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Supporting longer term development in crises at the nexus: Lessons from Bangladesh: Executive summary

Executive summary

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This country report on Bangladesh contributes to a multi-country study focusing on the role of development actors[1] in addressing people’s long-term needs in crisis contexts and supporting operationalisation of the humanitarian−development−peace (HDP) nexus. This is also pertinent to the Covid-19 response, involving both immediate lifesaving assistance and longer term support for health systems.[2]

This study is part of Development Initiatives’ programme of work on the nexus and aligns with objectives of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Results Group 5 on Humanitarian Financing. It builds on 2019 research on donor approaches to the nexus[3] and the IASC’s research on financing the nexus,[4] which identified a gap in understanding how development actors address longer term development needs of vulnerable people and structural causes of crises. Other focus countries are Cameroon[5] and Somalia,[6] and the study will conclude with a synthesis report with key findings and lessons across countries and recommendations for development actors engaging in crisis contexts. This research will build the evidence base for how development actors work in crisis contexts, informing national and global development policy and decision-making. Development Initiatives, with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Norwegian Refugee Council under the umbrella of IASC Results Group 5, will engage with development actors on its findings.

Using the example of Bangladesh, this report aims to improve understanding of how development assistance currently targets crisis-affected people and addresses the structural causes of crisis. It explores how development actors support the delivery of joined-up responses in Bangladesh by working alongside and in collaboration with humanitarian actors at the strategic, practical and institutional levels. It identifies examples of good practice, learnings and recommendations for how development assistance can better prevent and respond to crisis situations and support the delivery of the HDP nexus agenda, both within Bangladesh and potentially elsewhere. One of the limitations of this research in covering a range of issues and actors is the trade-off with the degree of depth we were able to look into specific areas. It is therefore not intended to be a comprehensive or exhaustive review, and various observations that would benefit from further research are highlighted in the report.

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Crisis context

Bangladesh has experienced sustained and strong economic growth in recent decades, which translated into the final recommendation by the UN Committee for Development Policy to graduate the country from least developed country status. In 2020, the country faced three types of crises: recurrent natural hazards, the protracted Rohingya refugee crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic. Cyclones, floods and landslides have repeatedly threatened development progress for decades. Government-led efforts on disaster management and response, with support from international development and humanitarian actors, have increased the countries’ resilience to climate-related shocks. The large influx of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in 2017 triggered a localised crisis in Cox’s Bazar district. As the crisis grows more protracted, refugees continue to rely on significant volumes of humanitarian assistance with longer term needs unmet. The government maintains a strong stance on the repatriation of the refugees, which impedes long-term planning of the refugee response. The possibility of repatriation remains uncertain following the military coup in Myanmar in early 2021. Development actors have scaled up their activities in the district from 2018 onwards. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh reduced economic growth and increased poverty, despite large-scale mitigation measures from the government and multilateral development banks (MDBs). It also added another dimension of need to existing humanitarian crises from natural hazards and forced displacement, while hindering the provision of assistance.

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Strategy and partnerships

The government’s national development plans make little reference to the Rohingya refugee crisis, but they do emphasise the importance of disaster management. The majority of official development assistance (ODA) received in recent years was in the form of concessional loans. The leadership of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief on disaster preparedness, response and recovery is supported by development donors, NGOs and UN agencies alike. Local and national NGOs have longstanding experience in building community resilience and reducing disaster risk in Bangladesh. For them, accessing international development funding remains challenging with little transparency on funding received indirectly, though efforts are ongoing to shed more light on this. While the UN has made progress in Bangladesh in formalising international collaboration across the nexus on disaster management, this process is mostly led by humanitarian actors. In the context of the Rohingya refugee crisis, it is challenging for humanitarian and development actors to comprehensively address long-term needs for refugee and host communities in the absence of a multi-year strategy, which is politically not viable with the government. MDBs have broadened the response to address some development needs, even though the government still broadly opposes longer term policy changes that are perceived to disincentivise repatriation. The UN in Bangladesh, with technical leadership by UNDP, and the World Bank are supporting the Government of Bangladesh to formulate the District Development and Growth Plan (DDGP) for Cox’s Bazar, which has the potential to fill the strategic gap for development assistance in the district. Bilateral development donors have also deepened their partnerships with the local government in the district following the influx of Rohingya refugees. The engagement of international actors with local and national NGOs in the district is mostly framed in humanitarian terms, with little funding available for development needs. The private sector in the district also requires greater support from both development donors and implementers. The response strategy for Covid-19 is nationally led by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. In Cox’s Bazar district, the humanitarian community, coordinated by the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), has supported the Government’s Covid-19 prevention and response efforts. Humanitarian agencies in the district have consequently expanded their relief to host communities in the district. The UN’s national socioeconomic response strategy to Covid-19 emphasises the need to simultaneously plan and implement across the HDP nexus, but it is too early to assess its success in that regard.

