A Discussion with Joyanta Adhikari, Executive Director of the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh
June 19, 2014
Background: Joyanta Adhikari is the executive director of the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB) and president of the country’s Bangladesh Baptist Church Sangha (BBCS). In this discussion with WFDD’s Nathaniel Adams, Adhikari shares experiences from over 30 years of working in the development sector. He discusses the history of the Protestant community in Bangladesh and its involvement in relief and development, which eventually lead to the creation of CCDB in 1973. He explores CCDB’s transition from emergency relief in the wake of Bangladesh’s turbulent independence period, to working in a range of sectors including agriculture, health, education, empowerment, justice and peacebuilding, microfinance, and climate change. He detailed the innovative participatory approach centered on “people’s institutions” pioneered by CCDB and reflects on the significant influence and legacy of this unique institution.
Could you tell me a bit about the history of the Baptist community in Bangladesh?
The Baptist community was started here at the beginning of the eighteenth century by William Carey who came from England. This Baptist community was initially founded in Srirampur near Kolkata and from there it slowly spread across Bengal and eventually India. After the partition of India in 1947, as part of Pakistan, the Baptist community in Bangladesh became much smaller in the sense that much of the Baptists population was still in India. In Pakistan the Christians only made up about .03 percent of the population, which would be about 400,000 to 500,000 people. After the liberation of the country from Pakistan in 1971, the percentage of Christians remained roughly the same, though the total number had increased. The population in Bangladesh was about 70 million at the time of liberation and it has grown to 160 million now. Still we are just .03 percent the population, our percentage has not been increased biologically or by conversion. There is conversion here, but it is not very large scale. The population is around 600,000 to 700,000 now, about 60 percent are Catholic and 40 percent Protestant. Among the Protestant Baptists are the largest denomination. I am involved in various Christian forums in different capacities nationally and internationally—such as president of the Bangladesh Baptist Church Sangha, central committee member of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, general committee member of Christian Conference of Asia (CCA) Thailand, president of National Council of Churches, Bangladesh (NCCB), and many other institutions.
How did Christians participate in the rebuilding of the country after independence?
The activities of the Christian communities, in terms of the reconstruction of the war-torn country, were quite visible. This was because the Christians were involved in the whole range of development sectors with financial assistance by churches in the West. Traditionally churches were working mainly in the education and health sectors. This was the historical approach of Christian outreach. After the liberation, the scope of activities expanded into other development sectors like agriculture and livelihood activities.
When were these traditional outreach and charity activities of the churches formalized into the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh?
Well, CCDB is not really the church in fact, nor is it the development wing of the church. It began its work as a wing of the National Council of Churches. Initially it was established as BERRS (Bangladesh Ecumenical Relief and Rehabilitation Services). The National Council of Churches, Bangladesh (NCCB) was not a very big organization, so after 1971 they decided that the activities of BERRS had become so large that the NCCl could no longer manage it. They decided to create a new organization called CCDB under the umbrella of the World Council of Churches. The World Council was the coordinating body, so they talked with various entities within the development wings of member churches and through this coordination and collaboration the CCDB was begun in 1973.
Initially BERRS focused on emergency relief and rehabilitation like many other NGOs that started at that time. After the emergency period was over in 1973, there was a shift into rehabilitation and slowly into development. During that time the agriculture sectors was in very bad shape, as were fishing and weaving sectors. Many sectors were in need of assistance so CCDB started with a sectoral approach. In the agriculture sector, we helped the farmers shift to irrigated cultivation with the introduction of deep tube wells, low lift pumps, tractors, power tillers, pesticides, and fertilizers. We also began organizing farmers’ groups, so that they can begin to help themselves. We started fishermen cooperatives to show how these groups could sustain themselves through fishing. CCDB gave motorized boats that could go farther out to sea. We started working with the weavers, giving them assistance and organizing them into groups as well. We were also working on the adult literacy, which was a big push in that area, in part to help these groups to be able to advocate on their own behalf. CCDB also started to work in the health sector during in this era. We saw that the maternal mortality rate was quite high; child mortality rate was high and wanted to see how these rates could be reduced. We decided to work with the traditional birth attendants and that was a very successful effort. The maternal mortality rate was significantly reduced. In the health sector, we started by thinking about the village health center. The goal was to figure out how health care services could be provided at the village level, and with the help of Johns Hopkins University, we started some health programs on a pilot basis. The result of this collaboration is what we see today, the upazilla-union-ward health complex. That is the model that we developed and eventually the government adopted. This was one of the initial contributions of CCDB. We were also engaged in rehabilitating war affected people. People had lost their legs, arms, and eyes. We built one orthopedic hospital and brought doctors from England and the USA. The government has taken this hospital over now. There are still many renowned doctors there. So we tried to help the war affected people. This was the beginning of CCDB. CCDB has always been a very humble organization, it was never self-promoting, never tried to beat our own drum. That might be considered one weakness of the organization; we have very few published documents, but there are a number of unpublished papers we have which could be a treasure for an organization.
