Coordination, communication and compassion – the three basic traits that I, as a humanitarian leader, and, specifically as the Country Director of Oxfam in Bangladesh, tried to place at the center of everything that I have done over the last two months
It has been so many days, weeks, or months, our life has changed, depending on where we live in this world. With Covid-19, we are experiencing something which is so global, and at the same time so personal! This unpresented crisis is changing everything in our lives.
We miss our friends and colleagues, our social and family affairs got dispersed, our meetings and conferences' are cancelled, no jostles and bustles are seen in the multistoried shopping malls or in our cricket stadiums, students are anxious. We are all scared of the uncertainty. The economic crisis caused by this pandemic has left hundreds of thousands of people out of work.
In this ever-changing scenario, a constant trade-off is made by global leaders for all the decisions that they take to save lives and livelihoods. It means, it is often hard to determine what is right or what is wrong, but global leaders are tasked with huge responsibilities to put the current unchartered flight on course and ensure safety and security of the people across the planet.
The unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic has a profound impact on many of our families, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and the people we serve. But one thing hasn't changed, and that is our commitment to the poorest and the most vulnerable including refugees living in the camps of Cox's Bazar in Bangladesh.
We are fighting the virus and giving our best to serve the nation and the refugees. Most importantly, the Covid-19 pandemic has failed to stop our frontline warriors from continuing their life-saving support to the people who need us at this grim hour.
Coordination, communication and compassion – the three basic traits that I, as a humanitarian leader, and, specifically as the Country Director of Oxfam in Bangladesh, tried to place at the center of everything that I have done over the last two months.
It gives me much pride when I introduce myself as a member of a humanitarian organization that has a historic relationship with the people of this country. We were with the people of Bangladesh during those days of the liberation war and we are still with working in this soil for supporting its constant growth towards better future.
Now, the Covid-19 has suddenly pushed all humanitarian leaders in an extremely challenging context. As a Country Director, I have faced exponentially increased challenges because of ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis and financial stress that organizations, including Oxfam, are facing everywhere.
Consequently, I have gone through a steep learning curve; and I thought of sharing some reflections with the readers:
Since the beginning of the crisis one of my key efforts was to ensure coordination within and outside the organization. The sudden lockdown decisions across the globe and subsequent fear among many humanitarian professionals created serious challenges to running humanitarian response programs.
Because of the lockdown, many aid workers were stranded. Many professionals decided to fly out from the response location out of fear. This created vacuum in humanitarian coordination process. Our first effort was to alert humanitarian actors about the disturbed coordination and support them in restarting the coordination process at various levels, particularly with UN actors, government authorities and other aid agencies.
Our approach has helped to strengthen external coordination mechanisms such as the Strategic Executive Group and INGO coordination meeting on bi-weekly basis, the civil-military coordination at Cox's Bazar, etc.
We also played an important role in bringing Health and WASH clusters together to create synergy in our response programs. Partner organizations are our key strength and we established dedicated coordination mechanism with our partners ranging from needs assessment to humanitarian responses across the country.
Active coordination helped us understand the ground realities and provide targeted assistance, not only to refugees and host communities in Cox's Bazar, but also to other vulnerable groups such as self-employed, garments workers, migrant workers, farmers and fisherfolks and so forth.
Many of our staff members could not be available in the response locations because of the number of restrictions; and eventually our capacity to run the humanitarian response dropped significantly. Thus, it was key for us to strengthen internal coordination mechanisms to streamline response through Covid-19 lens, secure humanitarian space issues in coordinated way, and to facilitate a quick decision-making process.
Like for coordination, we followed two-pronged approach– external and internal communications. From the very beginning of the crisis, we reached out to media at home and abroad to highlight our work at local, national and global levels.
We capitalized the media space as a first responder in Covid-19 crisis as well as placing innovation and policy advocacy at the center of our response. Our media activities included, but was not limited to, participation in live television shows, exclusive interviews with nationally and globally reputed media outlets, strategic use of social media with compelling stories, etc.
Our active communication has placed Oxfam as one of the few impactful humanitarian actors in the country. This, in turn, created dedicated space to engage with various actors for policy advocacy purposes. We also reached out to partner organizations and stayed in touch with beneficiaries of our development and humanitarian initiatives.
The direct communication with our beneficiaries was important not only to understand their needs but also to strengthen Complaint Response Mechanism (CRM) and Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA).
Our internal communication was strategized not only to bring our team members on one common platform but also to bring Oxfam affiliates with us so that everybody understands the strengths we offer as a country program; the roles and responsibilities that each of us has in delivering an impactful response.
We produced evidence-based situation reports from the very beginning of the response. As a Country Director, I have been writing special notes to all my team members and important people in the Oxfam world to share our achievements and inform them about the challenges. Our constantly updated Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) along with wellbeing sessions and weekly all staff members' meetings on online platform have also contributed to keeping us together.
The sudden outbreak of Covid-19 placed many humanitarian professionals in an unprepared context. Most importantly, the aid workers are equally affected by Covid-19 crisis. I was planning to go on my annual leave on 12th of March. But I decided to cancel my leave on the same day as I could sense that we were approaching to a deep and complex crisis.
My decision has turned out to be the right one; and I am privileged to stand beside my frontline warriors and the refugees during this crisis. Ensuring well-being and understanding the challenges of our frontline warriors are crucial to ensure essential services in the refugee camps.
I placed special attention on directly communicating with frontline staffs – I call them "the warriors" – who are crossing the red lines to serve the most vulnerable populations, including Rohingya refugees every day.
For example, our response team has set up a water supply facility for more than 900 Rohingya refugees sheltering in a camp in Cox's Bazar. Thanks to our commitment, this massive and urgent task were accomplished by our very competent and dedicated workers within just 24 hours.
Our partner organizations have distributed food aid and hygiene kits to more than 100,000 destitute people across Bangladesh, often through door-to-door visits. Though we ensured supply of PPEs along with training to our frontline warriors of Oxfam and partners, it is important to acknowledge that their engagement comes with high risks.
The regular communication with frontline team has helped me to see the challenges through their eyes; and support them to overcome the challenges in the fastest possible time. Such exchanges have also helped me to understand their vulnerability in case they are infected by Covid-19.
There is no doubt that the health system of the country is facing enormous challenges. Hence, it was important for me to seriously take up these concerns. We initiated and pursued a dialogue at various levels of the UNHCR to set up a Coronavirus detection and treatment facility for the aid workers in Cox's Bazar.
Now the UNHCR, UNICEF, IOM and WFP have committed to set up a 50-bed field hospital for this purpose. I truly believe that if there is compassion, all challenges across the globe can be addressed.
One of the perpetual debates is where the nation state should focus – Life or Livelihood? This debate will surely continue in the coming days, weeks and maybe months.
While we are experiencing the fragility of health system, millions of people across the globe are also suffering from economic stress. Many people are already jobless, and many will lose their jobs soon. Vulnerability will increase for many people, and many will slip below poverty line.
The crisis has challenged our traditional safety nets and coping mechanisms. The social architecture and community bondages are also equally challenged. We know any challenging context creates confusions, and often erodes trust.
Thus, a conscious effort is a must to bring everyone of any organization together to overcome the crisis. To achieve this together, it is important to place the above-mentioned principles at the center of every strategy that we adopt in overcoming a crisis like Covid-19.
Lastly, let me end my note by reiterating that this is the time for all of us to come together to demonstrate our collective leadership and 'build a new normal' for our world. And, I know we will win the fight against Covid-19.
Dr Dipankar Datta is Country Director of Oxfam in Bangladesh