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  • A warm and thoughtful breakfast with the WASH ladies!


    April 12th, 2019

    I never thought that I would so enjoy such a charming breakfast and chit-chat with women from different corners of the world at the ‘Citywide Inclusive Sanitation Principles’ workshop in Khulna, Bangladesh. That morning, 2nd April took me by surprise! I met more than twenty beautiful faces working for the WASH sector in different capacities and roles who joined the conversation, bringing a wealth of thoughts and courage, breaking the silence.

    The conversation began with Alyse from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She introduced herself by saying how everyone had childhood dreams and over the years discovered themselves  as a grown up women in diverse roles. I had no idea that the conversation would be so interesting. A range of inspiring characters appeared, including the world class political leader who influenced the idiom – the sky’s the limit!

    Many women referred to their father as their dream icon. As an engineer, a quick mental calculation told me that around 40% mentioned that they wanted to be like their ‘fathers’. They portrayed their fathers as independent individuals, change makers, decision makers, or charismatic characters from their own perspectives and context, explaining why they wanted to follow their footsteps.

    I was surprised not to hear a single story from a woman wanting to follow in her mother’s footsteps and asked myself why. Perhaps the traditional role of a mother doesn’t appeal to us – to be a blind follower rather than the glorious ‘father figure’, perhaps we were more attracted  to be an ‘achiever’ in our life.  This is just my assumption, I really don’t have the answer.

    Their enlightening stories continued, reflecting their lifestyle and work and I was mesmerised listening to them. They shared their aspirations and experiences along with their learning curves. The journey of one woman really touched me. She became a councillor, and as the wife of an official of the same municipality, overcame stereotyping and social stigma.

    Equal sharing of inherited property emerged as one of the critical issues for women’s empowerment, coupled with the state’s role in it. No one raised issues such as excessive workload, the capacity gap, extra support required to perform better and there were literally no complaints or frustrations. I personally knew that at least three of the participants are single mothers as well as performing very well in their professional and personal life. It made me proud seeing that all are making ‘efforts’ in a real sense, not ‘excuses’.

    While witnessing the inspiring stories, I recalled the time back in 1998 when I joined ITN-BUET as a Technology Specialist. At that time, the engineering curriculum contained neither low-cost water supply and sanitation technology nor gender aspects. The first formal effort was made in the book, “Water Supply & Sanitation Rural and Low Income Urban Communities” by Professor Feroze Ahmed and Prof Mujibur Rahman.  They introduced a light touch on gender awareness in Chapter 4 with deliberate effort, and with support from a Dutch woman, Ineka Vann Hoff from IHE Delft. I’m indebted to her for landing the first blow of gender thoughts on me.

    I have been working in the WASH sector for over twenty years. I have found myself talking about sh*t in front of hundreds of men, with a feeling of isolation on many occasions for many years. This scenario has changed over the years. Women everywhere are taking over leadership positions, even though globally amongst the total number of WASH professionals they don’t exceed 10% yet. We should encourage more girls in this sector and at the same time, girls should be able to carve their own way to create a brighter future, utilising the available opportunities to the full. Conscious efforts to raise voices and bring thoughtful arguments, take challenges and use opportunities for professional engagement will definitely take a girl in the right direction.

    I have one wish at the end! Maybe twenty years down the line, at another breakfast meeting, people will be stating their dream personalities to be their brave mother, sister or mentor from the WASH sector, the real trendsetters of the globe.

    With acknowledgments to SNV, Practical Action, ITN-BUET and BMGF

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  • Dignifying Lives of Women in Waste Management: Challenges and Way forward


    April 10th, 2019

    Earlier in March at the 2019 UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW63) I was able to share some initial insights about the gender issues facing women in Bangladesh who earn a living from solid waste management – in collecting rubbish from households and streets or in the recycling or reuse.

    As the urban population of Bangladesh continues to rise, and to rise at rates faster than the rest of South Asia, the challenge of dealing with ever-growing volumes of solid waste is also increasing as well as concerns on the safety and well-being of waste workers who are often on the front-line of providing much needed services to households and communities. Only around 55% of generated waste is ever collected. Currently roles are divided with:

    • Municipalities provide staff who sweep streets. They also provide large communal skips or bins for people to dispose of waste, which they empty and transport to a disposal site
    • NGOs, CBOs or sometimes private companies provide a patchy service of household collection, taking the rubbish to the communal collection points.
    • Informal sector businesses and individuals also make money by picking waste, sorting it, and selling it on to be recycled.

    Gendered roles in the solid waste system

    Women and men play different roles in this system. Women’s participation tends to be limited to jobs at the lower level of the chain including sweeping streets, apartments, markets, offices, and health centers; collection of mixed wastes and supporting their male partners to carry and dispose of waste in the bins/transfer stations. A few women are pick recyclable waste from bins, and help to sort and process wastes at plastic and organic waste recycling companies. As a result, women on average earn half that of men in the sector.

    Working conditions are poor, and women face particular risks

    Both men and women mostly earn money as day labourers. They often lack protective equipment and many suffer illness or injury, but being unable to work means not being paid. They are also not part of insurance or savings schemes. Harassment by employers and law enforcement agencies and disrespect from communities are a regular part of their life. It is hard for them to move into other professions because they are viewed as ‘untouchables’ by others in the community.

