It was Rey Ileto’s professor who told him: “To understand your country better, you have to get to know another country.” This has been my experience into my third day in Bangladesh.
On the four-hour train ride from Dhaka to Comilla district, I read various reports sent by Protiggya Parishad (PP) to Denmark, but also an excellent research publication on the impact of its work in the past 9 years. Dr. Ahmed Jamal chose the title “Life, Livelihood, and Dreams” to describe the the work of PP.
I immediately asked Imon, my host, for additional copies. I think Teody and the staff of QK in Negros Occidental, and Kaloy and Ayi and the BMFI staff in Misamis Oriental will find the report stimulating. They may even decide to write something similar about their work.
The project director, Mr. Abdur Rahim, joined us in the train. He talks fondly of the time he spent in the Philippines, studying a course in Los Banos and travelling to Baguio and other places. I told him he may know more than I about some places in the Philippines.
ELF has been discussing with QK in Negros and BMFI in Misamis Oriental about integrating education work in their over-all program of participatory local governance and sustainable integrated area development. I think some of what I have seen here so far can further stimulate our discussions.
Unlike the “mega-NGOs” of Bangladesh like BRAC, Protiggya Parishad or PP is quite small. it has focused its work on one “union” the equivalent of a rural muncipality in the Philippines. The union we are in is called Bejoypur (in the district of Comilla). It has 54 villages, and is supposed to be the union with the biggest land area, though a recent administrative rearrangement took away part of its territory and population.
PP started its work with a small group using its own funds. Its name in Bangla means “council of the committed.” Learning from other NGOs and in response to the needs of the villages, they organized literacy classes and started a small micro-lending program. Later, Fatema Kabir, a former member of parliament and minister, got to know about the Danish folk high school movement, and negotiated for funds to deepen their education work.
In addition to their micro-credit program, the most basic work of PP is to organize “community development centers’” or CDCs. The concept is rather simple and low-cost. One of the PP staff, a CDC organizer, looks for a family that is willing to offer space in their house (or yeard) for 20 learners who meet for two hours 5 days in a week for 6 months. A volunteer teacher from the community, given a two-weekspecial training by PP, takes care of facilitating their learning, using learning materials developed by another NGO. A “village committee” composed of community leaders supervise the CDC. After the 6-month literacy course, the learners meet for regular follow-up sessions twice a week for another 6 months.
I asked why they use private houses. “Are there no village centers they can use?” I was surprised to find out that there is no equivalent of our barangay centers. Rural villages are called “gram” which is where the well-known “Grameen” comes from.
More recently, PP has set up simple structures called CLDC – Community Leadership Development Center – to serve as meeting places cum mini-library for a cluster of villages. One I visited has corrugated iron walls and roof. Another is a mud house rented from an absentee owner.
We should give thanks in the Philippines for small blessings. Though decentralization is in the works, the conditions in Bangladesh are not quite there yet for building the capabilities of poorer citizens at the village level for ”participatory local governance.” But almost immediately I also felt my frustration that most development NGOs in the Philippines have not gone more seriously and consistently into PLG.
From among the graduates of the literacy courses, the PP staff choose those who want to study at their community school – a building that they built with Danish assistance. They offer technical skill courses – electricity, sewing, block printing, which I briefly visited the same afternoon I arrived. I was happy to see three girls in the electricity class.
But the more interesting and innovative feature of the community school, the Bejoypur Gonobiddyalaya (people’s school) is its program on developing leadership and communication skills among the equivalent of our OSY or out of school youth. The first graduates have organized themselves into ESA or ex-students association. I was reminded of the Paaralang Bayan Alumni Associaion of ELF graduates and the PBAZ of the Aeta graduates. Those who got special training in educational theater have formed a sister association called SPACE.
This morning, I attended their morning assembly, where for 30 minutes the learners and all the staff gather – to sing the national anthem, to listen to the core principles of the school, to listen to the reading of the newspaper, to tell jokes, to sing, to discuss other items. We do the same in the ELF grassroots leadership course, but not as well and as regularly as here. I could see the learners at different stages of self-confidence and skills. Some are still somewhat shy, while others exuded a quiet confidence that is impressive.
After 30 minutes, the learners split into two groups for 30 minutes of ”physical exercises.” They do exercises, of course, facilitated by SPACE and ESA members, but they do much more. During the 6 months of their course, every day for five days, they also do “mind-body” coordination activities, following a syllabus designed by a resource person from Dhaka. But even more important, the girls and boys do the activities together, and in the process, they can hold hands and interact in a freer fashion than allowed by the conservative culture dominant in their villages.
Again, I give thanks for the small blessing that our rural communities do not have the level of dscrimination against girls that the learners experience here. But also again, I wonder if we have done enough to take advantage of the opportunities more open to us.
I am usually asked, “What is your impression of Bangladesh?” I answer that for many Filipinos, the image of Bangladesh is that it is a poorer country compared to the Philippines. But also, that Bangladesh is home to many NGOs including “mega-NGOs.”
But in the few days I have been here, I have additional images, some of which remind me of the Philippines. Comilla district, i have been told was the pilot place for the “green revolution” using rice varieties from IRRI and hosting Filipino technicians. It achieved self-sufficiency in rice, and also pioneered in developing two-tier cooperatives. But in the process, landless and marginal farmers have been left behind, and illiterate women even more, so with out of school youth.
A locally-focused NGO like Protiggya Parishad has addressed these disadvantaged sectors, and its decade-long work has shown results that we can learn from. Of course it has benefited from funds and ideas from Denmark, and my task here is to help them think about how to continue their work after the phase out of Danish funding at the end of 2009. But as I told the leaders of PP, outside funding is just like fertilizer. It helps, but what is more important is the native soil. And PP has tapped the ideas and experiences of Bangladesh and the people in Bejoypur and Comilla. They have practiced what an El Salvador comrade said to me in 1980 in Belgium: “We must learn from others. But we must think for ourselves.”