A few years ago, a well-known non-governmental think tank in Europe collapsed after more than two decades of operation. The organization has grown in importance by working on issues of global importance and attracting a group of experts from around the world. As a result, it has also been able to attract the attention of several donors for the financing of its activities. Many South Asian experts have had the opportunity to work with the organization. The think tank has also been successful in engaging international decision makers while discussing issues that affect broader communities, including countries in the South. Thus, the closure of the organization was regrettable. But what was more regrettable was the reason for the closure. It was closed after massive financial irregularities were exposed by its founding leader, a person who rose to prominence as a builder of organizations and advocate for a just world order. A survey of the organization found that he received an unusually high salary and benefits, paid for his personal travel with office funds, and employed relatives in the office without notifying the body. director, among other allegations.
The reason for citing this example is that civil society organizations (CSOs) around the world are challenged to play their role with integrity and sincerity. They are under the radar, not only of government but of everyone in society as they are engaged in scrutinizing the activities of others, especially policy makers. Obviously, if they identify the limits of the policies and actions of other actors and suggest improvements, they themselves must be on a solid moral basis by being transparent at the highest level.
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Bangladesh has a rich history of vibrant CSOs that have emerged over the years. Typically, these organizations include policy-oriented think tanks, private development organizations, issue-oriented advocacy groups, community-based voluntary organizations, and service delivery organizations. The range of their activities is also diverse: these non-governmental, non-profit and non-partisan organizations work on issues that span economic, social, political and cultural fields. While promoting various causes in these four broad areas, they focus on raising awareness of public policies and programs. They are also committed to influencing the design, implementation and management of public policies and programs. Many of these CSOs in Bangladesh are funded by foreign donors.
Some CSOs in Bangladesh have gained a good reputation and respect for having successfully advocated on issues of public interest and diligently monitoring the implementation of public policies. However, examples of similar CSO stories as mentioned above are not uncommon either. CSO accountability is regularly inspected, the findings sometimes leading to a negative image of CSOs. This makes the job of credible CSOs difficult, especially at a time when the space for CSOs to undertake their activities is shrinking.
CSO activities are rarely appreciated by the government of the day. While these organizations raise the relevance of certain policies, the effectiveness of actions, the quality of the various government services and point out the issue of governance attached to its initiatives, the government adopts a predominantly defensive position. At times, such a defensive role results in the imposition of strict regulations on the activities of CSOs, making it difficult for them to work in any meaningful way.
The reduction in the scope of their work also affects the people they work for – the voiceless marginalized people with little or no opportunity to change their lives for the better. The broader goal of CSO activities is to have a society based on equity and justice. Therefore, the activities of CSOs are in fact complementary to what the government does. There is no conflict between the objectives of these two actors.
While the workspace of CSOs must be preserved to make development and democracy meaningful and rewarding for every citizen of the country, the responsibility of CSOs themselves is of crucial importance. Unfortunately, sometimes reports do not match the stated purpose and spirit of CSOs. The cause they are fighting for is missing in many organizations. If CSOs are to make their engagement with policy makers and communities constructive, their own credibility must first be established. Among several issues, the three most important are highlighted below.
First, the internal governance of some organizations is weak and designed to serve the interests of the founders and leaders of these CSOs. The absence of a strong administrative and governance structure contributes to the pursuit of these goals and change of leadership is extremely rare in many of these organizations. The heads of the institute, usually the founders, keep the post indefinitely or for a long time, as this is seen as their right. The excuse invoked is the absence of any replacement at the post, which is marred by irregularity. Of course, there is a shortage of qualified human resources in Bangladesh. In addition, CSOs are not seen as the most sought after sector by job seekers. However, CSOs themselves are also less interested in finding and training potential future leaders for the organization. Sometimes leadership is transferred to the next generation of family members, just like in private companies.
In some organizations, which have attempted to establish a system of leadership change, the shadow leadership of former senior officials haunts new leaders while the former continue to interfere in organizational decisions. There is a particular system to accommodate the old guard in the core activities of organizations that undermines independent management and the decision-making process. The idea of playing an advisory role and contributing to the organization is unusual among CSO leaders.
Second, the lack of a strong financial system raises questions about the financial integrity of some organizations. Auditing by reputable firms and independent internal audits are the basic conditions for establishing transparency on financial matters. Organizations are sometimes reluctant to adopt financial best practices because they can reveal many wrongdoing. Often, the salaries and benefits of founding and long-time leaders are set by themselves and at their own will – their liking for a high standard of living ignores organizational policies.
Third, the role of the governing bodies of the organization is also essential. CSOs are usually led by a council made up of people respected in the country. However, sometimes the oversight mechanism does not work well due to the low commitment of the board members. Some members only wish to be associated with CSOs for their personal gratification and name recognition. Some organizations also like to enhance their image by including big names, but who do not necessarily bring real added value to the organization in terms of improving its governance. Ironically, for some organizations this could be a blessing as they don’t want the board to interfere – not only because it can become painful for management to run the organization if the board gets involved in it. day-to-day affairs, but also because CSO leaders do not want the board to be informed of acts that violate the rules. Indeed, maintaining a fair balance between diligently overseeing the governance of the organization and not interfering in the day-to-day functioning of the organization requires not only skills but also the right attitude of the governing body.
The credibility of an organization is built over a long period but is destroyed by a small mistake. He sets an example for others. Therefore, CSOs must continue their arduous journey of advocating for accountable and transparent public policies and programs by setting good examples for themselves.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director of the Center for Policy Dialogue.
The opinions expressed in this article are personal.