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Interview Runa Khan, Founder of Friendship NGO

Friendship is a not-for-profit and non-governmental organization founded by Runa Khan in Bangladesh in 2002. It works in the Char islands and riverbanks of northern Bangladesh, the coastal belt in the south, and the Rohingya refugee camps in Ukhia. It aims at empowering people through a sustainable, integrated development approach.

It started out with a floating hospital project and currently runs many more projects regarding health, education, good governance, and sustainable economic development thanks to its 5 000 employees, including field workers.

It is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city, with a network of supporting organisations in several European countries called Friendship International.

Runa Khan, CEO and Founder of Friendship, welcomed IFGR’s team during its October trip to Bangladesh. It was a chance for Erik Orsenna, our chairman, to reflect on the state of deltas around the world and for the team of IFGR’s experts to learn about Friendship’s field actions and consider potential partnerships. Ms. Khan granted us an interview to tell us about the current situation of her country, ongoing projects and plans for the future.

How would you describe the current situation in Bangladesh from a social and environmental point of view?

Let me give you a bit of background before answering your question: we have some of the biggest rivers in the world here in Bangladesh. The Brahmaputra River can flow at 12 to 14 knots in some areas and is 30 km wide in some parts: it can hold the city of Paris within its banks. We are one of the most exposed countries in the world to natural disaster such as floodstropical storms or cyclones. The communities that live on the river banks and on the char islands face a lot of challenges: that’s 40 to 60 % of the population.

Friendship has been working with those communities for 22 years and we can definitely see the impact of climate change. Things have altered tremendously in our country in the last 20 years. For example, we have mobile schools that we can dismantle in flood-prone areas: between 2006 and 2012, we moved one school every two or three years. Between 2012 and 2018, we moved one school every year. And in 2021, we moved more than eight schools.

On a social point of view, Bangladesh is a small country: it is the size of half a state of India. It used to be Bengal and then became East Pakistan. In spite of all the political turbulences and corruption we have done well and are hoping to becoming a middle-income country. The people here are incredibly courageous and resilient. Whatever we have, we start doing with it. The inputs coming to Bangladesh have been numerous and what goes to the people has been used wisely. Even in the most-impacted areas of the world, in the char islands and the coastal belt, the people have absorbed that they need to study and empower themselves.

The rivers are as important to the people in Bangladesh

as the veins are to the human body. – Runa Khan

Can you tell about the current programs Friendship is running in Bangladesh?

The people that live along the river are the poorest and are the most impacted by climate change. The ultra-poor need everything. We had to be agile and innovative in our work in the last 22 years. We have several commitments to the communities we serve. We needed to provide health services at their doorstep, for example. We started out with floating hospitals on the Brahmaputra, where we offer surgery. We also build satellite clinics to provide healthcare to isolated communities.

We now manage to phase out of our satellite clinics once people have learned to deal with their lives. The villagers have a mobile app to reach us: they know where to go to seek health services. It is all part of our integrated approach. We also keep a community worker in the village. These women are trained to give primary healthcare. Our training manual is accredited by the government and we also have business modalities: the community health workers can get a diploma or an accreditation and go and make money on another island once their job is done.

The situation has become so much better regarding education, too. We now have 48 schools, from primary to high schools. The children are going to university. When you get a group of people up to high school, they become trend setters and people start to demand those services from the government. We have worked with the government schools within the communities: we help them find the children and have the parents agree that their children should not be working, but should be going to school instead. It’s rejuvenated everything, it works synergetically.

Friendship serves 7,5 million people in Bangladesh

every year with its holistic model.

One of Friendship’s commitment is empowerment. How do you manage to empower the communities you serve?

I don’t believe in project to project work. People need time to change. You need to be with the people, to live with them. When you work with communities who don’t have anything, you need to understand the right type of help to give them, in the right way, and in the right time. It is the only way for them to internalize that help and make it sustainable.

Once they have good health, once their children can go to school, once they have work from agriculture or fishing thanks to the microloans we offer, then they have a platform to stand on. Their suffering needs to be eased first and then only a drop of awareness is needed for empowerment to come alive. We started doing empowerment 12 years ago. We have a program called “Inclusive Citizenship” to help communities know about their rights. We have paralegal aids all over the country: community members can address them their questions.

Empowerment is a very important aspect of any development: people do not get left behind, even when you’re not there. But it needs to come at a time when people are not suffering, when they have food in their stomach, when they have hope. We have made great progress. However, with 117 million people in this country and 40 % living in poverty, there is more to do every day to give them a sustainable future.

Development is not rocket science: it is a very human, empathetical, compassionate science. – Runa Khan

What did you think of IFGR’s visit to Bangladesh?

What will come out of it in terms of common projects or partnerships?

Bangladesh has a lot of strong institutions regarding river management and control, but they work in silos. It results in suffering at the ground level. When a flood warning is given on a national scale, for example, the information does not reach isolated islands. People do not know how bad the flood is going to be and whether they need to move to the mainland or wait to be swept away. It is not easy for them to move: there are no boats on those islands. With IFGR, we have thought of many projects to tackle. We would like to find a way for the warning messages to be synced.

We are also considering moving forward on hydrodiplomacy. The French government is interested in seeing what type of transboundary work can be done in south-east Asia. Our rivers come from India, China or Nepal. We have had a lot of agreements with India, but they do not work. IFGR and Friendship could form a team to move that subject forward. When we are called to the table to discuss those problems, we come from a place of knowledge and reality: we know what is going on within those communities day after day. We have been living with them for 22 years. We can be their voices.

Do you ever despair about the situation in Bangladesh?

I’m very happy there is something I can do something within my scope. There is no way I’m going to get tired of that. I take action to the best of my abilities. I try my best! I get desperate if I see something that is not right and I cannot do anything about it, like all the pain and suffering that is going in Gaza. You have to start with that one life you can change.

I would like to finish up by talking about values. Whatever work we do, we always have to keep in mind the organization’s values: respect, dignity, compassion.



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