The people’s Organization of RDRS
A Union Federation is a development-oriented non-political local organization established and led by the landless, small and marginal farmers, poor, extreme poor and the disadvantaged people including the indigenous people living in the respective union.
The aim of the Union Federation is to bring about an improvement in the social, economical, political, moral and cultural living standards of all the landless, small and marginal farmers, poor, extreme poor and the disadvantaged families especially the Federation enrolled families. It also aims at and contributes to the establishment of a progressive and dignified social infrastructure based on justice and ethics through constructive programs and activities.
Building social capital is vital for transforming the lives of disadvantaged communities and families. These community-based organizations of the rural poor, usually for the first time, an `umbrella’ for marginalized families and offer a civil platform for achieving sustainable improvements to their lives and livelihoods, and in utilization of local resources.
History and development of the Federation
Like numerous other NGOs in Bangladesh, RDRS started in the aftermath of the war of independence and after the first few years gradually transitioned its programs from relief to development. In the late 1970s, RDRS began organizing a variety of groups among its program participants. The groups were to serve both as recipients of services and as nuclei of social capital among the poor. Women, small farmers, and landless laborers, organized in groups of 15 to 25 from the same neighborhoods, would participate in adult literacy courses, agricultural extension packages and small-scale income generating projects.
Initially, the groups, under a variety of designations and RDRS programs, had little contact with each other. The need for larger associations arose first in roadside tree plantation. This type of project required supervision and protection of assets beyond small neighborhoods. In Panchagarh District, a visionary administrator was the first to perceive the opportunity to leverage a profitable economic activity for bigger organizations of poor people. Initially, sets of 10 to 15 contiguous neighborhood groups were combined each into so-called “Pocket Committees”. Soon it became apparent that 11 these organizations would have a future only if they combined their strength in the entire Union.
This was the beginning of the Union Federations. For the first five years, from 1987 to 1991, they benefited from slow and patient experimentation. Only 26 Federations were founded in Panchagarh during this period, and one in Lalmonirhat.
The initial concept envisioned a multi-functional organization for the poor by the poor, with an emphasis on educational as well as income-generating activities. These were to be organized around a well-built meeting, office and storage facility in a prominent location of the Union. An entry into the local power structure via Union Council elections was not yet part of the greater vision. Similarly, the concept, in those years, did not connect the Federations to loan programs. Savings discipline, however, was strongly promoted at the individual and group levels.
There are currently 285 such federations with a combined membership of 130,000 households and with a contiguous working area in the northwest. Federations of the poor have been noticed, aided and investigated in numerous contexts, rural and urban, in Bangladesh and other countries, under this and other, unrelated names. The basic structure of these federation–neighborhood with 800-1200 members association, formalized central organs with committees, constitution and bye-laws, annual work plan, and some physical infrastructure–is by no means universal.
A majority of Federations (227) have already moved to establish themselves as formal independent entities registered with the Department of Social Welfare, maintaining conflict mitigation register regularly. Many have plans for expanding their resources by implementing different revenue generating activities.
Objectives of the Union Federation
a. To support the disadvantaged poor people to be united with a view to improving their standard of life and status.
b. To make the disadvantaged people, that is, the Federation members aware of the sense of justice, dignified life, legal rights and ethics.
c. To empower women, in order to establish a society without discrimination between men and women and to create opportunities for female leadership.
d. Taking initiatives to bring about significant improvements in the lives of the poor disadvantaged by utilizing local resources such as roadside unused fallow lands, khas lands, khas ditches and forest lands etc.
e. To create employment opportunities for the disadvantaged and extreme poor people and supporting them in claiming social justice and in achieving their rights.
f. Taking collective steps to establish the equal right to education.
g. Ensuring agricultural facilities provided by the government on the basis of agriculture and varied agricultural problems and making fertilizers, seeds, insecticides, irrigation and other agricultural tools available and again communicating with the concerned department/institutions to take steps with a view to ensuring works and legal wages of the field workers.
The Principles of the Union Federation
a. Building up unity and brotherhood among the disadvantaged people irrespective of race, religion and caste.
b. Creating a democratic environment and maintaining a participatory method in all activities of the Union Federation.
c. Ensuring the fundamental Human Rights of the included people.
d. Being respectful towards social justice and law.
e. Maintaining honesty, transparency and accountability in all works (e.g. running the Federation and maintaining records) of the Federation.
f. Maintaining a relation of cooperation and partnership with all the development organizations.
g. Protecting and supporting all the rightful interests of the Federation members, not the interest of any individual or vested quarter.
h. The minority Indigenous, disabled, extreme poor and the disadvantaged people including women folk of the society should be enrolled as the member of the Union Federation and their problems and rights should be considered with due importance.
Scale and coverage: Presently, there are 385 Union Federations active in 51 upazilas (sub-districts) across 9 northern districts, with an aggregate current membership of 321,257 individuals (up to June 2014), of whom 71% are women.
A majority of Federations (227) have already moved to establish themselves as formal independent entities registered with the Department of Social Welfare. Many have plans for expanding their resources by implementing different revenue generating activities.
Women and Youth: Most Federations have a large membership of women and this high level of women’s involvement also demonstrates the way in which CBOs can offer an avenue for women’s empowerment, an instrument for strengthening women’s capacity to confront their social, economic and political exclusion by allowing them space and the opportunity to have a voice. Operating within their own organization, they can begin to challenge social barriers and obstacles to their development. The youth wings established in each Federation also engage youth girls and boys, in organizing and raise their voice on different anti-social issues to the wider community and local authorities. The Women-Youth combination helps draw in new and energetic categories of the local population, infusing energy and adding potency.
Minorities: All the rural poor in each locality are eligible for membership of their Union Federation and thus open to excluded groups especially minorities, such as ethnic and indigenous groups. Although indigenous peoples tend to be small in number and scattered across often remoter rural areas, at present 11,598 members of minority and ethnic groups are Federations members (of whom 7,604 are women).
Two key elements of Federations require constant attention. Firstly, ensuring continuing good governance through accountability, transparency and participation and Secondly organizational viability through achieving greater self reliant, expanded competence and capacity, leadership transition, and income generation.
Participation in local governance and local institutions: Federation leaders increasingly seek to influence local government policies and practices. One way they seek this is through election to local government bodies – a total of 563 Federation members (of whom 232 were women) were successful in recent Union Parishad elections.
In addition, Federation members participate in different steering committees of local bodies critically influencing aspects of local policy and practices. Presently, 1,146 (316 female) Federation members have been engaged with different standing committee of Union Parishad (there are 13 standing committee of each UP). Besides, they are been enrolled in other management committees in their locality e.g. School Management Committee, Temple, Local market (hat) management committees and others.
They are playing significant role in decision making and influencing the bodies to make them as pro-poor and participatory democratic towards establishing the civil and political rights of the disadvantaged.
Assertion of rights: The collective efforts of Federations have exerted a positive impact, and achieved some noticeable progress through critical engagement with local government and other bodies. A total of 6,251 members obtained access to different Social Safety Net schemes items during 2012-13, while 468 landless households have received Khash (government-owned) land since 2008. Continuing education and training has enabled Federation members to become more aware of rights and entitlements from the state as well as knowledge of the realities of poverty, social facts, violence and exploitation.
Mediation role: Federations also fulfil a very challenging local mediation role. They have assisted in resolving 564 domestic violence cases relating to women and children, 462 cases of women and child trafficking, drug addiction and underground trading of drugs, sexual harassment of teenage girls, misappropriation in screening beneficiaries and delivering materials for social safety-net programs etc. These activities reflect their capacity of organized strength and leadership, women empowerment as well.