In certain kinds of literature on NGO activities in Bangladesh—documents, annual/mid-term reviews, etc.—there is often this fascination for numbers and numerical figures. Any rise or decrease in number is generally seen as evidence of change and “development” (a value-loaded term). Often the idea is that if there is a base-line percentage point on the occurrence of something, and if this number changes after some years and there is an NGO working around on that “something,” this would mean an impact or “development.” A typical example of this practice would look something like: “A greater number of people are going to the Union Parishad now for settling their needs or lining up for social protection benefits, etc.” This approach has been around for years now, and attempts to measure certain aspects of the quality of life of the “target populations” of the development work conducted.
A donor-driven environment can perhaps explain why such documents are produced in the first place. But even if we accept this context in Bangladesh, and hence the requirement to produce reports for the donors, there are still a few things that are problematic and require methodological explanation. For example, for the sake of argument, if we accept that there is an “objectivist” science behind this kind of social research, which is of course being questioned in various forums, I would still ask, how “scientific” is this research design anyway? For example, can a rise or decrease in any number be always attributed to the work of the development organisation involved? Take, for example, the case of child marriage, an issue on which a lot of development agencies work. What if at the inception of a development project in an area, the occurrence of this phenomena was recorded to be 30 percent and, say, after three years of work, the percentage came down to 25 percent? Can we “scientifically” claim that this reduction was due to the “successful” operation of the organisation in question?
I don't think so because, firstly, people don't live in incubators, in controlled situations, and researching humans in controlled situations is being increasingly seen as unethical, if not totally uncalled for. In the case of the example of child marriage, there can be many factors for which the rate can increase or decrease, and all the changes cannot be credited to one NGO working in that area. It could be possible if such organisations were operating in isolated islands, which is not possible. Despite this flawed premise, however, this type of study/research report continues to be manufactured in the development industry of Bangladesh and perhaps the world over.
There are other complications when it comes to such practices. How can one come up with a different explanation other than the one desired by the agency that has funded the study in the first place? Like it or not, often some of these studies are funded by NGOs in the country. For me, this last question brings to the fore the more pertinent point related to the state of our social science research and the research culture that exists today. Generally, when it comes to doing social science research in Bangladesh, I feel there is an extremely limited option. But this was not always the case. Why haven't we been able to develop a vibrant research culture in the universities? Isn't it fair to say that our universities, especially the public ones, were supposed to contribute a lot in this regard?
Frankly, after working for several years in a public university, I can only say that research activities get the least priority in our universities. Our universities today have become more like “teaching centres,” a far cry from the guidelines of the 1973 Act under which some of the major public universities are run and where there is clear guidance on teaching and research. If there are some researchers known for doing world-class research, that's because they have managed to do so all by themselves with no university support. There is usually no institutional structure to promote research among the teachers. Nor is there any fund for them to travel to other countries to attend conferences or for other research-related purposes. Again, when it comes to accessing online resources, the facilities provided to the students and teachers are very poor. It seems that for the university authorities, research-related activities are the least of their concerns, whereas there is no lack of vision when fancy cars are bought for the newly appointees to the administration!
In the UK where I have had the opportunity of studying for a brief period, I saw a strong research infrastructure. They have institutions like Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) that provide funding for research organisations, university faculties, and other professionals or individuals with appropriate affiliations. Funds are given on a competitive basis. Proposals are often written by university faculties and include plans for years of research on a particular topic or a set of related issues. These research projects are characterised by innovative thinking, often taking into consideration the latest of what is available in research methods, with very innovative methodological strategies guided by strong theoretical overtures and ethical guidelines. Throughout Europe, there are many organisations where discipline-specific funding is provided. A lot of efforts are put in at the beginning of the projects. Only after hard work can the scholars, individually and in groups, avail themselves of the funds and conduct the research. Thus, through years of hard work and preparations, publications come out and “new” knowledge is produced.
None of these exists in Bangladesh in any significant proportion, when it comes to the social science research. Development organisations sometimes provide some opportunities but these are very limited in scope, approach and imagination. Some University Grants Commission (UGC) based funds are available but they are not adequate and do not allow the researchers to plan big with integrated options for student researchers pursuing MPhil/PhD degrees at their universities. The scene is somewhat different in our neighbouring country India where students pursuing terminal degrees receive various types of funding for their education.
Some years ago, I discovered a website on Bangladesh Social Science Research Council and what I gathered was that they had an office with some directors and a very modest funding opportunity without any clear mission or goal. Googling very recently, I could not even find the website. It seemed to have vanished into thin air! I think it is high time we thought through these issues. But the question is, who will come forward?
Mahmudul H Sumon, PhD, is an associate professor of anthropology in Jahangirnagar University.