    Women face particular risks. Street sweeping or cleaning of shops and offices often takes place at night or the early morning, and working in the dark leaves them vulnerable to harassment or abuse. They often lack access to toilets while they are working, and have not place to rest for a break. This can be even more difficult during menstruation or pregnancy when they may continue to have to deal with heavy workloads.

    Women’s discrimination is overlooked

    These poor working conditions and inequalities for women remain overlooked. This is partly because women have low bargaining power as they participate and engage less in policy, planning, programming and decision-making by national departments, municipalities, recycling companies or other employers.

    The government developed its 3R strategy (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in 2010 and mentioned ‘gender transformative approaches’). However, when it comes to implementation, women’s issues have hardly been addressed at all; neither by national departments, development partners, cites and municipalities or NGOs working in the sector. There has been extremely weak or no co-ordination between organisations involved in women’s rights or labour rights, and the waste management sector. We are hopeful that the recently formed National Task Force might take up these issues and promote better co-ordination. It is being headed by the Additional Secretary, Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives (MLGRD&C).

    Practical Action’s work in solid waste management: a new commitment to addressing gender inequalities

    Practical Action has been involved for more than a decade in designing and piloting integrated sustainable waste management scheme in different municipalities of Bangladesh, helping to extend waste services to urban poor communities. Recently we have committed ourselves to doing more to recognise and address gender inequalities.

    Our work takes a systemic approach looking right across the chain from waste generation, separation at household level, up to its collection, transportation and disposal or recycling/re-use. We work with the existing informal sector, both women and men, to help them establish themselves as entrepreneurs, and have a formal space to engage with municipalities. We also support them to improve their relationships with larger recycling companies. We have often done this through performance-based service-level agreements between waste co-operatives and municipalities.

    To get to this point requires a lot of work: assessing the current informal system and presenting the untold stories to municipalities to help them see the financial and service opportunity better engagement offers. Specialized facilitation and soft skills together with convincing facts encourages the municipalities to extend cooperation towards engagement and partnership with business cooperatives of informal workers.

    Informal workers are organised, mobilized and supported to form business organizations where women’s participation is strongly considered both in numbers and positions in the committees. A few cooperatives are exclusively for women who are mostly street sweepers and particularly vulnerable in various ways. Entrepreneurial skills are well taken care of so that members of the cooperatives independently can assess local markets and based on that they can improve their businesses.

    Education and exposure to appropriate technologies are organised specially for women which can significantly reduce physical labor and improve working conditions. Occupational health, hygiene and safety education and knowledge is provided together with on job work and follow up continues until this becomes established practice and habits.

    Practical Action supports municipalities to set up multi stakeholder platforms including representatives from women cooperatives, urban poor communities, NGOs/CSOs, private recycling companies, business organisations and other government organisations for inclusive and integrated waste management planning. Through these platforms, informal workers can advocate for increased annual allocations from municipal budgets, better health and safety provision, and to access a share of the budget allocated to gender concerns. The participation and engagement of women is emphasized in leading campaigns and movements for awareness raising, behavior and practice changes towards safe disposal of wastes.

    Private sector partnerships are encouraged to bring new investment and business skill in establishing treatment plants to recycle organic waste into fertilizer and biogas which creates green jobs and employments (mostly for women) in sorting/separation, processing, quality inspection and packaging, supply and distribution in local and national markets. We are also discussing with Bangladesh Bank and their partners who operate green and other subsidized financial schemes to extend loans to women led entrepreneurs for running the business of waste collection and recycling.

    Taking our learning to key decision-makers

    There are few organisations in Bangladesh who are considering gender inequalities in waste management. Whatever we are learning on the ground, will be captured and shared with key national departments (Local Government Engineering Department -LGED, Sustainable Renewable Energy Development Authority – SREDA, Department of Environment – DoE, Department of Public Health Engineering – DPHE) for inclusion in national 3R, WASH and municipal development programmes.

    Our initial learning was recently shared in a parallel event at the UN CSW63 conference titled Dignifying lives and empowering women in waste management together with International Labour Oroganisation – ILO and Women in Informal Employments – Globalising and Organising- WIEGO who also work and speak globally for social and economic empowerment of informal women and men waste workers to realise decent jobs and secure their work rights.

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  • Innovations in Briquette Business for Clean Cooking Energy


    April 1st, 2019

    Access to clean and affordable energy is an important determinant in the livelihoods of all rural and urban people, however, only a few have access to an adequate gas supply for cooking and other productive purposes.

    Those who have not been blessed with the access to this valuable resource depend on the use of a wide range of biomass such as firewood, and agriculture residues such as jute stick, leaves, rice husk, sawdust, cow dung which are not thermally efficient and result in creating smoke in the kitchens. Moreover, the use of firewood is aggravating another major environmental crisis – deforestation. The overexploitation of wood is contributing to deforestation causing an adverse effect on the ecosystem, and the environment and climate at large. This has led to the need for an innovation that can potentially deal with these issues from an eco-friendly lens.

    The Practical Action team in Bangladesh, with support from GIZ and SREDA (Sustainable and Renewable Energy Development Authority), have devised an intuitive innovation – the conversion of biomass into briquette, a block of compressed flammable organic material used as fuel – to address the aforementioned issues. Briquette significantly increases thermal efficiency, reduces smoke and the cost of cooking fuel, in the most reductive terms. Not only does it have a thermal efficiency higher than traditional biomass, and emit less smoke, through this innovation we have essentially transformed “waste” into a useful resource and in that, alleviated its value by manifolds. It has also made way for a solid source of livelihood where women can be involved in its backward (raw material supply) and forward (market development of finished products) production.

    Throughout the duration of this project, the team worked with several medium and large scale briquette producers and increased their technical and business management capacity and created linkage with a wide range of biomass suppliers and distributors to reach a wide range of clients i.e households, institutional and commercial. The comparative pros and cons of the use of briquettes from at least three to four different biomasses were also assessed under this intervention.

    One of the briquette producers under this intervention was Mostak Ahmed from Siddik Sanitation, a veteran in the biofuel stove manufacturing industry who has previously worked with organizations like USAID, GIZ. He wholeheartedly acknowledged Practical Action’s efforts. He said that he did not understand “efficiency” and all those big jargons, but what he understood was the satisfaction of his customers, whether their needs were met, and that was his only prime concern. He expressed that with support from Practical Action and GIZ, he could further his stride on bringing optimum utility to his customers.
    Another one of the briquette producers was Josna Begum from Kheya (Samaj Unnayan Sangstha) who appreciated how this initiative has reduced the work load of the women, by eliminating the need for them to forage for firewood, which is not only cumbersome but also poses risks. She felt that this initiative has empowered women, in that, they not only now have the opportunity to network with each other, but they can also spend a nice time with each other and share their daily woes and joys. They could venture out and develop their marketing skills, which eventually led to a multiplier effect and encouraged more women to do something on their own as well. 

    The project namely “Innovations in Briquette Business for Clean Cooking Energy” under this intervention, implemented in Rangpur and Satkhira from July 2018 to December 2019, by Practical Action, GIZ and SREDA recently concluded. A learning sharing workshop was organized on 25 March 2019 to disseminate the lessons, successes, and challenges of the project. All the beneficiaries of the project shared their experience on how this project has helped them stride ahead and that they would love to receive more support in the future as well. 

     

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  • Striding Ahead – The Story of How the Livestock Business Centre is Changing Lives


    February 26th, 2019

    Livestock as an important segment of the agricultural sector of Bangladesh has seen an exponentially growing demand. Its prospects as a driver of substantial and sustainable socio-economic change are very promising, however, there remains a lot of room for improvement. There has been a dearth of knowledge with regard to the livestock sector, leading to unaddressed gaps. There is a lack of service and quality inputs for the rural farmers, affordable distribution network and absence of private companies’ business hubs in the community level. That is where the Livestock Business Centre (LBC) comes in. The LBC performs a facilitative role, with the underlying objective of working towards benefitting the rural poor farmers. It has been designed to address all the unmet knowledge needs of the farmers, with a goal of commercialization of rural livestock products and relevant services and inputs. It also ensures affordable output supply for the rural poor farmers, which is contributing to market access and income increase of the rural producers, value chain actors and other market players.

    Practical Action Consulting (PAC), in collaboration with a microfinance institute (MFI) established the Livestock Business Centre in Faridpur Sadr, which is an independent rural enterprise providing one-stop solution to farmers, with the vision of establishing a viable business model for products and services surrounding and including rural livestock products. This business aims towards a multi-pronged benefit approach for the producer community, for the traders as well as for the consumers. The objective of this project is to improve the supply chain by establishing rural business centre and distributions network and farmer groups and market-led production systems. 

    Many have made remarkable strides ahead benefiting from LBC. Stories of some have been brought to light.

    Sharifa Syed was a member of the Asha Committee when she heard about the Livestock Business Centre. She heard about the benefits of LBC and realized it was here to help. Inherently, she would face difficulty availing medical services for her cows. Quality feed was not readily available. Since LBC seemed like a welcome solution, she expressed her interest in availing the services of LBC. She first took a loan and bought one cow. Then she bought another a few months later. She then sold both the cows for a significant profit. After that, she never had to look back. She then repaid her loan to LBC and bought land with the rest of the money. She cultivated all sorts of vegetables, starting from cucumber, eggplant, gourd to onion, chili etc and made a huge profit from there as well. She invested some of her profit on renovating her house and the rest on her children’s education and household expenses. Riding on her initial success, she continued taking loans from LBC. She started from scratch and achieved resilience leveraging on the benefits of LBC. She now keeps busy all day tending her cows or working in the field. She boasted that her husband consults her for every major decision and her standing in her family and the society at large, has been cemented.

    Surjo Banu and Billal Sheikh have always been each other’s support throughout. They have been in the cattle rearing business for very long. When they first heard about the services LBC provided, they realized it tapped into a lot of their problem areas. They inherently faced some issues, particularly availing medical services for their cows. The local veterinary professional would not always be within reach. Additionally, availing medical services was a costly affair. It costed them BDT. 1000 to BDT. 1200, often as high as BDT. 2000. With LBC, medical services were now within their grasp, with just a phone call, and at zero costs. Things have become a lot easier for them since LBC happened. They collectively made the highest profit margin they ever made. In a very calculative move, they invested the profit in buying land and a trailer for cultivation, which led to greater profits for them. They can now support their children and cater to their needs with this safety net in place. The couple also hosts the LBC collection meeting in their courtyard, where all the cow rearers socialize, apart from talking about business. Surjo Banu and Billal Sheikh have set a wonderful example of how two partners have crafted a better life for themselves systematically, taking assistance from LBC.

    Afzal Hossain reaped the benefits of the LBC to the fullest with this timely planning. He sold the cow that he bought for a very lucrative profit for Eid, just a few months ago. He then systematically invested his profit to achieve a greater level of financial stability. He bought land with this profit and is looking to cultivate onions, which is particularly profitable in this time of the year. He estimates to earn an aggregate return of BDT. 4 lac through his clever investments, multiplying his initial investment by manifolds. He believes this was only possible because he had LBC’s support. LBC has made things a lot simpler for him. With living expenses increasing every day, he was having a hard time making ends meet with the profits he was making earlier. An underlying issue he had been facing was availing medical services for his cows. Not only would it be difficult to manage veterinary services, but it was also costly. The fee would range from BDT. 1500 to BDT. 2000. For cow rearers like Afzal, this kind of cash was not always readily available. If the fee of the vets was not ensured, they simply would not come, leading to catastrophic ramifications for the cow rearers. But Afzal feels the vets of LBC are one of their own. The vets are at his service any time the need arises, which has lifted a huge burden off his chest. With the convenience that LBC has brought, Afzal could diversify his income sources and become a more resilient individual.

    Abdul Kalam was sceptical about LBC at first but after hearing how his neighbours were benefitted through the service, he decided to try his luck. He previously had a bitter experience availing financial aid from the government microfinance scheme. The loan given then was a very meagre amount, not enough to meet his needs. Because of poor governance prevalent within the system, he also had to give away a huge portion of that loan as a bribe, ultimately not leaving enough for himself. He first took a loan from LBC and bought a cow. He then bought a second. He sold both his cows for a handsome profit, but he did not stop right there. With the huge profit he made, he cleared his loans and invested on land. He has been working relentlessly in the field to reap more profits. He was fortunate to have his wife Anowara by his side throughout. While he worked in the field, she would stay at home and tend the cows. Kalam wholeheartedly acknowledged his wife’s contribution. Leveraging on her enterprising spirit, he diversified his investment on goat, chicken, and turkey rearing. As a token of his appreciation, he made her a pair of gold earrings from the profits. Abdul Kalam and Anowara Kalam have a happy and prosperous life now. Because they are now more resilient, they hope to continue their youngest daughter’s education without restrictions. Abdul Kalam not only acknowledged his wife’s contribution, but he was equally thankful to LBC which gave him the footing to take up more ventures.

    It was evident from Naznin Akhter’s smile that things have been going in her favour. Naznin’s husband has a booming onion cultivation business, but she wanted to do something on her own and create an identity apart from her husband. Having heard about the benefits of LBC, she decided to avail the services. She bought a cow with her loan. When inspecting the feed provided by LBC, she found that it was of a much higher quality than local feed. She was also particularly impressed by the promptness of the medical services. Her effort in tending her cow yielded positive results for her, and she sold it for BDT. 3 lac 60 thousand, making a huge profit. With the additional income in hand, she was now able to contribute financially to her family as well. Some of the profit was invested in onion cultivation and the rest on her familial expenses. But Naznin made sure most of the investment went towards ensuring a better life for her daughters. Both of her daughters were students in the Faridpur Polytechnic Institute. Her oldest was receiving a degree in Civil Services and the youngest in Computer Studies. It would cost them around BDT. 6000 for their commute every month, which was now mostly covered from the profits made. Naznin wanted to set an example for her daughters, and she is proud to have done so. She believes because of the advises she received from LBC she now knows a lot more than what she had previously known. She can now transfer her knowledge and skill to her friends and acquaintances and help empower them. She is now very confident about her capabilities and is looking to buy two more cows in the coming months with support from LBC.

     

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  • Jute – the natural alternative to plastic


    February 18th, 2019

    Most families in north-west Bangladesh rely on farming small plots of land to make a living. But it’s hard to make enough and men often have to leave their families to work in cities, leaving women and children without support. Work traditionally done by women earns very low wages.

    Jute rettingJute is the second most important crop in Bangladesh after rice. The climate is ideally suited and it was once a major source of foreign exchange but lost out to artificial fabrics. As we become more aware of the environmental dangers of plastics, jute is popular once more.  In 2017 Bangladesh produced 9.2 million bales compared to only 5 million in 2016.

    Practical Action, with European Union funding, is working to address issues for farmers, processors and entrepreneurs to unlock the potential for thousands of poor jute producers to boost their incomes from the crop. Our approach combines a set of solutions that together bring about lasting change. Here are some that are reaping rewards in Bangladesh.

    jute processingImproved varieties of jute

    Nurul Haque grows rice, jute and maize on his 2.5 acres. Practical Action introduced him to a new, highly productive variety of jute called Kanaf. It grows tall, up to 16 feet, and the fibre is white, making it more valuable.

    Usually after harvesting, jute is soaked in water for a couple of weeks to make it possible to remove the fibre.  This processing is hard work and very time consuming.  We have sourced a simple machine which can strip out the jute fibre very quickly without requiring this soaking.

    For Nurul Haque using the new machine saved time and cost less.  He also has an extra 280 kg of jute to sell this year because the machine extracts the fibres more efficiently leaving less on the sticks.

    Leasing the processing machine

    The jute sector currently lacks entrepreneurs and growers are trapped at the bottom of the supply chain.  We have designed a leasing system to help people obtain the processing machines and set up businesses processing jute and other crops. Unemployed young people are being trained in metalwork skills that enable them to manufacture these locally.

