By Marjiya Baktyer Ahmed
Coast Trust has been working to establish a world of equity and justice in the lives of the coastal population. How much of this vision has been achieved? What are the existing challenges?
The mission is to see a world of equity and justice in the lives of the coastal population. We believe strongly that it is possible. But it takes time. We need two types of work. First is advocacy, on the local, national and international level. In a world where a developed country citizen emits 20 tons of carbon every year, Bangladesh is an innocent victim of climate change, emitting per person only 0.3 tons. On the international level, our advocacy is to inform the international policymakers, to limit carbon emission. At the national level, we commend the government’s effort to build infrastructure, but we need resilient infrastructure like embankment. In local levels, we are telling policymakers, bureaucrats, and officials that while there is embankment work going on they should allow public monitoring, so they can better inform others of the nature of embankment required. The second fact, the poverty-stricken people of the coastal areas have the legitimate right to public resources. We are telling the people to go the government agencies and make demands for resources like the social safety net and medical facilities. So this is one aspect to make public institutions accountable. On the other hand, the government is not very strong when it comes to microfinance as banks are not responsive to the plights of poor people.
We offer microfinance. Government is slow to respond during disasters, so we are the first responders. Challenge is when you are advocating you have to positively engage with the government and present these suggestions in the manner that government policymakers will accept them. They need to trust us and building this trust while doing advocacy is a challenging task, but so far so good, we have succeeded. There are some issues which are sensitive like managing a community radio station, and appealing to the government for ham-radio to help develop an independent private voluntary network of radio communication in the coastal areas. In the last 16 years, we have been successful in getting the government to respond. Of course, there is a challenge when it comes to resource and I am sure you know of the dwindling international aid, but regarding microfinance, we are spending our income to spend it on primary health care, disaster management, and community radio and technology extension for the poor. These are the challenges we are facing but we hope that we can overcome them in the future.
How has the response been so far from the people under the program of microfinance in the coastal areas? How do you measure the success of your programs?
Regarding microfinance, we get a very positive response from the coastal people, but managing microfinance in the coastal area is difficult, especially during the monsoon period. We are slow in the monsoon period, and we had to standby to respond during disasters. We inform the people that we are not just giving and taking credit and savings, we are also standing by to assist them in the struggle. There is a measure of success which helps me and my colleagues to stay motivated. When we see a poor man come to our program and begin building his assets, then send his children to school, receiving an education in college – these ground-level success stories are inspiring. Another success is that we mobilize poor people at the grassroots level. A lot of our members become Union Porishod chairman and members.
This means that we have promoted them as an alternative power structure within the existing formal power structure. And also in the case of advocacy, we see the results – government investing long-term and strong embankment in the coastal area. We’ve seen it in Bhola and Kutubdia. In the 1990’s, we had a demand for compensation for launch accidents, and the government accepted this. On a global level in 2007, we raised the issue of climate displacement and climate refugee. It was accepted in Cancun Agreement, and now climate migration is a global issue discussed in United Nations Security Council and Platform for Disaster Displacement (PDD) which is led by 30 states and has come up in two global compacts (Global Compact on Migration and Global Compact on Refugees) which will be endorsed in the September UN General Assembly. The concepts highlight the global concept of climate displacements. Both these concepts address the issue of climate migration. We have a lot of achievements, which are inspirational when it comes to measuring our advocacy and other programs at the grassroots level, national level and also in international level.
In Cox’s Bazaar, there is tremendous devastation of the environment and Coast Trust did a study on the government’s request to gauge the impacts of the Rohingya influx on the host community. There is a great impact on the national resources, especially water and forest. At the beginning of August-September we got water from 100 feet, but now even if we go 1,000 feet deep we are not getting water. 6,000 acres of forestland has been taken away.
Should there be reform in the process of microfinancing?
Yes. During 80’s microfinance was not able to develop programs for extremely poverty-stricken people. In the 90’s the issue was repayment. But now the problem is the shortage of capital. In the last five years, Bangladesh has had a boom in infrastructure development. Electricity is more or less stable at the rural level. Now people need capital to develop entrepreneurship, but our government says our banks are incapable of supplying capital. Banks are unable to lend money to NGOs because they are facing a liquidity crisis. This is one challenge. Either the government has to allow NGOs to take public savings, or encourage banks to give us a loan.
Coast Trust has been actively engaged in the rehabilitation program of Rohingya refugees. Tell us about your activities. What steps can be taken to save the environment of the camp areas?
We have been involved in the relief activities of Rohingya refugees; not just relief activities, we are also doing advocacy. At the beginning of the Rohingya influx, we made three video films – Genocide Survivors, No Women’s Land and The Persecuted. We have been a part of a civil society movement that has pressurized government to respond in ICC (International Criminal Court). In Cox’s Bazaar, there is the tremendous devastation of the environment and Coast Trust did a study on the government’s request to gauge the impacts of the Rohingya influx on the host community.
There is a great impact on the national resources, especially water and forest. At the beginning of August-September we got water from 100 feet, but now even if we go 1,000 feet deep we are not getting water. 6,000 acres of forestland has been taken away. Hence, we have proposed to the government and relief agencies to prepare an environmental recovery fund for Cox Bazaar. We’ll do research and activity on this. We have tried to create awareness using our capacity. Until they are repatriated, we will stand by the Rohingya refugees and we should give them human dignity, we are not Myanmar government.
To realize and utilize the untapped potential of the Bay of Bengal what kind of initiatives will be needed? How can the Coast Trust play an active role in this sector?
We have an inter government institution in Dhaka called BIMSTEC it is a state-led initiative among the countries situated around the Bay of Bengal. Future is with the oceans, but we are polluting oceans. We have a large community of 20 million fishermen who are facing the challenges of climate catastrophes in coastal areas. We can do something so that these fishermen can get fish nearer to the sea. We don’t have mechanized trollers, so we have to invest in private companies so that we have mechanized trollers to go to the deep sea for fishing; this is one challenge. The other challenge is how to preserve the ocean environment. Plastics, chemicals and other sorts of polluting debris are flowing into the Bay of Bengal, so we are making policymakers aware of the potential of the blue economy and we are also telling the government, and other countries in the region how we can co-operate with each other to exploit the blue economy for the poor people. We want to see the government give emphasis to BIMSTEC. We need regional cooperation.
In the 21st century, what are the main challenges for NGOs to survive?
The main challenge is that the government has to accept that the civil society is an indispensable third sector party. The first sector is the state. A political party is part of the state but because of limitations, political parties sometimes face limitations to respond to poor people. We need a civil society separate from partisan politics, that does not compete in the election but is talking about social and civil rights issues. The second sector is the market, which has to be facilitated and regulated by the state to become more responsive. That’s why we need the civil society. State and the market need to accept this to create a balanced society. Last but not least, the threat of religious extremism and terrorism. To curb this we need to develop a culture of secularism and plural society, which is also a principle of the liberation war. Bangladesh is a country for Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Buddhists. We have to live and enjoy diversity. Democracy, equality, justice and human rights are the philosophy of the civil society so the government and markets need to accept the defining role that civil society plays.