Could you describe CCDB’s grassroots “people institution” approach?
Well in the 1980s we realized that if we really wanted to go for sustainable development we need to start people’s institutions that could carry on many of these development activities and encourage community ownership. These would also help to mainstream a lot of these efforts. We created a model that we call “peoples institutions.” This model is fundamental to all of our projects even in microcredit.
In the 1980s many organizations started doing microcredit. The NGOs began giving funds directly to people as a loan and so the microcredit phenomenon began. While CCDB did believe that financial support is needed, we didn’t think about microcredit in the same way that other NGOs were thinking about it. We wanted to do it in a different way. The funds are given by the church congregations for the people. As an organization we don’t have the right to take any part of this money. The interest or service change or whatever you want to call it, we don’t have the right to take this. So we set up financial self-help groups, we called them People’s Managed Savings and Credit Program (PMSC). We gave a one-time grant to these people’s institution and we told them to manage it. They took a service charge from the borrower but this was only used for loans to new members. We thought this way the benefit would remain with the people and not with the organization, so it will be more sustainable. This was a people-driven model that we developed then and still use today.
But that model actually had a setback in the early 1990s when new legislation given by the government regulatory authority over these groups. They said if you want to run microcredit you have to register with the government or the central bank. These are tiny institutions, how can they register with the government? There are thousands of these people’s institutions. We thought about how we can solve this dilemma and how can we have them register with the government. We had the institutions registered with cooperative department of the government. This is still a problem, because the cooperative department officials are often corrupt and have some other problems. Afterwards, we have been looking for other ways around this regulation, so we started giving in kind donations of goats, cows, and chickens to the people’s institutions. They would then return some profit to the institution, which is used to buy more animals and it is revolving in this way. Many of these groups, maybe 80 percent, are now self-sustaining, they can run by themselves. We give them training in legal rights and advocacy. We took a rights-based approach. Whatever scanty resources the government may have, people need to know what they are entitled to and they need to try, to get these from the local government institutions. All these groups need to know is that someone is behind them, willing to support them and we are there for that support.
What are the most recent focuses of the organization?
In these last four or five years, of course we have seen after the economic recession and there has been a funding crisis for many NGOs. We have started to assess our current activities and prioritize which areas should receive the most focus. Climate and environmental issues have come up. These issues have major implications for the future of the country. Really the total population is already being affected. There is saline water encroachment across the southern part of the country and this has a ripple effect on all the sectors of Bangladesh, because of the agricultural production is decreasing. The effects of salinity are continuing to encroach further and further inland. On the other hand in the upstream areas, the flow of water in the rivers is being lowered. In Nepal and India the heavy deforestation is silting the rivers and causing barriers. There are a whole range of ecological problems coming up now.
We have asked ourselves what new initiatives we might start to combat some of these new issues. We have developed some environmental programs through our people’s institutions. We are also now planning to construct a climate research institute. We have just completed the conceptual phase and we will begin construction next year.
We are also increasingly working with the indigenous ethnic communities in the hill tracts and the plains area. We have realized that there are lot of indigenous producers growing pineapples, ginger, and many other products. But they are not getting a fair price, so we wanted to know how we could link them up to the market to make sure they are getting a fair price. So in the ethnic areas we are working to build new market linkages. We have seen that this is not only a problem among ethnic communities, but across the rural areas. The people in the villages are not getting a fair price, we have started to examine the value chain and we are training farmers in how they can link with bazaars and local markets. At the same time we have noticed that seeds are a scarcity in the country and this can erode profit. We wanted to link farmers so they can produce their own seeds and they don’t have to purchase them. They used to produce their own seeds, but the yield was not very high. We gave them some high-yielding varieties from the government breeding center and they have formed farmers groups and they are now producing and sharing their own seeds. We have given names to these varieties such as Chashir Hashi or ‘Farmer’s Smile’ for example; we have found this makes them more appealing. That brand is quite popular now, the germination rate is high and they have trust in it. We do some resettlements activities as well. This is a big focus of ours now. The government is undertaking many large infrastructure projects including Padma Bridge, Jamuna Bridge and many others with the help of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and other financial institutions. It is inevitable when you are going to construct a large structure like this that people are displaced and many become landless. There is compensation given to the displaced, but with the condition that the funds have to be channeled through an NGO. So we started actually in the beginning with the Jamuna bridge, which was a massive project and the compensation funds were channeled through us. That was quite a successful effort. Now we have become involved with many projects, providing compensation for those that are displaced. Our role is not only to channel the money. If someone has lost their land and you give them a large amount of cash money they will often use it to buy unnecessary things. We thought if they have lost their land, they need new land and livelihood training. We work with them to make them understand their needs.
How does faith play a role in CCDB’s development approach?
