Providing aid and hope in Bangladesh — ‘In areas where others don’t go!’
Interview with Runa Khan, Founder and Executive Director of Friendship
Whoever you talk to in the humanitarian aid field, they all confirm that Non Governmental Organisations are essential to get disaster aid implemented on the ground. Many of us know of international NGOs such as the Red Cross organisations (see page 48), Médecins sans Frontières or the International Rescue Committee (IRC). But do you know NGOs active in only one country, providing relief and aid in many ways? ‘Friendship’ is one of them, active only in Bangladesh and deeply embedded in the communities where it works. Bangladesh is a country where over the past decade 700 000 people were displaced by natural disasters and where the climate crisis will be the key driver for population migration. When interviewing Runa Khan, Friendship’s founder and Executive Director, she is not only able to explain charismatically what Friendship does, but above all how it does it, getting to the heart of humanitarian aid: the single purpose of people helping people, with respect and dignity.
By Gaston Moonen
Dignity is essential
When you pay a virtual visit to the NGO Friendship, on their website, it becomes clear that this single country NGO wants to address multiple issues in communities in Bangladesh. The NGO describes there how all problems are intertwined and therefore an integrated development model is used in close interaction with the communities served by Friendship. So what is new, since many NGOs will plead they have an integrated development model, from providing emergency aid to reconstruction programmes?
Speaking with Runa Khan quickly reveals some essential differences, not only providing facts on what Friendship does but also the story of the why and the how, with dignity as the key word. ‘When providing relief to people in Bangladesh… what are we actually doing? These people have lost their homes, they have lost families, they sometimes lose the very land they’re standing on. With the conditions in Bangladesh these people are migrating all the time and you need to ensure that when you touch them, be it through your talk, be it through your giving… when you touch their lives you need to be very careful that you do not take away more than what you give them.’ She explains that a person who has lost everything may have been a person of dignity in earlier circumstances. ‘He or she stands in front of you literally in a state of a beggar. We have thousands of volunteers in the country and when they are giving relief, I always tell them: “You are giving them a bag of rice that helps them for seven days. Do not take away their dignity, their self-respect in the way you give.”’
This aspect of dignity, of respecting the qualities, needs and capacities of the people and communities Friendship works for and is actually embedded in, shines throughout the whole interview. The way Runa Khan brings this across makes clear how dignity is the core element of her NGO’s work. ‘Dignity is essential. Otherwise, you take away their ability to restart their life. This goes for everything we do. In our schools, for the Rohingya communities, others. We have 59 schools that are doing the national curriculums — primary, secondary and high schools — and we have 49 adult education centres. We have about 400 single class room schools in the Rohingya communities.’
She specifies that Friendship educates about 35 000 children, with a curriculum built around values, including environmental aspects. ‘Because people learning in our schools are all people who some way or the other have been impacted by climate. And they have to become good human beings, good citizens. Whatever they learn academically, if you do not build your character, there is no way you can get to the top. You need character and you need other abilities.’
Addressing the needs of people out of sight
Education is at the heart of not only Friendship but of Runa Khan herself. Before founding Friendship, she was a social entrepreneur and wrote several books on pedagogy and textbooks for children, aimed at moving away from rote learning. Her family roots have played an important role in her decisions leading to founding Friendship. ‘I come from a very privileged family, one of the oldest in the country, brought up in little glass bubbles. I felt a responsibility towards the country. When I started doing this entrepreneurship it was linked to how either I can provide work for the underprivileged, or I can do something which has mass impact.’ She explains that sailing on the rivers with her husband made her realise how difficult it was to reach people in remote areas, often separated by changing rivers and land.
‘You have to realise that Bangladesh receives billions of funding for relief purposes. And then I saw these thousands, even millions of people totally unaddressed, out of the mainstream. Nobody was even looking at them because they are too far away for the NGOs, even more so for the international ones.’ She then realised that this is where she should start working. ‘I can take care of one person, more perhaps. 600 people was my target the first time, if I can reach them, just take care of them, I am happy.’ Laughing she observes that her work perhaps snowballed. ‘Because I was not from the development sector and I worked in a very atypical way. Aid agencies told me that what I wanted was impossible. But we had their example, which did not work, so I had to do it the other way.’
