Monday, 20 September, 2021


Let’s stand by distressed people

Let’s stand by distressed people

Disasters are great educators. However, people often forget the lessons of disaster management as soon as the disaster is overcome. Bangladesh is well-known for its inclusive disaster management. The country was born fighting a man-made disaster of unimaginable proportion in 1971. This disaster displaced more than ten million people who were forced to migrate to the neighbouring states of India. A few millions more were internally displaced.

The post-liberation Bangladesh also had to face persistent natural calamities like unprecedented floods and a hostile diplomatic onslaught curtailing smooth flow of food aid. The extreme poverty, hunger, malnutrition and joblessness kept on traumatising the people and the government of the new nation.

Fortunately, we had a compassionate leader like Bangabandhu who could instill hope in despair. Thanks to his farsighted pro-people leadership the challenges began to be transformed into opportunities. Indeed, the human response to the disasters in the 1970s led by him showed the world how a nation could lay the strong foundation for inclusive development, overcoming all adversaries. All sections of society including politicians, bureaucrats, NGOs, academia and youths came forward to generate huge quantum of social capital to fight the disasters.

Unfortunately, this upbeat development journey of Bangladesh was cut short by the killing of our Father of the Nation in August 1975 by a group of heinous traitors who wanted to undo the spirit of liberation of Bangladesh. This too was a human disaster of Himalayan proportions. However, the fighting spirit of the Bengalis could not be cowed down by these adversaries, and they continued fighting the evils as earnestly as possible.

Then came several natural disasters including the floods of 1988 and 1998 in addition to many massive cyclones. The people of Bangladesh joined forces and fought these disasters with courage. In the process they demonstrated to the world that they could generate enough social capital to fight such disasters.

The experience of the 1998 flood is still vivid in the memory of many of us. That year ‘the whole of society’ approach led by the then Premier (also current Prime Minister) salvaged the whole nation from a prolonged natural disaster without much harm. Subsequently, she pulled up the nation from the morasses of several disasters, natural and man-made.

Given this brief perspective, let me now focus on the quality of human response to the unprecedented pandemic which has been ravaging the world, including Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh is currently facing the dire consequences of Covid-19, which has been damaging the lives and livelihood of the vulnerable people.

Until recently, this was thought to be an urban crisis. But the advent of the delta variant of the coronavirus has also been spreading into rural areas and causing havoc there as well. The health system is simply gasping while responding to such an unprecedented rush of infected patients.

The government had to implement a strict lockdown, which again has a lot of unwanted consequences. In particular, the jobs in the informal sector have been seriously affected. I saw several press reports, including some printed in this daily over the last few days, about how the vulnerable labourers have been struggling to find casual work just for survival. Many were sitting for days with their tools on the roadside to get a day’s work. However, only one or two of them got hired. The rest were desperate for employment. Note, they were not asking for alms. They were looking for jobs. Both national and local governments can start more Keynesian modeled public works including cleanliness, waste management and maintenance of drains, lakes and roads etc. through expansionary fiscal policy to give employment to these unemployed labourers.

One of the news reports said that one of the workers showed up for the last seven days and was hired only for two days. He asked the reporter how he could survive with his family members with such a meager income. He also asked the reporter how he could access the food support given by the government. Apparently, he does not have a ghost of an idea about the hunger hotline 333 established by the government. Couldn’t someone from the local ward of the city corporation or any of the volunteer groups just help him in getting this digital access to the food support? I am not sure how user-friendly this hotline is. Has this been customized and linked to the local administration so that people in deep hunger could get food easily? I am sure, the government may have started many more such social protection initiatives to help the temporary poor. But how many of them really know about these initiatives? There is a pressing need for a massive communication campaign for such support initiatives. The government can easily ask for a half an hour or an hour’s slot from all the Television channels to tell people how they can access such supports. Also, they can broadcast other messages related to the corona response including universal mask wearing, social distancing and registering for vaccinations. Here the young volunteers mobilised by the local governments, NGOs, social groups, academic institutions, and political parties can be of great help in making the corona response more inclusive. There is no alternative to a mass response to this disaster, engineered by societal activism. The society at large has much more to do during such a challenging moment. We have seen such an explosion of social response during many earlier disasters. Why so timid now?

I am a little disappointed with the muted response of the larger businesses and corporate groups, excepting a few, in standing by the hungry people in these difficult days. It is certainly heartening to see groups like Bashundhara, A.K. Khan, Abul Khair and a few others coming forward with food and health support including oxygen supplies. It was also good to hear from the newly elected President of the FBCCI that he would spearhead a social campaign for free distribution of the masks and help raise the social consciousness to abide by the health rules.

These are certainly very encouraging moves. However, many others who were very prompt in cashing the low-cost stimulus packages given by the government and the central bank are not at all visible in the social landscape with their CSR supports for the jobless and the vulnerable. It is high time for them to disprove the growing perception of the masses that most of the corporate groups are not interested in giving to society and would rather lobby for more stimulus. This is not a prudent business strategy either. We have seen how Japanese business enterprises, including medium-sized ones, came forward with free food and consumer goods for their employees and customers following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami (see Dina Gerdeman, ‘Working Knowledge’, Harvard Business School, June 26, 2020). No doubt the societal trust on these enterprises has been deep and many have sustained their businesses for hundreds of years by ‘investing in community over profits during turbulent times.’ They would never attempt retrenchment of their workers during or following any disaster. I am pained to hear many of the corporates here in Bangladesh, including some multinationals, started cutting jobs during this difficult time. This is not at all a reflection of their corporate social responsibilities.

Surely, this is also a difficult time for the businesses. Yet, they ought to think that this is only a temporary phase of their businesses, and they can come back with a V-shaped recovery once the global pandemic is at bay. Already, our export earning enterprises including RMGs have made a quick comeback and are poised to do far better in the coming days. Hence, the entrepreneurs must come forward with greater CSR supports for the ‘have nots’ to prove that they too care for the society from where they make most of their money. So, they cannot leave it to the government alone to respond to this crisis. The government, the private sector, local governments, NGOs and social activists must join hands to ensure the survival of those who are in deep hunger due to joblessness and income loss. I am happy to learn that the government has asked for the formation Corona Response Committee at the Union and Ward levels. I am sure this will also be done at the urban ward level as well. The ward commissioners should also be given some funds to respond to emergency food and health needs.

In addition to the timely support to the businesses through various stimulus packages, the government has made a good move in this year’s budget by expanding the social protection program by including a million more beneficiaries. These new recipients must be promptly identified by the relevant government officials in collaboration with the local government representatives, NGOs, local teachers and other social activists. The database should be updated faster as most of the would-be recipients must have been in deep hunger. If done digitally, the local UNO can put the list on the website or social media to get quickly double-checked for greater transparency. I understand they will be under tremendous local political pressure to deviate from the set criteria. The transparency could be their best safeguard against such undue pressures. The Ministry of Finance should be well advised to fast-track the release of this money for additional protection. The Ministry of Social Welfare must be equally prompt in disbursing this money digitally through mobile financial services to live up to the expectations of the most vulnerable. I am happy to know that the central bank has issued a regulation that the banks and financial institutions could give one per cent more of their gross profit this year as CSR support to strengthen the pandemic response through the NGOs and the local administration. Already some banks have made a positive move under the leadership of Association of Banks, Bangladesh (ABB) to help a coalition of NGOs and academia to provide food and other supports. However, they need to hurry up as the situation is getting worse every day. I have great confidence in the ability of the banks in rolling out their CSR supports if adequately motivated. If I remember correctly, these banks and financial institutions went out of the box in providing scholarships to the children of the disadvantaged, money and health support to the Rana Plaza tragedy victims, and the hapless living in the newly annexed enclaves, even going as far as to Kathmandu to provide blankets, food, clothes and medicines to the victims of Nepal’s earthquakes. They also used to distribute blankets to the extreme poor to provide some relief from the bitter could. I can safely say that they can do the same even today. Best of luck to the chief executives of the banks and financial institutions in rising to the occasion created by the ongoing pandemic. The NBR can also extend its helping hand by easing the import of masks and other health equipment received by the local NGOs from foreign philanthropic organizations or the NRB groups. This ought to be done very fast, as time is money in such a case. Easing of rules for doing businesses or transfer is also a kind of stimulus.

As individuals, we also have our social responsibility to demonstrate at this critical hour. Are we providing cash support to our contractual maids who may not come to our flats due to lockdowns? Are we taking care of the chauffeurs who may not be driving our cars but should have been in jobs during the pandemic? Are we responding positively to the calls of our former house help who are now living in their villages for some financial support? Are we compassionate enough to our support staffs in our office who may be facing financial or health crises? Are we keeping in touch with the less fortunate members of our wider family who may have lost jobs or income due to the pandemic?

This is the best time to stand by those who are in trouble. This is the time which calls for coming together at the family, community and national level to fight this disaster. Our track record of human response to disaster has been exceptionally good. Let us all join hands to expand our social capital in this critical hour. According to Tagore, if you eat alone, you only fill your stomach, but if five of you sit together and eat you explore the relationship. Let us keep an eye on those who need our compassion the most at this hour and stand by the distressed.

The author is Bangabandhu Chair Professor, Dhaka University; Chair, Unnayan Shamannay and former Governor, Bangladesh Bank.

He can be reached at [email protected]