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  • Report
  • 1 April 2021

Supporting longer term development in crises at the nexus: Lessons from Bangladesh: Chapter 3

Policy and strategy

chapter 3

This section identifies existing policy and strategy frameworks in Bangladesh that are relevant to socioeconomic development and crisis responses. It examines to what extent and how these frameworks address and enable integration of international development and humanitarian assistance. The government’s national development plans make little reference to the Rohingya refugee crisis, but they do emphasise the importance of disaster management. This is reinforced in various national strategic guidance documents on disaster management, which are reportedly rarely referenced by international development actors. While the UN has made progress in Bangladesh in formalising 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. The DDGP for Cox’s Bazar has the potential to address this gap, but its formulation has faced delays and expectations are mixed on its ability to provide coherence for the development assistance to the district. 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 ISCG, has supported the government’s Covid-19 prevention and response efforts. Humanitarian agencies 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 programming across the HDP nexus, but it is too early to assess its success.

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National development policy and strategy

The national development plans in Bangladesh emphasise the importance of disaster management and seek to decentralise it, but they make little reference to the Rohingya refugee crisis. The Government of Bangladesh adopted its first five-year development plan in 1973 and is currently implementing its seventh five-year plan (2016−2020).[1] Its overarching goal is to achieve just, equitable and inclusive economic growth while protecting the environment. In section 14 on social protection it also includes directives on disaster management. The plan highlights that disaster management of natural hazards in Bangladesh spans from reducing risks to implementing response and recovery. The corresponding policies are explored in more detail below. It also notices the frequent absence of disaster management in local government planning processes and consequently aspires for the local governments to achieve self-reliance in their disaster preparedness, recovery and response. The seventh five-year plan was formulated before the influx of Rohingya refugees and therefore does not include detail on the government’s refugee response.[2] The eighth five-year plan (2021–2025) was approved with delay due to Covid-19 in late December 2020. It makes little reference to the Rohingya refugee crisis beyond reinforcing the government’s desire to repatriate the Rohingya population.[3] Disaster management continues to be part of the plan; for example, it seeks to integrate DRR and climate change adaptation across ministries, build on lessons from the Covid-19 response to ensure the continued delivery of basic services, and make social safety nets more shock responsive.

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Disaster management policy and strategy

The Government of Bangladesh’s approach to disaster management has progressed significantly in recent decades and emphasises the need for development plans to be risk informed, but this guidance is rarely referenced by international development agencies. Since 2010, the Government of Bangladesh’s strategic approach has been guided by multi-year national plans for disaster management, which are aligned with the national development plan and regional and international frameworks.[4] The current National Plan for Disaster Management for 2016–2020 is aligned with the seventh five-year plan, and many of its core targets will be implemented before 2030. It explicitly recognises linkages between disasters and development, stating that the former are often the outcome of inadequate development choices and can undo years of development gains. It underlines that “development and investment plans should be risk-informed based on disaster risk assessments and avoid generating new risks or exacerbating existing ones” (p. iii).[5] The recently approved National Plan for Disaster Management for 2021–2025 reemphasises the importance of DRR as a shared responsibility across all ministries, and it places additional focus on building disaster resilience.[6] In addition, over the last decade, Bangladesh has developed a strong policy and regulatory framework for disasters, which includes Standing Orders on Disaster (2019), National Disaster Management Policy (2015) and the Disaster Management Act (2012).[7] Due to Covid-19, it has been challenging for the formulation of the most recent National Plan for Disaster Management to widely engage with development partners and civil society. Therefore to enhance the uptake with those stakeholders, it will be required from the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief to invest into socialising the plan's ambitions with those actors for effective implementation. Interviewees also noted that the Standing Orders on Disaster provide a clear reference point on the division of responsibilities in coordination and implementation in the event of natural hazards. Like many other countries, Bangladesh has learnt due to Covid-19 that it is vital to shift policy focus from single hazards to systemic risk. This implies that there is a greater need to align the Standing Orders on Disaster with the Disease Prevention Act 2018.[8] It was also noted that decentralisation of disaster management is challenging with limited planning and technical capacity in some local government offices, given the otherwise centralised nature of government planning.

