Bangladesh recently celebrated two significant 40th anniversaries. As a Bangladeshi and a member of Concern Worldwide for the past 20 years, the events have a dual-significance. In addition to marking the independence of my country, it also was the anniversary of Concern’s first mission to support vulnerable and under-served Bangladeshi refugees in Calcutta, India following the liberation war. The response in Calcutta was Concern’s second mission as an organization and led to what is now four decades of high-impact quality programming inside Bangladesh.
This month, Concern is recognizing its 40th year in Bangladesh with events in Dhaka and our headquarters in Dublin. While much work remains to be done in Bangladesh, what we have accomplished since that first mission to support Bangladeshi refugees in 1971 is remarkable. In many ways, our work in Bangladesh has shaped Concern’s programming and how we bridge emergency response and development, and I am honored and very proud to have been a part of it, both on-the-ground in Dhaka and now in Dublin, Ireland.
My first interaction with Concern was in 1989. I was a chartered accountant student in Dhaka and had the opportunity to be a part of consultancy project to review Concern’s financial systems. As part of this assignment, I traveled to Saidpur to review the financial systems of Concern’s programs.
At that time, Concern was implementing projects in education, health and nutrition and income-generation and running a women’s training center for the poorest and most vulnerable in Saidpur. When I reached Bangalipur and Munshipara, where Concern worked, I was immediately struck by how well-known the organization was in these areas. Everyone I asked, regardless of his or her socioeconomic status, could point me in the direction of Concern’s unmarked office and were fully aware of the work that Concern was doing to help the community’s poorest and most underserved people.
It is still my belief that you could travel back to Saidpur today and almost everyone would know and remember Concern for what they did in their communities.
This experience left its mark, and three years later in 1992, I applied for a position with Concern as an internal auditor at our office in Dhaka. It was just one year after a category-five tropical cyclone struck Bangladesh, killing 135,000 people and wiped out numerous villages. Concern responded to this emergency and was working to reconstruct 7,000 homes for families along the coast, while also providing health and sanitation services in camps housing refugees that poured across the border from Myanmar that year.
What struck me the most about joining Concern Bangladesh was how committed the entire team was in reaching those most in-need, wherever they were. We were the only organization providing services in many of the places we worked, international or national. For our program sites in the Haor region, we would have to travel some five hours by road and then another three hours by boat just to get there. No other international or national NGO worked in that area at that time.
Probably our greatest strength in my view was our emergency response capabilities. Bangladesh is a disaster-prone country, constantly threatened by cyclones, flooding and other natural catastrophes. I remember the floods of 1998 like they were yesterday: 75 percent of the country was underwater and Concern worked quickly and effectively to reach as many people as possible in the worst-affected areas with food and other emergency relief items.
However, disaster response is one component of Concern’s work in Bangladesh. Progressively, we moved towards implementing development programs, such as health and education, and began to support local NGOs and government actors in providing these services. We also started to create mechanisms that allowed Bangladesh’s poorest to make lasting improvements in their lives. In the early 2000s, this included Self-Help Groups, through which the extremely poor ran saving-credit schemes under their own leadership, creating a sustainable business model.
Bangladesh has made incredible economic progress over the past 40 years and a recent partnership between Concern and the Government of Bangladesh to develop and implement policy to reduce extreme poverty in the country makes me optimistic that this positive trend will continue. However, population increase (Dhaka is the fastest growing mega-city in the world) and climate change could be significant challenges to Bangladesh, and the country’s poorest in particular. Just as we have in the past 40 years, Concern will continue to be committed to tackling these problems together with the Government of Bangladesh, local organizations, and most importantly, the people we are there to serve.
The changes I have seen in my country are nothing short of remarkable and, looking back, I am profoundly grateful for that very first opportunity to see Concern’s programming in Saidpur. That first visit was the spark that inspired me join Concern and become part of a team of people who are dedicating their lives to making the lives of the world’s poorest better. I feel incredibly proud to have been a part of the Bangladesh’s and Concern’s shared history and the 40 years that helped drive Bangladesh’s progress as a country and Concern’s evolution as an organization.