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Charting progress in a changing land

Concern began working in Bangladesh in 1972. Fintan O Toole visited the country to see this work in action and also examine how Concern's role and focus there has evolved. This feature was originally published in an Irish Times supplement on 13 February.

Over the door of the cinema in Saidpur, there is a garish and gigantic poster advertising an action movie. It shows a heavily muscled man with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder and a beautiful girl with vivid blue eye shadow. But the cinema itself has a more violent and terrible tale to tell. At the end of 1971, 175 families took refuge there. They now live a mile or so up the road, in a small estate of two roomed brick, wood and galvanised iron huts that Concern established for them in 1992.

They have a school and communal toilets and most have the skills to find work in the town. In one hut I visited, there were 12 little girls in the one bedroom, sitting on the bed and the floor, studying the Koran in Arabic. The children forget where their families came from, but the older people remember the cinema.

They gesture with their arms to describe the tiny space that each family occupied. And they still call themselves the Cinema Hall People. They are Biharis – Muslims from the Indian state of Bihar who emigrated to what was then East Pakistan in 1947. As a relatively privileged elite, they supported Pakistan in its war against Bangladeshi independence, and some committed atrocities against the local population. With the defeat and withdrawal of the Pakistani army, a million of them were left stranded in the new state.

Their property was seized and many were subjected to violent reprisals. Saidpur, a northern railway town with a long-established Bihari community, attracted a huge flow of refugees. “People were in a terrible way,” remembers Akbar Azam, who was a 20-year-old student in Saidpur when Concern arrived in 1972 to help these desperate, and deeply reviled, people. They were hungry. They were crowded together in makeshift camps, or in buildings like the cinema, with no sanitation.

“There was scabies, TB, eye infections. Fr Aengus Finucane arrived and Concern started feeding the children, then the mothers. Fr Aengus asked me to join, so I did. He was a giant, you might say, but with a baby’s heart. Gradually, we were bringing old people from the camps every day to wash and feed them, running a training centre for the women to learn handicrafts so they could make some money, and running schools.” He left Concern more than 20 years ago to start his own construction business, and he is now a prosperous man. But he still remembers those years as, paradoxically, the time of his life. “Those were my golden years, I can say. It was when I learned to be a human being.”

In a predominantly Muslim society, Concern, he says, “never asked anybody to change their religion for food. This is why they are loved.” He remembers when someone tried to put up a calendar with a picture of Jesus in the Concern house in Saidpur, and Fr Finucane insisted that it be taken down. He remembers, too, the way the Concern workers treated people as equals. “Some of the NGOs think they have blue blood. I used to be angry and say ‘If there was no war, no famine, you people would not be driving around in your Pajeros.’ But Concern was not like that.”

The big yard behind Concern’s house in Saidpur still has the sheds where women and children would come to be fed and trained and you can still see the huge pots in which the food was mixed and cooked. But these are relics of another time, and Concern doesn’t run clinics or kitchens or schools in Saidpur any more. The large compound in the town that was once a hive of activity is now almost empty and will probably be sold off soon.

Akbar Azam pines for the days when there were loads of Irish people here, delivering direct aid to people in distress. But Bangladesh is different now, and Concern could not stay the same.

The change is obvious from the moment you walk into the Concern headquarters in the capital city, Dhaka. There was a time when the agency had a staff of 1,400 people in Bangladesh, including a large corps of Irish doctors, nurses, teachers and aid workers. Now there is one Irish face, that of the country director Kieron Crawley from Bangor. As it was in Bangladesh, Concern is now running operations in Cambodia and Sierra Leone, but that too will change in time. “It would be a poor reflection on Concern,” says Kieron Crawley, “if, after 35 years, we couldn’t find someone to run a development programme in Bangladesh.”

Just five of the 250 staff are Westerners. Not only is Concern in Bangladesh an essentially Bangladeshi organisation, but almost everything it does is now delivered by local partner organisations on the ground. And, though Concern still does the basic emergency relief work of feeding and sheltering people who have been hit by Bangladesh’s frequent natural disasters, most of its work is a long way from the relatively simple task of feeding the hungry and healing the sick.

The change reflects Bangladesh’s own progress from the harsh days of the early 1970s, when a devastating cyclone, a vicious war and a terrible famine combined to make direct, basic aid an urgent imperative.

Since then, rice production has increased by 150 per cent. The infant mortality rate has fallen steadily. Access to food is still a huge problem, but the issue is no longer immediate famine. It is the slow cycle of undernourished mothers giving birth to underweight babies, the quiet agony of chronic malnutrition that still affects about half of Bangladeshi children.