    Sheuli Begum, from Bozra in Kurigram lives with her husband and two children. Her husband is a farmer. Their income from farming and selling jute fibre is inadequate and she has to borrow to support her children’s education or pay for medicines. Sheuli  struggles to repay these debts.

    It came as a pleasant surprise to her that women were getting equal access to this jute machine business opportunity. She expressed her keen interest to  join the initiative.

    After training, she leased a machine. Now she is earning 1500 taka (£14) per day with her jute extraction machine after meeting all her business expenses. She also hopes to get a better price for her jute fibre.  Full of ideas, Sheuli is looking for ways use the waste from the jute sticks. She plans to compost those to make organic fertiliser to use on their field.

    “I am a housewife and people did not encourage me to be an entrepreneur. They laughed at me. But I know, the machine has changed my way of living.” said Sheuli.

    Skills training

    Ruzina Begum, Jute projectRuzina Begum is 34 with four daughters.  Her husband is disabled so she is the family breadwinner. She used to work as a housemaid but was poorly paid and struggled to feed her family and afford her children’s educational expenses. With little education herself, Ruzina was unable to find better employment.

    When she found out about a local business employing women to make products made of jute, she was delighted.  She took the basic training and began an apprenticeship with the company Karupannya.  She was keen to prove herself and to do something for herself and her family.  Now Ruzina is able to pay her daughters’ educational expenses as well as providing proper meals. She no longer needs financial support from her neighbours. And through practise her skills are improving daily which should lead to more work.

    More than 400 women have undertaken similar training and are now working for small and medium sized enterprises creating jute products.

    The project is also supporting the production and marketing of jute products with some small and medium sized cottage industries. This has resulted in the development of new products such as sandals and yoga mats for the export market and sales are increasing.

    Limited mechanisation and a lack of skills and market knowledge inhibit development.  With the help of market development, skills training and loan systems these vulnerable communities can become more economically productive. And there are environmental benefits. Jute is environmentally friendly being both biodegradable and recyclable as well as strong and versatile. Plastic bags are banned in Bangladesh so there’s already a growing local market.

     

     

     

     

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  • Supporting the informal sector to deliver effective FSM services


    , | February 14th, 2019

    Next week sees an important gathering of practitioners, government representatives, funders and others focusing Faecal Sludge Management. From lowly beginnings in Durban in 2011, the growing numbers of people gathered at this two-yearly conference demonstrate an increasing recognition of the importance of this issue – supported by the SDG commitment to achieve ‘safely managed’ sanitation for all.

    Of course, ensuring people have access even to a basic toilet is still the crucial starting point in some places – including in the slum communities in Africa and Asia which are the focus of our work. The number of urban dwellers without even basic sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa rose between 2010 and 2015 from 177m to 215m (according to JMP figures).

    However, once levels of sanitation coverage begin to rise, particularly in urban areas, properly tackling the issues of how the contents of pit latrines and septic tanks can be safely cleared, transported and treated (the faecal sludge management – FSM chain) becomes ever more important.

    While tackling FSM has been recognized as important, there is still huge debate about how best it should be delivered. Many see enterprise opportunities for companies, small and large. Some take the route of helping companies to enter this business, especially if they have been involved in similar business lines perhaps in refuse collection (SWEEP in Bangladesh). Others see opportunities for youth employment in new business models for example with container-based services (Ghana’s Clean Team).

    A new study Practical Action has carried out in 3 secondary towns and one city corporation in Bangladesh reminds us again of the extent to which it is the informal sector which is already delivering these services. It also shines a spotlight on the extremely difficult working conditions they face.

    The study carried out in Gazipur, Faridpur, Bagerhat and Barguna interviewed 6 pit emptiers as well as 38 people working in solid waste management as part of the ‘Dignifying Lives’ project.

    • Many combined this work with other informal jobs such as being employed as street sweepers by the municipality, or working as rickshaw pullers or day labourers.
    • They may only empty pits 3-4 times per month as customer demand is fairly limited, although compared to other sources of income it is relatively well paid, charging around BDT 1,000-1,500 for emptying a small pit, while a daily labourer may only earn BDT 100 per day.
    • This work in Bangladesh is tied to particular communities and has been passed down for generations. Although levels of social acceptance for this work have improved, the harijan community as a whole is still treated as ‘untouchable’ to some extent.
    • Although they may have been provided with safety equipment, it was rarely used. Gloves, boots and masks were found to be too hot and impaired their movement, making the job harder.
    • New sludge carts and safety equipment.

      The work is often hazardous. Workers had suffered broken bones, cuts in their hands and feet and stomach problems, losing 4-5 days of work a month as a result.

    • They are usually poorly represented in discussions with decision-makers. Neither do they have access to social safety nets to support them if they fall ill or are injured.

    At the same time, we found in earlier work in Faridpur, 72% of households and 52% of institutions preferred to use the informal service providers, largely because they could do the job more quickly with less bureaucracy than the service offered by the municipality. For slum dwellers, the municipal service was not available because the trucks could not get close enough to their toilets.

    In our work in both Bangladesh and Kenya we are developing models and approaches for bringing these informal workers into the mainstream. We are interested in the extent of the service which can be provided by these entrepreneurs at the citywide level. If additional capacity is needed to meet service provision needs citywide, then who and how can additional capacity be brought in while not undermining opportunities for those who already rely on it for their livelihoods.

    We are also working on approaches through which their working conditions and access to social protection can be improved – and one solution is through forming co-operatives, and bringing those together into a nationwide network. That network in Bangladesh (the FSM Network) will be represented at the FSM5 conference. Come and find out more at their stand.

    I’ll be at the FSM5 conference, and looking to share experiences with others in the sector who are approaching the problem in similar ways. My focus will remain firmly on how the proposed systems meet the needs of poor communities and protect the interests of existing informal sector workers. Do follow me on Twitter @lucykstevens for updates.

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  • Making Your Work Matter – Sharing Experience from the Rohingya Refugee Camp


    January 22nd, 2019

    The plight of the Rohingya people, dubbed as the world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis, has struck a chord with people from all over the world. Fleeing the destruction of their homes and escaping communal violence or alleged abuses by the security forces, thousands of Rohingyas made perilous journeys out of Myanmar, risking death by sea or on foot, to seek refuge in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, their migration to Bangladesh for a safe haven brought with it its own share of woes and worries. We may essentially be looking at a crisis within a crisis.

    Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world, braving natural disasters every now and then. Since the arrival of the refugees, the once forested regions of Ukhiya and Teknaf of Bangladesh now lay bare and barren, undulated with overcrowded makeshift settlements. Stripped of its vegetation and devoid of a functional drainage system, the ground has now become a breeding ground for floods and landslides. This degradation poses severe threats to the refugees, in addition to the inherent natural disaster vulnerabilities.  

    Photo Credit: Farhana Shahnaz

    To address this imperative issue, Practical Action decided to delve into finding ways the coping mechanism of the most vulnerable communities in the camp may be increased.

    Although Bangladesh has championed disaster management fairly well, the local government authorities of Cox’s Bazar are under-capacitated to cope with this increasing number of population, along with the greater threats of disasters. Due to a large number of people living in such close proximity, there is a greater need for faster and more effective assistance in the event of a disaster as well as to reduce vulnerability and risk exposure through preventive approaches.

    To increase the capacity of the camp dwellers with regard to disaster risk management and reduction, a batch of Rohingya youth volunteers had been oriented in the basics of DRR and taught first aid procedures hands-on.

    Training Day

    Photo Credit: Farhana Shahnaz

    The training took place on a chilly winter morning, incidentally just the day after my birthday. Everyone was a bit sceptical. Will our weeks of preparation pay off? Will the language barrier be a problem? Will our modules excite them? These were questions we wouldn’t have an answer to till we started and did what we came here at 6:00 in the morning for.

    The whole team started to organize a portion of the Camp In-charge office, our venue for the training – affixing the banners, arranging the seats, preparing the welcome packages. Our scepticism took a back seat as we enthusiastically prepared to welcome our youth volunteers. What was a chaos of stacked chairs an hour ago, now looked ready to receive the participants. We were ready for the training.

    The clock gradually struck 9:00 and we started receiving our first participants. We were initially a bit concerned about the turnout of the training. All 25 out of 25 participants showing up on time was not something we expected. Having distributed the welcome packs among our participants, the training officially took off.

    The training started with an introduction to the whole organizing team who had been working tirelessly for weeks to make the training as impeccable as possible. As each of the modules were discussed, the participants listened with great enthusiasm. It was very evident from their demeanour that they were taking great interest in what was being taught. They were inquisitive and had meaningful questions to ask. Language did not seem like a barrier to their zeal for learning. When they were shown the first aid drills, they tried them hands on till they got them right. Their interest in the whole exercise was truly endearing and inspired us greatly. The long hours we put into this training paid off. Each participant looked content and motivated as they clapped towards the end of the training. The training was a success.  

    But the greatest takeaway from this training was the spirit of the refugees. Even in the face of one of the biggest humanitarian crisis, they learnt to not only survive, but to flourish and grow. They did not let their past transgressions take away from their joy of learning. They still treated life with the same inquisitiveness and spirit. Despite their past, they wanted to learn, be better and contribute towards a better community and a better world. We went to conduct the training to teach them about disaster resilience. But we came back having learnt a beautiful lesson ourselves –  never let your condition get the better of you.

    As we wrapped up the training, we left with content in our heart. Sometimes the work you do is not only about ticking off a milestone. 

    Acknowledgement: I would like to dedicate this blog post to Leonora Adhikari, the Lead of this project and all my wonderful colleagues in the Cox’s Bazar regional office for making this an experience I will cherish.  

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  • The change we want to see for urban slum dwellers


    September 25th, 2018

    Last week the World Bank released an update of its ‘What a Waste’ report. It highlights how over 90% of waste in low-income countries is openly dumped or burned. This affects everyone, but impacts poor people the most. Rubbish is rarely effectively collected in their neighbourhoods. It causes pollution (including 5% of global climate change emissions), acts as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other diseases and blocks toilets and drains. It can exacerbate the impacts of flooding. Landslides of waste dumps have buried homes. The situation is only likely to get worse as the combination of urbanization and population growth, together with growing consumption, will lead to a 70% increase in global waste in the next 30 years.

    The release of this report coincides with the meeting of our global leadership team, and with re-vitalising of a crucial internal hub drawn from expert staff from across the world, to provide greater leadership and collaboration in our actions.

    Practical Action has been focusing on supporting urban poor communities for nearly 20 years in our programmes in Africa and South Asia. Our teams on the ground have witnessed these changes first hand, and have built up expertise over time on how to work effectively in these contexts with multiple stakeholders: helping slum communities to ensure their voices are heard, and local authorities to be better able to respond.