The other way means for her filling in the gaps of the needs of people. ‘These people need to have the right things, in the right amount, in the right way, at the right time. No point in doing things which are already there. Instead create the synergies.’ She points out that being a needs-based and rights-based NGO should not only be words. ‘You are working with people and you are working within their ecosystem. So it is extremely important to not say something will not work and something will. We realised that these were migrant communities, moving because of the climate, although I did not realise at that time, in 2002, that it was due to the climate impact.’
Having seen the situation on the ground — and on the water — Runa Khan realised these migrant communities needed a service platform. ‘So I started the first mobile ship hospitals, trying to create a healthcare system where I took reality into perspective. Since the land is migrating, people are migrating you cannot really get doctors there to stay. So we made a mobile healthcare system in three tiers: the hospital ships, serving all kind of medical needs, from eye surgeries to cervical cancer interventions, orthopaedic and reconstructive surgeries of cold cases and of course also mother and child deliveries. Second, a network of clinics through paramedics, providing service when the hospital ship moved.’
As a third point, an important element setting Friendship apart from others, she refers to the training of local people to serve in these clinics, including as paramedics. ‘Committing for example women — all below high school level — to get training. And to earn their own income. We have two accreditations of the government, one for the modality of the training, and one for the business model.’ In doing so she covers two sides of the coin: involving the local staff in the care taking. And by doing so providing them an income. Runa Khan: ‘This is one of the fundamental differences between preparing a project and thinking it is the panacea everywhere. It is about how you work.’ She explains that there are certain elements which are replicable. ‘I worked with this three tier model after the earthquake in Kashmir in Pakistan. We did it through a bus. But the need and the reality on the ground needs to be taken into perspective very strongly.’
The latter is not always easy. ‘Because you listen to what they say and you listen to what they don’t say. It is in what they don’t say where the real pain, the suffering and the needs come in.’ She explains that after she started, she soon realised that the people were ultra-poor and needing many things. ‘We created a kind of integrated system for development where we take the community needs and socio economic environmental reality and possibilities, as the base. Working with vulnerable communities where even the area is geographically unpredictable, then, finding workable and sustainable solutions using available elements as tools is most difficult. But if you are successful in the most difficult and inaccessible communities, it becomes easier to replicate this approach elsewhere.’
Imbuing communities with dignity
Nowadays Friendship has grown to one of the largest, service providing NGOs in Bangladesh. ‘We started with health, but now we have four key goals: saving lives, poverty alleviation, climate actions and empowerment. We try to ensure them by working through six sectors: health, education, climate adaptation, sustainable economic development, inclusive citizenship, and cultural preservation.’
Runa Khan becomes more concrete by giving an example in education and again, as she has done before, she refers not to what Friendship wants to bring but to the why and the how. ‘Education is very much needed to bring hope to a community. When people see themselves as totally finished, with a lack of perspective for themselves, at least they need hope for their children. Through their children they have hope and education is extremely important for that.’ Education that should not only bring knowledge but also bring values upfront to be used on a daily basis. ‘Stimulating children to be empathic, with enough courage to take mother, who is sick, across a river, or enough courage not to tolerate violence in the community. Creating the feeling of having an equal opportunity to dignity and hope.’ In her view, such opportunities need to be created. ‘You need to provide the whole cycle to actually say that you create impact to people who have nothing.’
This cycle also includes an inclusive citizenship programme. ‘This I started about ten years later so that all the lives we touch we then try to imbue them with standing on their own feet. We try to ensure that they know where they stand in their ecosystem, politically, socioeconomically.’ She explains that this includes teaching about the constitution, the governmental structures, etc. ‘So that they can go to the government and demand.’ For this includes raising awareness that they can, and with dignity. ‘Because they also pay taxes, they have a citizen identity which is giving them rights. Imbuing them and linking office bearers to the community and making sure that civil servants also feel responsible for such communities.’ She proudly refers to the first paralegal aids Friendship created in the country. ‘In 85 of these islands we have paralegal aids with legal booths where people can come for advice. And it works.’
Imbuing the community with knowledge, providing the confidence that people can achieve things, is key in Runa Khan’s philosophy. ‘How can a woman, who has been socially ostracised, torn away by her husband, demand anything from anyone? We need to cure her, we need to imbue her with self-respect, train her, give her knowledge. If she does not have the knowledge, she cannot take the next step.’ She points out that taking these steps is important in the sequence of relief and assistance. ‘I can give you a whole list of tick boxes that we might be able to fill in but that does not change reality on the ground.’ She points out that in the remote areas where Friendship works, the impact you can have depends on how you involve the community in achieving it.