In government buildings in Dhaka, I met the leading Bangladeshi economist Zillur Rahman. As founder and, until recently, executive chairman of the Power and Participatory Research Centre, he embodies one of the big changes in the landscape in which Concern now works: the development of an extraordinary range of indigenous non-government organisations (NGOs) who have pioneered innovations like micro-credit. But Dr Rahman was last month appointed as an advisor to the military-backed caretaker government, effectively acting as minister for education and minister for commerce.

In dealing with poverty in Bangladesh, he told me “there are some issues which have been there a long time and some which are newly emerging. There are the traditional problems of poverty – a small resource base, lots of people, a vulnerable ecology. We have turned many corners there: we’ve boosted food production, established a reasonable system of safety nets. There have also been well-known innovations like micro-credit. But there are also new challenges. Thirty years ago, the challenges were ones that you needed a broad brush approach to deal with. Now, we need to focus on specific groups.

Before, it was just ‘the poor’, because poverty was ubiquitous in Bangladesh; now it is what I call ‘the missing poor’.” The missing poor are those living in particularly vulnerable rural environments, minority ethnic groups who have been deprived of their traditional livelihoods and the new migrants driven into the everexpanding cities by rural over-crowding, natural disasters and the hope of work in the growing garment industry. Helping such people in the long term, he says, “requires new instruments and new innovations.

I think this is a key area that government will be working on, but it is also a key focus for groups like Concern who are concerned with the most vulnerable.”

From Zillur Rahman’s perspective, both as someone who has worked with the organisation as a partner in projects and now as a government minister, the shift in Concern’s strategy is the right response to the needs of the poorest people in Bangladesh. “You need a long-term engagement because their disadvantage is so great. The starting line is so far away that the nurturing period has to be longer.

“One of Concern’s strengths is that because of the nature of its funding [there is a high level of personal contributions from Irish people], it has the ability to choose its own agendas. “Sometimes, the official project-driven agendas miss out on the needs of the really poor, because they’re going through a very large prism. Concern has the advantage of being alert to the grassroot needs and being able to act on them. At the same time, they are linking in to the policy process and making policy-makers pay attention to those needs.”

This change involves a much more complex process of building the capacity of very poor people to organise themselves and to connect with the power structures of Bangladeshi society. It means creating programmes in the areas of health, education, nutrition and livelihood that don’t just feed or heal or educate a small group of poor people, but that show ways of lifting tens of millions of people out of poverty. It is an approach that can be summed up in a slogan that Concern has used in a project it is developing with people who live on the streets of Dhaka: “Poverty is not just about having nothing. It is about being nothing.” Concern is no longer in the business of simply giving the poor something. It is helping them, in a society where they are largely invisible, to be something.

On the face of it, it may seem ridiculous to suggest that anyone, in a country as densely populated as Bangladesh, could really be invisible. But there are people whom you have to go and look for. Having driven for nine hours north of Dhaka to Saidpur, we rose early the next morning and drove another two hours northwards to the Dimla area, close to the northernmost border with India. Then we got out and walked for five kilometres across a vast expanse of muddy sand. Sometimes, we would meet a broad but shallow stream, and we would wade onwards towards the flat island ahead. These river islands are called chars. The muddy sand we walked across was actually a river bed and for nine months of the year, the char of Shindurna is completely surrounded by the fast-flowing waters of the Teesta river. The five or six million people who live on such islands are among the most vulnerable populations in the world.

When river erosion takes place, some soil is deposited and rises in the bed of the river. It’s very disputed land because landowners claim it, but the landless people who have lost their farms to erosion go there and occupy it. They don’t have property rights. There is no infrastructure – no roads, no electricity, no school, no hospital. The people are also on an ecological frontier. They are constantly subject to flooding, for almost six months of the year.

So they are very poor and, until recently, they were not really regarded as citizens. They can be easily by-passed by mainstream development and they have been so. As we walked towards Shindurna, we met a group of women making their way to the mainland to have their photographs taken and to register as voters – itself a mark of progress for the Nodi o Jibon project, which started in 2006. The women said their husbands were in Dhaka, working as casual labourers or rickshawpullers.

