Flash flooding in Haor region, Bangladesh
As they set out by motor boat to reach remote communities hit by flash flooding, three trainee humanitarians had their first taste of the hazards involved in their new profession.
“The journey was hectic and fearful as the wave of waters was surprisingly dangerous,” they recalled. “The water was also contaminated with rotten crops and vegetables and dead fish. The smell of the contaminated water was so intoxicating that sometimes we had breathing problems.”
Emonul Arefin, Ashique Mahmud and Mehdi Hasan, all on assignment in their first real emergency, were about to put into practice the skills they had learnt during their first six months of training under the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme (DEPP).
In May 2017, hundreds of thousands of people in a region of north-eastern Bangladesh saw their livelihoods swept away as unusual pre-monsoon rains in nearby hills of India led to a deluge of water downstream. Paddy fields and fish farms were ruined.
Key lessons for the trainees
By the end of the trainees’ two-month practical assignment – the first of two – they had learnt much about the challenges humanitarians face. They’d influenced local authorities to improve their own relief efforts; they’d spotted that children were being used as manual labour while their schools were closed, and had it stopped; and they’d produced critical findings that challenged the very basis on which decisions were being made.
They also concluded that the government’s “safety net” programmes for the poorest within the community ignored better-off farmers, including landowners, who lost their entire year’s crops in the floods. “We would not be wrong if we say wealthy and mid wealthy farmers are more vulnerable under current situation,” the trainees declared.
Widespread flooding in Haor
The districts where the trainees were dispatched were in the region known as the Haor – the name for saucer-like depressions that fill with water during the wet season, allowing rivers to flood in a manageable way.
This year, the pre-monsoon rains in India led to an unexpected surge of water, and widespread flooding. Some banks intended to contain floodwater gave way – also raising challenging questions among the trainees. “Although the rain and the wave of water from upstream are the main culprits, the locals also blame the authorities concerned for not finishing the construction of Haor embankments in time, which is why the embankments fall apart to the pressure of water and caused the flood,” they reported.
Mr Ashique Mahmud is consulting aged population to understand their vulnerability. Image Department of Disaster Management, Bangladesh
Improving capacity for locally-led crisis response
The trainees are among 20 who have just completed their one-year entry-level training under a DEPP project aimed at developing local humanitarian talent in Bangladesh and four other countries. The aim is to have trained 175 new young humanitarians, to increase the skills within each country and the capacity for locally-led crisis response. Parallel schemes offer training to more senior humanitarians within organisations that have hosted trainees – all under the DEPP, which is financed by UK government aid and has 13 projects coordinated by Start Network.
In Bangladesh, there were 3,000 applicants for the 40 trainee places, with selection by open competition. Among criteria used in selecting the trainees were their use of English – essential if, as is hoped, they are eventually to use their expertise in international efforts – their capacity for independent thinking and their “soft” skills, essential if they are to influence the behaviour and decisions of others.
Of the first 20 to be trained, 15 made the grade after completing the course in January 2017, and have all now found roles within humanitarian or development organisations.
The trainees sent to the Haor region in May were from the second intake. Shahana Hayat, country project manager for the Talent Development programme, said: “They brought a very fresh eye to their analysis of what they found… They applied all the skills they had learnt during the previous months’ training, and they had a real effect on improving the outcomes for hundreds of affected people.”
Developing the skills needed
Their training began with six months studying the theory of humanitarian aid – from the history and core principles to more specific subjects, including protection in practice and inclusion. Even as highly educated graduates they faced the challenge of developing a new way of thinking, said Ms Hayat. “They’ve had to learn the skills needed to carry out critical analysis, and to look at things and understand them from different perspectives,” she said. “That is not the way education is in Bangladesh, where there is more emphasis on knowledge.” External tests of their new skills were arranged and moderated by Oxford Brookes University, which has partnered with the Talent Development programme.
For the second half of their training they were deployed to real-life disasters – like the flash floods in the Haor region.
The trainees’ final report paints a vivid picture of how they tried to apply their new humanitarian skills in situations that required careful listening, patience, clear understanding and analysis, good judgement and much tact.
Creating connections and influencing the response
Throughout the process they were helped by local authorities, and consulted with other government agencies and local leaders involved in the relief effort: the chief executives of each local government sub-district (“upazila”); district relief and rehabilitation officers; officials of departments of fisheries, social welfare and agriculture; national government officials sent to engage with the response effort locally; the water development board; and other local leaders.
Most important were their meetings with people from the affected communities as the trainees carried out a joint needs assessment, which threw up awkward questions for some officials. They discovered that only 500 of the 4,000 households initially targeted for distribution of rice and other supplies were in the greatest need, Ms Hayat said, while half were put on the list for what appeared to be mainly political reasons. “Timely collaboration from all sectors is crucial to ensure that all unserved people are reached, and the list should be free from political bias,” she said. “For example trainees found that one politically influential family had received 17 bags of relief rice, while a really needy family of eight members didn’t get any help from the distribution.”
The trainees persuaded officials to extend their list to include a far larger proportion of those in most acute need, she said. “It’s part of the duty of humanitarians to be accountable to the affected population,” she said. “They influenced local government through their positive attitude, using their understanding of global standards to enthuse officials to follow humanitarian principles more closely than they otherwise would have done.”
Mr Mehdi Hasan interviewing local government official while traveling to affected area by boat. Image Department of Disaster Management, Bangladesh
Child protection during the response
Later, during the physical distribution of relief, the trainees noticed that children whose schools were temporarily closed were being used for manual work. At schools that were still open they discovered poor hygiene and sources of possible disease, due to flood water contamination. They also learnt that some children were being sent home early, in order that they could work.
Four other trainees from the project responded by delivering training sessions in child protection to local government officials, and giving them materials to share with other staff. “They discussed with local government and affected families how to ensure child protection to global standards,” said Ms Hayat. These trainees – Umme Salma, Suraiya Sultana, Shobhana Alam and Hafizur Rahman – detailed their findings and their intervention in a separate report.
The report by the first group made two main recommendations. The first called for technical capacity of local disaster management committees to be built up, to improve analysis of risk and so that emergency responses consider the dignity of all people’s lives, “irrespective of social status”.
The second called for an effective annual development plan “to create a bridge between humanitarian and development sectors” and reduce pressure for people to move away in search of work - or to become dependent on long-term relief.
“You can see that they brought a very fresh eye to bear on the relief effort,” said Ms Hayat. “They maintained good relations with all the authorities involved while challenging the way they were working. As a result they secured better outcomes for thousands of people affected by this crisis, with potential benefit for those affected in future as well. That’s exactly what everybody wants from our next generation of humanitarians in Bangladesh.”
About Talent Development
The Talent Development project aims to strengthen local humanitarian capacity by building competencies in countries prone to disaster. It is among 13 projects coordinated by Start Network under the Disasters and Emergencies Preparedness Programme, all funded by UK government aid.
In total it aims to have trained 1,000 humanitarian workers of varying seniority and experience by October 2017, across five countries: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya, Jordan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The humanitarian trainee programme, one of three levels of training, is managed and led by Save the Children, a member of Start Network. It aims to train 175 young humanitarians operates in four of the five countries, not including the DRC.