A Discussion with Anwar Hossain, Executive Director of HEED Bangladesh

With: Anwar Hossain Berkley Center Profile

July 9, 2014

Background: In this interview with Nathaniel Adams, Anwar Hossain, executive director of HEED Bangladesh, discusses the role of Christian values in informing the organization’s approach, particularly on issues such as gender empowerment and good governance. He discusses the significant governance challenges that Bangladesh faces and how HEED’s own struggles with corruption has made this a critical focal area for the organization. He discusses his commitment to rebuilding HEED’s integrity over his three-year tenure as executive director.

Could you tell me about the history of HEED, how it was formed, and what the inspiration was behind the organization?

I am always pleased to talk a bit about HEED Bangladesh. HEED was established in 1974. At that time there was a major food security crisis in Bangladesh, and many foreigners came to our country to take part in the relief efforts. They wanted to create NGOs that could continue the work and be handed over to the Bangladeshi people; this is how HEED was first formed. Our donors were Tearfund England, Tearfund Australia, Tearfund Canada, Tearfund Japan, and Tearfund Netherlands.

At the beginning they started with disaster management work in Khulna and a health program on leprosy in Sylhet. The government had begun the leprosy program, but it wasn’t a success. At that time Bangladeshi people thought that leprosy was a curse. If someone got leprosy, then he or she should live away from the society, out of the family. This was the culture. For this reason the government built a treatment center with small houses for leprosy patients and other facilities, but the project failed. They then handed it over to HEED, and thank God it was success.

How did HEED succeed? What was different about HEED’s approach?

When you do social work, you need to motivate the people. The government could not motivate the people as HEED could. The government also could not provide proper services or proper treatment, but HEED could because we had special equipment and expertise from abroad. HEED had a well-established team who knew leprosy well and how to go about the treatment. The team was scanning the area because often leprosy patients are hidden away. Through this systematic method our team located patients and started their treatment, not only medical treatment, but also psychological treatment. We also worked with the community members as well to educate them on the disease. This allowed families to stay together. If the husband finds out that his wife has leprosy, HEED knew he would not leave her if he were educated about the disease. We try to work directly with the people; this approach is one of the areas where we take pride. In this way this we expanded our health program. Then we established a leprosy hospital in Karimganj. We also started working in disaster management in the southern part of the coastal belt. At our project sites volunteers realized that people needed access to better education, so HEED started schools. Then they realized people didn’t have enough knowledge about agriculture, so HEED started a program to educate them on agricultural technology.

More recently HEED has come to understand that many women didn’t have jobs in the village, so we started handicraft trainings. We trained women in how to make and market handicrafts. So, this is how we slowly began programs in health, education, and livelihood creation. In this way HEED expanded into all sectors. 

How do you go about assessing the community’s needs?

Our programs vary a lot by area. For example in the Sylhet, health is the biggest need, but in Khulna disaster management is critical. Now we think education is needed everywhere, as are good governance programs. There are many cross-cutting issues that we integrate throughout our programs. We are trying to teach the communities we work in about corruption, about children’s rights, about women’s rights.

I did notice that good governance is a major cross-cutting concern of yours. How do you integrate that into different projects and how do you advocate good governance?

HEED is an NGO, but we are a Christian NGO. Our commitment to good governance is related to our Christian values because in Christianity, there is good governance. When you look at the Bible this is clear. We see this commitment to good governance as a way of showing our Christian values. Part of our commitment to fighting corruption is based on our organization’s history. Three years ago we had a disaster in our management. Our previous executive director made some bad decisions, and he was involved in a little corruption for himself. Someone complained about him to the prime minister, the government investigated, and it was proved. At that time HEED had broken into two factions. One group supported the previous executive director, and one group opposed him, though many were neutral. So one group was trying to force the executive director out, but he was trying to force them out. So there was constant fighting. The government eventually took over the organization and sat with our board members, and they gave the responsibility to me. There was a lot of nepotism here. The executive director’s son became an advisor, another son became director of handicrafts, his wife became director of education, and his sister became a director. It was the whole family. When I became executive director, the government advised me to close the door on them, as otherwise they would try to return. Finally, I had to unite the different factions, and this was a major challenge. We tried to inspire the staff according to Christian values and through counseling, and this has been a success. Many people confessed, and they shared what they did wrong. We gave them a second chance. If the executive director is corrupt, then you better believe the staff is corrupt. But today, I won't tolerate any more. Now I am proud to say that according to my eyes, you won’t find any corrupt people in my organization.