The UN has made progress in formalising collaboration across the humanitarian−development nexus in disaster preparedness and response, with a focus on anticipatory action, although leadership for this agenda still rests with humanitarians rather than development actors. The recently published handbook Humanitarian Coordination and Collaboration in Bangladesh affirms its commitment on reinforcing national and local systems, working towards collective outcomes and anticipating crises if possible.[9] The Strategic Preparedness for Response and Resilience approach in Bangladesh operationalises a collaborative crisis preparedness and response model through a cycle of impact and risk analysis, prioritisation, assessments of institutional capacity and action plans. Each step is outlined in a way that spans the humanitarian−development nexus, involving a range of actors, needs and activities. While emphasising the need to harness disaster resilience and development gains, the HCTT – co-led by the UNRCO and Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief – remains in charge of the process. The national cluster system is endorsed in the 2019 Standing Orders on Disasters.[10] It thereby provides legitimacy and clear avenues for the international community to strengthen its collaboration with the national authorities on disaster management. The additional focus on anticipatory action in Bangladesh represents another shift towards protecting livelihoods and reducing the need for potentially slow and less cost-efficient humanitarian relief after a disaster (Figure 6). As will be discussed below in the context of coordination, prioritisation and planning, this strategic focus on anticipatory action has already translated in 2020 into concrete contingency plans for climate-related disasters in the context of Covid-19. The ‘programming’ section will contain an example of anticipatory action programmes in response to the 2020 monsoon floods.

Figure 6: Traditional versus anticipatory humanitarian response

Figure 6: Traditional versus anticipatory humanitarian response

A chart showing traditional versus anticipatory humanitarian response

Source: United Nations Resident Coordinator Office, 2020. Handbook: Humanitarian Coordination and Collaboration in Bangladesh.[11]

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Rohingya refugee response policy and strategy

To effectively address the medium and longer term needs of displaced and host communities in Cox's Bazar, a multi-year strategy for the humanitarian and development response is required; however, this is politically sensitive to the government. After a preliminary response plan was developed by the ISCG in coordination with the Government of Bangladesh and the humanitarian community in September 2017, annual JRPs have since March 2018 provided the strategic framework for international support to the crisis response. The JRP priorities in 2020, guided by the Government of Bangladesh, continued to be primarily humanitarian with a focus on protection for Rohingya refugees and the provision of life-saving assistance.[12] However, two of the four strategic objectives are longer term: to foster the wellbeing of host communities in the Ukhiya and Teknaf sub-districts and work towards sustainable solutions in Myanmar. The former includes a range of development activities such as capacity building for the provision of basic services, livelihood generation through skills development and environmental rehabilitation. The ambition is to transition these into the DDGP, once fully formulated and endorsed. This multi-sectoral support to host communities within the JRP has evolved over the years. In 2018 in the context of funding gaps, assistance to host communities was ‘scattered and limited’ (p. 21), with only 20% of the target host population benefiting, and efforts to strengthen social cohesion and resilience were ‘ad hoc’ (p. 31).[13] This improved in 2019, also benefiting from greater engagement from development actors with host communities,[14] although in 2020 the socioeconomic effects of Covid-19 on vulnerable Bangladeshi households exacerbated inter-community tensions.[15] It is, however, challenging to sufficiently address longer term needs of host communities within annual planning cycles. In terms of assistance provided to the Rohingya refugees, single-year plans militate against addressing immediate needs in a way that enables a sustainable transition towards less reliance on emergency relief. However, as noted by the International Crisis Group, the government’s strong stance on repatriation has so far opposed multi-year planning for the crisis response and restricted activities that would work towards self-reliance of the refugees. This is because it believes this would signal willingness to accommodate refugees over the long term. The Government of Bangladesh believes that openly and publicly planning for Rohingya refugees to remain in Bangladesh over the medium to long term would relax international pressure on the Myanmar government to enable conditions for a safe and dignified return. The government is also concerned about encouraging a further wave of migration if the conditions for Rohingya refugees improve and they are allowed to integrate into Bangladeshi society.[16] Finally, the government is concerned that relaxing its stance on repatriation would be politically unpopular domestically.

