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Bangladesh: Struggling To Survive

World Council of Churches 13 May 2002

by Sara Speicher

Building a house on sand

At first glance, the island seems peaceful. Fields of groundnuts and rice paddies are richly green, chickens and bullocks roam about, and thatched huts with earthen floors show care even in conditions of material poverty.

But the people living on the island have built their homes on sand. Literally. The chars of Bangladesh are sandbars on the Brahmaputra river, and their existence is threatened each year from monsoon seasonal flooding. About 230,000 people live on these chars, without access to electricity, communication, health or education services, not to mention the threat of displacement, loss of property and even life because of the floods. They have no choice: land is unavailable on the mainland.

Bangladesh is one of the poorest, most densely populated and least developed countries in the world. 130 million people live in a country approximately the size of the US state of Iowa with 144,000 square kilometers. Because of the population density and poverty, many people live in flood-prone areas.

About a third of the country floods each year during the monsoon season. “Normal” flooding is good though, say development workers. “Having 25,000 square km under water is a normal flood,” says Charles Sarkar, programme manager at the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh’s (CCDB) Disaster Preparedness Programme . “People like them because they help fertilize the soil. But if more than 50,000 square kilometers are under water, it’s a major disaster.”

The last major flooding disaster was in 1998 when 100,000 sq. km (two-thirds of the country) were inundated, leaving 25 million people homeless.

Action by Churches Together (ACT) members in Bangladesh focus on disaster preparedness. Their projects range from promoting the use of portable stoves to minimize losses during floods, to incorporating preparedness in school curricula. Sarkar also emphasized the importance of using local resources to promote disaster preparedness. For example CCDB asks imams to talk about preparedness in their Friday services.

Knowing that natural disasters are a fact of life in Bangladesh, the five ACT members in the country coordinate actions during such crises. CCDB coordinates actions in the south of the country while Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service (RDRS) works in the north. Other ACT members are the Bangladesh Baptist Church Sangha and Church of Bangladesh – both members of the World Council of Churches – and Koinonia.

Although the Christians in Bangladesh are a “microscopic minority” of about 400,000 people in a population of 130 million, they are very active in rural and social development, health care, education, and disaster prevention and response. The search for ways to work more cooperatively come from a very real desire to maximize sincere Christian witness and service in a needy country.

Micro-credit for sustainable development

Sudhir Adhikari, president of the National Council of Churches in Bangladesh (NCCB), recalls that in the early 1970s, a few churches provided small loans to individuals trying to alleviate poverty and build a better future for themselves and their communities. The church trusted the recipients, guided and inspired by their pastors, to repay the loans. The method did not work. “Christian values of love and forgiveness actually worked against loan repayment. People knew they would be ‘forgiven,'” Adhikari smiles.

Then came Dr Muhammed Yunus. In the mid-1970s, Mohammed Yunus, then chair of the Economics Department at Chittagong University, started to provide very small loans to groups of local artisans to help them break a cycle of poverty and set up their own small businesses. That was the beginning of the Bangladesh Grameen Bank. Since then, the bank has provided over 2.5 billion USD-worth of micro-loans to more than two million people in rural Bangladesh. Ninety-four percent of the borrowers are women, and the loan repayment rate is over 99%.

Using Yunus’ idea of group dynamism, other NGOs, including church development programmes, launched very successful micro-credit projects with extremely high refund rates. The other breakthrough, Adhikari says, was going to the women in an Islamic society.

In the Habir Bari community outside of Dhaka, CCDB started a micro-credit project with the women. WCC staff met the very energetic 15-member committee overseeing the project. The women explained that, although the community is primarily Muslim, they chose CCDB to help them to save money in a safe place.

Before the project began, they had to ask the men for all their money – for food, health care, and household projects. Then they received small loans for farming and for raising goats and fish to sell at local markets. Their initial projects have expanded into sanitation, nutrition and education. Now with the money they are earning, they are helping their husbands. How do the husbands react to this? Laughter from the group. At the beginning, they admit, the men were a bit resistant. But now they are quite happy and support the projects. Family decisions are now shared, or made by the women, and in their micro-credit meetings, they also inform each other about and discuss education, women’s rights, elections and civil rights.

Almost all Bangladesh NGOs have micro-credit programmes. Not all work the same way, however. CCDB planning and monitoring coordinator Gobinda Saha says that, unfortunately, many NGOs now use their micro-credit programmes as a “business” and seem to have forgotten that the main aim is people’s self-reliance. CCDB itself started a micro-credit programme in 1974 but, in 1996, decided “they should not do ‘business’ on poverty”. At that point, the commission started a new programme – the People-Managed Savings and Credit – under the People’s Participatory Rural Development Programme. The new micro-finance system provides interest-free loans and a participatory approach to decision-making. It currently has 202 programmes, whose repayment rate is 96 percent.

