Khushi Kabir is the coordinator of Nijera Kori, a vital partner on the “Improving Microcredit: Listening to Recipients” project in Bangladesh. Kabir’s work with Nijera Kori aims to politically empower the downtrodden populations of Bangladesh. Based on their belief that the strategy of conscientization is a solution to the growing problem of aid dependency, Nijera Kori has organized over 175,000 landless people in Bangladesh’s rural areas since its inception in 1980. Khushi Kabir was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005.
Interviewed & Transcribed by Anders Bjornberg
AB: How did Nijera Kori come into existence? Could you tell me a little about the history of Nijera Kori and how it’s changed over time?
KK: At the time, some of us were working at different NGOs. I had been working since ’72 at BRAC (Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee). Back at that time BRAC was smaller, and it had scope for more experiments.
We had started working with the concept of agrarian conscientization, awareness-raising, being aware of one’s rights and then trying to taking action to change one’s own life. To us this was much more important than projects designed to reach people for their development, which we felt was creating dependency. When you create an alternative to the government systems which are not working, you’re not getting citizens to question why the government isn’t fulfilling its responsibilities and duties to the people. You’re just creating another alternative, which may be good, but it is dependent on the good will of that institution. If the institution runs a health project or a literacy project, people are dependent on that organization and that organization’s own ethos, rather than the people being in control and deciding and determining what should be done for them and their lives. That was our basic difference in philosophy, that we didn’t want to provide services, we wanted to create stronger organizations.
1980 was the turning point, when BRAC was on track to become like it is now, and people like us were not going to let that happen. We were going deeper inwards and being closer with the community and the institution was moving outwards to being an efficient, large service provider. There was a contradiction at that stage where we had to make a decision: do we stay on in BRAC and become like BRAC or do we move out and do our own thing. It was the latter that happened. A whole group of us left. Some of the projects we were working with at the time followed us.
Since the very beginning we wanted to look at society without segregating men and women because this was already a segregated society. I think that this ghettoization of women’s services is not good for Bangladesh, that Bangladesh is a society which is very separated. The separation of space, roles, hierarchy between men and women is so strong that what we need is for men to learn to work with women and deal with them as equals and women to learn to work with men and be much more assertive. That’s been what I’ve been pushing for right at the beginning and we thought this was something that we wanted to continue at Nijera Kori. And so, before gender became a very popular concept, we were doing gender mainstreaming within Nijera Kori itself.
AB: Does Nijera Kori work on political advocacy within the power structure?
KK: We began with grassroots organizing because in our work in villages we saw the marginalization, exploitation and oppression that takes place and that just giving microcredit or providing services did not create the strength that comes from villagers questioning the power structure themselves. We saw that our government was inactive, corrupt, inefficient and did not have the mindset of being accountable to people. But the way that this could be changed is if the people start making demands and demanding accountability. We decided that instead of working at the top to change politicians’ mindsets – which we think is equally necessary – as Nijera Kori our strength is working at the grassroots organizing people. Unless there is a space where people are much more aware then changes will not take place.
AB: How does Bangladesh fit into the global development climate?
KK: Yesterday I was having dinner with some Indians who were in town for a workshop on the question of people’s rights over forests. They were saying that development in India has been changing to Bangladesh’s development model. Development in Bangladesh has been a donor-driven, very mainstream movement, as evidenced through the success of microcredit. On the other hand, India has had a history of organic peoples’ movements – the peaceful resistance of the Gandhian movements and Ambedkar and his followers who started working with Adivasis. After independence when the activists were all released from jail, a lot of those bright young people started working with workers or communities or mining areas. It was something that grew as a result of their ideology.
Now they say 99% of Indian NGO’s have changed to microcredit-based development because of pressure from donors. It has become professionalism versus peoples’ movements. What were peoples’ movements have also been professionalized. You pay for a movement on a certain issue and then you lobby on a certain issue and then you get professionals to draft a bill which holds a few consultations with local communities and then you draft a bill. It’s no longer people’s organizations. NGOs are a very good conduit for the process of globalization, a very easy conduit. Whether its shrimp or its agriculture, you’re taking control from people with a market-driven system.
When I started going to the village, they would try and give you a cup of milk and fry you an egg. You know, it was hospitality. Now, they give you Coca-Cola and biscuits. It’s what you purchase from the market, it’s not what you have in the house anymore. Because the chickens you have in the house are taken on loan and for commercial use, they’re not for your consumption. If you have a cow, it’s a cow-fattening program for the market. And if it’s a milk cow, it’s for Milk Vita or Aarong [Bangladeshi milk conglomerates] or whatever who’s selling to the market. So you can’t use the milk.
If they think someone is very respected then they will give you Coca-Cola. Before if you were respected they would try to give you milk if they really wanted to show their affection for you. NGOs are looked at as the conduit through which development can take place – a much more efficient, modern development process. Which means that the whole global economy is being taken over leaving people totally disempowered.
AB: How do you measure the success of Nijera Kori?
KK: Basically, the ideology has to be very clear from the beginning and this ideology has to go down to every staff – that this is what we stand for and this is what we do and it should not be project-oriented or results-oriented as this is a process. The results-orientation concept needs to be questioned and changed. Most NGOs are so dependent on donor funding for their survival they’re forced to then produce results as per the donors’ need, as they have determined in the project document, rather than being able to say, that, ok, we didn’t get it, for this reason. They’re forced to manipulate information and get the staff to manipulate information for the donors’ need. I think it’s the donors who have changed the ethos and I think its very sad that that is happening in India now which had much stronger peoples’ movements. A lot of NGOs we have gone over to visit and learn from, have begun to come to Bangladesh to get microcredit experience because their donors have insisted on it. And now in governance what they’re doing is they do workshops and seminars with policy-makers. They bring in some people from the local community as their voices and draft policy papers to give to governments. Giving up organizations of people who themselves need to be taking control of their own locality – it’s creating weakness.