The visibility and complementarity of development support in Cox’s Bazar is limited due to the lack of a common strategic framework and formal coordination process; the DDGP has the potential to overcome these obstacles but the extent to which it will address the needs of refugees is unclear. The DDGP has the potential to provide the first strategic framework for a coordinated development response in the Cox’s Bazar district, although the planning process has been delayed for a number of reasons (see ‘Coordination, prioritisation and planning’ section). While MDBs and bilateral donors have provided targeted development assistance to host and refugee communities in Cox’s Bazar district since 2018 (see ‘International funding to the Rohingya refugee response’ in the previous section)[17], these efforts lack a shared strategic framework and formal coordination. Interviewees noted that ad hoc dialogue between bilateral donors can fill this coordination gap only to a certain extent. It remains to be seen to what extent the DDGP, once formulated, will also address the longer term needs in the camps, as its project priorities have likely evolved since the first phase of the planning process.[18] However, the longer term way of working for MDBs has shifted the government’s stance to be more accepting of long-term activities in camps (see ‘Partnerships’ section). Even if the DDGP does not include longer term objectives for activities in the camps, it still has the potential to provide a structure for a complementary development response in lieu of a fully joined-up framework in Cox’s Bazar district.

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Covid-19 pandemic response strategy

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare leads on the government’s response strategy to Covid-19, which includes a range of national and international actors. In Cox’s Bazar district, the humanitarian community, coordinated by the ISCG, has supported the government’s Covid-19 prevention and response efforts. The government published the Bangladesh Preparedness and Response Plan for Covid-19 in July 2020.[19] It was prepared by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which also leads on coordination and the response strategy. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief is scarcely mentioned in the plan and therefore does not seem to play a significant role in the strategic formation of the government’s Covid-19 response. The number of partners for the different pillars in the plan is a range of government departments, UN agencies, bilateral donors, MDBs, international NGOs and a number of Bangladesh civil society organisations (CSOs).[20] While the government’s plan states that it covers Rohingya refugees and host communities in Cox’s Bazar, it makes clear that the ISCG has prepared the strategic priorities and coordinates the support of the humanitarian community to the government in the district.

Some interviewees have questioned the burden sharing between humanitarian and development actors in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with humanitarian agencies in Cox’s Bazar district increasing their caseload to fill gaps in the social safety net programmes. In consultation with the Government of Bangladesh and the humanitarian community, the ISCG issued an addendum to the 2020 JRP in July 2020 in reaction to the Covid-19 pandemic.[21] It targeted an additional 509,000 members of the host community (bringing the total number up to 953,000) and the same number of 860,000 Rohingya refugees. Most of the additional financial requirements of US$181 million were in the health sector, followed by food security. Some interviewees observed that the expansion of relief provision to a greater number of host community members, including the distribution of food and cash to almost one million vulnerable Bangladeshi households across Cox’s Bazar district, represented a step back in terms of the transition from internationally led humanitarian relief to a government-led response facilitated through long-term development support. The insufficient coverage of social safety net programmes in the district meant the government could not have responded as quickly with the same reach. Humanitarian actors therefore understandably sought to fulfil their mandate by expanding their emergency assistance in coordination with the District Deputy Commissioner’s Office, given their presence in the district and rising needs due to Covid-19. Still, this shows that long-term strategic guidance on how to successfully transition from externally provided humanitarian relief to government-led, shock-responsive assistance requires renewed attention.

The UN’s Immediate Socioeconomic Response to Covid-19 strategy highlights the need to plan and implement across humanitarian, development and peace objectives simultaneously and not consecutively[22], but it is too early to assess its impact. The strategic framework includes social protection as a pillar for the Covid-19 response alongside other key interventions that focus on health, economic recovery, macroeconomic response, social cohesion and community-led response. All UN agencies involved with the Rohingya response participate across all of these response areas. The plan highlights that the Covid-19 pandemic and compounding challenges in the Cox’s Bazar district reinforce the need to plan and implement across humanitarian, development and peace objectives simultaneously and not consecutively. Unfortunately, this research took place too early to generate meaningful learnings on the extent to which the UN succeeded in this regard, although it will be key for the actors involved to identify gaps and opportunities in preparation for future crisis shocks.


  • 1
    During two periods (1979–1980 and 2003–2010) Bangladesh deviated from the five-year plan and had shorter term plans.
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  • 4
    The international frameworks that are mentioned in the National Plans for Disaster Management for their linkages between disaster management and development are the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the SDGs and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.
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