For HEED as an organization is that value-based approach important?

It is important. It is a Christian organization; we run by the Christian values. But anyone can work here. We never discriminate based on religion. We do try to keep Christian values and make sure that the staff understands them. They are not Christian, but they know Christian values.

Most of your beneficiaries are, I would imagine, also non-Christian. Do you try to impart those values to beneficiaries as well?

Of course, we never try to convert them, but again we try to share Christian values; we try to teach them. However, we never do anything related to religious conversion.

Christian NGOs were playing a very strong role in rebuilding the country right after independence. Do you think they are as influential now as they were at that time, or has their role changed?

It’s been a big change. Now the influence of Christian NGOs is very minor compared to that era. At that time they had great influence, but that has waned considerably. This is because Islamic groups have been growing, and they have tried to motivate the government to push the Christian groups out. They believe that if Christian organizations are growing in influence, more and more people will become Christians.

Do you see development progress since independence in Bangladesh?

I feel a certain amount of shame to answer this question because our country got its independence 40 years ago. In 40 years we haven’t seen much progress, and this is due to corruption, particularly political corruption. I suggest that if for five years our political leaders can make a promise that they will not be involved with any corruption and they will not allow any corruption, then we could be Singapore; we could be Malaysia. We could do this easily if our political leaders would stand up to corruption. We have everything in our country. We have the manpower, the brainpower, the resources. If we had no corruption imagine what we could achieve. Our garment sector is running very well. Communication is better than in previous times. But the level of corruption is too high. Political leaders are corrupt. That is why all the people in the government become corrupted.

I tell you, today the ruling Awami League government is involved in corruption. Tomorrow, if another party comes in, then they will have a competition. They won’t think that the previous government was involved in corruption, so we should not be. They will think, "However much that party was involved, I will be even more involved." They have competition with corruption now.

Where does this corruption stem from, and why is it so acute in Bangladesh?

There is a lack of international accountability. Previously Bangladesh was dependent on the United States and European countries for aid and support. We were not as dependent on the Middle East as we are now. In those days when we had an election, before the election ambassadors from the United States, the EU and the UN would sit together and advise the government. In the last few years, our government has not done this. They only follow India! India is the biggest ally of the Awami League. It is now a relationship of political party-to-political party, not country-to-country, not people-to-people. We need to build relationships with people-to-people, country-to-country. But the problem now is that we build relationships political party to political party. So when the Indian National Congress was in power in India, they were fully supportive of the Awami League, and the Awami League did not honor the United States or the EU. This has damaged many things, and I don’t know how we will recover. I am not against India, but in terms of their policy, what they have been doing is not good for our country. We are thankful to India for our freedom. We have gotten a lot of help from them over the years, and we are thankful to them. But now what they are doing is not acceptable. Things may change with Modi, but we will have to wait and see.

In terms of progress towards gender equality in the country, I know that’s been a controversial issue in Bangladesh. Have you seen progress there?

I have seen progress, but at the same time, there are also major challenges remaining. In fact the challenges are also progressing. I think that if you are working on issues of gender and education, religion is an important consideration.

When you have religion, gender, and education moving in the same direction then development can really progress. Often we do not think about religion when we are dealing with issues of gender and human rights. Many women should be concerned about this. They do not think about the religion, but they should. If we deal with religion as well, the improvements will be permanent. But now some sectors have improved and some have not because there hasn’t been enough focus on religion. There is a lack of education about religion in Bangladesh. Many people don’t even know their own traditions. The government runs the imam training program, which provides education to imams on these topics, but this program is also very political. Those imams that participate are the ones involved with the political party in power. In some faith contexts you can find differences in freedom. Islamic women might have less freedom than Christian women have. On this position we are silent. We do not compare; we never compare Christians to others. If you are a woman, and you see that Christian women have freedom, you can follow them. We do not push anyone because if you try to push people, there will be conflict. It is up to the people themselves.