The philosophy is that we want to see that all of God’s creation should live in peace and harmony. We want to create a world where all people can live with justice and dignity. While we say that it is a Christian organization, it is secular in nature. We are not an organization who is for conversion, I mean not theological conversion, but we are converting. We are converting from one stage to another stage; from a poor marginalized community to a sustainable community. In that way we are evangelized in a development sense.
People will say, ‘Oh you are a Christian organization you are definitely doing some evangelizing’ and well yes we are, but not for religious change. We are not trying to change the traditional faith of the people; we are more interested in helping people to become better human beings because this is what Jesus Christ teaches us. When I go to the field and see a poor woman, maybe on the first visit I saw her gloomy face and I come back and see her smiling—that is my achievement. That is the way that we are working.
How has your funding evolved over the years?
That is a big challenge for us now. We have a round table now, a consortium of donors. Initially there were about 27 donors, but slowly many have withdrawn and we currently only have about six partners. They are mostly in Europe, one is from America, Global Ministries. So now increasingly we have to fund this organization by ourselves and we are not really self-sufficient, this is the challenge that we now find ourselves in. How can we finance the organizations by ourselves? The biggest problem for an organization like ours is that we are an organization that views ourselves philosophically as a people-driven organization. As I mentioned we are not engaged in microcredit in the same was as some of the larger NGOs here in Bangladesh. Most of the NGOs that are now financially sound and they are sound because of their microcredit program. We have now realized that we need to have a wing where we can earn money. We started a separate microcredit entity that is not under the main CCDB organizational structure. This is on an experimental basis, because we are not really inspired by the way that microcredit has to be run. We thought that if we had it run by our regular staff members they would not be able to make it successful, we don’t really have this nature. The staff are not used to this approach. The microcredit program has started in a small way. It’s going well, but we have not seen any substantial returns from this yet and we are still quite donor-dependent.
We have started thinking and having many discussions among ourselves about how we can run without outside help. It is difficult. We do have properties and we are exploring how can we use these properties and generate some kind of revenue from them. This is what we are thinking now. We are a Christian organization, but we have very few Christian employees. In the main program we have about 300 staff members, most are from other faiths.
I know Christian charities and organizations were very influential in the rebuilding after independence, do you think that they still have the same kind of influence today?
I don’t think that there is the same kind of influence today as we had in the past. If I consider this from CCDB’s point of view, it was never really about sustaining our influence as an organization, but contributing to the development of the country. From the very beginning we started to help other NGOs develop their own capacity. Almost all the NGOs in Bangladesh got their start with church funds. The director of ASA, now one of the biggest Microfinance NGOs in the country, used to work with CCDB. We had a hand in the formation of many of the bigger and small NGOs in the country. With our help they have grown up. Our intention was to create many NGOs, so that they can help the country; whatever we are able to do, they will be able to do. So that is the way we have gone. We believe in role transformation. The role of CCDB will transform at some point in time. Each decade the organization’s approach and role in society has changed. We believe that NGOs should focus on undertaking some eye-opening initiatives. Whatever the government cannot do, we will do and show that it is possible and then the government should take up these activities. That was our thinking. NGOs should cease to exist at some point. The NGO zeal that was so visible in the 1970s and 1980s, is not there anymore. There are a number of reasons for that. Slowly in the zeal built, but in the 1990s those young guys got older, they had children. They had to worry about their future, about their stability. They started shifting their priorities. Not just the sustainability of the people, but the sustainability of the organizations as well. That was a big deviation or shift in NGO movement in Bangladesh.
I am talking about the NGO sector broadly, but there are still some values-based organizations existing like CCDB and some other smaller organizations. The service oriented organizations are struggling to get resources because we are still holding onto those values. We never thought about our own sustainability. The difference is the values, what you believe, if you think about your own organization’s sustainability, you have a different approach. In spite of funding constraint we are still holding strongly onto our values.
How did you come into your role here at CCDB? What is your background?
I worked with the World Food Program for most of my career, over 20 years. After that in 2002 the director of this organization unfortunately passed away. The leader of the Christian community and church leaders were frantically looking for someone and not finding anyone who could take up the responsibility. They approached me and they pressed me. They said ‘you will have to sacrifice.’ That was a job with a reasonable salary and a pension. I could live comfortably with my family.
They were pressing me so hard, saying this is such an important organization, we cannot allow it to wane. So I thought that I had spent a lot of time working from the outside, why not work within my own community and try to do something important. I thought that through this organization there are opportunities to go directly to the people and see the changes first hand, to work more directly with the people. That was my inspiration. I see now that this is a wonderful organization. Through this organization I have seen a transformation in society. I have great pride in this. I do my best, whatever I can do, but it is the values that really hold me. Even if I wanted to I just couldn’t turn CCDB into an organization that would take off like other mega NGOs in Bangladesh. This is a different kind of organization, the philosophy is that you don’t think about the organization itself, you think about the people.