Responding to disasters: building for the future

After the 1971 war for independence, Bangladesh was left ravaged and desperate, with millions of people fleeing to neighbouring countries. The government appealed to the world for aid and, in response, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and its ecumenical partners worked with the national council of churches to provide emergency relief. The resulting programme was up and running so fast that it got one of the new country’s first transport department’s licence plates: WCC1.

The Bangladesh Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation Service, formed under the NCCB by the WCC and ecumenical partners, was transformed into the CCDB in 1973 to continue rehabilitation and social services, and work on long-term community development. CCDB presently works with 87,000 families in 2,600 villages in 27 out the country’s 64 districts. They work with the poorest of the poor, with whole families, but particularly with women.

Their work reflects many of the unique challenges facing social and development work in Bangladesh. One of the first realities is that it is a majority Muslim country. At 0.3 percent of the population, Christians identify themselves as a “microscopic minority”. In Bangladesh’s historically tolerant society, religious freedom is not an issue, but it is clear that all development work must be multi-religious. CCDB staff and policy-makers also come from a variety of religious backgrounds. As one staff member put it, “We have different beliefs but work in the same house.”

Cultural and religious taboos are another challenge… for work on HIV/AIDs for example. CCDB began working on HIV/AIDS in 1993 at a time when it was not considered a problem. Compared to other Asian countries, the incidence of HIV/AIDs in Bangladesh is still quite low, although not as low as the approximately 190 cases mentioned in official government statistics. CCDB staffers say the 190 are those who reach hospitals. WHO estimates that 13,000 are infected. But people are not encouraged to seek help. Issues such as sexual behaviour are extremely difficult to discuss, even privately, and patients are not told how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDs, thus increasing the risk for the rest of the society. All CCDB staff have attended an HIV/AIDS awareness programme, and the commission has a non-discriminatory staff policy regarding people with HIV/AIDS. Its goal is to break the silence around HIV/AIDs, targetting high-risk behaviours, to prevent HIV/AIDS from becoming an epidemic in Bangladesh.

Foreign aid

An added reality is the country’s very real poverty; in that context, foreign aid to support NGO work is a mixed blessing. Afsan Chowdury, senior assistant editor of the Bangladesh Daily Star, notes that in a very poor society, “NGOs provide employment. NGOs make money. Crises mean they can make more money… Where money comes in without accountability, that’s where the problems start.”

NCCB president Sudhir Adhikari says that there are about 1,200 large and medium-level NGOs working on social development in Bangladesh, with a total of 26,000 NGOs officially registered with the government. The small number of Protestant NGOs are entirely dependent on foreign donations, and bring in about USD 8 million per year. He notes that “Most of the NGOs work on the same issues, but in different parts of the country.” Ways need to be found whereby NGOs, and the churches themselves, can cooperate, both in their local work and in their relationships with outside churches and donors.

“Round Tables” facilitated by the WCC Regional Relations and Ecumenical Sharing team help coordinate NGO action and bring foreign donors and local NGOs together for joint strategizing. The WCC facilitates 35 round tables on a national and regional basis as a platform where partners and agencies involved in development and ecumenical service can share, reflect and set priorities for joint action. Mathews George Chunakara, WCC Asia secretary says. “The CCDB Round Table is one of the best WCC-coordinated round tables in terms of accountability, transparency and mutual respect in partnership. Moreover, the CCDB = partners try to enhance the ecumenical discipline of sharing of resources as well as implementing programmes at the local level, which is important in Bangladesh’s context.”

Another possible step towards more national cooperation is being taken by an Ecumenical Social Action Group of Christian NGO executives who recently gathered under the auspices of the NCCB to coordinate their efforts. Each is involved in church work and wants to strengthen ecumenism in Bangladesh. As one executive noted, “We want to work to empower people, not the organizations.”

Chunakara emphasizes that the responsibility to alleviate poverty and intensify rural development measures must be taken by both local organizations and foreign donors. “The proliferation of NGOs and increasing competition and organizational rivalry spoil the good spirit and enthusiasm quite often. The northern partners, also should be careful in selecting the most credible local partners.”

————————– Sara Speicher is a communication officer in the WCC Public Information Team. She visited Bangladesh in January 2002 for a Global Communicators Network meeting and met with representatives of churches and ecumenical organizations in the country.


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