Issue 73 - Article 6

Dignity and ‘localisation’: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh

October 24, 2018
Kerrie Holloway
Research partners for the ‘Dignity in displacement’ project walk through the camp of Gundum in May 2018.

One of the hypotheses we tested during recent fieldwork with the Rohingya in Bangladesh for a project looking at ‘Dignity in displacement’ was that a more locally led response would be more dignified because local actors would have a better understanding of people’s real needs. See, for example, A More Dignified and Equitable Humanitarian System: How to Truly Localize Aid (Nairobi: Adeso Africa, 2016). This hypothesis proved to be problematic, for three main reasons. First, when Rohingya beneficiaries were asked which humanitarian organisations prioritised dignity in the way they handled distributions, most could not distinguish one organisation from another. On reflection, this is not surprising: many Rohingya are illiterate and most international organisations employ Bangladeshi staff and Rohingya ‘volunteers’ to carry out their distributions. Second, the distinction between ‘local’ and ‘international’ is unimportant and irrelevant: people are grateful for any aid they receive and are more concerned about their needs being met than who is meeting them. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, local Bangladeshi organisations are not ‘local’ to the Rohingya, and tensions with the host community need to be considered carefully when shifting power to locally led organisations. Thus, while building the capacity of local actors is an important aim of localisation, this should not overshadow what is most important: the needs of affected people.

The fieldwork

The Rohingya case study centred on the following research questions: This case study is part of wider research by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) looking at dignity in displacement contexts. Companion studies are under way in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Colombia and South Sudan.

  • How do Rohingya perceive dignity?
  • How do humanitarian actors perceive dignity?
  • In what ways do Rohingya see the humanitarian response as upholding or undermining their dignity?

Fieldwork took place between 18 April and 10 May 2018. It involved 75 semi-structured individual interviews and eight focus group discussions, run by our research partners, in six camps – Kutupalong, Balukhali, Gundum, Jamtoli, Moynarghona and Nayapara. Almost all of the interviewees expressed gratitude for the welcome they had received from local Bangladeshi people when they crossed the border. As one 55-year-old woman who arrived in Balukhali last October remarked: ‘On the day that my family and I first came to Bangladesh, we were homeless and barely human … but the sincerity and warmth of the people in Bangladesh was overwhelming and felt good … this is when I felt most dignified’. As in most crises, local people were the first responders.

Perceptions of ‘international’ and ‘local’

Beyond this, the large majority of Rohingya interviewed were unable to distinguish between the various aid organisations working to assist them. Partly this is down to illiteracy (Rohingya is a language without a written script, and many had not had the opportunity in Myanmar to learn another language such as English and are currently being denied the chance to learn Bangla). As a 28-year-old woman living in Kutupalong for five years stated: ‘I have received rations, food, cooking utensils, a tube well, latrine, water. I can’t read the name of the organisations, so I do not know what they are’. Even those who could read often did not remember the names of the organisations that had helped them. Since fieldworkers for both international and local NGOs are often local Bangladeshis, there was considerable confusion over which organisations are considered international.

Even if the Rohingya could have distinguished between local and international organisations, this would have been largely irrelevant, as what was most important in their view was that they were receiving aid in the first place. Common statements such as ‘They all treat us well and treat us the same. I do not see any differences’ and ‘All the NGOs are the same. Different NGOs do different jobs. They are all the same’ highlight interviewees’ lack of interest in distinguishing between organisations. This did not, however, mean that aid organisations did not loom large in displaced Rohingyas’ everyday lives. Many explained their dependence on aid, with humanitarian agencies deciding what they could eat, where they could sleep and what they could wear. In these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that the background of the person giving the aid matters much.

This echoes the findings of a study comparing Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s relationship with the Rohingya people it assisted in the camps to Islamic Relief’s relationship with the same people when it took over after MSF left. Palmer, V. (2011) ‘Analysing cultural proximity: Islamic Relief Worldwide and Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh’, Development in Practice 21(1): 96–108. Although neither of these organisations is local, the study’s hypothesis was that Islamic Relief, being a Muslim organisation, would have a better understanding of the Rohingyas’ needs, and that this would be reflected in more appropriate and better-quality aid. What the study actually found was that Islamic Relief’s limited resources led to reduced aid, and that ‘the quality of the service provided outweighs religious orientation’. ibid.  Rohingya interviewed for our project similarly prioritised the adequacy of aid over its giver, providing support to the argument that cultural proximity – cultural, linguistic and religious – ‘does not automatically guarantee positive relationships between aid workers and refugees’. ibid.

