Wikimedia Bangladesh: a chapter's five-year journey
- Dear All,
- It gives me great pleasure to announce that Wikimedia Bangladesh (WMBD) has successfully completed its local registration in Bangladesh. Our application for registration was approved by the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies & Firms - Bangladesh on 9th June, 2014 and I have collected the certificate of registration today (10th June, 2014).
- Wikimedia Bangladesh has been registered under the Societies Registration Act of Bangladesh & our official name is Wikimedia Bangladesh Foundation.
This announcement from Wikimedia Bangladesh's chapter treasurer, Ali Haidar Khan (also known as Tonmoy), was widely welcomed on the Wikimedia-l email list. The first inklings of the organization formed in 2009, but they only received official local registration from the civil authorities on 10 June 2014. The long road in-between was subject to much persistence, patience, and luck—along with a good deal of worry.
Ali, who is vice-chair of the Wikimedia Funds Dissemination Committee (FDC), a credit analyst by profession, and an MBA student, spoke to the Signpost from Bangladesh. This report is based on his interview with us, along with statements from Lane Rasberry (Bluerasberry), who has visited Bangladesh and is currently a Wikimedian-in-residence in New York.
Bluerasberry notes that Bengali is one of the world's most widely spoken languages, with more than 210 million native speakers. In addition to Bangladesh, it is spoken in India, several other Asian countries, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Bluerasberry says that the way that the Bangladeshi chapter managed its registration, without providing the standard bribes or tips to hasten the process, should be a matter of pride for the Bangladeshi chapter and the Bangladeshi government. He believes that by registering without paying tips, the chapter made an important social statement that members of the chapter will be talking about 20 years from now.
The road to becoming a Wikimedia chapter started five years ago in 2009. When Bangladeshi Wikimedians saw that other chapters were forming and doing well, they also wanted to have one in Bangladesh. Their volunteer base was small but they started to increase their offline events, holding meetings that grew to be regular occurrences. They started discussions about becoming a chapter without any knowledge of the complexities of the legal requirements. Around 2009, they also learned that India was in the process of forming a chapter, which further motivated them to want a chapter of their own. Bangladeshi Wikimedians were all volunteers, and didn't know that grants could be applied for from the Wikimedia Foundation to assist them. So, the group prepared to be entirely self-reliant.
At the beginning, the Bangladeshi Wikimedians looked into the possibility of hiring a lawyer to prepare bylaws for the chapter in accordance with Wikimedia Foundation and local regulations. However, writing bylaws that satisfied both sets of regulations proved to be complicated, and it was not easy to find a lawyer who would gain the necessary familiarity with the Foundation's side of the regulations—this could involve significant legal fees.
Ali went on a personal search to identify a law student who was also a Wikimedia volunteer and could help with writing the bylaws, which ultimately did not succeed. In 2010, Bangladeshi Wikimedians decided to write the bylaws themselves, and asked Ali to help. Of the Wikimedians involved in the chapter, only Ali had some existing knowledge of Bangladeshi government agencies. In preparation for creating the chapter, Ali studied Bangladeshi laws, and the bylaws of other Bangladeshi foundations and of existing Wikimedia chapters. Tanvir Rahman and other members of the executive committee helped with this process.
The writing of the bylaws began in early 2011, and took about two months. In April, the bylaws were submitted to the Wikimedia Chapters Committee, which approved them relatively quickly. (The Chapters Committee is now known as the Affiliations Committee, and Tanvir is now a member of the committee.) The approval from the WMF's Board of Trustees came in October 2011.
Gaining local registration was the next step, so the Wikimedians again looked for an attorney who would work at low cost to get the bylaws approved by the local authorities. Several lawyers they approached turned down their requests instantly, saying that registration was difficult—Bangladesh law requires that all nonprofit societies apply for and receive security clearances from the Bangladesh National Security Intelligence (NSI) agency. The lawyers expected their registration requests to fail; only about 5% of the applications to register a "society" in the country are successful.
However, Ali felt that a Bangladeshi "society" was the most appropriate for the group. A "trust" does not allow for direct elections, though the registration requirements are easier to pass. Trusts are often set up by foreign charities with money to distribute, and it is unusual in Bangladesh to have a grassroots formation of a new charitable society with little or no money. A "society" is more difficult to form, but it forms the strongest base for good governance and transparency, and allows for streamlined elections of board members.
Finally, the Wikimedians found a lawyer who was willing to help, but only on condition that the Wikimedians complete the security clearance process on their own. The Wikimedians submitted an application for registration and security clearance in May 2012 and received a case number.
The clearance process
Now began the difficult part: waiting for long periods of time, often with no communication about the status of the application.
In the Memorandum of Association, Ali's house was listed as the office address of Wikimedia Bangladesh. Fortunately, he was home when an NSI officer came for a sudden site visit. The discussion lasted for an hour and a half. The purpose of the interview was to check on whether the group had any connections to terrorism or anti-social activities. After a long discussion, Ali got the officer to understand that the group was working for free knowledge in Bangladesh, and he urged the officer to give a positive report. Two months passed. Ali searched his contacts to see if he knew someone who could tell the Wikimedians about the status of the application.
