Last month, I wrote a blog post about negatives attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh. I’ve also talked about how these negative attitudes can be avoided by being a “free agent”, emphasizing blood ties, and respecting and understanding Islam.
I’d like to elaborate on that last point because I recently stumbled on this video:
Before you click play, I should probably point out this video is not for everyone. At the very start of this video, the Imam suggests that all non-Muslims (with a particular emphasis on Israelis) are liars.
It’s also important to note that this particular Imam, has got in trouble in the past and has been accused of hate speech. But, honestly, what he’s preaching would not be out of place in many conservative villages in Bangladesh.
Traditional Islam has a strict standard on what is and is not considered a lie. There is no such thing as an “innocent white lie”. Moreover, the penalty for lying is severe and can incur the wrath of God (including the afterlife – Qu’ran 4:145).
“Fear Allah, and be with the truthful.” (Qu’ran 9:119)
In the strict interpretation of Islam, even hyperbole is considered a grave lie (i.e. “I called you a million times!”). In fact, as the Imam points out, even wearing colored contacts or dying your hair is a form of dishonesty.
But how does this pertain to aid and development? And why does not being a NGO or charity seem to help foster greater trust in more conservative villages in Bangladesh? Find out after the jump…
Word as a Bond
Over here, we’re used to being sarcastic, hyperbolic, & saying we’ll do something when we really mean “I’ll try my best”. But in rural Bangladesh, saying you’re going to do something is often tantamount to making a God-as-your-witness commitment.
Because exaggeration and hyperbole is tantamount to lying, it’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver. It’s also important to note that interpretations on what is and is not lying can be drastically different in (modern, progressive, and multi-cultural) urban areas versus (homogeneous and conservative) rural areas.
A Different Kind of Accountability
“The signs of the hypocrite are three: when he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he breaks it; and when he is entrusted with something, he betrays that trust.” (Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 33; Muslim, 59)
The reason why I feel the concept of free agents working alongside existing organizations can work so well in Bangladesh is because it adds a more local conception of accountability.
For us, an organization is “accountable” if it is registered, has structure, has policies, procedures, rules, regulations, and oversight. Also a positive Charity Navigator rating doesn’t hurt either.
But for many villagers in Bangladesh, being accountable means being accountable to Allah. It means following Allah’s commandments on conduct, behavior, and rules on what is and is not lying.
There in lies the problem. In Islam, an organization is not a person and cannot be held to account to God. And employees within an organization are but parts of a larger whole and are bound by the policies and procedures set before them.
By this conception, organizations can be seen as something that allows people to shirk and shield themselves from accountability to Allah and his commandments on honesty. This is why having “free agents” in the mix is so important.
Qualitative Not Quantitative
I’m by no an expert on Islam, on Bangladesh, or even aid and development. But I do feel that aspects like Islamic influenced and inspired concepts of honesty and accountability are not sufficiently studied by aid professionals.
This is because, as I’ve said before, there is a skew towards quantitative sources of data. Things which don’t have a “Big N” are dismissed as being nothing but anecdotes. But, to understand why many people distrust NGOs, you really do need a qualitative, ethnographic, and anthropological approach.
Until then, I don’t know if heart-felt and unscripted testimonials from villagers (like in the video below) will be dismissed as a mere anecdote or as indicator warranting further research: