A Bangladeshi NGO’s herculean response to a humanitarian crisis

The Government of Bangladesh has opened its doors to close to half a million people from the Rakhine state of Myanmar in the last four weeks. Now comes the difficult part — managing the crisis inside Bangladesh.

People begin the long walk off the boats from Myanmar into the shelters in Bangladesh

When a humanitarian crisis of this scale hits, it can be easy to overlook the local players — especially as large, international aid groups step in to respond.

But on the border of Bangladesh and Myanmar, where UNHCR estimates state that 501,000 people, a population larger than the city of New Orleans, are seeking shelter, a Bangladeshi organisation is playing a seismic role.

BRAC is not a typical NGO. Based in Bangladesh, it has an annual expenditure of more than $1.1 billion, with the majority self-financed from its enterprises. Its anti-poverty solutions operate in conflict-prone and post-disaster settings across 11 countries across Asia and Africa.

In Cox’s Bazar, where makeshift houses spread as far as the eye can see, BRAC’s pink vests offer a sign of relief.

Community

Here for good: BRAC has committed to providing short and long-term response.

The advantages of a local NGO like BRAC providing response? No need for translators who speak the language — Bengali or the local dialect in Cox’s Bazar understood by those from Rakhine state. In addition, local response can ensure speedy adaptation and surge capacity, with expert staff ready to mobilise.

Each day, BRAC’s majority female workforce travels largely on foot to visit each shelter. They are finding out what families need and then connecting them with services.

In the four weeks since the crisis began, the services delivered by this army of pink vests have rapidly scaled up. The focus now is on recruiting and training additional staff. At the moment, 200 people are being interviewed per day. After they are recruited and trained, they start immediately, working during the first half of the day and continuing their training in the second half.

People are lining up

BRAC’s doctors and health workers are seeing 7,000 people per day through 50 mobile health camps. They have diagnosed and treated 240 cases of pneumonia, 1,800 of fever and 1,300 of diarrhea. The needs are not complicated, but they are urgent. The lines are babies, small children, mothers and grandparents. They have so far seen 39,000 people.

Ten birthing centers are being constructed. BRAC is looking for infectious diseases: 20 TB patients are currently being treated. Now they will be focusing on going door-to-door to reach the people who cannot leave their houses.

The smell is disappearing

As the government, with help from the army, moved people to makeshift shelters, 15,000 latrines and 11,000 tube wells are being constructed. BRAC’s cadre of trained workers and engineers have installed 765 latrines so far, with 280 new ones built each day. The 392 tube wells are providing safe drinking water, with 75 installed daily. Over 179,000 people have now had access to safe water. 50,0000 have access to basic sanitation.

Children are being kept safe

Save the Children reports that at least 1,100 of the children who have come across the border have either been separated from their parents or orphaned. It is estimated that 400 children have already gone missing.

BRAC is welcoming 3,200 children into their 50 child friendly spaces every day. The spaces are run through a partnership with UNICEF and children are provided with a midday meal through the World Food Programme. To date, 128 children in the spaces have been identified as unaccompanied. BRAC has reunited 13 with their families so far.

Impossible is nothing new

Thousands of sets of clothes for babies are needed. Many children are sick, coughing heavily, and they have nothing to wear. Bangladesh is the second-largest exporter of ready-made garments. Could the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association assist? Already, four factories have put 26,000 sets of clothing for children aged 0–3 on trucks. Distribution will start in the morning.

Toilets are urgently needed, but teams are quickly running out of the materials that they need to build more. So the staff call the district offices in Comilla, Feni, Noakhali in order to find materials. They’ll arrive in the evening. But there is more to do.

BRAC is from a country which is the eighth largest on earth by population, and which has seen some of the fastest improvements in living conditions in history. The Lancet, the British medical journal, called it “the Bangladesh paradox.” How could a country so poor achieve such significant gains in development? BRAC is credited with having “probably done more than any single body to upend the traditions of misery and poverty in Bangladesh.” A simple maxim often stated by BRAC’s founder, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, illustrates his vision for BRAC: small is beautiful, but scale is necessary.

Aid and development — a grey area

With major operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, South Sudan and Liberia, most of BRAC’s work has been at the intersection of development and aid — and the trust it gains from its history and permanency is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it is able to move so fast.

With the nature of civil wars changing and disputes becoming more protracted across the world, the lines between humanitarian and development work will continue to blur.

The need for livelihood support, to foster economic development, will grow as emergency relief turns into protracted crises — and the need for organisations who can quickly respond, deliver, and stay for the long-term will increase. Hopefully, this will see more recognition of the unique role that national NGOs can play in emergency responses.

Learn more about what you can do to support the people from Rakhine state of Myanmar

Words by BRAC/Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh

Photos by BRAC/Kamrul Hasan, Tousif Farhad and Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh

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