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Local aid groups want more of a say in the Rohingya refugee response

In Bangladesh, grassroots groups feel overshadowed despite being the backbone of the massive aid effort

Jason Patinkin/IRIN
The sun rises over Balukhali refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Nearly one million Rohingya refugees live in Bangladesh.

Rohingya children play under a half-mangled roof of twisted tin sheets as the rain beats down on the Bangladeshi refugee camp that has become their home. Their sodden playground was a fully functioning health clinic before a monsoon landslide forced staff and patients to abandon it in June. Its replacement – a simple tent – is a fraction of the size, humid, and has no electricity.

Gonoshasthaya Kendra, the local NGO that runs the clinic, doesn’t have the money to repair it so it is seeking help from a large international aid agency that does. But the two organisations can’t strike a deal on the upgrade. For now, it sits in disrepair, while in the tent nearby frustrated medics listen to Rohingya patients perched on plastic chairs in the 35-degree heat.

"This situation's sad for me. It's sad for all of us,” says Papi, the clinic’s doctor, pointing to the damaged, empty clinic. "We're not getting enough support.”

This feeling of not being supported is representative of a larger friction between the local and international aid groups that work in the packed Rohingya refugee camps of southern Bangladesh.

Local aid groups and volunteers were the first to respond last August as a military crackdown in Myanmar’s Rakhine State drove more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh. Today, however, locals are dwarfed by dozens of international aid agencies – who dominate donor funding and the response itself.

☰ Read more: The Rohingya crisis at a glance
  • In August 2017, a Myanmar military crackdown in Rakhine State pushed more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh
  • Nearly one million Rohingya now live in Bangladesh’s refugee camps, including previous generations of refugees
  • In August 2018, a UN rights probe said top Myanmar military commanders should be investigated and prosecuted for genocide
  • Myanmar has denied almost all allegations of violence against the Rohingya
  • Aid groups say funding shortages are hampering humanitarian efforts in Bangladesh’s crowded refugee camps. As of September 2018, the aid sector’s nearly $1 billion appeal was one-third funded


Prominent Bangladeshi NGOs say they lack the resources that could sustain and grow local aid expertise, their staff are often poached by big international aid groups, and they’ve been excluded from decision-making in an emergency unfolding on their own soil.

However, as the Rohingya refugee crisis moves into its second year, local aid groups believe that international attention – and donor funding – will wane, and that the plethora of international organisations and staff that now dominate the response will inevitably shrink.

“In the course of time, some day, there will be no aid, or reduced aid,” said Rezaul Chowdhury, the head of COAST, an NGO from Cox’s Bazar that has spearheaded efforts to even out a donor system it sees as lopsided in favour of the larger, international players.

“The Rohingya will [still] be there. So why don't we take the responsibility for Rohingya from now on?"

Map of Myanmar and Bangladesh including Rohingya camps, the Rakhine state, as well as satellite damage zone per UNOSAT
A military crackdown in Myanmar’s northern Rakhine State pushed more than 700,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh after 25 August 2017. Satellite imagery shows suspected damage to Rohingya villages in Myanmar, and expanding refugee camps in Bangladesh.

An unequal partnership

Nearly 100 NGOs and UN agencies now operate in the camps – more than two thirds of them are international groups, such as the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, or its migration arm, IOM, the two lead aid agencies for the Rohingya response.

Local aid officials here speak of a power imbalance in relationships with their international counterparts.

☰ Read more: Why the aid sector wants to go local

The global humanitarian system is overstretched. In 2017, the UN asked for a record $22.2 billion to cover emergencies in 33 countries. But the funding gap continues to widen as the price tag soars.

What is local aid?

The global aid sector has broadly committed to an agenda to “localise” aid – putting more power in the hands of locals working on the ground where emergencies hit.

Why local aid?

The aim of of the “localisation” agenda is to improve humanitarian response by making it faster, less costly, and more in tune with the needs of the tens of millions of people who receive humanitarian aid each year. Local aid workers are closer to the ground, they have local knowledge and skills that international staff often lack, and they know the needs of their own communities.

Who are local aid workers?

