Women Empowerment in Bangladesh of the Forest, Tree & Grassroots | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 12, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:30 AM, September 12, 2016

Women Empowerment in Bangladesh of the Forest, Tree & Grassroots


State University of New York Press, 2015, pp.379

The issue of emancipating women raises obvious questions: Is there a final point; indeed, is the starting point similar across countries; can diverse groups within any country reap benefit simultaneously? Hillary Clinton claimed her 2008 presidential campaign had “cracked the [gender] glass-ceiling,” then, in 2016, how “the sky [had become] the limit” for women. Is the sky also the gender limit in Bangladesh, where a woman has been prime minister, leader of the opposition party, current speaker, and recent foreign minister, while also scaling Everest and making ready-made garments (RMGs) upon which the country has thrived for a quarter century?          

Manzurul Mannan's incisive and enriching book posits a critical picture. His “ethnographic” analysis of the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), inquires if the purpose  of “the largest transnational NGO [non-governmental organization] in the world,” was “benign” (to “empower poor women in social transformation”), or “manipulative” (to create a “poverty enterprise” out of “developmental pursuits,” p. 35). Since his measurement yardstick, “global policy language” (GPL), is the BRAC/NGO instrument for “managing and exploiting the 'third world',” Mannan's conclusion finds the “manipulative” prevails: “the disempowerment of the poor sustains the development process,” and that “poverty in Bangladesh has not decreased,” though “the nature of poverty itself” has changed (295).

Behind a theoretically sound, empirically rich, and methodologically compact research lies a Bangladesh just entering a middle-income bracket, doubtlessly with women paving the way. Is this a paradox or interpretive problem?

Mannan's GPL triptych identifies the “West”/“North” (281), where “the culture and dynamic of the development organizations originates” (43), the “South”/“rural”/“traditional Bengali culture” (129), where development means “interventions.” His first three chapters elaborate the corresponding tensions: (a) “western” equality confronting Bangalee “hierarchy,” (b) “development anthropology” against “anthropology of development,” and (c) past values battling present materialism.

Chapter 4 challenges BRAC's organization claim, Chapter 5, coaxes a “hybrid culture” from that triptych, and Chapter 6 pits researchers (such as Mannan is in the book) against NGO managers (what he was, no less at BRAC, beforehand). They highlight two of Mannan's literary contributions: evaluating NGO engagements “through the lens of anthropology of organization”; and coining “development-scape” to rival the extant “ethno-scape,” “techno-scape,” “finance-scape,” “media-scape,” and “ideo-scape” approaches (10-1).     

The next three chapters elaborate how women village organizations challenge male-dominated “samaj” (Chapter 7), moral versus immoral microcredit interpretations (8), and the NGO-religion incompatibility (9). Logically concluding a “hybrid culture” is unstable (ch. 10), Mannan's women-based construction of poverty in a society described as male-dominated is eye-opening. His book finds local religious and political leaders reacting to a new village dynamic called women empowerment, caused single-mindedly by foreigners, as if to take rural womenfolk away.

Far more interesting to students, scholars, and conscious citizens is Mannan juxtaposing BRAC's shifting “organizational” imperatives (p. 151), from developmental (between 1972 and 1990), to institutional (1990 to 2000), to market (2000-the present), against the segmented Bangladeshi NGO experience (p. 69), from gestation (1971-5), through consolidation (1975-90), towards globalization (1990-present). Bouncing off two other sequences might have helped: (a) Bangladesh's shift from war, socialism, and famine until 1975, to military rule, Islamization and privatization by 1990, then democracy and neo-liberalism thereafter; and (b) globally, the shift from war and economic stresses during the Cold War years of the 1970s and 1980s, followed by the 1990s neoliberal emergence and regionalization, before a conjunction of Islamic restlessness and terror-infusion from 9/11 took over.

When our poverty was at rock-bottom in the 1970s, the “west” and not any socialist country, save India, came to our rescue. Our women were far freer than he found them in his research, so free that they engaged in the liberation war alongside males without any “moqtab” intervention; and the absence of today's Islamic constraint means Mannan's “traditional Bengali culture” carried far softer tones than his triptych admits.

Softer interpretive hues riddle anthropological studies of social transformation. For example, John Steinbeck's “Grapes of Wrath” also targets organization-based exploitation, like Mannan's BRAC analysis. Though fictional, it expounds the realities of Oklahoma's Dust Bowl family-farms being converted into California's seasonal factory-farm workers in the 1930s. Even when not analyzing modernizing organizations, other “genuine anthropologists” (author's term, p. 164), also reduce tensions to merely the tradition-modernity transformation. Laurence Wylie's “Village in the Vaucluse,” as well as “Behind Mud Walls” in Karimpur, North India, by Charlotte and William Wiser, show how 20th Century social transformation is inescapable but “benign” when seen over the long-haul (30-odd years).

If he was not so alarmed at the BRAC/NGO-induced poverty, Mannan might have noticed how RMG wages and migrant remittances were also changing the village landscape softly, as in Vaucluse and Karimpur.

Women emigrants have not faced similarly hardened “moqtab” and “samaj” reactions upon returning. In evaluating a concurrent International Labour Organisation report, Arafat Ara acknowledges how these women need “moral rehabilitation” and “socio-economic support” (Financial Express, August 28, 2016, p. 8), they face no qualms “to best utilize their remittance through savings and investment,” that is, to deepen the cash nexus of a modern society in barter-based traditional society. “They come back with skills and experience,” the report continues, “which they can then utilize in the domestic employment market.” Writing on the same issue Hasnat Abdul Hye noted how the more positive aspect of BRAC-type engagements helped the country to take “the baby steps of the first generation of women entrepreneurs” (p. 4). Since these are “now a reality,” he adds, “both in the rural and urban areas,” women still stand on their two feet, vindicated, not vanquished, from crossing many fundamental transformational thresholds. Their “acquired valuable experience,” he says, and “confidence,” overcame the “many obstacles and disincentives that impede their progress”.

Development is not just about adding up the “parts” that make the “whole,” meaning taking anthropological, economic, political, social, and all other inputs and interpretations together, but also ensuring the “whole,” that is the big-picture, portrays more than the sum of its “parts.” Mannan's novel anthropological approach fulfilled the former with panache, but to conquer the latter requires defusing his filters. True to his profession, Mannan digs deep; but the deeper he goes, the more the shape, size, and future of the “forest” of Bangladesh development gets obscured by “grassroots” intricacies: we learn of the “scape”-based nitty-gritty details, that is, the “trees” in this parlance, but cannot, and should not, subordinate the big-picture to them.


The reviewer is Professor & Head, Global Studies & Governance, Independent University of Bangladesh.

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