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December 01, 2003

Up to medievalism

Yesterday I was listening to a BBC program on NGOs (audio file) while I was working. I suspected they would focus on the country of my birth, Bangladesh, and I was right (part of the series The Giving Game).

If you are a typical citizen-of-the-world, you know the Bangladesh is a mess! Well, then you are well-informed (down below, Cliff Notes on Bangladesh history). I could try to point out that Bangladesh has a sucessful family planning program, or that the Sears Tower was designed by a Bangladeshi expat (you would not believe how many times I was told this when I visited Bangladesh in 1990). But that just tries to put a tiny-ass covering on the big butt-sore that is Bangladesh. After all, there's a reason that well over half of my close family (out to first cousins) is scattered across the world[1].

So back to the BBC special. NGOs are big in Bangladesh. Most of my cousins with business degrees have worked for NGOs at some point. As pointed out in the BBC piece, in many places NGOs serve as quasi-governments. This bothered Claire Short, the Leftish minister of Tony Blair who had issues with his entry into the Iraq War. She wanted to put more money in the hands of the government. This made me a bit angry. She seemed to have the idea that government has a certain natural role in the life of its people, and the role of the other world governments (like the U.K.) was to enable the government of Bangladesh to take charge. But as we all know, Bangladesh is the most corrupt nation in the world. My father likes to joke: even the beggars in Bangladesh are corrupt! Every transaction with a public official requires money. When we got off the plane in 1990 we had to pay the police officers to not look the other way so that beggars wouldn't get the message and swarm us to the point where they would be able to run off with luggage. I won't go any futher-but even if NGOs aren't perfect, I really am skeptical that giving the government of Bangladesh more money has a greater utilitarian value.

You see, as I've noted before, one of the problems with the world today is that you have people at very different levels of civilization all across the world, who live under putatively the same governmental superstructure. The United States is a democratic republic. So is Bangladesh. At leat that is the official line. And of course, well meaning Westerners who are governmental officials and their counterparts in Bangladesh go along with this fiction-the former because their world-view is hemmed in by their own experience, the latter because it is very profitable for them[2].

I have spoken many times about the problems with the juxtposition of the modern world with ancient mindsets. In Bangladesh, much of the same occurs, though because of its linguistically and religiously (relatively) homogenous nature nationalism is more well developed, especially among the literate elites, preventing some of the more extreme manifestations of the clash of cultures. Nevertheless, when I visited Bangladesh in 1990, we went to my mother's home village. There was great excitement, because we were the second group of foreigners to arrive. Earlier in the morning, a woman from Bogra had come to visit a distant relative. Bogra was 100 miles from the location where we resided. To make the point understood: it was clear that among the common people the distinction between Bogra and the United States was somewhat fuzzy, and that it might be plausible to classify Bogra and the United States as equally alien (the fact that we were brown helped of course, but one of my points is that spatial conceptions of distance seemed somewhat vague to illiterate peasant farmers). To explicate further, to denote foreigners in the dialect of Bengali that my family speaks we say bideshi (desh ~ country, Bangladesh = country of Bengalis). This term was used both for the person from Bogra and for us. To expand on this, here is a sampling of questions I was asked by the local people (who were mostly former tenants of my family):

Do you have fish in America? (most common question)
Are people as light as Bibi in America? (Bibi was a field-worker of somewhat tan complexion, which meant that she would probably naturally have been olive)
Do you have railcars in America? (this very common from people that seemed to have travelled a bit)
Do they eat insert type of food in America? (many of these foods I did not recognize, so I can't remember too well what they said)
Do you have insert type of common technology in America?

On a humorous note, it was peculiar having people look at you from every single angle, as several people did, just to make sure that our physical topography conformed to what they knew about human beings.

In any case, the common person in Bangladesh did have a sketchy idea about nations, peoples, etc. that were different from them. But they really did not scale up mentally very well. To be more precise, they knew the definitions of nation, world, village, district, etc., but since they only lived at the village level, their connection to higher levels of organization were only abstract.

And so we come back to Claire Short and those who want to reform the government of Bangladesh. The problem with these people is that they want to make a connection between national government <=> village, as if that is how republican democracies have evolved. Today, in our IT-centered world that is far more atomized that it was 100 years ago, identifications with state/province, town, locality, church, etc. might be more mercurial than they once were, but it was those identifications that were the building blocks for higher levels of organization. The various estates came together to form the nation, and once the idea of nation-hood became strong enough, the estates became symbolic and voluntary.

Villagers in Bangladesh have no well-developed middle-tier organizations between them and the government. Districts governments are as much of a joke as the national government. And so you have NGOs filling the gap. They lend to women, breaking down some of the harsher elements of patriarchy, develop loyalties and confidences and become part of a devolved patronage system. Obviously it's not perfect, but like the guilds or estates of the Middle Ages in Europe they exist in multiplicity, so unlike the government, there is no monopoly of corruption by NGOs. NGOs in Bangladesh are more than your typical non-profit, rather, they serve as resistance points against Islamic fundamentalism and for secular civil society. They are connection points between Bengali Muslim village culture and Western culture.

