As part of a general trend toward a reduced role for the state, international donors have increasingly encouraged development NGOs to take up a service delivery function. In Bangladesh, this has induced NGOs to shift their core activities away from social mobilisation to a focus on providing microfinance services, although many organisations also promote education, health and other social services.
NGOs are credited with some of Bangladesh’s remarkable progress on poverty reduction, human development indicators and the Millennium Development Goals. However, social inequalities persist, and the quality of governance is extremely low.
This paper reports on the impact of an NGO, Nijera Kori (NK), in rural Bangladesh on its members’ democratic knowledge, practice and engagement. Unique among its peers, NK’s work with the landless poor prioritises rights, social mobilisation and solidarity over more individualistic forms of democratic participation. The study carried out a survey of randomly selected members of NK, along with a randomly selected ‘control group’ from the same socioeconomic background of the NK membership.
Statistical analysis of the data confirms much higher levels of political awareness and participation among NK members. More surprisingly, given that NK does not distribute microfinance, NK membership was also associated with a number of material impacts, including more diverse household diets, a higher likelihood of asset ownership and higher levels of economic activity relative to non-members.
Levels of ‘trust’ in local power structures and public institutions were significantly lower amongst NK members compared to nonmembers, challenging some of the dominant assumptions about the positive correlation between social trust and political participation. We propose that NK’s intensive focus on education, information-sharing and social mobilisation instils a level of political consciousness in members that qualifies trust in public institutions, with implications for enhanced democratic accountability and an alternative civil society approach to improving democratic citizenship.