Roughly 40 percent of Bangladesh's population lives at or below the poverty line. The odds are stacked against anybody willing to take on the seemingly insurmountable task of trying to help 150 million people move beyond a hand-to-mouth existence.
With so much poverty, pollution, environmental degradation, garbage, corruption, and traffic, it is easy to become suddenly overwhelmed with the feeling of hopelessness. Where to even begin? Cross-border issues such as terrorism, smuggling, and resource extraction only tip the scale further toward feelings of despair.
Yet what's happening in Bangladesh is a lesson in how to bring about change to a place where change doesn't seem possible.
International and national nongovernmental and government aid projects are in place. Money from foreign investors and donors continues to flow into the country. And a look over the past 37 years shows the country has made noticeable progress. To be sure, it is a work in progress.
The districts of Satkira and Khulna are currently experiencing massive annual floods. The flooding is due to a deadly combination of centuries of river management, monsoon rains, and low flood-plain conditions.
Development projects such as the Coastal Embankment Project (CEP) – which Bangladesh took on in the 1960s to create more farmland and protect the southern districts from tidal surges – dried up, dammed, and diverted the rivers. This caused valuable silt, needed to build and maintain the coastline and wetlands, to no longer reach its natural destination. Over time the silt began backing up, causing riverbanks to grow higher and the land to fall lower. Now when the higher riverbanks break they cause colossal months-long flooding.
Recently I had the opportunity to visit one such flooded region in the Satkira district. Some 400,000 people in that region face annual floods that can last up to seven months. It leaves some of Bangladesh's poorest and most vulnerable without adequate access to water, sanitation, schools, farmland, or proper housing.
As I traveled across the region I saw hundreds of houses ruined, acres of valuable rice land under water or turned into saline ponds for resource-intensive shrimp farms, hundreds of people living in schoolyards, and Hindu and Muslim temples destroyed. Yet there is hope. And that hope is key.
In the middle of it all are nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) working to find ways to help their towns, villages, and people. They come together to help raise money, find land for people to live on, and participate in the process with the government aid agencies to help solve the flooding problem.
I walked away from this visit knowing that while there is a long way to go, hope and creativity are closing the chasm of doubt and hopelessness.
Achievements in reducing the flooding situation that use a holistic/indigenous approach such as the Tidal River Management concept are now the hallmark for both national and international NGOs in Bangladesh to follow.
I see a change of perspective taking hold across the country, challenging and radicalizing the way everyone thinks about how to alleviate the flooding and the social justice issues that surround it.
If home-grown CBOs and NGOs, with the support of international aid, can work in such a seemingly hopeless situation, what other solutions are out there to be invested in? What other ways are there to look at the poverty, environment, and corruption problem?
Success lies in how a problem is tackled. These organizations look at an overwhelming, terrible situation and challenge the assumption that it had to always be that way. That simple challenge invites opportunity for focused action.
Of course, such action means taking risks. These pioneers advocating for Bangladesh's ultrapoor incur abuse from powerful elites, are under constant fear of losing their funding, and are facing an environmental problem that sometimes seems to be getting worse. But there is enough evidence pointing out the way toward success that it is worth the risk. Look no further than the accomplishments of NGO Uttaran in working with the ultrapoor and local government structures in flooded regions during the past 24 years.
Attempting to change the way people think about an issue, and then getting them to act on that new thought process, is often the hardest thing to do. People can spend their whole lives in this endeavor. But, if Bangladesh has proven anything, it's that even the most challenging problems are surmountable.
Keith Lane is a specialist in environmental education and non-profit management who recently completed a volunteer placement supported by VSO in Bangladesh. His opinions are his alone.