The Singapore Airline flight landed at Dhaka airport by 10:30 Friday night. After an interminable wait for my checked in luggage, I was happy to see Imrad Zulkarmine waiting for me at the arrival hall. He is the only son of Fatema Kabir, the driving force and guiding spirit of Protiggya Parishad, the NGO that is my host for a 10-day visit to Bangladesh.
On the way to the Ambala Inn where he had booked me, I told Imon (Imrad’s nickname) about feeling excited at my first ever visit to Bangladesh, and he graciously answered my many first-timer questions. We had met twice before, at Mitreniketan in Kerala and at Moshi in Tanzania. I told him then that seeing him as one of the successor leaders, I was more hopeful for the future of the folk high school network in the South.
At some point, it was Imon’s turn to ask: “So how’s the situation in the Philippines?”
I said there are bits like Bangladesh – poverty and inequality, including factional elite politics that do not promise much hope for the future. Unlike Bangladesh, the military has not intervened to force out the warring politicians, though there are voices that wish for military reformers to do so. Bangladesh is currently governed by a transition administration supported by the military. National elections are scheduled for this December, but the two main parties, the Awami League and the BNP, both led by women, are still to meet about the rules of the next stage of the political game.
The political games that have been played by political parties since independence in the 1970s have turned off many citizens from partisan politics. Imon is one of them, though his mother is a former member of parliament and government minister.
That may also be why many mega-NGOs of Bangladesh tend to focus on ever-expanding programs parallel to government, rather than using them as a base for advocacy work to press that government assumes its responsibility to mainstream them.
That was part of our morning conversation with Gunhild Skovman and Torleif Jonasson from FFD, the folk high school association of Denmark. FFD has supported my trip to help Protiggya Parishad think of ways to sustain their work after the phase out of Danish financial assistance at the end of 2009.
Our work in the Education for Life Foundation also benefited from Danish assistance until its phase-out in 2004. I presume they want me to share lessons from our efforts to sustain our work after 2004.
Imon picked us up and brought us to their house for a meeting. Fatema has not been well, and could not stay with us for long. Her neck was in a brace, and she described the pain in her neck, the partial paralysis of her right arm, the pain in her knee, and her nauseous reaction to some of the prescribed medication. Listening to her, I thought of Inay in Mindoro; I have to visit her as soon as I get back to the Philippines.
We were soon joined by Shahid Hossain Talukder who had just submitted his draft evaluation of the work of Protiggya Parishad. He has worked with FAO in the Philippines and was part of the early years of BRAC, one of the biggest NGOs in Bangladesh. He expressed his appreciation and surprise at what he found out about the positive impact on the people in Bijoypur Union in the district of Comilla. “I call it a quiet revolution,” he said.
But he also had many incisive and frank comments and recommendations about the sustainability of Protiggya Parishad’s work beyond 2009.
One assessment of Imon was that they should not have given all their training programs for free. I told him that looking back this was also something that ELF could have avoided after the first few years, when we had already developed our courses and modules and established their effectivity through the grassroots leader-graduates. Of course we had to subsidize the grassroots participants, but we could have asked the NGOs and LGUs who sponsored other participants to pay.
What about tapping local government support? Though it is not yet fully established, the trend toward decentralization and devolution is also advancing in Bangladesh. Fatema was quite confident that their network will play a decisive role in the next elections in Bojoypur Union (a union is like our rural town).
I shared some examples and ideas about particiaptory local governance as the framework for sustainability, for developing greater local ownership, institutionalizing citizens’ participation and diversifying sources of funds.
Before 7 am tomorrow, we travel to Comilla which is just 2-3 hours by road in normal times. But repairs on the bridge and other road work stretch travel to 10 hours, so we will take the train. Over lunch, we were warned that the train is slow, because the railway bed has not been made firmer. They explained that the soil is more soggy because the land has been formed as a delta plain by the confluence of the Ganges river, Brahmaputra river, and Meghna river.
On the way back to Ambala Inn, I asked Imon about Yunus of Grameen Bank fame: “What happened to his plan to set up a new citizens’ party and run for the presidency – the dream of a third force?”
“It didn’t last beyond a few months,” answered Imon. We have time enough to talk about that tomorrow on the long train ride to Comilla.