NGOs and Democracy

NGO workers n Bangladesh


by Iftekhar Sayeed



"A mentally solitary life, such as that of Copernicus, or Spinoza, or Milton after the Restoration, seems pointless according to modern standards....And in any case what is the use of an eccentric opinion, which never can hope to conquer the great agencies of publicity? The money rewards and widespread though ephemeral fame which those agencies have made possible place temptations in the way of able men which are difficult to resist. To be pointed out, admired, mentioned constantly in the press, and offered easy ways of earning much money is highly agreeable; and when all this is open to a man, he finds it difficult to go on doing the work that he himself thinks best and is inclined to subordinate his judgement to the general opinion" (On Being Modern-Minded, Unpopular Essays (Bombay: Blackie & Son (India) Ltd, 1979).


            I was riveted by these lines, especially given the fact that their author was a confirmed agnostic of the militant school. For Bertrand Russell missed no opportunity to ridicule religion. And yet, in these words, he had faithfully described the baneful influence of secularism on our inner lives. He examines the cause of this change: “In former days, men wished to serve God. When Milton wanted to exercise 'that one talent which is death to hide,' he felt that his soul was 'bent therewith to serve my Maker'. Every religiously minded artist was convinced that God's aesthetic judgements coincided with his own; he had therefore a reason, independent of popular applause, for doing what he considered his best, even if his style was out of fashion....”

The other day, I picked up the newspaper to read that 24 NGOs in Bangladesh have been given $250,000 (Takas 1.5 crore) by USAID, DFID and the Swiss Development Corporation to monitor the coming elections. And then I recalled the above lines, as well as some of his other remarks, such as “Belief in democracy, however, like any other belief, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical, and, therefore, harmful” (Bertrand Russell, ‘Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind’, Unpopular Essays, p. 149).

            One is reminded instantly of the opening lines of Shelley’s Revolt of Islam:


                        “When the last hope of trampled France had failed

                        Like a brief dream of unremaining glory

                        From visions of despair I rose....”


For no decent person could help being sickened by the excesses of the French revolution. And Shelley was one of the most decent. He lived, he wrote, he died unknown. And yet Shelley was an atheist, who was able to rise above the fashions of his times. We can easily fit Milton into Russell’s scheme, but how do we fit Shelley? Russell himself has made room for him, for he goes on to say:


“Every serious worker, whether artist, philosopher or astronomer, believed that in following his own convictions he was serving God's purposes. When with the progress of enlightenment this belief began to grow dim, there still remained the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Non-human standards were still laid up in heaven, even though heaven had no topographical existence. Throughout the nineteenth century the True, the Good, and the Beautiful preserved their precarious existence in the minds of earnest atheists. But their very earnestness was their undoing, since it made it impossible for them to stop at a halfway house. Pragmatists explained that Truth is what it pays to believe. Historians of morals reduced the Good to a matter of tribal custom. Beauty was abolished by the artists in a revolt against the sugary insipidities of a philistine epoch and in a mood of fury in which satisfaction is to be derived only from what hurts. And so the world was swept clear not only of God as a person but of God's essence as an ideal to which man owed an ideal allegiance; while the individual, as a result of a crude and uncritical interpretation of sound doctrines, was left without any inner defence against social pressure.”

            “The money rewards and widespread though ephemeral fame” that Russell mentioned has pushed the educated classes of Bangladesh to pursue a political system which, had it not been so malicious in its consequences, could have been dismissed as a mere chimera. Every month five or six student politicians are being murdered; these boys, inveigled into politics at an early age, criminalised to serve as foot soldiers, are the ‘heroes’ who prop up the ‘democratic order’. This ‘order’ – which mimics ‘disorder’ – has been financed and promoted by floods of foreign money and media coverage. We have been rendered defenceless against social and financial pressure. The man who calls evil by its name risks the ridicule of his peers and the loss of his job and livelihood.

One would have expected Amnesty International to give voice to the agony of the students. That has not happened - notwithstanding the fact that the current secretary general of Amnesty International, Irene Z. Khan, is from Bangladesh. She took up the issue of post-electoral violence against the minority Hindus with the government when she was in the country. This was clearly a subject of which the international community would approve: she did not mention the abuse of students by the political parties. Bertrand Russell's insight, unfortunately, explains such reticence all too well.

As it does that of UNICEF and UNESCO, for that matter. UNICEF has never raised a voice of protest against student politics, although their web site says:


The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first legally binding international instrument to incorporate the full range of human rights—civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. In 1989, world leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because people under 18 years old often need special care and protection that adults do not. The leaders also wanted to make sure that the world recognized that children have human rights too.


The Convention sets out these rights in 54 articles and two Optional Protocols. It spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life (http://www.unicef.org/crc/).