They themselves could eat, said Jamella Khatun, “sometimes once a day, sometimes twice, mostly vegetables. We might get some fish or meat once a month. When the river is flowing, you can’t get to the mainland, even if you’re dying.” I asked if there was a school. “Not during the rainy season. How could you have a school in the river?” Concern gave them help with food and shelter last winter, the women said, and was helping them learn new ways to grow food and to deal with the floods that regularly wash away what little they have. “And they’ve

started a savings scheme,” said Most Amina. “You can save five taka (less than one cent) a week. When it mounts up, you can borrow a loan to lease some land or provide a dowry for your daughter.”

When we got to Shindurna, which is home to about 2,500 people, a meeting of one of the savings groups, comprising a dozen women, was in progress. Laki, the treasurer, held the record book because she had completed five years of primary school and is literate and numerate. She has one child and works as a sharecropper, giving half of what she grows to the landowner. The women explained that they were trying to build up some money of their own.

Otherwise, when they lose their possessions in a flood, or in the times between harvests when they suffer the seasonal hunger called monga, they have to borrow from moneylenders at rates of 10 per cent a month, and repay the money when their husbands return from the city. “If you can’t pay,” said Laki, “the moneylender gets very angry and shouts and threatens. He takes whatever you have, even your rice.” I asked the other women what they would do if they had an infinite amount of money. The question had to be translated three times, because they had trouble grasping the concept. Then they thought for a while and almost all of them said “buy food”. But if food was no problem because they were rich? This too seemed an impossible question, but gradually some answers came: buy a goat or a cow, set up a small business selling vegetables, visit a doctor on the mainland, get their daughters and sons to school. More than a little is, for them, literally unimaginable.

I asked Laki if she thought things would get better in the future. “It’s so uncertain”, she said, “because of the floods. You can’t say if the char will be here in 10 years time. Who knows? But it’s hard to hope.”

I went, though, to another char a few kilometres down the river, Saturnama, where 2,200 people live and where Concern has been working for the last six years. It is visibly less miserable. The houses, though of the same basic bamboo, jute and mud construction (the better ones have galvanised roofs), seemed sturdier and more settled. There is a small community centre that was washed away in last autumn’s floods but that has been rebuilt in a less vulnerable place as a symbol of the village’s resurgence. With Concern’s support, the village runs micro-credit and flood relief schemes, and is gradually pressuring the authorities to provide access to health, education and transport facilities.

Most Rahena, who was married 18 years ago when she was, she thinks, 12 or 14, lives with her husband, two sons and three daughters in a small compound. One of the huts houses the family’s great assets – three crude machines: a mechanised plough, a small water pump and a husking machine for the grain. These are assets that were unthinkable six years ago. “Before Concern came here, that was a very hard time”, she says. “There was great sorrow and suffering because there was a flood and much of the land was eroded. Many people left and those who stayed were very miserable.”

As well as providing material relief, however, Concern and its local partners helped the people to develop new agricultural practices (growing maize and potatoes as well as rice) and to establish their own basic banking system. Most and her husband Abdulanman were able to borrow 12,000 taka (¤120) to buy the pump. The income it generated allowed him to stay on the char with his family, develop the land, and borrow more money. Their children all go to school now and their eldest daughter is at secondary school. Like other families I spoke to, they still dream of being able to buy land on the mainland and escaping the constant threat of floods. But the very fact that they can imagine such a thing is itself a vast transformation – the future holds hopes, not solely fears.

In themselves, these Concern-led projects directly benefit 50,000 of the more than five million char dwellers. To make a sustainable long-term difference, they have to lead to real political change. This is why the Nodi o Jibon programme is not just about working on the ground, but also about influencing local and national government to see char dwellers as full citizens with equal rights to public services.

The day after I visited the chars, I went to the western city of Padma. A meeting was in progress between the Char Allliance, a grassroots representative body which has been formed as part of the project, and the district government. The meeting, in turn, was being filmed for a weekly television programme hosted by Atiur Rahman, the Dhaka University  economist and a well-known Bangladeshi commentator, whom Concern has persuaded to champion the cause of the chars.

“I became involved”, he says, “because of Concern. Concern took me to Dimla and I saw with my own eyes the poverty. I was scared by it. I thought that something has to be done for these wretched of the earth.” Through television, people who were previously invisible have acquired a national audience – the Nodi o Jibon programme is the third most popular on the Bangla Vision station. “Nodi o Jibon”, says Atiur Rahman, “is not a large programme but the beauty of it is that it touches the ground, but it also flies. It is also up there on the national advocacy level, forcing the policymakers to pay attention.”

