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Posted on Sustainabilitank.info on April 18th, 2012
by Pincas Jawetz (pj@sustainabilitank.info)

OPEN DEMOCRACY has Two Interesting Articles on Bangladesh.

Partnership or PR? Chevron in Bangladesh.

Katy Gardner, 17 April 2012  Discordant Development: Global Capitalism and the Struggle for Connection in Bangladesh (Anthropology, Culture and Society) was published earlier this year by Pluto Press. You can read more about Katy’s work at:katygardner.co.uk/

Chevron are investing in communities and promoting human rights in Bangladesh, claiming that partnership with communities is not just good business practice, but crucial for social progress. But are these real partnerships – publishing what they pay, supporting anti-corruption measures and being accountable?

What do such corporate ‘partnerships’ involve? Viewed in the unflattering light of reality rather than the shimmery vista of PR, is there any evidence that relationships with communities could be described as involving the shared goals, co-operation, mutual respect and equality that the term implies? In research in the villages surrounding the Bibiyana Gas Field in Bangladesh, we found few people who would refer to Chevron as partners. Instead, the majority spoke of their fears of corruption, environmental damage and their sense of injustice at the profits made by foreign multinationals exploiting local resources.

The research involved two villages close to the gas field where, after large scale protest against the loss of land as the installation was being constructed, Chevron were now investing in health, education and alternative livelihoods projects as part of their Community Engagement Programme. In their Dhaka offices, the executives involved were keen to talk the talk: the initiatives were to be sustainable, the poor were to be ‘helped to help themselves.’ As one official put it, “we want to empower people.”

It sounds good. But before rushing to congratulate multinational energy corporations for their progressive investments, we need to look closely at the relationships they glibly describe as ‘partnerships’. If the ability to hear and be heard is a basic component of a healthy partnership, we saw little in the way of Chevron hearing the concerns of the poor. People told us that although initially there were ‘community consultation meetings’, once the land acquisition process was complete, community liaison staff retreated behind the high wire fence of the enclave and only the elite leaders had any means of contacting them. There are no grievance procedures and no open meetings. Whilst the company did respond to farmers’ complaints of damage to the environment, they acted without consulting the farmers. The main issue was the installation’s high banked roads, which prevent water from flowing evenly over rice fields during the wet season. Chevron built culverts in the roads, but these were too small and became blocked with weeds. A year later, no further action had been taken.

Meanwhile, whilst officials talk of ‘empowerment’ they have no experience of social development and show little awareness of the root causes of poverty: inequality, injustice and a lack of rights. Though the support given to small rural businesses is useful, the programmes are carried out via Village Development Organisations that are composed of self selected leaders from the local elite, thus strengthening rather than challenging local hierarchies. It was these leaders who were informed of the controlled flaring that was to take place one night. Community Engagement officials imagined that they would spread the message to the wider population. They didn’t and the result was mayhem. When people woke to the huge flames, they assumed there had been an accident and panicked, running from their homes in terror.

Even more worrying are issues of transparency. Whilst Chevron has a relatively good reputation for its levels of disclosure ‘at home’, the company’s record with regards to its overseas operations leaves much to be desired. This is all the more disappointing when it has enthusiastically signed up to the core aims of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. According to a report published by Revenue Watch / Transparency International, Chevron scored 88% for organisational disclosure (compared to the industry average of 65%), but only 8% for country level disclosure (compared to the industry average of 16%).

Within Bangladesh, the details of deals made with the government are secret, as are the company’s environmental, social and health impact assessments. Yet speak with ordinary Bangladeshis and they will tell you that government corruption and lack of transparency in deals with the extractive industries are of vital importance to the national interest. This surely, is where multinationals could make a real contribution to social progress: publishing what they pay, supporting the government and other agencies in anti-corruption measures and being accountable to the populations where they work, would be real steps towards supporting human rights and justice, rather than funding NGOs to carry out small scale projects that provide plenty of photo opportunities for the PR machine, but little in the way of real partnership.

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Bangladesh: journey of fear towards an uncertain future.

Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury17 April 2012

 www.opendemocracy.net/salah-uddin…

About the author:  Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is the editor of the Bangaldeshi tabloid, The Weekly Blitz, a columnist, author and peace activist who won the PEN USA Freedom to Write award in 2005, the first of a series of awards for moral courage in the media.

The two large parties in Bangladesh have already turned to the worst sort of dynastic politics. At the same time, Islamist influences and left wing groups are becoming ever more involved with the dominant political forces. Alongside this, parliament has become totally ineffective.

The Arab Spring has brought the issue of constitutional rights, and their violation, to the fore in Egypt, Tunisia, and most recently in Syria. Now this problem is affecting a country further East, Bangladesh, for the first time since it gained independence. Bangladesh’s ruling party, Awami League, claims to espouse Abraham Lincoln’s vision of government for, by and of the people, but has instead shown the worst face of autocratic leadership. It has used its own party hooligans as enforcers and made the capital Dhaka into a dangerous place.

The government has also imposed restrictions on all electronic media and used its intelligence forces to hinder the broadcasting of a major speech by the Leader of the Opposition. He had addressed a mammoth rally of at least five hundred thousand people, gathered to express their frustration and anger at a series of failures by the government. Three private television channels were switched off by the intelligence agencies without any prior notice simply because these channels were broadcasting footage of the rally in Dhaka. Through these actions, which violate articles 36 and 37 of the Bangladeshi constitution, the Awani League has finally revealed itself as an opponent of the people.

