Time for the private sector to step up
I'LL admit that I was less than enthused to learn that an integral part of a recent conference that I was attending in Jordan was a field trip to learn something about the activities of one of the country's most prominent NGOs.
I mean, honestly. Bangladesh is the land of NGOs, and I have spent my fair share of time seeing, and I will concede, being inspired by, the activities of NGOs in Bangladesh. I figured that it would be more of the same in Amman, except dustier. How wrong I was.
In the first place, the truth is that however jaded or been-there-done-that we might feel about touring NGOs, it never, in actual fact, fails to impress when one actually witnesses first-hand the work they do and speaks with both those who dedicate their lives to the service of others and those whose lives have been transformed by the helping hand they have received.
Ruwwad was no expection. It is run by Fadi Ghandour, whose day job is founder and CEO of Aramex, the Federal Express/DHL of the Arab world. He has built his business from nothing into one of the best and most widely respected companies in the Middle East. As an entrepreneur and business executive alone, Fadi would merit plaudits, as a pioneer and visionary who has brought first-world standards of service to the developing world and whose business is a model of excellence for the region.
However, this article is not about Fadi, as impressive as he is, both in terms of his acumen as well as his determination to give back to the community. Nor is it about Ruwwad, even though the organisation does stellar work in some of Amman's most forgotten neighbourhoods.
After all, we have no shortage of similarly talented and visionary men and women here in Bangladesh, nor do we have any shortage of NGOs filled with dedicated and hard-working staff doing work every bit as impressive and effective as the work Ruwwad does.
Nor is there anything unique in Ruwwad's focus on empowerment and active participation of the community (though, in my opinion, the focus is 100% dead-on). One such organisation with a similar focus in Bangladesh is Research Initiatives Bangladesh (RIB), which I wrote about not too long ago.
But there is one unique element about Ruwwad that I think we in Bangladesh could learn from, and it is this element that I want to write about today.
The key point for me is that Ruwwad is funded not by donor money, but by contributions from individuals and companies in the private sector. It takes not one penny from USAID or DFID or the World Bank or the Ford Foundation or any other typical donor.
To this day, almost every penny that is spent by Bangladeshi NGOs comes from foreign donors. Now, I am not unappreciative of the positive impact donor funds have had on issues as wide-ranging as nutrition and child mortality to the setting up of micro-finance and non-formal primary education programs. There is much that has been done that wouldn't have been done without donor funding.
However, this is not the same as saying that it couldn't have been done without them. It could have been. There is no reason why the necessary funds could not have come from within the country.
We always say that Bangladesh is a poor country. This isn't entirely accurate. There is plenty of money in the country. It is just not distributed very well. And when it comes to funding for social welfare and development, we have, shamefully, got used to letting the foreigners foot the bill.
This is unacceptable on a number of levels.
To start with, it offends me that we always have our hands out. Especially when there is no need for it. We need to have more self-respect than that. The less we rely on foreign aid, the greater will be our dignity as a nation.
In addition, it can be argued that foreign aid rarely comes without a price, or, at the very least, strings attached. At a minimum, there is meddling and interference, and all the problems that arise from the structural inefficiencies and inherent ineffectiveness of a foreign aid-funded system.
To wean ourselves off of foreign aid, which, in fairness, we have been doing (albeit at only a modest clip) when it comes to government revenue, is clearly the need of the day in the NGO sector.
But for that to happen, the private sector needs to step up to the plate. Kumudini and the Sajida Foundation are two shining examples of private sector-backed welfare/development initiatives in Bangladesh. But, by and large, the giving record of large corporations and the private sector as a whole in Bangladesh is dismal.
There is no reason why the private sector should not be able to dig deeper into its pockets to fund welfare and development work, and no reason why we should not ultimately be able to fund the entire NGO sector from our own means.