Bangladesh is exposed to significant flood, cyclone and earthquake hazards. Vulnerability to these and other hazards is exacerbated by socio-economic factors, including one of the highest population densities in the world, rapid and often unplanned urban expansion, poor infrastructure, weak institutions and a lack of diversity in livelihoods, with a high degree of dependence on agriculture. Widespread poverty, with 60% of the population living below the poverty line, further limits the ability of people and communities to protect themselves and their assets against disaster.
In such a context, effective disaster preparedness is especially important. To achieve this, capacity-building at all levels is needed: from communities, where simple steps can be taken to build awareness and help vulnerable people protect themselves, their families, their homes and their assets; through the tiers of local and regional government, all of which have important roles in preparing for disasters; to the national level, where robust legal, policy and disaster management frameworks must be established and implemented. This article examines attempts to support capacity-building for preparedness, with a particular focus on collaboration between government actors and civil society.
Roles of government and civil society
The government of Bangladesh has a constitutional responsibility to protect the population from disasters and help those affected. As such it must lead and coordinate both disaster preparedness and response. Civil society including the media, the academic community and national and international NGOs has an important role in advocating for improvements, encouraging and supporting positive initiatives and holding the government to account. International agencies including NGOs, UN agencies and the Red Cross/Red Crescent can provide resources and expertise, both to improve disaster preparedness and management and through long-term development programmes to address underlying vulnerability. All of these actors share the same goal: reducing vulnerability and protecting and supporting affected people. This does not, however, guarantee that they will work in a coordinated and collaborative way. Lack of effective collaboration can lead to a failure to deliver the protection and support vulnerable people have a right to expect.
Significant progress has been made in disaster management in recent years. Bangladesh has a good operational framework the Standing Orders on Disasters (SOD) which defines roles and responsibilities in the event of disaster, as well as a draft Disaster Management Act (DMA). But there is still no framework codified in law, and there are no legal safeguards for affected people.
Codifying government responsibilities in law will be part of the solution, but not the only part. Legal obligations are one thing; the capacity to meet them is quite another. There is currently a significant gap in capacity, particularly at the local government level. Under the new legal framework, local Disaster Management Committees (DMCs) will be key institutions with important responsibilities. However, in many of the most vulnerable areas DMC members still lack the basic skills and knowledge to fulfil their anticipated role.
With support from international donors the government launched the Comprehensive Disaster Management Programme (CDMP) in 2004. The first phase of the project was implemented between 2004 and 2009, and the current CDMP II is an expansion and scaling up of this first phase. CDMP II aims to institutionalise the adoption of risk reduction approaches, not just in its host Ministry of Food and Disaster Management, but more broadly across 13 ministries and agencies. CDMP II channels support through government and development partners, civil society and NGOs, promoting cooperation, providing coordination, ranking priority programmes and projects and allocating resources to disaster management, risk reduction and climate change adaptation.
How ECB consortia work together to build capacity
In Bangladesh, as in the other consortia, a start-up workshop brought together experienced national humanitarian practitioners to analyse their national context, examine existing strengths and weaknesses and develop shared, long-term capacity development plans to address gaps. Participants also reached agreement on ways of working for what was a new and untested collaborative structure.
Subsequent meetings have focused on reviewing and revising these plans, along with capturing and documenting learning on the process of collaboration itself. Structured self-assessments completed by each member of the consortium provided baselines of existing capacity in key areas; the process will be repeated annually over the course of the project to track progress and inform revisions. The data is triangulated with complementary self-assessments by the global humanitarian management teams at each of the participating agencies, as well as evaluations, after-action reviews and other evaluative processes within the target countries. Regular simulation exercises are held, which provide staff with opportunities to test new skills and knowledge in a controlled environment.
In developing joint capacity-building plans, the Bangladesh consortium prioritised activities that exploited the additional leverage and impact possible when a group of agencies act together. For example, one of the first consortium activities was the development of a joint advocacy strategy following the response to Cyclone Aila in 2009.
Collaboration between the ECB Project and the government
Practical, constructive engagement with the government is a key component of the strategy of all the ECB consortia. In Bangladesh, it was clear from the outset that a close collaborative relationship with the CDMP would be critical, and senior CDMP staff participated in the start-up workshop at which the consortiums priorities were defined. The relationship deepened through participation in joint activities. For example, one of the first of the ECB consortiums initiatives was a programme designed to improve awareness and understanding amongst emergency staff of the importance of accountability to affected communities, based around a translation into Bangla of the popular ECB Project product The Good Enough Guide to Accountability and Impact Measurement in Emergencies. CDMP staff joined the editorial panel for the translation and had input into the design of the training and roll-out activities that accompanied it. Plans are now being developed for the ECB Project and CDMP to pilot this training with Disaster Management Committees. This comprehensive accountability programme will complement a training programme conducted by the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (on the CBHA see the article by Sean Lowrie and Marieke Hounjet on pp. 26 – 28). Together these programmes will continue to enhance the ability of NGOs, partners and the government to serve communities and develop effective two-way communication with disaster-affected communities.
