I should be writing this blog from Bangladesh, but instead I’m in Switzerland, my visit postponed due to the current political crisis in the country. There’s been hardly a mention in the international press of the daily riots and blockades, but every one of Bangladesh’s 156 million or so citizens must be painfully aware of them. Having asked my colleagues in Bangladesh for their observations, here are their answers.
The impact on our staff
Everyone expressed some concern for their personal safety, just in travelling between home and the office. However, it was generally acknowledged that women experience more difficulties than men. “I feel fear. Fear of being caught in the midst of chaos. Mobility is restricted, there are armed soldiers and police everywhere in the street”. “I feel insecure, always get ready to be attacked with a patrol bomb or cocktail or with fear that somebody might set fire in the public bus”. Journeys are much longer and more complicated with few motorised vehicles being permitted to ply the streets, and sudden unexpected blockades. “I now have to use shuttle transports (walk, rickshaw, bus, walk, rickshaw, walk) to minimize the risk…” A further concern is communication, as social media has been largely shut down “Government has banned viber, whatsapp and a few other social media chats…Was literally cut in the middle of chat with my daughter last night!”
Staff are of course worried about their families, with some feeling particularly vulnerable – for example, members of the Hindu minority. “[My wife] has to hide all the signs of a Hindu lady while travelling… to minimize the threat”. Children’s education is a major concern. Many schools are closed, and parents hesitate to risk sending their children to those that are open – perhaps especially girls. “The school of my son remains open while finding the opposite for my girl. She was very excited to start her school (grade 1), but now has been very upset to be confined in the house while seeing her brother going to school.” For colleagues based in our regional offices, a further concern is the limited availability of medical services, as specialist doctors who normally travel to the districts on a weekly basis cannot do so; neither can their patients travel to them. A significant number of our staff are posted in places other than where their families live; for them, this means prolonged separation, as weekend visits are currently impossible.
Managers are of course anxious about what is happening with regard to programme implementation, with visits and training courses cancelled. Perhaps the worst thing is the utter uncertainty, of being unable to plan. “If [the political impasse] goes on for weeks and months then it will not only affect work dramatically but also have its psychological strains.”
The impact on the very poor and disadvantaged
All staff agree that those most heavily impacted by the riots are the poorest. “In this coldest month, people who live on day labour are suffering the most. The immobility has become their enemy. Many people take risk and get victimized.” Not only are they most likely to get hurt, people living in poverty risk a downward spiral to destitution, “I see already…more people begging in the cold early morning and even in the coldest evening…”. Out in the districts – Sunamganj is a particular case in point – the transport of basic supplies has been curtailed and prices are rocketing. This impacts most on the poorest, who spend the greatest proportion of their income on such goods.
One of our projects, Samriddhi, works in support of small-holder producers of vegetables, fruit and livestock. The impact of blockades in this period of intensive harvesting of winter vegetables is disastrous, “Farmers have started selling their products for nothing locally. Because of constant road blockage nothing can be transported.”
Yet one member of staff also made this interesting observation, “Food supply to big cities is still maintained well. I like to give credit to our informal sector… dozens of rickshaw-vans immediately replace a truck. It is not always bad adjustment in such a worker-intensive country…Informal economics is probably main secret of why all these political disturbances are not proportionately reflected in the macro-economic performances in Bangladesh.”
What can we do?
The cynical might argue that if it’s impossible to work in a country, outside agencies should stop trying. In fact, we have a strong organisational belief – shared with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation – in the importance of staying engaged in such fragile situations. Everyone hopes, of course, that the situation will improve rapidly. But if it doesn’t, we will adapt our programme accordingly – balancing due regard for staff safety with a continued commitment to those with whom we work.
My thanks to Gias Md. Talukder, Humayun Md. Kabir, Kaspar Grossenbacher, Lilia Tverdun, Nayela Akter, Shamim Ahamed, Tirtha Sarathi Sikder and Zahirul Md. Islam for sharing their thoughts.