It took about two hours to travel ten miles for my first interview of the day. I had made remarkably good time, considering Dhaka’s notoriously bad traffic. The AC in my grandmother’s old Toyota Corolla was busted, and it was particularly hot and muggy that day. I texted my interviewee, Ferdous*, as I approached his neighborhood and he replied, “Green gate. Sixth floor. No elevator.” I identified what I hoped was the correct green gate outside of a gray apartment building and let myself in. A guard looked up as I made my way to the stairwell, but didn’t leave his post to question me.
As I trudged up the stairs I wondered if this interview was really worth it. I had already done about thirty interviews at this point in the trip, and had spoken with a mix of local & international non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and government officials. But a human rights activist had connected me to Ferdous, strongly advising I speak with him to hear more about difficulties non-governmental organizations face in getting their projects off the ground. I knew that Ferdous’ organization wasn’t officially registered, but I wasn’t even certain of the type of work he was doing. I paused on the fifth floor to catch my breath and wipe off the sweat that had collected under my glasses, and then continued on.
As I approached the sixth floor, Ferdous was already standing at his doorway. He welcomed me warmly into the flat he shared with his partner. The apartment was clean but sparsely furnished, partially, as I learned later, because Ferdous and his partner had been in hiding for the past year. Ferdous is an LGBT activist who has been working to raise awareness and change policies in Bangladesh—a movement that has been derailed following the gruesome murder of two of his friends and fellow LGBT activists, Xulhaz and Tonoy, in April of 2016.
I was in Dhaka, Bangladesh from late January to early May, conducting field research for my dissertation. My research focuses on the interaction between non-governmental organizations, government institutions, and foreign aid in Bangladesh. More specifically, I interviewed folks working at development-oriented non-governmental organizations, government officials, and representatives of intergovernmental organizations to examine whether non-governmental organizations weaken or strengthen state capacity, and how these dynamics may differ in rural areas versus urban areas. Though I had been to Bangladesh several times before (with my most recent trip in 2014, when I did research & connected with local NGOs), this was my first time back in Dhaka since the July 2016 terrorist attack at the Holey Artisan Bakery. The attack involved an armed siege where hostages were taken at a local café and it was the first of its kind in Bangladesh. Unlike the murders of Xulhaz and Tonoy, which were blamed on local militants, the July 2016 attack was claimed by the so-called Islamic State. It took place in a wealthy neighborhood and targeted foreigners, leaving about twenty people dead.
On my trip this past spring, I was struck by the transformed environment in Dhaka, both in a routine sense, as well as in the development context. Though everyday life has continued, I felt a palpable sense of fear in the communities in which I was immersed. At family gatherings people spoke in hushed tones about the perpetrators of the July attack, “They were college students…good families…how could this happen? I hear one of them lived in this neighborhood.” Police check points and barricades blocked traffic throughout an already congested city—one of the most densely populated in the world—and having a car scanned for possible bombs became a routine inconvenience that people complained about, but also accepted. Meetings at coffee shops or restaurants now involved metal detectors and bag searches, and visits to international NGOs often involved multiple layers of security.
As related to my research, government officials invoked concerns about terrorism as rationale for more tightly regulating international funding. Similarly, non-governmental organization workers and intergovernmental actors expressed uneasiness that the fear of terrorism was being used as justification for more tightly controlling civil society space. Activists such as Ferdous explained that while they participate in international conferences focused on human rights issues, much of their work within Bangladesh has gone underground. During our interview, Ferdous highlighted the challenges his organization faced in gaining government and community acceptance of their work, as well as how these challenges differ when working in urban versus rural areas of Bangladesh. For instance, advantages of anonymity and relative ease of assembly in the centralized capital city are counterbalanced by daunting permit and audit requirements related to security concerns. Overcoming these would require navigating through multiple agencies with apparently conflicting mandates. Programs in rural areas may not be subject to the same requirements, but some activists expressed that community buy-in could be difficult to obtain in more conservative areas.
My time in Bangladesh was extremely beneficial to enriching my understanding of the local political climate. While there, I made connections with over sixty individuals and organizations and ultimately conducted 38 interviews. I also attended development-oriented seminars that brought together various actors, and held numerous meetings. Through the interviews I learned more about the constraints of implementing development-oriented programs, and of navigating multiple & conflicting stakeholders. I also heard how these constraints differ in rural and urban areas due to complicated informal & formal governance structures.
While conducting fieldwork, I was continuously surprised by the vulnerability and openness of my interview participants. As I learned more about Ferdous’ story, I was shocked that he had invited me, an unknown academic, into his home, given the death threats and displacement he and his partner had experienced in the past year. As he spoke, I could hear music over a loudspeaker coming from a nearby park in celebration of the Bengali New Year. The New Year had also been the time of Dhaka’s (now cancelled) Rainbow Rally. The anniversary of Xulhaz and Tonoy’s deaths was just a couple of days away.
*For his protection, his real name is not used.
About the author: Aeshna Badruzzaman is a PhD candidate and lecturer in Political Science going into her fifth year at Northeastern University. She specializes in Comparative Politics and International Relations and has a strong background and interest in development and politics in South Asia. She has taught International Relations and Research Methods, and served as a Teaching Assistant for courses such as Introduction to International Relations, Introduction to Comparative Politics, and Globalization and International Affairs. She recently received funding to support her field research in Dhaka, Bangladesh from the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict and Northeastern University’s Asian Studies Program.