We never offer examples from the Bible or examples from the Qur'an. Every woman needs education; they need freedom. But how will they get these things in their social context? They must decide—they must find out for themselves. We cannot give them freedom. We can help them, but they must decide how to negotiate freedom through their own communities.

Do you see the same kind of political division even at the village level?

You see it everywhere. Nowadays politics is even more effective in the village than in the city. Many people think village people don’t know about politics, but in fact they are even more concerned about the politics. City people are busy with their work, but in the village they don’t have as much work. They can learn and think about politics. They can criticize each other. So they are very politically conscious now.

How does HEED network with other NGOs in terms of capacity building or information sharing?

I have been here for only three years, and I can’t tell you exactly what they did previously, but for a long time HEED has had good relationships with other NGOs, particularly with other Christian NGOs. They share a lot with each other, but it has been mostly informal. As far as I know all the major leaders in the Christian development community have a good relationship with each other. Now we have Micah Network, which provides capacity building and helps smaller Christian NGOs find funding, and that has been a great resource.

We work with some secular NGOs on projects as well. Right now we are working with the BRAC and the Global Fund. Global Fund is providing a lot of funding for tuberculosis. The main recipient is BRAC, and we’re the sub-recipient. It is important for Christian NGOs to partner in this way. When secular and Christian NGOs are working together, people can immediately see which are Christian activities and which are not Christian activities. They can recognize this immediately. This applies not only to HEED, but also to almost all Christian NGOs. This is their identity; they are sincere, and they are committed. 

So do you think that the reputation of HEED has recovered after the corruption scandal under the previous executive director? Has this had an impact on funding?

The reality is that at that time many donors left, and we are still suffering. I have not been able to bring everyone back, but I am trying. Maybe within a few years, donors will come back again. Even if I can’t bring the money back, at least I want to reestablish the relationship. I am trying to show them that HEED changed. As it was in the beginning, now it’s almost same. So I am telling them: money is not the important factor; it is the relationship that is most important. They can come and see our work. If they find dignity, sincerity, and honesty here, then we are happy. If they think I am doing the same things as the previous executive director, well, then, they can say goodbye to me. I never ask for money. I just tell them to come see with their own eyes what we are doing here.

What has been your personal inspiration as you rebuild HEED?

As HEED executive director, or as a Christian, or as a pastor (I am pastor also), I want to help the poor people to help develop their communities. I want to bring HEED back to its roots through its mission and vision. If you want to accomplish something, you need a vision. But without a mission, your vision will not be active, and likewise without a vision, your mission will not be effective. HEED’s mission is to build communities that are just, accountable, and responsive to the needs of poor and marginalized with dignity, for the glory of the creator and his creation. The main objective of HEED Bangladesh is to participate in and promote national development activities through upgrading the socioeconomic condition of the most marginalized and underprivileged people in the society.

It’s clear that you have a Christian inspiration, but you also have explained that you keep your faith separate from the work of your NGO, at least to a certain extent. How do you find that balance?

This is a Christian organization; from the very beginning it was registered as a Christian organization. We bring all of our values from Christianity. But when the government says that the activities of NGOs cannot be attached with religion, that is fine. We cannot take our Christianity and Christian values out of our work; we keep all of that, but we let them know that, for example, we are not sharing the gospel in our literacy classes. Our activities, however, are another kind of gospel. We never try to change people’s minds to become Christian. That is the Church’s job. We have another priority. As a Christian organization we are doing Christian-inspired work, but we never try to convince anyone to become Christian. We don’t say Christianity is good, but Islam is bad: we never say anything like that. As an NGO we never criticize religion or any religious teachings, or any prophet. If you are Muslim, you have that right, and we honor you. If you are Hindu or if you are Christian, we honor you. Because if you look closely, every religion is teaching its followers good things. People might not always be following them, but no religion is teaching bad things.

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