You don’t have to travel quite so far from Dhaka to find invisible people. Just 15kms east of the capital is Chanpara, where people remember, how, 30 years ago, there would be a cacophony every night in the dark. Fathers returning home from working in the city would call out to their children, whose responding voices would guide them to the family’s makeshift tent of blankets and plastic sheeting. There were thousands of such tents on the sandy barren field beyond a river with no bridge. In December 1974, the government rounded up 4,500 homeless people on the streets of Dhaka and dumped them here, with no houses, no drinking water, no sanitation or electricity, and very little food. “Every day,” remembers Nural Islam who was a teenager then, “25 or 30 people died. The children looked like the ones you see on TV from Africa. In Islam, when people die, they must be wrapped in a cloth, but we didn’t have any, so we had to wrap them in banana leaves.”

Concern, along with other western aid organisations, moved into Chanpara in early 1975. It fed people, built houses and gradually developed schools and clinics. Women were trained in handicrafts, and Concern helped to market the products abroad. And, as in Saidpur, the stabilisation of the community led to a re-think of Concern’s priorities. With basic survival mechanisms in place, the need is now for self-development and for a community that has no land titles and no voting rights to gain a foothold on political power.

Again, one of the keys to development is access to savings and loans. Concern has supported the development of a community-based organisation called Setu Bandhan. Howa Begum, who has been recently elected as its chair (the first woman to hold the office) told me that local people typically earn 100 taka a day as labourers or in factories, but many find work on only two or three days a week. From this, the effort to save 10 taka (ten cents) a week is enormous. I talked to the members of the Golap Koli group of 13 women in the two-roomed shack of one member, Hanufa. Each of them has saved ¤16 over two years. Doing so, they said, meant cutting down on food sometimes.

The group itself decides who gets a loan. One of 10,000 taka (¤100) has gone to Hajira. She took me to her firewood stall, an open-sided shed, where two men are chopping logs. She inherited it from her mother, and she wants to expand it by building more storage space and hiring two more men. She can sell five kilograms of wood, she says, for 20 taka (20 cent) and make 2 taka profit. With the money, she has been able to get her 12 year-old son trained as a motor mechanic and send her two daughters to school. If she expands the business, she says, she hopes her daughters could go to college. “I hope my daughters will get a government job or work in a bank.”

That might seem to be a fantasy, but when I was in Chanpara, the group was preparing for the arrival of officials from two commercial banks. Such institutions in Bangladesh have never before made loans to people in very poor communities. But Concern has persuaded the banks to look at Setu Bandhan as a hard-headed commercial proposition. The rate of repayment of personal loans in Bangladesh is just 70 per cent. Groups like Sethu Bandan, where poor people manage their own money and have to trust each other completely, have a repayment rate of 100 per cent. Having so little money, people here understand it much better than those who have plenty.

Even in the teeming city itself, there are unseen people. By day, when the streets of Dhaka are jammed, it is impossible to be aware of the very poorest people, who are born, marry, have children and die on those very streets. I went out at 1am to drive around the city and see the people who emerge in the dark. They are not hard to see. On the sidings of the main railway station, there is a small village of makeshift tents. Around a fire, where a group of men were burning a pair of sandals to keep warm, a young man told me that he worked as a casual labourer in the yards across the track. Most of these people are economically active – as labourers, rickshaw pullers, beggars, scavengers, prostitutes. They say it is better to be in the city than in the countryside, because here the crowds passing are like a river of money, and if you stand close enough, a little of it may splash you.

Across the road from the city council headquarters, there is a row of makeshift shelters, formed by tying one end of a plastic sheet to the railing and the other to a brick in the gutter. One woman emerged from her shelter and I asked her why she was sleeping there. She showed me her mangled hand. She has been working in a plastics factory, she said, when she caught it in a machine. She couldn’t work anymore, and was thrown out. Her hand, she said, is all she has now – it gets her some sympathy when she begs.

People like her are regarded as being beyond the reach of most aid organisations. But Concern is beginning a project aimed at giving the pavement-dwellers a voice. Working with the city council and local partners, it will aim to create structures within which they can articulate their concerns and demands and negotiate with the authorities to establish their rights. The name of the project was chosen by pavement dwellers themselves.

It is Amrao Manush. In Bangla it means, roughly: “We are people too.” It is a perfect summary of what real development means in Bangladesh now. Out on the char, I asked a group of women who were struggling to save a few cents a week each how they decided who to give money to. They looked at me as if only a stupid person could ask the question. “We decide who needs it most,” they said. “It’s our responsibility to try to lift up the poorest person.”