Due to the COVID pandemic and the safety and security issues associated with it, the Bangladesh Forum’s traditional logistics systems fully collapsed. In an interview, Convenor Shakeb Nabi describes the response of the Forum to the additional challenges.
Shakeb, in what sense is the current situation different of earlier crises?
During recent times, Bangladesh has been going through complex triple whammies of disasters viz the Rohingya Crisis, the COVID pandemic and the cyclone Amphan. These disasters have been challenging various stakeholders like the civil society, the government and the donors. Out of these three disasters, Bangladesh has not had prior experience of responding to a refugee crisis and the pandemic. The interface between the refugee crisis and the cyclone with COVID-19 has created multiple layers of additional challenges in providing humanitarian assistance to the community.
How did you react?
Earlier, in the event of a disaster we used to rush with humanitarian assistance and ensure that the survival needs of the community are immediately addressed. The lockdown and the social distancing norms have drastically reduced our mobility in the field. Since ACT-members in Bangladesh are very well connected with each other in terms of joint response and sharing the knowledge, we started banking on each otherś strengths to ensure that the humanitarian assistance is effective and efficient.
Do you have an example of how you focussed on the strengts of the members?
Looking at the spread of the crisis, we strategically decided that our relief would be more coordinated based on our strengths, our presence in the area and the needs and aspirations of the community. An example could be the humanitarian assistance which is supported by the ACT forum. The RRF component addresses the preventive measures related with COVID which is being implemented by one of the local ACT-members with a huge presence in the rural areas. The ACT appeal supports two strategic components based on the needs on the ground. Of all the cases detected in Bangladesh half of them is from Dhaka itself. It is a city which is among one of the most densely populated cities in the world with around 16 million people, 40% of which are either living in shanties and slums. Apart from this, the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh is one of the largest refugee crises globally. The ACT members have decided to respond to the COVID-crisis partially in the refugee camps and partially in the urban areas in Dhaka.
Which other challenges did you face?
Managing three large scale crises at the same time has given rise to unprecedented challenges and lessons out of it. First and foremost is around coordination for avoiding duplication. As ACT forum members we have regular meetings to keep us updated about the crisis and how it is unfolding. This helps us in strategically placing resources in the hands of the people who need it the most. Another challenge which is faced across this sector is around our ways of responding to the crisis, NGOs in general are passionate about working in close collaboration with the community. The NGO workers’ expertise is to be physically present on the ground, do the assessment of loss and damage and come out with a community owned plan. Since we cannot reach out to the community physically, we have identified progressive people among the community whom we orient online. They help us in getting the damage and needs assessment and then come out with a response designed which is collated by the NGO workers remotely.
What were the learnings in your main field of assistance, the cash grants?
Most of our assistance to the community is either in the form of UCG (Unconditional Cash Grants) and later Cash for Work or Cash for Training. Since the Mobile Money Transfer is very robust in Bangladesh, we have adjusted our working modality and are transferring the cash online to the community. In terms of cash programming, we have come out with an SoP (Standard Operating Procedure) to ensure that the community maintains proper hygiene and distancing while at work.
Looking back to the past months, what do you think?
We as the ACT Forum in Bangladesh understand that multiple disasters have thrown huge challenges in front of us. It has created a new normal which is more restrictive, but at the same time it offers us the opportunity to innovate and do things differently. We are bound by the humanitarian imperatives. For us, responding to the crisis is our prime duty, but at the same time to ensure the safety and security of the team members and the community.
Is the situation getting back to normal?
Bangladesh is among one of the disaster hotspots. During the last three decades, it has been impacted by more than 200 natural disasters. The country’s geographical location with low lying river plains, a vast stretch of coastal zones and people’s inability to cope with it makes it highly vulnerable. A study by one of the leading agencies indicates that all the eight indicators related with SDG 13 ¨Take Urgent Actions to Combat Climate Change and Its Impacts¨ is categorized as red in Bangladesh.
Increased vulnerability by hard to reach habitat
The poorest, most marginalized and the ones living on marginal lands are the ones who are the most impacted. Their vulnerability is further exacerbated by their habitat which is mostly in the ¨Hard to Reach Areas¨. They are in most of the cases deprived of their rights and entitlements during the normal times which diminishes their resilience to overcome its impact and during and after the disaster are deprived of humanitarian assistance.
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Photos: ICCO Cooperation