Government urges stronger aid coordination

The international community should strengthen its local coordination in times of disaster, says the Bangladesh government.

“This needs to be improved to be more effective,” Mohammad Abdul Wazed, additional secretary of the Bangladesh Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, told IRIN in Dhaka. “We’re always talking about who is doing what and where from the international community. Sometimes we simply don’t know.”

But coordinating Bangladesh’s humanitarian aid community, described by many as the world’s largest, is no easy task.

“It’s a huge number of people and coordination is key,” said Gerson Brandao, humanitarian affairs adviser to the office of the UN resident coordinator.

On top of 12 UN agencies in the country, five of which are directly involved in humanitarian assistance and have an emergency response capacity, there are 77 international NGOs, 30 of which respond to natural disasters as needed.

There are also more than 2,000 officially registered local NGOs, and over 60,000 community-based organizations (CBOs).

“A major part of the problem is that the aid community is largely Dhaka-based and we fall into the trap of being far away from the disaster,” Brandao said. “If we are to effectively complement the government’s efforts on the ground, it’s essential we decentralize.”

Part of the problem is that international NGOs and agencies work through national NGOs, many of whom subsequently subcontract the work out to CBOs at the field level, aid workers say.

This can mean that the people with the strongest response capacity are not always on the front line, and may not know what others are doing in their immediate area, Brandao said, adding that this often led to duplication of effort.

Only a handful of international NGOs operate directly. They include Solidarity, Médecins Sans Frontières, and Action Against Hunger.

Role of district committees

To ensure strong coordination in each of the country’s 64 districts, there is a district disaster management committee (DMC), comprised of the government, NGOs, civil society and local administration officials.

Under current guidelines, the committees should meet every two months and/or when a disaster occurs. A similar structure also exists at the sub-district level.

“Our international partners should be part of this committee, but sometimes they are not,” said Wazed, adding that the result was that the best field information was not being sent to centralized coordination bodies in Dhaka.

However, some see hopeful signs.

“Coordination capacity, and commitment, has increased enormously over the past two years, said Gareth Jones, country director for Oxfam, noting that they are now seeing complementary approaches, a widely shared analysis of needs, and more agreement on appropriate responses.

He called for “stronger shared expectations, so that different actors - NGOs, INGOs, government, civil defence - know what they can expect and how they can work together…

“Of course, there is still work to do, but the direction of travel is clear and things have been improving for a long time,” he said.

According to the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world today, with cyclones striking coastal regions almost every year. More than two-thirds of districts are prone to natural disasters, including cyclones, floods, landslides, tornadoes and drought.