Another priority established by the ECB consortium was to strengthen the capacity of local DMCs, in close partnership with the CDMP. As a starting point, the consortium conducted a study on capacity-building work to date with the DMCs. This report will be incorporated into the CDMPs developing knowledge base and uploaded to its disaster management information centre and website. A mapping study identified different agency approaches to capacity-building and significant duplication of training effort in some districts and sub-districts, whilst other vulnerable areas remain unsupported. The report identified different agency approaches to capacity-building and significant duplication of effort in some areas, whilst other vulnerable areas remain unsupported. It also pointed to failures in the national coordination of capacity-building efforts, and recommended that the ECB consortium advocate with the government to improve the situation.
Experience highlighted in the report suggests that, in addition to training and regular mentoring, engagement with DMCs during project implementation and the promotion of an active role for the committees in vulnerability analysis and community-based disaster risk management projects were key to the sustainable development of capacity. With a few exceptions, existing efforts to build capacity in the DMCs do not include humanitarian standards and principles. Through a series of regular meetings, the ECB consortium and the CDMP will develop a joint action plan to reduce duplication, ensure a focus on standards and accountability in capacity-building and share data.
Benefits and costs
The ECB/CDMP partnership has evolved over time. During its first phase, the CDMP emphasised partnerships with individual humanitarian organisations. In the second phase the emphasis has shifted in recognition of the importance of working with consortia and multi-agency platforms. The partnership began informally but has become increasingly structured over time, with designated communication channels and focal points and regular scheduled meetings. Both parties recognise the benefits of the partnership. The ECB consortium is clear that it cannot work independently of the government and sees the CDMP partnership as a critical way to influence and support government policy and practice. Equally, the CDMP recognises the importance of the energy, expertise and resources the ECB consortium and its members can bring to bear, and sees the advantage in a single dialogue with a group of agencies working together, rather than a series of disconnected, bilateral conversations.
The partnership is not without costs. Maintaining the relationship has taken time and energy. NGO staff and government officials often come from different backgrounds and have different working styles and cultures. In particular, there is often an assumption that the government is a single homogenous entity, when in fact there is often a great diversity of agendas, approaches and alliances even within a single department or bureau. Identifying entry points and champions is critical. Personalities and personal chemistry, particularly between the leaders of the various partners, is very important in overcoming these tensions. Tensions can also arise when NGOs simultaneously engage in public advocacy which criticises the government. Again, the diversity and complexity of government institutions makes matters more complex than they might at first appear: whilst some government actors may resent open criticism from partners, others acknowledge shortcomings and recognise the usefulness of public pressure in overcoming inertia and opposition.
These challenges notwithstanding, the key lesson is that collaboration between governments and NGOs can increase the impact of the work of both partners. The ECB consortium in Bangladesh is already seeing evidence of this through avoiding duplication, better targeting of scarce resources and improved sharing of information. The partnership has opened up the critical tier of local government, where capacity-building has great potential to enhance the quality and effectiveness of humanitarian preparedness and response. Working together has greatly increased the acceptance and promotion of humanitarian standards and principles.
The lessons from this still-evolving partnership have implications beyond Bangladesh, as governments across the world become more active and assertive in taking control of their emergencies and in managing the risks that their populations face. At the recent ALNAP conference on this theme, held in Malaysia in November 2010, delegates from national government disaster management agencies made several very clear requests to this end. First, the international humanitarian system should refocus on national capacities, including those of national and local governments. Second, there is a need, not new but still urgent, for better coordination of capacity-building and institutional strengthening between emergencies, rather than just during the disaster phase itself. Third, the flow of both financial and technical resources needs to be smoother to avoid overwhelming influxes during the relief phase of high-profile disasters, and to increase longer-term, planned and coordinated risk reduction, capacity-building and preparedness. Long-term partnerships such as that being built by the ECB consortium and the CDMP in Bangladesh, based on relationships of trust between governments and humanitarian organisations, are perhaps the only way that this can be achieved.
Matt Bannerman is the ECB Project Director. Md. Harun Or Rashid is the Manager of the ECB Consortium in Bangladesh. Kaiser Rejve is the Humanitarian Programme Coordinator for Oxfam Bangladesh. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisations referenced. For more information, please visit www.ecbproject.org or write to firstname.lastname@example.org“>email@example.com.
 See www.ecbproject.org/goodenoughguide.