 The relevance of dignity in the Rohingya response

Assumptions about the impact of localisation in the Rohingya response are also problematic because of the nature of displacement. Local Bangladeshi organisations are still international to Rohingya from Myanmar. While there are similarities in terms of religion and language, with the Chittagonian dialect being approximately 70% similar to Rohingya, there are many other differences. For the dignity project, local Bangladeshi, Chittagonian-speaking research partners were often surprised by how the Rohingya conceptualised dignity and decided to put the findings into effect in their own distributions. Having heard many times during interviews the importance that Rohingya place on purdah (gender segregation and the covering of women’s bodies) and how undignified Rohingya women found aid distributions, partners separated their queues into one for men and one for women; the women’s queue received aid first, allowing the women to return quickly to their homes. This distribution, they told us, was the easiest they had facilitated in the camps, and they undertook to continue the practice in all of their distributions. If the Bangladeshi host community were truly ‘local’ to the Rohingya, then presumably their understandings of dignity and what they prioritise in an aid response would be more alike, and our research partners would have been separating distribution queues from the beginning of the response.

This distinction between the Rohingya and Bangladeshi populations is exacerbated by tensions within the host community. Following the most recent influx, there are now twice as many refugees as local Bangladeshis in the sub-districts of Ukhia and Teknaf – an increase that, when accompanied by the large humanitarian response, has led to higher prices, lower wages, lost farmland, longer commutes and large-scale deforestation and environmental degradation, as well as fears for health and security. Although some in the host community have seen their situation improve through more jobs and contracts for local businesses, Bangladeshis who have received employment in the aid response, either with local or international organisations, often give vent to these tensions through poor treatment, including verbal or physical abuse, asking for bribes for aid or taking aid for themselves. As one 24-year-old Rohingya man born in Nayapara explained: ‘They always treat us badly and look down on us, especially the Bangladeshi staff … They talk to us the way the Burmese soldiers talk to us … The NGOs, especially the Bangladeshi staff, discriminate a lot and talk to us in a very mean way’. Conversely, the Bangladeshi army and foreign workers were often, though not always, seen as more respectful of the dignity of the Rohingya.

‘Localisation’ and grassroots agency

Local Bangladeshi organisations are not the only option in this response, and if supporting the Rohingyas’ dignity is one of the goals of the localisation agenda, then grassroots organisations run by Rohingya should be supported rather than restricted. One such organisation, a registered NGO in Myanmar that worked with Rohingya there and followed them to Bangladesh, struggled to register as an NGO in Bangladesh because it did not have a local Bangladeshi partner. Unable to open a bank account in Bangladesh, the organisation resorted to buying a safe to store donations. For the localisation agenda to work, host countries must reduce the restrictions on organisations that emerge within affected communities themselves.

This research suggests that it makes little difference to the Rohingya in the camps in Bangladesh which type of organisation delivers aid to them. Trying and failing to answer the question of whether a locally led humanitarian response is more dignified gives rise to another question: why are we localising aid? If the goal is to expand the capacity of organisations in the global South and dismantle the asymmetrical power hierarchies that characterise the aid system, then perhaps we should say so explicitly. If ‘local’ is taken to mean ‘regional’, or if the local community is not the same as the affected population, as is the case in displacement, then local tensions may undermine the dignity of affected populations.

For the localisation agenda to uphold dignity, it must be about participation and ownership of the programmes being implemented, regardless of who is implementing them, with humanitarian organisations (both local and international) providing the necessary resources. For example, a truly devolved and local response for the Rohingya, although not without its own challenges and limitations, might see a shipment of food arriving and being handed over to Rohingya community leaders, who decide based on their own criteria who should receive the aid and how much. Or, for education, books and other school supplies could be given to teachers who fled alongside their students, to support educational initiatives already under way in the camps. Suggestions such as these will involve transferring power currently held by international and local humanitarian organisations to affected communities themselves.

There are some examples of good practice. In Jamtholi, an international organisation set up a community kitchen and supplied several gas cookers and a stock of spices. Rather than managing the kitchen itself, the organisation gave a nearby family control of the rota and the key. The organisation now only steps in when a gas cooker needs repairing or the spices need to be replenished. In another example, a WASH team from an international NGO is consulting Rohingya women on where and how latrines should be built in areas designated for resettlement. While these are two good examples of involving Rohingya in their own response, much more could be done.

Concluding thoughts

Our research suggests that the way in which the localisation agenda is being implemented in the Rohingya response in Bangladesh is problematic, for several reasons. The Rohingya do not distinguish between international and local Bangladeshi organisations, as in both cases the staff they interact with are Bangladeshi, and as such are not ‘local’ to them. They also do not care who gives the aid as long as their needs are met. The localisation agenda is also problematic more generally because its aim is often ill-defined. Instead of asking how to localise aid, perhaps we should be asking, first, who really is local (and does it matter?), and second, why are we localising aid? Localisation has been held up as a panacea that will not only lower the costs of humanitarian response and make it more effective, but also lead to a more dignified response for the affected population. Yet, with respect to the Rohingya in Bangladesh, these two aims do not co-exist comfortably. Localisation may increase capacity in Bangladesh, but may not uphold the dignity of the Rohingya. Both of these aims, and their pros and cons, must be considered within the response in order to achieve a balance that continues to put the affected population’s needs first.

Kerrie Holloway is a Research Officer with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI.


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