VSO Bangladesh embarks on innovative new strategy
I spent last week in Bangladesh, one of the poorest countries in the world. I was working with the VSO team who have devised an exciting five year country strategy plan for 2011 to 2015. The committed team of staff, volunteers and partners are working on an ambitious programme of ‘social transformation’ in three rural areas, which will empower and mobilise community groups and youth clubs. The aim is to redraw the balance of power in rural areas where landed elites have traditionally governed in the interests of the rich. Empowering women and young people at a local level is one key element of the programme.
Another key element is to use the evidence of our programme to influence government policy at local and national level. This is essential given that this is a country of 150 million people, where government action is urgently needed to address poverty.
Before the trip I had read my briefing documents, but no amount of reading prepares you for the sounds and smells of Dhaka, the country’s capital. A city of 15 million people, underserved with essentials such as clean water, housing, sewage or public transport. The traffic problems make life difficult for everyone. The heat and poverty are apparent in all areas of the city. Power and wealth are concentrated in Dhaka, so the city is growing at a rapid rate, while rural areas stagnate.
Amidst the heat and humidity VSO partners carry out patient lobbying work. One of the most important issues is to decentralise more areas of government from the overly centralised system. I visited Governance Advocacy Forum (GAF) who lobby for improved local governance in the 4500 rural localities. VSO has provided volunteers who have been able to build GAF’s communications capacity. One big success has been achieved – local government by law now has to include at least one woman in a vice-chair position. But VSO staff believe many of the women are only a symbolic presence and don’t really act in an empowered way in the local debates and discussions.
Shahana Hayat, country director for VSO Bangladesh said: “We still need true empowerment for the rural women. The next step in the process is for rural women to be truly empowered, to take a more active role in local governance”.
This will be a slow process, but is a crucial example of ‘social transformation’ in action.