A skillful coalition builder, Abu Naser Khan is engaging social and intellectual leaders in developing new forms of citizen engagement to halt environmental degradation.
The New Idea
Naser has observed that in Bangladesh, citizen-led organizations are good at delivering services but less effective at changing policy. Policy changes often result from the advocacy of famous, respected, and well-connected people whose personal interests happen to have focused them on one issue area. Rather than waiting to see who naturally drifts to environmental protection and advocacy, Naser consciously draws in people who can move campaigns forward, influence public opinion, and change government policy. Of course, the government working alone can't solve all environmental problems, but Naser sees that it is critical to engage policy makers in the planning and design stage of new initiatives. Thus, his idea is founded on the principle of coalition-building, of bringing together community leaders, government officials, and citizens to discuss environmental problems and agree on solutions. The high profile movement he has begun has attracted journalists, who come for the personalities and for the issue. So far, Naser and his team have been successful in bringing about important changes in policy and practice, such as banning the import of leaded fuel, protecting Dhaka's streams and lakes, and prohibiting two-stroke engine vehicles.
Development in Bangladesh often comes at a great cost to the environment. Topsoil looses nutrients, forests disappear, water becomes polluted, animal and plant species die off. The causes are varied and well known: high population density, unplanned urban development, increase in polluting industries, and the absence of effective governmental measures to control polluting practices. Dhaka City has earned the dubious distinction of having the highest levels of lead air pollution in the world, surpassing even that of Mexico City. While the growing environmental movement has achieved some noteworthy successes, the overall impact has been far from adequate. Moreover, many of the citizen-led organizations focusing on the environment have failed to capture the interest and commitment of the broader public. In recent years, there has been far greater awareness among policy makers of the need for environmentally sustainable practices. Yet, prior to Naser's initiative, there had been no broad-based movement to build consensus among different sectors in addressing these issues.
Naser identifies leaders, including retired civil servants and senior professors, who have access to government agencies and representatives, and who command respect. Once he enlists them in the movement, they set about identifying the key environmental problems that require urgent attention. Next, they start to collect information and document the negative impacts of each problem. Armed with the relevant research findings, they hold a press briefing to highlight the problem. Naser believes that mobilizing the media is essential for achieving broad impact, as the media educates the public and draws the government's attention. He points out that previously the media was not particularly focused on environmental issues, but this has since changed. Naser has formed strong links with journalists and editors of major newspapers. In addition, his organization has published a number of high quality publications that play a vital role as resource material as well as generate funds for the organization.
After the media campaign, Naser puts together a team headed by one of the key social leaders to start lobbying relevant government departments. As these senior people have access at all levels, getting appointments with different government secretaries and ministers is that much easier. The objective of these meetings is to persuade policy makers to adopt measures to protect the environment. In some cases, workshops are organized with all stakeholders where a common declaration is adopted for resolving environmental conflicts. By bringing the government, civil society, and citizens to the same platform, Naser is able to commit all parties to take on a shared problem.
In situations where the government remains unresponsive, Naser has organized high profile events, such as a boat procession on the river Buriganga to address the issue of river pollution. These events attract wide media attention thereby forcing the government to address the issue. Rather than working through a single organization, Naser is networking with different social sector organizations already engaged in the environmental field. Through this network he is identifying particular groups that have the capacity and interest in organizing movements according to specific themes. The priority areas include air and water pollution, sustainable agriculture, environmental health, arsenic and sound pollution, and bio-diversity. Strengthening the thematic groups will enable the movement to spread to different organizations and regions. Naser's organization, Parash, will assist these organizations through by providing facilitation, information, contacts, and links to other groups. Naser has reached out to Bangladeshis living abroad for information, financial contributions, and moral support. Naser's campaign to save the Buriganga River was threatened by certain vested parties within the government that had illegally occupied part of the river. The groups abroad responded by sending letters from all over the world to the respective government agency.
Naser was born in Netrokona district located in northeastern Bangladesh. Rivers surrounded his village on three sides. As a young boy, he would help his father in the fields. To this day, he still feels a deep attachment to agriculture. During his childhood, Naser was strongly influenced by the entrepreneurial spirit of his paternal uncle who tried his hand at different ventures such as planting orchards and establishing a soap factory. During his high school years, he had to finance his education because his family had little money. During the 1974 floods, Naser and his student colleagues went on relief work. When cholera broke out, only he and another student remained.
After high school, he returned to his village and cultivated rice crops on fallow land. He also composted water hyacinth plants and cultivated a banana plantation, the first one of its kind in his village. In 1975 Naser received a scholarship to study Economic Planning in the Soviet Union. Upon returning to Bangladesh, he joined the government. Around the same time, he formed a not-for-profit organization to implement action research programs. Later, he went to the Australian National University to study Environmental Management. After returning from Australia, he started his work to encourage civil society to protect the environment.