Thursday, July 26, 2012

Community based Approaches: Their Importance and Relevance for a Comprehensive Development in Today’s Vulnerable World. Interview with Dr Atiq Rahman, Executive Director, BCAS, Bangladesh

The original version of this interview can be found at:

We had an opportunity to interview Dr Atiq Rahman, Executive Director, BCAS and Friend of the Earth awarded during ISAP2011. Here is the transcript of the same. Read it and let me know your views on the choice of questions and what you think you would ask if you had a chance.

Photo Credits: IGES, Japan


Prabhakar: At the outset, can you please introduce our audience to the institute you are currently leading and basic values and approaches you are trying to promote through your work?

Dr Rahman: I am the technical head of Bangladesh Center for Advanced Studies. BCAS works at different levels, with the communities, local level planning, international agencies, and global systems. The publications from BCAS show the work we do. I sit in various government committees while working with an independent institute like BCAS so what I say here comes from both the perspectives. 25 years ago, while teaching at Oxford University, I said that Bangladesh will go under water. I was at the peak of academia when I moved to Bangladesh to work with BCAS. I made that decision since I believed that there is much to do in my own country to improve the policy processes by linking to the science. We developed a model where the policy, science and people are linked. We do implementation of ideas up to the pilot phase, to the level at which we establish science beyond reasonable doubt, and let others multiply them. In most industrialized countries, the science and policy talk to each other as most environmental problems have scientific basis. The same is required in climate change too. However, some policy makers are influenced by the oil lobbyists and other industry agents and are taking the policy in a wrong direction. We realized that in non-functioning democracies, represented by huge number of countries, people are not included in the debate and the policy is hijacked by the industry. Over the years with dedicated work, we have challenged the science-policy model and changed it into science-policy-people model. Environment and development are very much linked. In climate change, most of the professionals are from environmental background and hence it became ‘environment only’ problem. Soon we realized that we have various sectors involved in it such as infrastructure, food, rural areas etc. So, now, we are talking about developmental implications of climate change. This understanding brings poor people into the domain of decision making. Environment and development, poverty alleviation, good governance and economic growth are the elements that make our concept of sustainable development where other crosscutting elements interact.

Okubo: Now, it is clear from your discussion that your institute in particular and Bangladesh in general has been promoting community based development to an extent that people look at Bangladesh as a land of community based approaches (whether it is for disaster risk reduction or climate change adaptation or other areas). Can you educate us on what made this possible and what lessons other countries can learn from this great success story?

Dr Rahman: I am both a geo-engineering scientist and a policy expert in community based adaptation. Bangladesh has a tradition of local level management partly due to the culture and partly due to the failure of the government. ‘Democracy is democracy of the elected’ and ‘richness is the richness of elected’. So, the question is how to reach the people? Bangladesh is one of the highly disaster prone countries in the world. We thought that the best way is communities leading their own life and not to wait for scientists to tell them to adapt. Communities are already raising their land in the coastal areas and nobody told them to do so. You will find several such practices prevalent among communities. Using community approaches, we are able to solve problems that are long-term in nature. For example, the saline front has already moved deep into the land where we planted the varieties developed for future and these varieties could able to give good yields. This understanding may not come without understanding of the local issues and indigenous knowledge. Development community tries to do development but with limited results since the baseline is shifting based on which decisions are to be made by these communities. Once these development communities talk with climate change communities, they understand the issue clearly and are able to achieve good success as in the case of Action Research for Community Based Adaptation (ARCAB). Several local NGOs are coming together to make development climate friendly. International NGOs came together and have decided to work with BCAS where this ARCAB was designed. These lessons would be taken to other countries like Africa, Latin America etc spanning for 30 years. It is a long-term social learning where baseline will not be the same. We have developed a methodology called participatory monitoring and evaluation where people are involved using the indicators identified by participatory approaches. The SEI, Oxford University, Harvard University etc are helping us with the science part of the process. We hold world conference on community based adaptation every year that is gaining attention by the world community. We would soon be publishing a book from this exercise by the contribution of the conference participants.

Photo Credits: IGES, Japan

Prabhakar: One of the understandings from your discussion is that community based approaches are good in developing countries where governance problems are the reason behind many problems. Do you think these approaches are applicable in developed countries and if so how they can be fit into the context?

Dr Rahman: Communities are communities wherever they are, whether in developed or developing; I have worked with communities in both countries. The story I told about developing countries is slightly better in developed countries. When I was visiting Japan years ago, everybody used to wear formal dress and there used to be only one NGO and NGOs used to be perceived as anti-government. That Japan has changed now, correct me if I am wrong, my last three days of experience tell me that the recent earthquake has shaken the psyche of Japan and you have realized that the infrastructure cannot solve the problem but you need some community involvement. Now, you are talking about dignity of the people, inclusion of the people (can we include everybody from all ages and socio-economic groups etc) etc. We have been working with communities in Bangladesh for years where communities have said that they need some ‘fall back mechanism’ such as animals etc which they can use after they return from a cyclone shelter after the cyclone. So, the systems need to consider things like if old people can be evacuated or not. These approaches would have to be ‘molded’ to Japanese conditions. One should also know the limits, what one can do and what one cannot do. For example, one cannot remove the nuclear radiation for several years down the line. Appropriate support such as shelter, water, food, employment should be provided. One should rejuvenate the local industry. One should also remember that a 1000-year event need not necessarily repeat only after 1000 years but it may come even in the next year but the probability may be low. So, policy makers need to keep this probability aspect while planning for disasters.

Photo Courtesy: IGES, Japan

4.       Questions from the audience:

a. Can you tell us how effective it would be to take the climate change debate to the UN Security Council for its intervention?

Dr Rahman: Security Council may not be able to make much difference to the climate change problem. It has not been able to do anything of this sort other than stopping big wars. The problem is not with the Security Council but with the failure of the UNFCCC system. My long association with the UNFCCC indicated that it has its own limitations. When Kyoto Protocol was agreed with targets, people said that it is the best protocol one could achieve. It indicated that we could work out a lowest common denominator and our governments couldn’t even achieve it. Most population in some developing countries is still undernourished and they are not able to feed themselves but still they are talking about mitigation. So, it is a failure of the governments. Security Council may be able to stop a war or bring additional money but climate change has enough money built into the system so it may not make much difference. You may not agree with my opinion and I would be happy to listen.

b. You said most of the professionals in climate change are from environmental field and though over the years there has been infusion of social and policy professionals into the process, do you think governments are still approaching the problem in a single discipline or multi-discipline?

Dr Rahman: Reality is that it is neither single nor multi-disciplinary but it is the dollar that is dictating the decisions being made. No decisions are made in the UNFCCC negotiations, all decisions are made back in the country, in the ministry of environment. However, no MOE personnel are trained on negotiations, negotiations are about legal issues, foreign affairs, and it is about protecting the best interest of the country and environment is about protecting the common interest. Everybody’s individual interest must fit into common interest. Other problem is every policy maker has 5 year tenure while the climate change is a long-term problem which needs new ways of governance. All the available funding is neither additional nor adequate. NAPAs are being poorly supported, not even equivalent to the money spent by UN agencies on their sanitation consumables. If we want to go fast, single disciplinary approach is the way; however, if we want to go far, multi-disciplinary approach is the way. We need to change the attitude of finance ministries regarding the climate change funding. It is the least priority for them, indicated through the junior most officers they send to any climate change meeting at national or international levels. No single ministry talks to other ministries in our countries.

c. Citizen from Japan: I liked your comment about the ARCAB. I know that there are similar projects going on everywhere but the problem I see is that they are isolated and not connected to other processes.

Dr Rahman: We call this a garland theory where no bead is connected to another bead. NGOs have limited time line where they have to spend the money, so end up pushing the money and spending on bad projects. I think one need to give responsibility and respect to the recipient of the fund, make it participatory, and give time to them to implement while making them accountable. Evaluation has to be continuous but not at the end. So, most of the time, these projects can be termed as ‘the world of mutual cheating.’ Research has become so predictive that even communities know how to respond to any survey, they will start answering questions even before they are asked. We need to learn from bad practices as well. Plagiarism has become so rampant too in this information age. No new ideas are being developed without deep thinking. I think the day we develop that deep thinking, we are able to identify solutions to the problems we are facing today. This is resultant of several problems such as pedagogic, allocation, gender etc.

c. Prabhakar: How do we link the Rio+20 with the community based development model?

Dr Rahman: I was very much involved with the Rio process in 1992 as a part of the Global Forum on Environment and Poverty. A group which was few in number has grown to 10,000. I said at that time that the climate convention is not going to solve the problem. Biodiversity convention is a problem of people, who destroyed their biodiversity and wants others to protect it; climate change is a problem created by developed nations and faced by the poor people; and desertification convention has no teeth in it, it is meant to satisfy African countries. Instead, we proposed a poverty convention. New York has destroyed its wetlands and created the city that is today and the very same country say that we need to protect our wetlands. It is for these countries to solve the issues they created and then talk with the poor. However, we need to move forward. So, we had Rio+10 where MDG was an outcome. Rio+20 is about green economy and institutional structure. We haven’t achieved much on the green economy. Green economy will be possible only if there is enough happening in terms of alternative energy, food systems etc. We didn’t do any of this and want policies, this may not work well. One of the tragedies is that where are the young people shouting and fighting for green economy? The global job market has changed, and the smarter people from developing countries are going for global market, like Google jobs. We need to bring them back to the land that needs them. We need to bring back the idealism. When there is no idealism, we get what happened in Norway. With idealism, we should be able to say that there will not be a single person on the planet who will go to bed with hunger. This is what Security Council should have achieved but it didn’t. I may have given some pessimistic view of UN system but that is a perceived reality. The point I am making is that we have to have a vision for the planet, so that the population growth is controlled, so that we have less people and less carbon. Climate convention was supposed to reduce GHGs as per the Kyoto Protocol, but we increased the emissions instead. It is just about carbon. We have ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles that are going to be a huge challenge. We need young people to fight for these causes so that we are able to feed everybody on the planet. This is just about basic needs such as food and water, not even about flying and driving. There is more food on the planet than we need, more medicines than we need, and more water than we need; why that one third of the world is starving, something isn’t right!

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