Funding — inspiring like-minded people
When it comes to the funding of all that Friendship undertakes, Runa Khan explains that from the beginning, in 2001/2002, she decided to work a bit differently from other organisations. ‘Because in 2002 I could not get the funding for what I needed the funding for, I then decided that I would make my own international NGO. To ensure that the donors who are giving us money are linked to what we are wanting to do.’ She emphasises that it is all about proximity. ‘I needed the direct touch of people to believe in the way we were and are working. So I started Friendship International which is based out of Luxembourg.’
She explains that she found several partners, such as Marc Elvinger in Luxembourg, but also others in the UK, in France, in the Netherlands and in Belgium, where she found a partner in HRH Princess Esmeralda. ‘Internationally we, including the partners in Europe, keep very strongly to the vision of Friendship, ensuring that all entities are in the same boats. We also have other partners of course. In the Rohingya camps we are in health the second largest health NGO, after Médecins sans Frontières.’ The funding which is found through Friendship International entities creates great impact and has great efficiency in delivery, as these are funds which are designed to meet the needs and fill in the gaps or create a bridge, synergising other interventions where funding is often done for a particular aspect of the total needs.
Runa Khan indicates that Friendship has worked with the EU on several projects. ‘But not directly, only in consortia. She mentions as an example the ‘Prescriptech’ project, organised from the Netherlands, which relates to cervical cancer, and which works through the health modality set-up by Friendship. ‘Now Friendship Luxembourg is applying for direct EU funding, which includes many processes. Necessary but also creating bureaucratic challenges. But I think we are strong enough now to deal with that.’
Being Friendship’s Executive Director, one might think that Runa Khan has to spend a lot of time on fund raising for her organisation. She makes clear that this was and is not her first occupation because she is lucky to have the network of Friendship International entities to help her. ‘I did it for a number of years at the beginning because we were quite a small organisation, I started up with USD 60 000, not a lot. The first hospital ship was funded by Unilever. But growth was never my intention. The work was! Which is not easy because they are such remote areas. I did not have a head office, I had that project, and everything was from the ship. My first concern was always “what is needed by the community.” Because once it is needed a community will internalise what is given, and without that no sustainability will happen.’
She explains that sustainability needs so much more than finances. ‘If I train somebody how to do agriculture, and this man has no idea — he is a fisherman, it does not automatically work just with training! You have to do your homework on who is capable of actually doing what. So, we have a vulnerable community but if I have not assessed the needs of the individual and the community I will not have the sustainability…for the money I have spent.’ She points out that fundraising is important but is also shared within her organisation, with a relatively small team of about five members in Bangladesh, supported and helped by the Friendship International entities. ‘Of course without funding it’s not possible to run a humanitarian organisation! But to make an organisation effective and efficient — and this is often overlooked — soft skills are essential. In all medium to large organisations you need processes — that’s a given as it cannot function efficiently otherwise. But the actual impact and sustainability is going to be ensured through soft skills — values and how that is implemented, deep justice creates trust, truth and verity in operation and communication must be there from day one. If you work without a leader in an organisation, how can it really grow and be effective?’
She refers to a period during the COVID-19 pandemic when she was not in the country, stuck in Europe. ‘The organisation did more work than when I was there. We have now almost 4 000 staff members in Friendship and 60% of them are people we have trained in the community. My job is to ensure that leaders and followers are created. You need both of them to run an organisation. You need trust. If I did not have trust in the community… I would say in 90 % of the areas…nothing happens. You need to ensure that they can make their own decisions.’
She raises the question of where the fine line is, between procedures, policies, processes and independence of decision. ‘That is where I come in and I am — or the leader of any organisation is — the balancing factor. You see, when there is a storm, the staff on our ships need to take action… I am not going to be there, the captain and the boatmen have to make decisions. They cannot wait for the head office’s processes. Each of our sectors have, at the end of any chain, our services, strengthening and delivering services of a certain capacity by the community itself, who in turn become micro-social entrepreneurs. We have about 700 teachers. We do not really lose our teachers, they continue teaching the community, if they migrate they teach the children around them, or, if they are able to, they become supervisors. This is the first line of strength, to imbue the communities and the field operation works due to this. For example, if I do not have a head of health, or the head of education… I am confident that at least for a year the project can be run by the people themselves in the field.’
Runa Khan makes clear that Friendship’s line of getting funding for the projects they feel engaged with can also have financial consequences. This can also relate to the outlook and ethics to be observed in the projects envisaged. ‘Just recently I stopped a USD3.5 million project. We were about to sign the Memorandum of Understanding but I stopped it. I wrote in the letter that our visions did not match.’
Accountability requires responsible behaviour… from many sides
For Runa Khan another important reason why her organisation works as it does lies in values and their application. ‘We have strong policies of no tolerance. Not one of our staff members can eat or drink a glass of water in the house of a beneficiary. He or she will be sacked, not by me but by his supervisor. I was told this would never work because then we would not have friends in the community.’ She points out that corruption can accelerate easily if not smothered in the beginning, so avoiding her staff being compromised. ‘Today it is a glass of water, tomorrow they will drink tea at the beneficiaries’ home, and when we give relief during floods, our staff will be reminded of the tea and maybe asked that more is given to them because of that! When we give money for income, our staff in turn may ask for the best vegetables from their garden. Thus, there are no such exchanges, full stop. If you are eating and dining with your beneficiaries you are in their hands, they start making unethical demands on you. You need to gain their respect. In a country like Bangladesh we still have a long way to go regarding corruption.’
She labels this as one of the humanitarian organisational dangers and reiterates the importance of a clean relationship between an aid organisation and its recipients. She takes that line further towards donors for such an aid organisation. ‘I was very naive in those days, the early 2000s. I realised that donors were giving me funding and they all wanted reports. So I made a centralised report and sent it. But they wanted a report on their money. I replied: “how do you know that it is your money? Which is your money if you do not have the centralised report.” I insisted on giving the central report and put two donors together to discuss what this can lead to.’ She captures this with ‘Please give me mine, I am only responsible for mine.’
On that, she concludes: ‘You have to be as responsible in giving as you are in receiving. We are still one of those very few organisations also making a central report if two or more donors are supporting projects.’ She observes that things have changed since the early days of Friendship, when people from a donor like Emirates Airlines, which used to fund our second hospital ship, would come in to check on their funding and we only had an accounting system maintaining the accounts. ‘Now Friendship has chartered accountants and we are audited by large audit companies and the French and Luxembourgish Governments. So the reporting is different now of course. But I do think then and now the reality and perspective of a country needs to be taken into account by auditors for ensuring that the best reality system has been maintained.’
Which does not mean she pleads for going easy on wrongdoing, on the contrary. ‘We do not condone! We have an internal audit team of about five people. I sit with them and stress: we need to deal with mistakes and incompetency in one way and corruption and harmful actions in another way. Do not put a red sign against a mistake, but put a red sign, even if it is for 20 cents, if it’s corruption.’ But the responsibility of the management and herself does not stop there. ‘Then I need to see where it went wrong. If he or she has misused money while being in a certain crisis, I should look at the circumstances and the perspectives for the individual. The wellbeing of the staff is also the organisation’s responsibility. And thus once or twice we had to consider putting that person on a job where such risk does not exist. I have done so in the past and I have never been wrong when making human resources decisions.’ She makes clear, however, that sacking people due to misuse has also been part of life but that the fallout for people in Friendship has been very limited, certainly compared with the usual numbers in the humanitarian aid sector.
She emphasises that today things are different from the problems that happened 40 years or more ago in developing countries. Development agencies have to change the modality of the way they work. ‘In Bangladesh you are getting people of strength, in African countries there are people of strength. Perhaps we need to look and re-evaluate the balance of how the giving has to be.’ In her view entrepreneurship and micro-finance is not the solution to most problems where people live below the poverty line. ‘It does not work. Because in Bangladesh now, also due to the pandemic, 42 % of the people have fallen below the poverty line. How do you start an enterprise or microfinance with them, especially those in climate-impacted areas where restarting life is so difficult, without creating the opportunity and rejuvenating their own strength first?’
Emergencies fuelled by climate change
When it comes to the effects of climate change, Bangladesh is often presented as one of the most vulnerable countries. And rightly so, listening to Runa Khan. ‘In 100 % of our core projects we are working with people who are getting impacted by climate change, continuously. We cannot get away from emergencies caused by these changes. So what do we do? The first is preparedness, preparedness and preparedness.’ She explains how Friendship has taught thousands of community groups to identify their own risks, to work with them and find solutions to them before those risks impact them. ‘We call it community initiated disaster risk reduction — CIDRR — and we take it to a high level of organisation.’ Proudly she points out that nowadays Friendship has people, being second generation entrepreneurs, coming in for a week or so to learn about risk management. ‘Because they say such risk scenarios can be used in business.’
Other preparedness projects Runa Khan mentions relate to plinths Friendship builds in riverine areas to prevent the water breaking off land. ‘Egg-shaped plinths, showing a good track record vis-à vis-erosion.’ She refers to cyclone shelters started three years ago. And the mangrove deforestation project. ‘We have the largest private sector mangrove deforestation project in Bangladesh, with the largest nurseries, bigger than the government nurseries!!’ As to climate change prevention measures Runa Khan indicates her country produces only 0,47 % of the CO2 emissions. Nevertheless: ‘We announced during the COP26 in Glasgow our CO2 neutrality plans, including also pioneering the first solar-micro grid network on a remote sandbar island.’
As to the relief provided in actual emergencies, she explains how important it is that all the programmes link up to each other. ‘It is an integrated model so we are linking needs as a whole. During an emergency, there are people from health, education, food, etc. taking the core actions.’ With a laugh, she adds a small but important detail: ‘You will never see a picture of Friendship staff who are on land or on a boat, with the beneficiaries in the water. It is always the Friendship people who are in the water, giving the aid. To ensure there is no indignity in the giving.’ For the same reason, she does not like airdrops, when there is a possibility to land and give.
Part of the relief consists of rehabilitation of housing, water, sanitation, etc. ‘We have innovative things, like floating toilets, so that the water is not polluted. We have five desalination plants in the community, which is free during emergencies.’ After the rehabilitation, one would expect to move to development aid. According to Runa Khan, it often does not work like that. ‘Because when you have lost everything, migrating or not, you have to restart your life, and you need a foothold on which to start. We have developed something we call transitional funding.’
She explains that transitional funding is one of the projects Friendship works on directly with the Luxembourg government and concerns the two years between when you have lost everything and when you are capable of becoming an entrepreneur and access credits. ‘We ensure that people will have money, seed money. They must, in two years, make at least 2.5 times that seed capital. So that they know how to earn money and they have seed capital to start with. And we link them to the government ecosystem when doing business: health, education, the legal system, etc., so that they know where to go to in case of an emergency.’
Stepping up where others decline
Runa Khan is proud that Friendship is filling the gaps where other humanitarian organisations fail or decline. Which is remarkable in view of the many NGOs — thousands — active in Bangladesh. ‘We do the work which others cannot do. Where others don’t go! If others are doing it, I do not want to go into it. Simply because they have the capacity and I think we have the strength of giving something which is needed.’ She refers back to the mangrove example. ‘Others were doing it but they did not have the community development we had established.’
She recalls that the aid community changed when the Rohingya came into Bangladesh. ‘Then you had all the players of the world coming in, all the international NGOs of the world. And they had to conform to the government rules, etc. And I can tell you: poaching is disastrous. We saw a locally registered NGO losing 40 % of their staff.’ With relief and some pride she adds: ‘We were really so lucky that nobody left Friendship.’ With some NGOs Friendship has partnership cooperation. ‘We work very well with Médecins sans Frontières. Because they have rules and principles which are very transparent, and we work side by side: if they do not have a facility and we have that, they recommend us. For example, in the Rohingya camps our laboratory is excellent so even the Red Cross sends people to our laboratory. The same for MSF. And we work with UNICEF, on schooling. But for many UN agencies we need to fill in needed gaps for delivery of certain quality with Friendship-arranged funds.’
However, as Runa Khan has made clear throughout the interview in a rather convincing way, her organisation follows its own path. ‘I can compromise on many things, if I think something is right or something is better. But on the essentials of why we are here, how we are going to work, on the values of Friendship, I cannot compromise. These five values — integrity, dignity, justice, quality and hope — represent for Runa Khan the vision of Friendship. ‘Why? Because these are the core on which we work. They are not our limiting factors, they are the preconditions that we start our work on.’
Friendship’s way of working has touched millions of people in Bangladesh and improved their lives on several accounts. Runa Khan: ‘Allow people to become honest in whatever they do, to be sincere. And approach them with respect and dignity. That is the start of empowering them to do things themselves which they can be proud of. And ensure that you can give to them hope for a better future.’
This article was first published on the 3/2021 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.