Local humanitarian aid includes a broad spectrum of potential on-the-ground responders to crises and disasters: local NGOs, civil society groups and community leaders, indigenous peoples, local governments, as well as people who are themselves affected by crises, including refugees, host communities, and everyday volunteers.


Sultan Mahmud, who leads Gonoshasthaya Kendra’s Rohingya programmes, says his group’s destroyed health clinic is a prime example.

UNHCR is happy to help, in principle, but it wants Gonoshasthaya Kendra to also expand the clinic's services. Mahmud says his staff may not have the resources to do this, and the most immediate concern is maintaining the clinic so that it at least stays open.

"They say there is partnership, but it is not equal partnership," Mahmud said.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid funds have been pledged to help the refugees. But local aid organisations like Gonoshasthaya Kendra see only a trickle of this funding, which is largely filtered from international donors down through UN agencies and big international NGOs.

Bangladeshi organisations have valuable local knowledge, but this imbalanced relationship has limited their contributions, says Smruti Patel, co-founder of the Global Mentoring Initiative, an organisation that studies the role local organisations play in humanitarian crises.

She described the partnership between international and local NGOs as a “subcontracting” relationship – a characterisation commonly voiced by both Bangladeshi and foreign aid workers here.

“[Local NGOs’] value is that they have access to communities, they are really connected, they know what the issues are,” she said. “But we don't value that.”

“Everything is being decided for them, but nothing with them.”

And just as Bangladeshi organisations are demanding a greater say over a crisis in their own country, the Rohingya refugees themselves are largely unable to participate in decisions that affect them – whether that’s humanitarian aid in the camps or the controversial prospect of eventual returns to Myanmar.

Patel says Rohingya perspectives are sorely missing from the discussions.

“There are so many issues where they should have a voice but they don’t and the Rohingya are not even present,” said Patel. “Everything is being decided for them, but nothing with them.”

☰ Read more: Who do Rohingya refugees prefer?

August surveys with refugees by Ground Truth Solutions, a Vienna-based organisation that conducts research on people affected by crises, asked Rohingya refugees who they preferred to receive aid from. Few chose local aid groups; about 32 percent of respondents preferred international organisations, while 38 percent chose the Bangladeshi army – a ubiquitous presence throughout the camps. Roughly 12 percent said they preferred to receive aid from a combination of local and international groups.

The question was part of broader research looking at how well humanitarian programmes are responding to refugee needs. The survey did not explore the reasons behind aid delivery preferences; researchers told IRIN the results suggest further study is needed.


Making aid local

Criticism of international dominance in the aid sector is not new. But last year’s Rohingya refugee crisis erupted a little over a year after dozens of the world’s largest donors and aid groups pledged to reform the aid sector, in part by putting more power in the hands of local aid workers, organisations, and governments to play a leading role in crises around the world.

In Bangladesh, local aid leaders believed the Rohingya emergency would be an opportunity to implement these changes. A year later, they’re still waiting.

Kaamil Ahmed/IRIN
Rohingya women wait to be seen by a doctor at a clinic for pregnant women run by COAST, a local NGO.

"We're still hoping for the best, but, truly speaking, it is not happening," said COAST’s Chowdhury, one of the most outspoken proponents of aid reform in Cox’s Bazar.

A December 2017 briefing by the Humanitarian Advisory Group estimated that local NGOs had seen only four percent of total aid funds directed toward the crisis – far short of the aid sector’s global commitments to boost local funding to 25 percent.

At the same time, only one local group has a leadership role in coordinating the various humanitarian sectors in the camps; out of 21 coordination positions, just one is held by a local NGO – Mukti, a Cox’s Bazar-based group that co-leads the food security sector.

Luc Soenen, who coordinates water, sanitation, and shelter efforts in Asia for ECHO, the European Commission’s aid arm, says the humanitarian response during the Rohingya crisis has been “Western-led and oriented”.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “All or most of the management of the response is by us. Local implementers… aren’t involved enough.”

Major international donors direct the bulk of aid funds through UN agencies or big international groups – and ECHO is no exception. EU rules mean that ECHO is only allowed to directly contract organisations based in Europe, which rules out most local aid groups from the start.

"It seems like when the money comes from abroad, we give ourselves the right to manage it, to decide about it," he said.

☰ Read more: Building local skills

Building up local skills and expertise is a key part of the humanitarian sector’s broad push for reforms, but both foreign and local aid workers told IRIN the government has put up bureaucratic roadblocks.

Aid groups say the government has unofficially advised NGOs to remove anything not directly related to the direct distribution of aid from their permit applications – including capacity building. This could have long-term impacts, the groups warned.

“Without capacity-building investments through partnerships with local civil society, the quality of care provided and local leadership for a sustainable response is jeopardised,” the aid groups said in an advocacy paper last year.

A July report by Refugees International said government restrictions on the work of NGOs – including onerous permit requirements – were endangering lives. The group said donors need to help build critical local skills as the crisis moves forward.

Neither Bangladesh’s Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner, which is in charge of the government’s Rohingya response, nor the foreign ministry responded to interview requests.

At the same time, Bangladeshi NGOs have lost some of their best personnel, trained over years, because international agencies can pay high salaries that local groups can’t afford, according to Rezaul Chowdhury, director of the Cox’s Bazar-based NGO, COAST.

"We recruit staff; this is a cost. We train staff; this is a cost. At the end, when the staff have been trained, the result is they are going to the INGOs or a UN organisation," said Chowdhury. "It is hampering the sustainable capacity of local organisations."


Some in the aid community say progress has been made in redressing the imbalance, but argue that the intense pressure created by the scale of last year’s Rohingya influx means that helping local groups build up skills and take on more responsibilities has taken a back seat.

Manuel Marques Pereira, the IOM’s emergency coordinator in Cox’s Bazar, said the organisation has helped train local groups on reducing disaster risks and upgrading shelters.

“IOM believes that this empowerment process is vital, but it is a slow process,” Pereira said, adding that the IOM had directed more than $4.5 million towards other aid groups, mostly Bangladeshi NGOs, over the past year.

A decades-long crisis

Today, Bangladesh’s sprawling refugee camps are covered with the logos of donors and humanitarian groups: plastered onto the sides of clinics, makeshift schools, stockpiles of aid items, and boldly coloured signposts announcing donor-funded projects often miles away.

But in the early days of last year’s Rohingya exodus, only a handful of international agencies were working in the camps. As thousands, then tens of thousands of refugees surged into Bangladesh, it was local responders – volunteers from nearby communities, local NGOs and civil society groups, and Bangladeshi authorities – who first rushed to help in large numbers.

Kaamil Ahmed/IRIN
Rohingya children wait out the monsoon rain in an abandoned medical clinic run by Bangladeshi health NGO Gonoshasthaya Kendra. The clinic was destroyed by a landslide in June.

And for Bangladeshis here, the refugee inflow is not viewed as a temporary crisis, but as a long-term emergency that has played out over decades.

"We're not only helping this time; we've helped since 1978," said Syed Saliheen, a local interpreter at a clinic for pregnant Rohingya women run by COAST, referring to a previous military crackdown in Myanmar that sent an estimated 200,000 Rohingya into Bangladesh.

"If we have only a little land and some tarpaulin, we give it to them for shelter,” he said. “Whatever we have, we give them. If we don't have it, we try to raise money. Whenever something happens to them, it’s us who have to help.”

Locals like Saliheen still form the backbone of the response today. They are doctors, healthcare workers, teachers, social workers, interpreters – the local Chittagonian dialect spoken here is similar to the language spoken by the Rohingya.

They view themselves as the common thread throughout multiple refugee influxes, and expect to remain linked to the Rohingya long after staff at international aid agencies have moved on.

With the monsoon rain beating down on the roof, a Bangladeshi doctor in the clinic tries to communicate with a Rohingya patient. Unable to explain the medical terms, she turns to Saliheen.

When he first started interpreting, Saliheen says he struggled with some of the terminology used in the clinic. The Rohingya word for pregnancy, hamil, came from Arabic rather than the Bengali dialect used in Cox's Bazar.

"So I write the words down and talk to old Rohingya who know a bit of Bengali,” he says.

The clinic had earlier been staffed by foreign doctors, but COAST soon hired its own staff – a situation made possible because of its local field workers and their language skills.

"At the beginning, it was difficult for us, but now it's OK,” Saliheen says. “We've learned.”


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