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October 30, 2023 Centre for Peace and Justice

Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), BRAC University, in collaboration with ActionAid Bangladesh, organised a Research Findings Dissemination event on Legal and Regulatory Framework Affecting the Enabling Environment for Grassroots Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) on Monday, 30 October 2023, at a hotel in Dhaka.

This research was conducted under the ‘SUSHIL: Supporting the Unity and Sustainability of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to Uphold Human Rights, National Integrity, and Rule of Law in Bangladesh’ project, co-funded by the European Union.

Researchers of the CPJ led by its Director (Research) Dr. M Sanjeeb Hossain, Nafisa Tabassum, and Al Muktadir Elahi Esmam conducted qualitative research which involved interviews of 135 representatives of 114 Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) operating across nine districts of Bangladesh, namely, Chattogram, Bandarban, Bagerhat, Satkhira, Kushita, Naogaon, Kurigram, Gaibandha, and Dhaka. Dr. Hossain presented the essential findings and recommendations for the research titled ‘Towards an Enabling Environment for Grassroots CSOs in Bangladesh: Challenges and Recommendations for Reimagining Laws, Regulations and Policies’.

 The presentation focused on a host of challenges plaguing the environment within CSOs operating in Bangladesh, which revolve around a decaying trust between some members of the CSO community and bodies of the Bangladesh government, as well as between grassroots CSOs and large NGOs. Research findings also shed light on the troubles faced by right-based CSOs trying to operate assertively and independently and the erosion of the independent spirit of CSOs through their registration with various governmental departments. The presentation also highlighted the unsavory experiences relating to corruption and bureaucratic delays faced by CSOs while (trying to register their organisation and the need for more transparency in the overall registration processes. Finally, emphasis was placed on the weaknesses within the CSO community. The absence of a common platform unifying CSOs, the gradual withering away of the spirit of volunteerism within CSOs, and the politicization of some CSOs since 2001 were identified as the main weaknesses pervading the CSO community in Bangladesh. The presentation concluded that an awareness of these challenges would assist in reimagining relevant reframing laws, regulations, and policies governing CSOs.

Manzoor Hasan OBE, Executive Director, CPJ, delivered the welcome remarks. He compared the research with a doctor’s diagnosis. ‘Doctors’ reports reveal our health issues and prescribe medications. Similarly, the research identified the multifaceted challenges faced by grassroots CSOs and outlined the recommendations voiced by their representatives working in the peripheries of Bangladesh,’- he explained. Shahariar Sadat, Director (Academic and Legal Empowerment), CPJ, was the event’s moderator.

The event consisted of an open discussion session where attendees discussed three themes – current challenges CSOs face, balancing their freedom of operation and advocacy while holding them accountable, and whether or not the situation will improve with the passing of new legislation. Government representatives, development partners, academics, CSOs, youth leaders, and like-minded organizations engaged in a vibrant debate in this session.

The event also featured guest speaker Pablo Padin Perez, Attaché – Programme Manager, Inclusive Governance from the Delegation of the European Union to Bangladesh. He said, ‘The EU is proud to be a part of an initiative enhancing the role of CSOs all around Bangladesh.’ He acknowledged that CSOs play a pivotal role in upholding human rights, promoting the rule of law, fostering transparency, and strengthening democracy in Bangladesh.

The research recommended developing clear criteria explaining when an organization qualifies to be called a CSO. It emphasized the spirit of volunteerism and urged steps to be taken to reinject that spirit into the underlying operating ethos of CSOs. It called for the establishment of CSO Alliance Hubs and Legal Counselling Cells and the need to focus on financially empowering grassroots CSOs working to empower women, religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and physically disabled people. The research further recommended that the government consider framing one law to address the registration of CSOs in Bangladesh.

The event concluded with remarks from Farah Kabir, Country Director, ActionAid Bangladesh. She mentioned that all CSOs are unique entities with volunteerism at their core. She emphasized the need for an enabling culture where larger NGOs/CSOs would willingly collaborate with grassroots CSOs.