Leading by example: Bangladesh’s approach to regional humanitarian crisis
By: Parvej Siddique Bhuiyan
In recent times, Bangladesh most often gets significant global attention for her geopolitical quandary, US- backed targeted sanctions on security apparatus and climate disasters, while ignoring its significant and proven contribution to humanitarian activities. Though Bangladesh’s realization of humanitarian diplomacy has not been developed for many years, an impressive record of development and growth since the last decade owing to the demographic dividend, robust ready-made garment exports, remittances, and comparatively stable macroeconomic circumstances motivates the country to use its soft power through humanitarian assistance.
Natural calamities including cyclones, floods, droughts, earthquakes, heatwaves, forest fires, severe food and energy scarcity caused by the Ukraine-Russia conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sri-Lanka crisis, and the Afghan humanitarian catastrophe remind South Asian countries to revitalize the SAARC food bank and the SAARC disaster management framework to navigate economic and humanitarian turmoil in member nations. Unfortunately, no major breakthrough in regional cooperation and coordination has happened till now due to the respective countries’ narrowly defined geopolitical calculation.
It is evident that Afghanistan, under the new Taliban regime, is confronting a wide range of challenges from severe economic and humanitarian crises to a lack of inclusive governance, international recognition, Human rights, and terrorism concerns. But among them, humanitarian challenges have intensified in parts of Afghanistan recently when a powerful earthquake on June 22 killed some 1,150 people, including at least 155 children, and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in the hardest-hit southeastern Paktika and Khost provinces.
While the Taliban are hoping for support from the international community, many Asian as well as western countries hesitate to extend assistance as no country has yet recognized the Taliban government, not even the nations seen as closest to the regime, such as Pakistan or China. Moreover, after the Taliban’s rise to power on August 15, Western countries froze billions of dollars in Afghan central bank assets, including $10 billion held by the US Federal Reserve. Additionally, Western countries also suspended financial assistance to Afghanistan, a nation that is heavily dependent on aid and accounts for 43% of the country’s GDP.
However, while many Western developed nations bypassed their responsibilities towards the Afghan people, it is really praiseworthy that Bangladesh has delivered a sizable amount of emergency relief in the form of dried food, blankets, tents, and medicine to earthquake-hit Afghanistan as part of its ongoing efforts to broaden its network of humanitarian aid. Needless to say, Bangladesh earlier sent Tk. 10 million to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) to assist Afghan people when the country plunged into deep social and political turmoil after the Taliban took over following the withdrawal of the US military from the country.
Afghanistan expressed their gratitude to Bangladesh for the assistance, which is a manifestation of the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s commitment to the collective prosperity of South Asia and its people. The move, without a doubt, is a realistic evidence of the PM’s policy of regional brotherhood, the integrated development of South Asia and policy of cooperation towards everyone, regardless of their geopolitical alignment.
Thus, Bangladesh’s humanitarian approach effectively contributed to alleviating the acute shortage of food, shelter, and social services, ensuring the inclusive socio-economic development of Afghanistan and rebuilding their country. Bangladesh is also keen to be a partner in Afghanistan’s developmental process as Bangladesh seeks to enhance regional cooperation for the attainment of a vision of shared prosperity for the region.
Bangladesh only gained independence 50 years ago, and thus it wasn’t that long ago that the country itself needed the humanitarian assistance of other countries to survive. Now, it has gone a long way on the road toward nationhood. It sets the greatest humanitarian example by expressing solidarity with the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Despite the huge burden on the economy, food management, and limited resources, the country has been generously hosting more than a million Rohingya refugees for over a half-decade purely on humanitarian grounds.
Despite the fact that Bangladesh is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, its economy is burdened with an estimated $1.21 billion in annual support for the Rohingyas, and the cost may rise as their population grows, inflation rises, and foreign funding declines. Even Bangladesh, with its own financing at a cost of over Tk. 23 billion, has set up a modern-township at Bhasan Char to relocate more than 1 lakh Rohingyas with better living standards for them.
The history of the so-called “basket case” has changed. Bangladesh, as a friend and neighbor, recently provided a humanitarian potato aid package to Sri Lanka in a bid to resolve the ongoing food crisis in the country. Earlier, Bangladesh provided $2.3 million in emergency medical supplies and $250 million in the form of a currency swap to Sri Lanka, an island nation experiencing its worst economic and humanitarian food crisis since 1948, to replenish the island nation’s fast-depleting foreign reserves and ease pressure on its exchange rate.
It is to be noted that in the past, Bangladesh has provided relief by responding swiftly to natural and humanitarian disasters in other South Asian countries. In the immediate aftermath of the catastrophic floods in Pakistan and Myanmar and the devastating earthquake in Nepal, the Bangladesh government’s emergency relief and medical assistance were widely praised by the people and governments of the two countries.
Bangladesh, now ranked first out of eight countries in South Asia and fifth out of 121 countries across the world in Covid recovery index, expressed solidarity at its neighbor in critical state of Covid pandemic and offered emergency medical and safety equipment supplies to China, India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Maldives to combat the massive surge in the coronavirus cases.
Bangladesh also extended its helping hand to Sudan, a poor African country unable to repay a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In response to the IMF’s call, Bangladesh stood by Sudan and granted a “debt waiver” of $650 million on June 15. Earlier, Bangladesh had also given similar benefits (provided 0.70 million SDR) to Somalia to break the shackle of poverty as part of the IMF initiative.
Experts believe that Bangladesh is now looking at deeper integration with its neighbors, ultimately branding Bangladesh positively by building its image globally. The country’s continuous support and its vocal stance on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, the Israeli occupation of Palestine and its active attempts to assist people in crisis around the world have made the country “a symbol of humanitarianism”.
The writer is Security and Strategic Affairs Analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh