In the chars of Bangladesh, people are deprived of bare necessities such as electricity, transportation network as well as communication. Since the standards of living in these areas are unstable, the dwellers would often suffer from financial crisis and health problems. Due to the geographical location being inconvenient and unpredictable, NGOs and the government were unable to provide support to these lands. To mitigate the condition, Runa Khan stepped into the NGO sector to provide healthcare and other much needed facilities for the people living in remote areas in Bangladesh. Thus, Friendship was founded in 2002 and the organization became the saving grace for those dwelling in the poverty-stricken chars till date.
Runa Khan is the Founder and Executive Director of Friendship, an NGO supporting remote communities in Bangladesh. After working for four years, she also founded Friendship International in Luxembourg in 2006. Friendship now touches 4.2 million lives a year using their integrated six sectoral approach in the Health, Education, Sustainable Economic Development, Disaster Management and Infrastructure Development, Good Governance and Cultural Preservation. Friendship International now operates from five European countries, fundraising and building relationships for Friendship in Bangladesh.
Ever since its inception, the organization has been branching out to different aspects of development to curb issues pertaining to economy, health, hygiene and education in these isolated lands. As an entrepreneur who thoroughly invests in development projects, Runa divulges the projects that are being established to aid the afflicted parts of Bangladesh over the past 15 years.
The Water Treatment Plants Friendship have built encompass key locations of the coastal regions of the Shyamnagar Upazila in Satkhira. “In 2013, we were already working with projects related to cyclones Sidr and Aila; that’s when we realized that the people in these remote areas need access to clean/safe drinking water. There was no point in building a large water plant because the needs were scattered. We planned to build smaller plants spread throughout the area,” she informs. However, before they could start this project Runa had to find the necessary sources of funding. “I was in a conference in Geneva in 2013, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) there were discussing how they wanted to do some work with water. So we provided them with a proposal after which they agreed to fund two of our Water Treatment Plants in Satkhira. Friendship Luxembourg provided the funding for the other four.”
They then proceeded to buy the water treatment equipment from AK Khan WaterHealth who also provide the maintenance services. “Among all the vendors and different water treatment models that we researched, we found these instruments to be the most effective on the field level. The plants are strategically placed and built based on the geographic conditions,” she elaborates.
“We are selling the water for 60 paisa per liter so that people can drink fresh water without having travel over long distances or drink from unclean sources. This water is regularly checked and approved by ICDDRB, which makes it better than most of the mineral waters available in the market. It’s a six year project which is designed to create access to safe drinking water and to help raise awareness regarding healthcare; upon crossing six years we can vouch for its sustainability,” she emphasizes. She explains that the model has been developed by Friendship and they are aiming to build more plants in the future.
“The project objective is to provide drinking water to the people in those areas who do not have access to it. Thereby, we won’t be selling it in places like Dhaka because it violates the policy of the project,” she elaborates.
Access to clean water is one of the key components for health awareness and their disaster preparedness projects. Therefore, these Water Treatment Plants are a part of Friendshp’s integrated projects where one project is linked with other projects in their six sectoral approach.
Health, being Friendship’s biggest sector has indeed made a difference for the vulnerable chars. “We now have 3 floating hospitals, 437 satellite and static clinics, alongside 525 community medic-aides that we’ve trained and educated. These programs yield around 250,000 service beneficiaries every month,” Runa postulates.
Friendship thoroughly values the need for education; this has led to the establishment of 78 schools, 73 adult learning centers and 5 secondary schools which have benefitted a large number of students. When asked about the standards of their schools, Runa expounds, “It’s very innovative in the sense that all the school teachers have acquired education below SSC matric; in fact we don’t take teachers who are above that level of academics, instead we prepare the people from the community to teach students. We train these community people by making them accustomed to the government curriculum so that they can sit for the national examination and then we reinforce cleanliness in the schools alongside encouraging environmental work such as gardening.” They also religiously follow a code of ethics, which is taught to every student during their daily assemblies as well as during classes, twice a week. Government schools have reached out to Friendship in this regards and now 35 of those schools have adopted these lessons.
Over the last six years, the students at Friendship’s schools have achieved a 100% pass rate with exemplary results. Also, merit based scholarships are prevalent in their school; where the national average is 2%, in their schools it is up to 9.8%. “Although they’re working in remote areas, our teachers can certainly teach. We’ve been systematically doing this for the past six years. The main areas of focus here are Gainbandha’s Char, Shyamnagar, Chilmari’s Char, Kurigram’s Char and various other remote locations” prides Runa.
Where disaster management, prevention and preparedness is concerned, Friendship has built nearly 3000 houses. Friendship has also facilitated housing solutions by taking 22 acres of land from the government and distributed it among the underprivileged. They have also constructed 12 raised plinths to provide flood shelter. They have also invested in water and sanitation by setting up thousands of latrines along with biogas latrines. They have also planted deep tube wells; in fact, last year they planted 167 deep tube wells.
“Our preparedness program has caught the attention of big organization abroad, to see how we handle disasters. Apparently this model has been proven feasible for corporations in terms of managing decisions. They want to see how we manage decisions, preparedness as well as how the governance of the organization works. Not only that, but how our values remain irrevocable throughout the organization,” she says.
Further down the line, Friendship has enabled a sustainable economic development program under which an organization named ‘Association for People’s Development’ (Strem) was created which has a micro-finance license. “We’re trying to get the government to make this a mainstream program due to our risk-sharing-insurance model which can be used by fisherman and other agricultural workers. This can help them earn more from their sales so they can pay back the money they borrowed from local lenders,” reveals Runa.
Establishing governance for remote areas by working with the village justice system, Friendship has also provided government training as well. “Our booklets and manuals are there to explain government and governance issues. We also have paralegal booths in all the villages and our paralegal aids work with the justice system of the villages,” highlights Runa.
From running Contic, a tourism company which renovated old country boats, Runa has a fair share of knowledge on traditional boat building. Hence, Friendship takes a keen interest in boat preservation. “We have held 15 national and international exhibitions for cultural preservation of boats. We want to set up a boat museum in collaboration with the Cultural Ministry, covering the documentation of building and preserving boats,” she says. The boats that have disappeared have been preserved and renovated by Friendship for 15 years. On a final note, the entrepreneur stresses that in her line of work, she’s gathered that the poor cannot afford poor solutions; one has to give them good things. “They must feel that they are part of this environment, that’s why we’ve created something which makes them feel at home,” concludes Runa.