FOCUS ON – Unethical practices jeopardizing the work of NGOs in Bangladesh | July 1, 2016

For years, Handicap International has been conducting an ethical screening of its private financial partners making sure they comply with human rights or transparency laws, for instance. An article recently published in a scientific journal support such prerequisite.     Since Bangladesh was formed in 1971, the NGO sector has experienced phenomenal growth, evolution and […]

For years, Handicap International has been conducting an ethical screening of its private financial partners making sure they comply with human rights or transparency laws, for instance. An article recently published in a scientific journal support such prerequisite.

 


 

Since Bangladesh was formed in 1971, the NGO sector has experienced phenomenal growth, evolution and diversification. BRAC, for instance, one of the country’s leading NGOs with Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, is the country’s biggest provider of employment after the government. This makes Bangladeshis NGOs privileged partners, especially for multinational corporations looking for enhancing their brand. Surely, partnerships between corporations and NGOs can benefit to the local communities; yet, in a paper published by the South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, Abu Ahasan and Katy Gardner unveil other, less acceptable, if not unethical, motives.

Using the promise of development to boost business opportunities

Through a case-based approach, Ahasan and Gardner reveal how two major international corporations used the lexical field of “development” to champion their new business ventures before local and national authorities, but also to sell their brand and future projects to the local population.

One of the projects in question was a clay extraction plan, which included an aqua-agricultural farming system meant to generate employment and uplift the lives and livelihoods of the local community. However, after the construction, only a handful of locals were given permanent employment in the extraction plan. Worse, those living close to the site suffered physically from environment hazards caused by one of the factories’ smoke and dust.

Buying out the local elites to further their business venture

Both projects created a stir throughout the local communities; yet, protests were nipped in the bud.

In one case, the locals were persuaded to stop their opposition to the corporation’s project (a gas field) via political pressure from the government, who needed the gas field in question to secure the country’s security energy. In addition, it offered local representatives the opportunity of running development programmes and becoming contractors for the corporation, making them party to the project and willing for it to thrive, irrespective of the social or environmental consequences.

With regard to the clay extraction plan, the corporation made sure that subcontractors were political entrepreneurs coming from both the ruling and opposition political parties, which explains why the local communities’ protests never really took off, lacking political support.

Associating their brand with local NGOs to polish, if not clean up, their image

To ensure the success of their business venture and gain local acceptance, one corporation offered gifts to the surrounding communities. At first, they provided T-shirts for children, sweets and building material to those whose house had been damaged by recent floods. Then, the corporation partnered with local and national NGOs to offer the local communities with a range of development programmes, which included the furthering of primary education, basic healthcare and vocational training.

According to Ahasan and Gardner, their strategy,

“was about more than simply gaining community compliance, or a ‘social license to operate’. It was also aimed at creating a particular image of [the company], or rebranding the company for local and national consumption. This was done in part by buying into the good reputation of the NGOs, whose logos were displayed prominently beside that of [the company], thus creating an image of an ethical and caring company working for the good of the people”.

Yet, the corporation’s business venture was not done without harming the surrounding community as prior to the development projects and free gifts, the locals had had to sell their land, often against their will, and sometimes at only one-tenth of their real market value. What’s more, these land acquisitions were frequently based on false assumptions that the land in question was ‘less productive, isolated and impoverished’. As for those who harvested these lands, they suddenly found themselves with no income.

Man selling fish at the market in Chittagong, in the south of Bangladesh. © Brice Blondel / Handicap International
Man selling fish at the market in Chittagong, in the south of Bangladesh. © Brice Blondel / Handicap International

To this extent, NGOs, whether local or international, need to keep an eye on their financial partners’ ethical conduct, irrespective of the value of their financial support, as one bad partnership could have a disastrous and long-lasting impact on the local communities. This is exactly why we, at Handicap International, value having an ethical screening of our financial partners so as to work only with the “best-in-class” private financial partners and are committed to running our projects independently from business motives but only according to a needs-based approach.

 


 

Abu Ahasan et Katy Gardner, « Dispossession by ‘Development’: Corporations, Elites and NGOs in Bangladesh », South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 13 | 2016, available online since April 13th, 2016, last consulted on July 1st, 2016. URL : http://samaj.revues.org/4136 ; DOI : 10.4000/samaj.4136


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