Recommendations

Bilateral donors, MDBs and UN agencies should use their diplomatic representations with the Government of Bangladesh in a concerted effort to overcome political obstacles to achieving sustainable solutions to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Especially now, as safe and dignified repatriation has become more uncertain in light of the military coup in Myanmar in early 2021, there is an increasing need to implement a coordinated medium-term approach to the crisis response. It will be critical to build the evidence base on the potential socioeconomic benefits to the district that a longer term approach would bring to allow for an informed discussion with the government. The same set of international actors should also continue to deepen their engagement with the local government in Cox’s Bazar district for it to better cope with the localised refugee crisis. Part of this is wider buy-in for the DDGP (once fully formulated) so it can provide a coherent framework that guides local, national and international development efforts in the district. Development actors further need to increase their engagement with local civil society in crisis-affected regions. This could be through targeted support measures for the private sector in Cox’s Bazar district or disaster-affected parts of the country and through pooled funds for longer term assistance that target local and national NGOs.

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Coordination, prioritisation and planning

There is a number of coordination bodies in Bangladesh; for humanitarian assistance they vary by type of crisis and for development assistance by sector. There is not yet a designated forum to bring together development and humanitarian actors at the national level. At the district level in Cox’s Bazar, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), under the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief, is responsible for management and oversight of the Rohingya refugee response. The Senior Coordinator of the ISCG Secretariat in Cox’s Bazar district ensures the overall coordination of the Rohingya refugee response, including liaison with the RRRC, District Deputy Commissioner and government authorities. The Rohingya refugee response can only include a limited range of development activities in a primarily humanitarian plan. The hope is that the DDGP will eventually be able to fill this coordination gap for wider development assistance in Cox’s Bazar district, however the ongoing planning process has been delayed, faces varying expectations and the final scope of the plan is not yet decided. The government has a strong role in coordinating disaster management at the national and local level. For international actors, separate coordination mechanisms exist for development and humanitarian activities related to natural hazards. Their distinct functions are perceived to be justified, even though there is greater scope to transfer humanitarian expertise on risk assessments into development planning.

Recommendations

International actors in Bangladesh should increase the coherence of existing coordination structures for humanitarian and development assistance by incorporating disaster risk monitoring into broader development planning. This would involve an exchange of information that goes beyond the existing interaction between the Humanitarian Coordination Task Team (HCTT) and the Local Consultative Group (LCG) on Disaster and Emergency Response, reaching a wide range of LCGs on, for example, agriculture and rural development or climate change and environment. This would however first require a reinvigoration of the LCG structure. In terms of the crisis response in Cox’s Bazar district, there needs to be a close exchange of information between the DDGP – once fully formulated and operational – and the ISCG. This will ensure development activities complement the crisis response by meeting the longer term needs of host communities and refugees that cannot be addressed through the Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis (JRP).