    Our work over the last few years has focused on basic services: water, sanitation, hygiene and solid waste management. This is because we know that improvements in these issues makes a dramatic difference to the day-to-day realities of women and men. It helps them live healthier lives, less burdened by the struggle of inadequate services and unpleasant, dangerous conditions. It helps restore dignity and ensure they feel included as part of the city. But also it can be a ‘gateway’ to helping them go on to solve other problems they face. We know that there are challenges for urban Local Authorities, who can be poorly staffed and resourced, struggle with effective community engagement, and lack knowledge of the latest appropriate technologies, financing mechanisms or ideas for partnerships.

    On the positive side, the existing informal sector already plays a huge role in delivering essential services in sanitation, water supply and rubbish collection and recycling (as work by WIEGO shows). The World Bank report suggests there are 15 million informal waste pickers in the world, and that if supported to organize this work can be transformed to provide decent livelihoods and support municipalities in delivering a good service. They can be at the heart of the circular economy, and models of green and inclusive growth.

    Practical Action’s work has strong, concrete evidence:

    Linking our areas of work

    Practical Action is also increasingly trying to see the links between different areas of our work – for example linking our work on solid waste management with energy (biogas technologies), or with our work on improving soil organic matter (composting of faecal sludge and kitchen waste).

    In our global strategy, we remain committed to improving the lives of urban poor communities. We are aiming to support the achievement of the SDG goals of universal access to these services in the towns and cities we are working in across Kenya, Bangladesh, India and Nepal.

    Our unique approach works with existing systems and stakeholders, puts poor people at the heart of everything we do, and identifies how the right kinds of technologies can be part of positive change. In a fast-changing world, we need to be agile to respond as these challenges grow. We need to find new ways to walk with some of the world’s most vulnerable people and communities through engaging positively with the private sector, and inspiring local authorities and national departments to be pro-poor in their thinking, actions and financing.

    Internally we are committed to doing even more to promote peer-to-peer learning to challenge and inspire staff as they discuss compelling stories, exchange learning, plan together, and gather our evidence to engage effectively in national and international policy dialogues.

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  • The rescuers


    July 31st, 2018

    One of my (not-so-pleasant) vivid memories, is witnessing overflowing sludge from the septic tank at our home when I  was studying at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET). My mother, one of the smartest ladies I have ever seen, just rushed to the nearby refugee camp, known as ‘Geneva camp’ in search of rescuers. It was getting dark, and we were desperately waiting for the arrival of the rescuers to salvage us from the mess and to relieve us from the sight of utter disgust at the entrance of our home.

    Finally a troop of six people came with their ‘equipment’. Being a student of civil engineering, I was eagerly waiting to see the ‘operation’ with my own eyes. Despite my mother’s red-eyes and gesture of annoyance, I kept on observing with a hope of being a (devoted) engineer.

    They brought with them the necessary equipment – some ropes and buckets together with a drum full of (so-called) chemical. They started by pouring the chemical from the mini drum which was simply kerosene. They mixed kerosene with water to dilute the sludge inside the septic tank to bring it to an optimum consistency. They tied the buckets to ropes and started collecting the semi-solid sludge from the septic tank by dipping the bucket into the tank, and then carried that to the nearby open drain and dumped it manually in the shadow of the darkness of the night. The operation continued for hours and finally shut down early in the morning at the cost of some few hundred Takas after some heavy haggling with my mother.

    I had almost forgotten that memory in the midst of so many lovely and lively events of my life. When I entered my professional career, I discovered that many things have changed over time, in terms of technology, lifestyle and what not, but the story of the rescuers didn’t change much!

    I started my development career after switching from hardcore civil engineering and devoted myself to work on the waste value chain. At some point of time, I wanted to know how septic tanks were emptied and came to know that the same practice prevailed even after two decades!

    I continued my professional journey with the aim of turning ‘waste into resources.’ While working on the ‘waste value chain’, I found, people who are associated with managing waste as their day to day business, are the most neglected, deprived and vulnerable in society.

    After two decades, my rusty memory again came to light. I noticed that we are using our toilets every day and our faecal waste is deposited into septic tanks. When these septic tanks are full and start overflowing creating nuisance, only then do we look for some untouchable sweeper communities to clean up the mess. And they appear as our ‘Rescuers’ to clean it manually using the same primitive technology – a rope and few buckets.

    Unfortunately, even in the twenty-first century, people are cleaning human waste manually!

    Every year at least 30-50 people die while cleaning septic tanks because of carbon monoxide and other poisonous gas generated inside the tanks. We really need to think of their lives, dignity and health and safety.

    The stories of other ‘waste workers’ are not something rosy. Every day, no less than 20,000 tons of municipal waste are generated from our houses, offices, industries. The waste workers are putting their lives at risk for making our lives better.

    Among the waste workers, women are even more deprived. Despite clear indication of the payment of equal wage for men and women in the National Labour Policy-2012, women are getting much less than men, and this is a common practice.

    Nowadays, ‘waste’ is drawing the attention of many entrepreneurs. Some areas are booming like recycling plastic and mobile phones. But what is happening to the workers? What about their working environment? Wage parity? Dignity?

    Sanitation and waste workers of all categories are lacking dignity and risking their lives, and surviving in an unhealthy and sub-human environment. We need to work to safeguard their dignity, realise their rights, minimise wage disparity and secure their health and safety.

    I wish to continue my journey for my fellow brothers and sisters who are putting their best efforts towards making cities liveable. I want my memory to be replaced by a shiny new one.

     

     

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  • Market based resilience building in Bangladesh


    July 26th, 2018

    For the past week I have been visiting the Practical Action programme in Bangladesh to support their work on resilience programming. I attended the wrap up meeting of the GRP Project, worked with the consultant team undertaking the final external evaluation of the project, helped staff in the flood resilience programme design activities for the next phase of the project and attended the meeting of the Markets Development forum.

    Bangladesh is a relatively young nation achieving independence in 1971 and being described by the then US foreign secretary as a bottomless basket. The country has progressed considerably in the recent past and Bangladesh set a landmark record in poverty alleviation by reducing it by 24.6% between 2000 and 2016, meaning more than 20.5 million people escaped the poverty line to find better lives for themselves. Bangladesh has also been praised in the world media for its outstanding successes with regards to various socio-economic indicators, such as the rate of literacy and life expectancy.

    A demonstration of the commitment of the country to a market driven development approach was clearly demonstrated at the Markets Development Day that I was fortunate enough to attend. I gained a deeper insights into their valuable contribution to market driven development particularly as I was invited to provide the conference wrap up, due to the last minute withdrawal of the pre-agreed speaker. In summarising the conference I was made aware of the diversity of challenges matched to the wealth of critical thinking by the development actors in this forum.

    The Market Development Forum is a forum of over 25 likeminded organisations exploring the use of markets based approaches to poverty reduction. As highlighted above Bangladesh has made significant gains in this area, but this is not felt equally by everyone. The theme of this year’s conference recognises this with the topic “Unblocking barriers to markets” with specific focus on the following;

    • Youth and jobs, in recognition of the rapidly growing youth population facing challenges with inadequate growth in the jobs markets
    • Humanitarian Context, the role of markets in humanitarian relief, especially reflecting that Bangladesh has recently seen the arrival of &&& Rohingya refugees
    • Financial inclusion, looking at linking the small scale informal financial systems developed in poor rural areas with mainstream finance and access to traditional banking and credit
    • Women’s Economic Empowerment, many economic sectors are dependent on predominantly women works with the garments sector the largest GDP revenue earner
    • Reaching the disabled, how to make markets truly inclusive and ensure that the many disabled people in Bangladesh have equal access
    • Social services, markets development on its own is inadequate this session looks at the parallel development of social systems necessary to support and stabilise poverty reduction benefits in often precarious markets

    I was impressed not only at the level of participation in the conference, but also the diversity of organisations and perspectives displayed. The presentations were excellent and the question and answer sessions expanded the discussion indicating the depth and breadth of markets development thinking in the country.

    What were some of the key take home messages I picked up from the conference?

    For the markets in humanitarian context the challenges highlighted are in the case of the refugees is the almost instantaneous impact refugees have on existing value chains. The presenter highlighted that in Cox’s Bazaar where the refugee camps are located, the labour markets has collapsed from 500bdt[1] per day to less than 100, while the price of construction materials have increased with the price of raw bamboo poles tripling in price. In the flood case study the flood severs markets, causing value chains to be broken, as access to services, input and export markets become severed. In this situations it is important not to overlook the role of markets in the pre flood disaster planning, to ensure that forecasts and weather information are used to inform the markets actors to ensure that activities are matched to expected conditions and if extreme flood events are expected the critical supplies can be pre-positions for rapid deployment in the case of a flood event becoming a human disaster. Tools such as Emergency Markets Mapping and Analysis (EMMA) and Pre-Crisis Markets Assessment (PCMA) are invaluable tools to help agencies plan for markets based engagement in humanitarian contexts.

    For the youth and job sessions the situation in Bangladesh is challenging. The country has a growing youth population but insufficient employment opportunities to offer this potential workforce. In addition the traditional education system is failing to deliver the practical skills necessary for employment. So structural changes to job markets need to start in the education system. The projects presented are looking to develop appropriate opportunities for these workers, including self-employment in formal as well as less formal emerging sectors. Finally for youth employment it is important to look at the right supporting services including Sexual and Reproductive Health, Gender Based Violence, skills training and job placements.

    In the women’s economic empowerment, the first session highlighted the differential access to information for women and men. One project explored how the provision of information to women enabled them to explore alternative livelihood opportunities. Traditional extension services are focussed on providing services to men and male dominated institutions. New technologies can provide access to formerly disconnected groups. For example SMS messages reach wider audience and voice messages can reach illiterate members. The presenters reported that access to information is certainly benefiting women’s economic empowerment. But more importantly does the access to information lead to changes in the behaviours between women and men? Early indications are that access to information, is leading to women informally helping their neighbours and men being more tolerant of women’s engagement in additional activities and accepting if meals are late.

    In my closing remarks I commented on the refreshing absence of any market maps in the presentations. It is important to recognise that they are a vital tool in markets driven development, but can provide a very unclear method to share findings with a large audience. It was great to get the core messages from their markets projects without descending into the nitty gritty of the value chain, the key actors, the supporting services, or the limits and opportunities presented by the enabling environment. My final comment was on the absence of the care economy in any of the sessions I attended. I was surprised in a forum in which gendered markets development projects were being presented that I learned little about the traditional role of women and men and the implications for the markets driven development on women’s existing role as the care giver.

    [1] BDT Bangladesh Taka (100 BDT = 90 pence)

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