Following these incidents on March 12 of this year, Mahfuz Anam, a respected journalist and editor of The Daily Star, wrote a front page editorial expressing anger over these violations of rights of the country’s citizens. In an article titled “Awami League’s Moral Defeat”, he wrote:

“When does a government strangulate its capital city by preventing almost all modes of transport from reaching it? When does a government bring to a virtual halt almost all internal city movements? When does a government create such a panicky situation that traders do not open shops out of fear of vandalism? When does a government prevent its own citizens from carrying out their day to day activities? When do government leaders tell blatant lies on television while the truth is clearly the opposite? When does a ruling party let loose its goons upon normal citizens on suspicion that they might attend the opposition rally? When does an elected government adopt the most oppressive measure to prevent the opposition from holding a public rally?”

“Only when it is unsure of itself. A party confident of its popular base, sure of its public support, certain of the efficacy of its policies and surefooted about its public record would never have done what the ruling Awami League did yesterday to prevent the BNP from holding its public rally. What the ruling party did over the last two days to prevent mass participation in the opposition rally reveals a political party frightened of the strength of the opposition and loath to allow it to show it. In its massive show of strength the Awami League looked its weakest.”


Return of the hartal ghost to a troubled economy:

While journalists, think tanks, other members of civil society and the general populace are angered at the hostility of the ruling party towards the citizens of the country, they are also unhappy with the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party [BNP] and its coalition partners for calling a general strike on March 29. General strikes, known as hartal, are the most disruptive and destructive activities undertaken by opposition parties in Bangladesh. When the Awami League was in opposition, it also followed the same route of calling regular hartals day-after-day, causing tremendous damage to the country’s economy in the process.

It is worth noting that the Bangladeshi economy is in a worse state than it has been for several years, due to a major decrease in foreign exchange earnings as well as a lack of foreign investment in the country caused by an acute power crisis. The current government has totally failed to cope with the power shortage in the country over three and half years, and has not delivered on the specific promises made in its electoral manifesto made before winning a landslide victory. (Opposition parties have always rejected this huge victory, saying the election was ‘engineered’ by the policymakers of the military controlled interim regime, which now evidently enjoys a cosy relationship with the ruling party.


Even the foreigners are not safe:

For the duration of the current government’s administration, the law and order situation in the country has gone from bad to worse. Incidences of campus violence perpetrated by the ruling party’s student front, extortion, abduction, murder, extra-judicial killing, rape, oppression of religious minorities, and harassment of citizens have each surpassed all previous records. In one recent incident, the ruling party failed on all counts to properly investigate the murder of a journalist couple in Dhaka. Though the Home Minister and the Prime Minister repeatedly made commitments to investigate the case fully, there have in reality been no developments, which has already forced the journalistic community in Bangladesh to unite in demanding an investigation aimed at targeting the perpetrators. It was rumoured in the media that influential members of society were behind this brutal murder, with the blessing of the ruling party.

The worst insight into the country’s current law and order situation came to light when a Saudi diplomat was murdered in the diplomatic enclave in the capital city. Khalaf bin Mohammed Salem al-Ali (45), was killed by unidentified gunmen during the late hours of March 5, 2012. This is the first time in the history of the country that a foreign diplomat has been killed in the capital. Referring to the diplomat’s killing, opposition chief Khaleda Zia once again claimed that the law and order situation in the country is in a bad way. “The country is in a very precarious condition today. The lives and properties of the people are not safe. There is no security at our homes or outside. Even the foreigners are not safe,” she said.

Bangladesh, a Muslim-majority nation, enjoys good relations with Saudi Arabia, which is a top destination for Bangladeshi migrant workers. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest donors to Bangladesh. Following the murder of the Saudi diplomat, a real crisis is feared, if the government fails to identify the culprits within a short space of time. Should the government demonstrate the same inability or unwillingness to progress this investigation as they did with the murder of the two journalists earlier in the year, the primary concern is that the Saudi authorities will be offended and expel the two million plus Bangladeshi workers currently working in their country.

Since the current government came to power in January 2009, the flagrant robbery of small investors is taking place on the Bangladesh stock exchange. The government has not taken any action against the culprits, again believed to hail from the inner circles of the ruling party. Another scheme to embezzle wealth comes from the fraudulent multi-level marketing companies now in operation in the country. To give a sense of the scale of this embezzlement, one of the biggest multi-level marketing companies in Bangladesh, Destiny 2000 Limited, is believed to have already robbed $8bn from the people by selling fake schemes.

Uncertainty reigns:

A huge question mark hangs over what happens next in Bangladesh and what the fate of the country’s democracy will be. People were already frustrated with the political parties, which fail to impose due democratic processes even in their own internal setups. The two large parties in Bangladesh have already turned to the worst sort of dynastic politics. At the same time, Islamist influences and left wing groups are becoming ever more involved with the dominant political forces. Alongside this, parliament has become totally ineffective due to the opposition’s year-long boycott of the sessions. There is a bleak set of circumstances at play, and the people of Bangladesh are journeying towards a future of uncertainty and fear.

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