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Programming approaches

In Cox’s Bazar district, joint programming across development and humanitarian objectives emerged to harmonise donors’ and implementers’ efforts in the absence of an integrated framework. It enables complementary assistance to host and refugee communities and thereby seeks to enhance social cohesion, although there is no shared understanding in the district on how to assess success for this common objective. It is also challenging for development donors and implementers to facilitate durable solutions for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh due to political resistance. In terms of natural hazards, Bangladesh has several well-developed disaster management and risk reduction programmes under the government’s leadership. Disaster risk is, however, yet to be incorporated into other forms of development programming. Successful anticipatory action pilots as part of the humanitarian response might also provide an entry point for development donors to support more efficient and effective disaster management. Finally, Covid-19 led to the scale up of various social protection programmes, although gaps in coverage and targeting continue to be a concern. The pandemic, however, interrupted the implementation of other longer term programmes, revealing the links between development assistance today and future crisis risk.

Recommendations

International actors in Cox’s Bazar district should replicate joint programming for stronger coordination between donors and greater coherence between implementers. This would allow for effective coordination and planning across development and humanitarian objectives in the absence of shared planning frameworks and can include a wider range of national and international implementers. Potential areas of synergy include: shock-responsive social protection; livelihoods, agriculture and food security; and disaster management and climate resilience.

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Financing tools

The World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) IDA18 Regional Sub-Window for Refugees and Host Communities (RSW) has been an important pillar to the longer term response in Cox’s Bazar district, but it has faced challenges in driving policy reform. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) for the first time provided grant support to a displacement crisis, which has been an opportunity for institutional learning. Bilateral donors have made available development financing in response to unforeseen needs, for instance caused by Covid-19. This was partly made possible by reallocating funding between sectors, although flexibility to scale up or shift funds from development to humanitarian purposes has been limited. Some donors were able to secure additional funding from the capital in the absence of contingency funds. Such contingency funds are more common among national NGOs. Some humanitarian pooled funds provide surge funding for local and national NGOs in response to disasters, although few equivalent funding opportunities are available for recovery or long-term needs.

Recommendations

Bilateral development donors and MDBs should ensure that a sufficient amount of targeted and tailored development funding reaches crisis-affected regions in Bangladesh, such as Cox’s Bazar district. They should also ensure that their assistance to those regions is transparent through subnational reporting by, for example publishing geographic information of funded activities to the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). This increased transparency is required to facilitate better targeting of development funds, enable mutual accountability processes with the government, and improve coordination and complementarity with humanitarian funding.

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Organisational issues

There continues to be an institutional separation for several bilateral donors in Bangladesh between humanitarian and development assistance. Although the importance of an integrated response between humanitarian and development departments for individual donors is widely recognised and political will exists to facilitate it, operational guidance on how to achieve it is often lacking. Some bilateral donors therefore continue to support humanitarian and development assistance in parallel through different line ministries in the same location. The centralised development planning in Bangladesh also means that several development actors don’t have a subnational presence. It is more challenging for them to coordinate and complement the localised refugee response in Cox’s Bazar district. The government faces similar challenges for subnational development planning, although development actors provide support through the capacity building of local governments.

Recommendations

Donors in Bangladesh with separate agencies for humanitarian and development assistance should consider organising management structures, strategic planning and high-level budget allocation decisions around collective national priorities to strengthen the overall coherence of their support. Within this, they could ringfence a humanitarian budget where necessary and relative to emergency needs for disaster and refugee response to safeguard humanitarian principles. If this is not possible for overall country operations, these efforts could initially focus on certain geographic regions, such as Cox’s Bazar district, or response areas, such as disaster management and response. As a minimum there should be sufficient information sharing between the humanitarian and development donor departments to ensure both types of assistance complement each other where appropriate and don’t undermine one another. Development donors and implementing agencies should also ensure that their organisational processes are tailored to subnational crisis contexts. If possible, these actors should have a local presence and support decentralised decision-making processes to enable agile and context-specific assistance. Where flexible and decentralised decision-making is not possible, existing systems should be streamlined to ensure timely and efficient decision-making and communication between the field, country and global levels.

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Notes

  • 1

    Here, we understand ‘development’ as long-term support to developing countries to deliver sustainable solutions for addressing poverty, supporting livelihoods and providing basic services, with a particular focus on those in greatest need and at risk of being left furthest behind. The development actors that are the main focus of this study are MDBs, OECD DAC member government entities responsible for development cooperation, and UN entities with a development (or dual humanitarian−development) mandate.

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