emphasize its interdependence with the state and with the modern concept of citizenship.

3   The contrasting of « civil » with « militarized » society is another common way in which the idea of civil society is understood in some quarters in Bangladesh. Since the end of military rule in 1990 many have seen the challenge of building democracy in the post‑military era in these terms. For example, this view comes across in the recently published memoirs of Z.R. Siddiqi (2001), a former Vice Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University and Government Advisor.

4   The support of the Nuffield Foundation which provided a grant which helped finance this fieldwork is gratefully acknowledged.

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David Lewis

London School of EconomicsDepartment of Social Policy, London School of Economics,

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