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Notes from the Field: Bangladesh

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From the Ground Up: Taking a needs based approach to humanitarian transparency

By Gary Forster/Henry Lewis (Publish What You Fund) and Ruba Ishak/Max Seilern (Ground Truth Solutions)

Information sharing during protracted humanitarian emergencies can often be complex and face a number of barriers, particularly for local and national responders. Therefore, since January 2019 Publish What You Fund and Ground Truth Solutions, in partnership with Development Initiatives and with funding from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, have been undertaking work to better understand the data needs and challenges of these types of humanitarian actors. Building on desk based research, key stakeholder interviews and an online survey, the project has reached the last stages of the on-the-ground research phase. Whilst it is too early to share the final findings of our work, we did want to share some reflections from the final country deep dive – our trip in September 2019 to Bangladesh. If you would like to know more about our first trip to Erbil, Iraq, you can read our Notes from the field: Iraq blog.

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Arriving in Cox’s Bazar, we were faced with the beauty of the world’s longest natural sea beach, a popular tourist destination among Bangladeshi’s, and a great place to go for a run during some down time. On the other hand, the stark reality of poverty in one of the country’s poorest districts could be clearly seen on the short drive from the airport – epitomised by homelessness, rubbish piling by the roadside and insufficient infrastructure to cope with the frequent heavy rains. Bangladesh has widespread poverty, sitting 136th in the United Nations Human Development Index. With the majority of the camps around an hour’s drive away, Cox’s Bazar has become the base of many humanitarian agencies dealing with one of the largest scale refugee crises in the world.

To provide a bit of context, recent conflict across the border in northern Rakhine State (Myanmar) has led to the mass displacement of the Rohingya people across the border to the Chittagong region of Southern Bangladesh, putting significant pressure on local communities and local resources. A UN fact finding mission from September 2018 said the remaining Rohingya in Rakhine State face a serious risk of genocide. Cox’s Bazar district has become home to an extra 745,000 people since the violence began in August 2017, adding to the approximately 300,000 Rohingya refugees already living in the region for the past few decades. The region is also prone to disasters, such as recurring floods and cyclones. Due to its proximity to the Bay of Bengal, Cox’s Bazar is one of the most cyclone-prone regions of Bangladesh, further adding to the difficulties of humanitarian response to the Rohingya populations in the area.

According to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), 80% of Rohingya refugees are women and children. Protection vulnerabilities are extremely high as most refugees arrived in Bangladesh with little in the way of possessions, having used all their resources in the course of their journey. Meanwhile poor shelter conditions, flooding from monsoon rains, and a lack of economic and social opportunities only add to the challenges. The pace of arrivals has decreased over the course of the crisis, but refugees still continue to arrive in the country. The Government’s ultimate goal is to see the Rohingya repatriated back to Myanmar, but this is unlikely to happen anytime soon with the situation in Rakhine State still precarious. Aid groups are, therefore, trying to shift from emergency response to dealing with a protracted crisis.

On the ground

During our two-week trip, we split up into two research teams and undertook more than 40 interviews with local, national and international NGOs, as well as with regional and national government, UN agencies, sector leads and international donor agencies.

While the detailed analysis of the interviews is still being undertaken, we wanted to share some of our reflections following the trip:

  • The uniqueness of the crisis – while we recognise that every context has its own nuance, it quickly became apparent just how different this crisis is from our experience in Iraq. This crisis is predominately a static refugee situation, contained in a relatively compact area. As a result of Bangladesh’s long history of development programming and the resulting size of its civil society, many of the first responders were local and national actors based in Cox’s Bazar and beyond. Unlike other crises, where one agency takes the lead for the response – often the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) – both UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) share this responsibility, with the Government also taking a strong leading role. This mixture of stakeholders has led to a lack of definitive authority within the response which inevitably affects the quantity, quality and variety of data and how it is shared.
  • Design of the response – due to political constraints within this crisis, cash-based programming is being forced out of use. So instead, this response is characterised by a needs-based approach, where the needs of the Rohingya are assessed and then met by the agencies responsible for managing the crisis. These decisions are based on rapid needs assessments taken early in the crisis. As the refugees’ needs change day-to-day, it means collecting new data frequently. Strong coordination is needed to make this work effectively, while balancing the immediate and longer-term needs of a huge population. However, as one stakeholder said, by taking a rights-based approach to this crisis, these constant rounds of data collection would not be needed, as affected communities would be empowered to address their own needs (and given the resources to do so). Data and information would still be collected to make sure services are targeting the most vulnerable, but on a less frequent basis, ensuring that beneficiaries do not suffer survey fatigue.
  • There is lots of data, but there is a need for rationalisation –it was clear after only a handful of interviews, that the majority of actors in this crisis have access to an extraordinary amount of data. Over the course of the crisis data collection has helped enable the basic needs of the Rohingya populations to be met to some degree (for example, by making improvements to shelter and WASH facilities within the camps). However, in many of our interviews, a number of stakeholders re-enforced the point that there is actually too much data in this response and there needs to be a better understanding and use of the information already out there. As the complexity of the crisis changes and we see a movement from a humanitarian emergency to a protracted crisis, data needs have to change to reflect the context. A shift from primarily quantitative data to include qualitative data collection and analysis, would allow for a better understanding of the needs of the Rohingya and better response planning for the future.

Next steps

We’ve now finished the on-the-ground research phase of this project, with both our trips to Iraq and Bangladesh having taken place. We’re now busy comparing and contrasting our findings from these two field visits and are planning to share the final report early next year.