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Interview with Runa Khan, founder of the NGO Friendship and honorary president of the “One Sustainable Health Forum”

We have to act on the entire ecosystem if we want to stop systemic crises continuing to occur”

Frienship_Paris_2020_10 Runa Khan & William Lebedel

Gathered together in the Strategic Partners Committee of the “One sustainable Health Forum”, the international associations Friendship[1] and IFGR share the same ambition of achieving more harmonious relations between human beings and their environment. This ambition first focuses on rivers, sources of life and development that must be protected for the health of all. We went to meet Runa Khan, founder and Executive Director of Friendship, and a woman committed to social entrepreneurship in Bangladesh.

 

What role do you play in the “One Sustainable Health Forum” and how is this project linked with Friendship Bangladesh?

The Foundation’s General Secretary, Benoît Miribel, is well acquainted with the work we do with Friendship and offered me the post of honorary President of the “One Sustainable Health Forum” approach. He immediately understood the link between our two structures, and that link is the notion of sustainability. We share several convictions, the first of which is that the suffering of the most exposed populations must be relieved before any long-term solution can be implemented. The aim is to reflect on the best way to supply goods and services and provide the right answer at the right time.

We are also in phase regarding our desire to propose global solutions to the population concerned. When I started the Friendship project in 2002, the climate was not a subject at the forefront like it is today. However, we immediately sought to provide solutions that combined the well-being of populations and the preservation of their environment, precisely to ensure that the answers that we proposed were viable in the long-term. It’s also the vision of the “One Sustainable Health Forum”: to allow local communities to free themselves and build a sustainable future, one has to offer them goods and services compatible with their environment and living conditions.

You often speak of “health ecosystem”. Do you think that global responses and multisectoral action are capable of combating today’s crises?

The Covid-19 pandemic reminded the world that we are still vulnerable when faced by global crises that affect every individual in every dimension of their life. Our generation forgot this evidence; epidemics, world wars and major famines seemed to have disappeared in many areas of the world. It is now indisputable that confronted by such crisis situations, the only efficient response is systemic. Everything is linked, and it is necessary to act on the entire ecosystem to prevent these global crises from continuing to occur. We cannot neglect education, health, the economy or the emancipation of the most fragile communities if we want to offer a sustainable future for the world.

 

In Bangladesh, the health and social crisis appears to be closely linked to the environmental crisis. 62% of the land is submerged and the people will certainly be forced into a massive exodus. How can an associative action concretely grasp the intertwining of these different challenges?

High water levels

There can’t be only one answer, rather the aim is to adapt to the needs and environment of each community. Climate crises and migratory waves are nothing new for Bangladesh. Our population is used to adapting to such challenges. It’s the magnitude of the phenomenon that is unprecedented nowadays: these climatic exoduses will involve from 40 to 42 million people. We can’t fight nature, and it will not be possible to respond to these interwoven challenges except by designing sustainable solutions from the environment standpoint. The submersion of land and deforestation are dangers for which it is urgent to find a solution that respects local populations at the same time as our ecosystem. To do that, it is necessary to involve the public authorities, the major industries, and especially the local populations.

 

How can local communities be given the resources to be at the front line of these actions?

Local populations are effectively at the front line of our actions, and they must remain there. Our role is to ensure that goods and services are provided in the best possible conditions, that they answer concrete needs and that they provide sustainable responses. We take care of local communities so that they can take care of themselves. Ensuring this sustainability means not only helping these communities, but also educating them so that they can fulfil these needs themselves.

For example, our mobile health project includes first-aid training actions. We also teach the populations we help to learn technical knowhow that allows them to maintain and improve the facilities we install, such as water treatment plants and drinking water supply systems. It is also important to make these communities aware of the importance of regulatory and administrative knowledge that will free them and make them more conscious of their rights. Every month, we teach 6,500 to 7,000 people who, in time, can create wealth through their own activities and permit these more isolated territories to develop economically.

 

What role do the public authorities play in supporting your initiatives?

The support of political and administrative bodies is essential. First, because they have the power to institute laws that can radically change things and prevent these situations of deep-seated inequalities. Then, they and we have to inform the populations of their rights and ensure that they can benefit from them.

Demography is the great challenge in Bangladesh. We have the densest population in the world, and the rising sea-level points to waves of climate migrations that will be dramatic in a demographic situation such as ours. On a more global scale, governmental bodies therefore also have a duty to limit the effects of climate change, but above all to make the population aware that the future of the planet is in all of our hands together.

 

These systemic solutions not only benefit the populations but also their environment. In Bangladesh, the environment is essentially determined by rivers. The country itself is a gigantic delta where three rivers flow: the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna. Apart from the major environmental challenge that these rivers represent, what is their spiritual and cultural value?

In Bangladesh, water comes foremost like the sand in the Sahara or ice in the Antarctic. The rivers are Bangladesh’s lifeblood; they bring joy and sadness and belong to all our founding myths, our artistic heritage and our beliefs. In Friendship, we felt it obvious to use boats from the outset of this project because they are efficient means of locomotion; it was natural since everything passes by the rivers in Bangladesh. The rivers are at the heart of the societal and economic problems facing the country, and they must play a role in all the sustainable solutions we seek to implement. The utilisation, exploitation and protection of the rivers are not only goals, they are also the conditions of Bangladesh’s survival.

 

Nonetheless, these rivers also represent a danger for the population. Louis Pasteur said that we drink 80% of our diseases. How can this natural heritage be protected while protecting the local communities?

 Most of the health and economic risks generated by the rivers and affecting the populations in fact stem from human action and industrial activities. The Brahmaputra has always been a cause of catastrophic natural disasters, but these events are increasing in frequency and magnitude as climatic phenomena worsen. These dangers are no longer wholly natural; they are determined by human activity and it’s precisely on this point that we have to act to protect both the river ecosystem and the populations. Floods are frequent in the north of the country and cause serious damage, but the water is not dirty and is safe for the populations. On the contrary, in the south, where the cities are larger and more numerous, water quality is tainted by pollution and industrial wastes.

To implement concrete solutions, we have to work with both the populations and the private sector, subject to certain conditions. The support of these companies will only be beneficial if they act ethically and concertedly regarding the resources to be deployed to help the populations.

 

Do you think that the Covid-19 pandemic will act as a trigger for rethinking public health policy?

Yes. Before Covid-19, health was not a priority, but I think that can no longer be the case. The younger generations will remember the fact that no sustainable change can be considered without an efficient health policy implemented worldwide. In Bangladesh, the crisis has led to an economic disaster that further worsens the problem of inequalities. Here, like elsewhere, the crisis appears like a kind of ultimatum. The populations have been able to develop survival strategies and employ several daily actions that have kept the country afloat. It’s thanks to the resilience of the populations that the crisis has not swept everything away in its path. It’s vital that we look at this resilience for inspiration if we wish to build a sustainable future.

 

Interview conducted by Anne-Toscane Viudes

 

[1] Friendship is an international social purpose organisation that was founded in 2002 in Bangladesh, with the launching of the first hospital ship for the world’s most disadvantaged and ignored communities living on the islands in the rivers Brahmaputra and Jamuna. Since then, following a holistic approach, it has developed a large number of evolutive solutions for these populations far from access to healthcare, education and other public services, and especially exposed to the impacts of climate change. Friendship has a network of entities in several European countries to facilitate international cooperation and create a platform for exchanging ideas and competences. It currently has around 2,400 employees, most of whom are from local communities.

 

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