As many have noted, much of the political backlash agains NGOs in Bangladesh has to do with their opposition to political Islam and social conservatism in general. They have certainly violated the letter and spirit of their mandates to give economic opportunity to the masses, rather, they are engaging in massive social engineering. Now, in the United States "social engineering" is seen as a bad thing (or at least, used as a slur). But in Bangladesh, it is inevitable. The question is what kind of machine Bangladeshi society, and by Bangladeshi society, I mean the 90%+ of peasant backgrounds who are being flash-fried into modernity, will be shaped into. There is an alternative to NGOs in Bangladesh, and it's not the government. Two of my uncles are Wahabbis. One is a mean one, another is a nice one (the mean one is a Biology professor, while the nice one teaches the Koran). The Islamic movement serves as a "way out" of the parochial village life of Bangladesh, into a wider world of the Islamic (Wahabbi) Ummah. They give people purpose, identity and organization beyond the village level. Up until the 20th century Bangladeshi Islam was at its most orthodox of the relatively tolerant Hanafi sect, and more generally was similar in tone to the folk Catholicism of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Bauls, Hindu-Muslim poets would travel the countryside, and Hindu and Muslim villagers would worship the same local saints. Those days are gone. Globalization is inevitable, and the indigenous practices of Bangladesh are dying off. This is good, most Bangladeshis have traditionally been mired in subsistence level poverty! But the two alternatives are not pleasant to the Western bureaucratic mind: a medieval system of assocation with semi-capitalist corporate entities that give employment to all sectors and serve as entry-points for Western culture and values, or an Islamic fundamentalist organizational structure funded by Saudi money that supersedes Bengali national awareness (in the middle to higher reaches of society) and village centered mentalities (among the masses) with a pure primitive Islam (I've been to an anti-America rally in Bangladesh, primitive is the right word)[3].

Before the West was the best, it was medieval, class ridden, corrupt and infested by corporate entities that interposed themselves between the individual and their government (to some extent things haven't changed!). Bangladesh needs to go though its own equivalent stage (as do many nations around the world). Frankly, 1,000 Banana Republics competing is better than 1 massive kleptocratic state. The West needs to pick a side, because in the trenches where the NGOs are battling the fundamentalists, you're either with them, or against them.

fn1. The United States, Canada, England, Scotland, Sweden, Venezuela, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Japan-off the top of my head. Additionally, it might be noted that those who remain in Bangladesh are associated with some level of wealth that insulates them from social distress, either as owners of property and businesses or as life-time employees via nepotism.

fn2. Like many Third World nations, the Bangladeshi government is basically an extortion racket for well connected families. It can barely collect taxes, but manages enough to support a parasitic class. A sign of a healthy nation is the ability to collect taxes, but before the world community helps Bangladeshes politicians do this, they need to allow the culture to change so that a big sucking sound can't be heard in the direction to Switzerland.

fn3. I will concede that it might be plausible that Islamic fundamentalists might create a more egalitarian order than that of the NGOs, after all, many of the people that staff the higher levels are college educated, while the proletariat comes from the peasantry.

OK, Bengal = Bangladesh + West Bengal (the state just to the west in India). There are ~ 200 million Bengali speakers in the world, almost all in India and Bangladesh. About 130 million are in Bangladesh, almost all the rest in India's West Bengal state. Of the Bengalis in Bangladesh, 85% are Muslim, 15% Hindu. Of the Bengalis in West Bengal, 75% are Hindu and 25% Muslim. Prior to 1900 they were part of one province, with the west more developed and Hinduized, the east less developed and more Muslim (originally more animist). In the 20th century Bengal was partitioned on a religious basis several times. The first time the partition was reversed because many westerners (mostly Hindus) owned land in the east. In 1947 it was partitioned again, this time because the Hindus did not want to become part of Pakistan (Bengal was a majority Muslim province). East Bengal became "East Pakistan," ruled from the other end of the subcontinent. Though a slight majority of the citizens of Pakistan were Bengali, the western wing dominated, culturally, economically and militarily. Before 1947 Muslim Bengalis resented the cultural domination of Hindu Bengalis, but after 1947 they resented the domination of Muslim Punjabis. Before 1947 the Bengali speaking Muslim middle classes were shifting from a Bengali to a Muslim identity, but after 1947 they swung back to a Bengali identity. In 1971 the conflict between West and East Pakistan led to Civil War, a million or two might have died, millions of Hindus fled into India because they were being ethnically cleansed by the Pakistani (West) army, so India invaded and East Pakistan that was East Bengal became Bangladesh-"nation of Bengalis." Bangladesh is 98% Bengali speaking, with small tribal minorities that speak Southeast Asian languages as well as a residual group of Urdu speaking North Indian Muslims called "Biharis" (many came form Bihar in India in 1947-I have two aunts that are of half-Bihari origin, though they are both Bengali identified). Bangladesh is 85-90% Muslim with a Hindu minority and a small Buddhist minority. I think that's about it. The national anthems of India and Bangladesh were composed by a Bengali Brahmin who was born in what is today Bangladesh, but whose family was from what is today West Bengal (the other national poet of Bangladesh, Nazrul Islam, who was a Muslim while Tagore was Hindu, was born in West Bengal). Oh, and it's dirt poor. But it does have a lot of dirt....

Posted by razib at 03:14 PM