Eventually he received a phone call. The NSI wanted to have another verification visit. The officer who had conducted the first visit had been transferred, so a new officer needed to start the process from the beginning. The new officer asked for lots of documents such as bylaws, Wikimedia Bangladesh Executive Committee members' CVs, personal statements, and other documents. One day the officer came to Ali's house, but he was at work, so Tanvir went to meet the officer. Tanvir organized the documents the officer requested, handed them over, and answered the officer's questions. The officer told Tanvir that the group might be asked to visit an NSI office to answer additional questions, but that clearance might happen shortly.
Wikimedia Bangladesh volunteers in April 2013
Then another long period passed with no contact from security officials. In mid-2013 they received another call. The NSI asked Ali and Tanvir to go to their office and meet with a deputy director, bringing documents and information about the group's members. Unfortunately, the official was out of the office on the day of the appointment, so this required Tanvir and Ali to get another appointment. On the day of the second appointment, they did meet with the deputy director and were asked for additional documents such as a rental agreement for their organization. The deputy director said that the Wikimedians had done a good job and he would make a positive report about the application, but that the process would take a long time.
In the meantime, Ali learned through his work that the brother of one of his clients is an employee of the NSI. Ali explained the situation to the client, and requested a meeting. The client's brother agreed to meet Ali at one point and was impressed that the group was working with Bengali Wikipedia, which has a good reputation and is widely used in Bangladesh. The brother then called the deputy director and asked for an update on the status of the application. He was told that the field report was positive, but needed to be sent to someone else for the final report and approval. Ali repeatedly followed up with the client's brother about the status of the application. Ali said that the slowness of the application might have been bearable had they been apprised of the progress of the application during this long period.
Ali said that he tried to find anyone he knew with a possible link to the NSI. He would explain to them what Wikimedia Bangladesh does, and would request their help. In this process, he learned that one of his MBA classmates who is from the military has an army friend in the NSI. This man was of a higher rank (a joint director) than anyone that had previously been in contact with the Bangladeshi Wikimedians. Ali started following up with the new contact on a regular basis. Around the beginning of 2014, this NSI contact said that the final report was positive and had been sent to the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies & Firms.
Relieved at the news, Ali went back to the attorney who had agreed to help and asked him to contact the registrar's office to verify; but the attorney reported that the registrar's office was unable to locate any clearance document from the NSI. Ali’s contact at the NSI said that the report should have been sent from the Director General’s office by then, whether positive or negative. After all this effort, Ali became worried that the report might have been negative, and he asked the lawyer to check again.
In June 2014, the lawyer informed Ali that the clearance report had been found by the registrar's office in a backlog of documents from several months earlier, meaning that the registration could theoretically be completed within a few days. Yet they faced one final hurdle: when the Bangladeshi Wikimedians had begun the security clearance process two years prior, the cost for registration was minimal. The government had since raised the fee to more than 12 times the original amount.
Wikimedia Bangladesh didn't have enough money from registration fees in its bank account to cover the higher cost. Ali feared that going from person to person to raise the money could take too long, meaning that their hard-earned security clearance might expire, so he paid the shortage out of his own pocket as a loan to the chapter.
The saga ended on 10 June 2014, when Ali collected the certificate of registration from the office of the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies & Firms.
Ali notes that there are challenges with running a chapter solely on a volunteer basis because people have other commitments to work, family, and study, and among the volunteers only a minority has the experience required to lead activities such as this complex registration process. However, he feels that Wikimedia Bangladesh, though a small volunteer group, now has good expertise to run itself in a professional manner.
Ali emphasized that the biggest problem in the registration process was not knowing the status of the application during the long periods of waiting.
He said that giving tips or "speed money" to government officials to hasten a registration process often happens, and that some organizations obtain their registration in two or three months this way (Bluerasberry estimated the cost at $100–$300 US). Even the chapter member's lawyer advised that speed money would help expedite the process. But Ali said that he and other board members were determined that Wikimedia Bangladesh would operate in the spirit of "selflessness" shown by the volunteers. He frequently had to explain that the Wikimedians wanted to take an "honest" path—even if it took much longer—and that people he spoke with respected that decision, even though it is more difficult to work in Bangladesh without giving tips.
Bluerasberry wrote on Wikimedia-l that not only is Wikimedia Bangladesh among only the 5% who got NGO society registration in Bangladesh, but they are among a group he estimated at 1% to do so without paying anyone a bribe:
||I have heard that they were asked for money many times to make things go more quickly ... For a foreign-affiliated Internet technology organization mostly run by younger people who have a relationship to a major Internet property to be able to get a registration without paying any bribe is probably unprecedented in the history of South Asia. Getting a registration is something to be proud of, but getting it completely honestly means that a lot of extra work went into the registration just to keep a good reputation.
I am thrilled with the good example this sets and not only is having the registration a wonderful thing for the Wikimedia community, but [this is] an excellent precedent for all Bangladeshi community activists ... paying a bribe is not necessary to get an NGO registration. This is really something to publicize, stress, and note as a point of pride. No one should forget this as it really takes a lot of sacrifices …
Bengali Wikimedians at the Grameen Phone head office in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in February 2014.