The reader will notice that all the highlighted rights have been violated in the case of the student politicians of Bangladesh. For student activists begin their violent careers well before they are eighteen. Similarly, UNESCO has failed to live up to its commitment "to the long-term and continuing process of developing a culture of non-violence and cooperative learning in schools and other educational institutions as an important contribution to a global movement for a culture of peace": unesco.org/education"



            Who today would be a Spinoza? The philosopher who made his living grinding lenses, whose only hunger had been that for knowledge and to see God as He truly is, opposing every received dogma and outcaste from his own and the wider society in which he lived – today, can any scholar of that calibre endure the ostracism that contrary views entail? Can any thinker today withhold the publication of his masterpiece in his lifetime (Spinoza’s Ethics), refuse a prestigious professorship (at Heidelberg) and remain content merely to develop his ideas through correspondence with other thinkers? Perhaps – and herein lies our despair – only a man regarding things from the eternal, and not merely the human, point of view could have held out against human rewards for eternal glory. “Fame is no plant that grows on mortal soil”. So Milton had comforted himself, baffled by the death of his friend. If noble mind outgrows its last infirmity, and, by happenstance, achieves earthly fame, it is merely an added recompense. 

            There was a time when it was lucrative to pronounce the earth the centre of the universe and dangerous to deny the dogma. The power of an institution was brought to bear on that single falsehood: its power to confer laurels and its power, not merely to withdraw them, but to inflict corporal as well as spiritual pain. Today, other institutions exercise similar powers and force the ambitious and the timid to describe an obviously dangerous political system the best possible. The loss of young lives - lost in internecine gangland wars encouraged by our political parties - has been weighed against the imperatives of finance and career and the latter have outweighed the former in our conscience.

In June 2003, two student politicians were gunned down in Dhaka, the capital. They were, apparently, killed by members of their own student wings. Imam Hossein Sohel was a leader of the Jatiyatabadi Chatra Dal (JCD), the student wing of the ruling party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Saidul Rasul Palash belonged to the Bangladesh Chatra League (BCL), the student wing of the opposition Awami League.

They died for the same reason: intra-party feud, mostly related to sharing of extortion money. Palash, for instance, was a student of the prestigious Dhaka College. In the seven years of his political career, he became president of BCL Dhaka College. He had allegedly amassed a fortune through extortion in the areas around the campus: New Market, Gawsia, Chandni Chawk....

Every year, around fifty student activists (including members of the parties’ youth wings) are murdered, sometimes by another party, but the mayhem is mostly internecine. How did this situation arise?

The legend is that, back in 1990, students overthrew the then dictator General Hussein Mohammed Ershad. The reality was that the donors insisted on democratic change after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. But the lesson was learnt by both the major parties: a party without students ready to take to the streets – such as the General’s Jatiya Party - can be toppled by a party with such students. In short, student wings constitute the parties’ private armies - armies that live off the land, and often fight internally for plunder.

The Russelian question cries out to be answered: why has there been no outcry against such a state of affairs?

Because money and fame accrue only to those who support the agenda set by the international community: that is, western donors, and western organizations.

Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz, in their book (Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument, (Oxford: James Currey, 1999)), observe: “It cannot simply be a coincidence that, now that the West ties aid to democratisation under the guise of multi-party elections, multi-party elections are taking place in Africa”. Similarly, The Economist says: “...the cold war’s end prompted western donors to stop propping up anti-communist dictators and to start insisting on democratic reforms” (December 18th 2004, p. 69). In Bangladesh, therefore, it was not the students, but the donors who gave the General the push.

Indeed, Chabal and Daloz devote many pages to articulating how ‘Africa works’ – how Africans are systematically using the resources of their donors. Take civil society and NGOs.

“The political significance of such a massive proliferation of NGOs in Africa deserves closer attention. Our research suggests that this expansion is less the outcome of the increasing political weight of civil society than the consequence of the very pragmatic realisation that resources are now largely channeled through NGOs. It would thus be naive to think that the advent of NGOs necessarily reflects a transition from the ponderous world of state bureaucracy to that of more flexible ‘civic’ associations operating beyond the clutch of the state. In our view, it is rather the reflection of a successful adaptation to the conditions laid down by foreign donors on the part of political actors who seek in this way to gain access to new resources.”

            They observe that “...there is today an international ‘aid market’ which Africans know how to play with great skill. Indeed, there is very little doubt that NGOs spend an excessive proportion of their budget on furnishing their members with sophisticated and expensive equipment (from computers to four-wheel drives), leaving all too little for the development projects which justify the work of the NGOs in the first place”. This observation can be made of Bangladesh verbatim.

            Therefore, it is not surprising that a BBC survey found that every section of society was suspicious of NGOs. Only three percent surveyed wanted to give them more power - and only two per cent admired social work, the 'least admired' of all kinds of work (Star Weekend Magazine, December 9, 2005).

It has been estimated that a meagre 25% of donor money reach the poor in Bangladesh (New Nation, September 26, 2003). According to The Economist: “There are about 20,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Bangladesh, probably more than in any other country” (March 15th 2003, p. 29).

It is, therefore, as Russell noted a long time ago, the easy way to fame and fortune that causes our conscience to steer clear of, and distort, reality: to select what would pay, and deselect what would not.

Even young lives.

© Iftekhar Sayeed

Iftekhar Sayeed is an English and economics teacher and freelance journalist. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to POSTCOLONIAL TEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications.