Bangladesh is discharging its duty and reaffirming its commitment to universal human rights, but close to a million Rohingya refugees have imposed a massive burden on its economy. The worst effects are being felt in Cox’s Bazar, where the influx of refugees has overwhelmed the local population of 2.6 million.
The pressure on land and natural resources are severe too. In the recent ‘One Planet’ summit in Paris, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said: “On humanitarian grounds, we have given them shelter on 1,783 hectares of our forest land in Cox’s Bazar. The Rohingya crisis has severely affected forest and environment in that area.” A Parliamentary Standing Committee estimate confirms this statement, as they estimated that the loss to forest resources alone was worth Taka 151 crore (US$ 18 million).
There is no doubt that this is not just a dire humanitarian situation, but also a severe economic crisis. Conditions in the refugee camps are poor, and the bulk of international assistance so far has focused on providing food, shelter and health services to refugees. At the same time, one has to take into account the well-being of the host communities as well. It is evident that repatriation, when it happens, will be a slow process. Bangladesh has talked about housing Rohingyas on a delta island, Bhashan Char, and has sought international assistance to finance this mammoth endeavour. While the future remains uncertain, a fast-deteriorating economic situation is a cause of serious concern. The rising discontent also poses a security risk. However, viewing the Rohingya situation from primarily a security perspective is not only myopic, but also reflects a lack of compassion for the people trapped in these circumstances.
Designing interventions to serve the local economy is not a simple ask. It requires thinking beyond humanitarian responses, to meet the needs of the host communities, as well as the immediate and medium-term needs of the displaced population. Keeping this in mind, the experience from ‘cash for work’ programmes could offer an important starting point.
Cash for work programmes have been successfully implemented in many parts of the world, primarily as a response to acute distress, and a mechanism to promote collective action and develop common productive assets. Displaced refugees and host communities exist in a transitory context, but it is important to aim for sustainability, in the form of livelihoods, skills, savings, etc. A well-designed cash for work programme could go a long way in meeting immediate challenges, but also improving prospects for long-term recovery. In particular, it offers the following advantages:
- Stimulate markets and the local economy: A cash for work programme would provide an injection of cash into the local economy. Displaced families would be able to access local markets, and even a limited degree of purchasing power is a massive step towards a dignified survival. The local economy, struggling from the loss of tourism revenues, needs a boost from public investment.
- Create productive infrastructure: A key objective of a ‘cash for work’ intervention would be creation of relevant municipal infrastructure. Public works funded through ‘cash for work’ could be used to improve roads, housing, public buildings, remove solid waste, rehabilitate water sources – all immediate priorities in the area.
- Avoid antagonism: A cash-for-work intervention will provide avenues for employments for all. It is important to balance the work opportunities for refugees with meeting the needs of the local workforce. The programme can be communicated consistently across all sites of delivery so employment is shared equitably, and host communities can understand the benefits accrued through infrastructure creation.
- Coordinate aid: The allocation and utilisation of aid funds from multiple donors adds to the complexity in the operating environment. Aid coordination will be a challenge for the Government of Bangladesh, but it will be necessary to align programmes on the ground. It is also important to design and operate an intervention that is scalable, and could be managed with the available levels of administrative capacity. Complementary interventions such as skills development or savings schemes could be layered on to one such large-scale programme
- Beyond providing immediate relief and assistance, improve agency: As a community, refugees are likely to be anxious about their future, and insecure regarding their immediate safety. At the same time, host communities worry about being neglected amidst the focus on refugees, and could turn resentful as funds (domestic and international) are pumped in. It is important to be cognisant of these factors, as well as to respond with interventions that treat everyone with dignity.
The viability of the economy of Cox’s Bazar and more broadly, the administrative capability of the Government of Bangladesh are key elements in determining the future of the displaced Rohingya communities. The social fabric in Cox’s Bazar is already under strain, policy responses now need to make sure that the local economy is not irreparably damaged. A cash for work intervention, for the benefits they offer, is worth careful consideration to kickstart the long haul towards reconstruction.
First published on Dhaka Tribune