In 2007 up to 15,000 people were killed and seven million lives left devastated in Bangladesh by the cyclone Sidr. The poor quality of the boats was one of the reasons for the many casualties amongst fishermen. Friendship, an NGO created in Bangladesh wants to break this fatalism. At a conference in Luxembourg, their founder and director Runa Khan presented the Fishermen‘s Project which in partnership with Banque de Luxembourg aims at helping the fishermen in Bangladesh. In an interview with LFF, Mrs Kahn speaks about this ambitious project, about her NGO Friendship and her ties with Luxembourg.
What did you do before creating Friendship?
I was married when I was very young, when I was 20. In our country you married amongst cousins and amongst certain families. It was not a love marriage but an arranged marriage. It was very difficult for me, because it is still a conservative country. I was not allowed to go out and work. I started educating children with minor disabilities; I was in the educational sector.
I also worked with underprivileged communities. I only worked from home. After my divorce in 1992 I got involved with organisations like UNICEF and their teachers. Then my husband brought this ship from France to Bangladesh to have it converted into a floating hospital to provide healthcare services to people who had limited or no access to healthcare.
Nobody wanted to take on the project because the areas we wanted to serve were hard to access or too dangerous. So we took it on. I decided to build it and then hand it to somebody who had more experience than me; doctors, for instance, who worked in the development sector.
It just needed that leap of faith and courage and then you get stuck and can’t get out of it because your heart doesn’t want to get out anymore.
So in the beginning it took a lot of devotion: nobody believed in your project except you and your husband!
I remember going to big donors and asking them to help us. The answer was: ”Runa, what do you know about development? What difference can you make with your boat?” There were no development agencies or governments in this area. So it was just a question of courage: to go there and help.
For me, development work at the grassroots level is very simple. In healthcare, for instance, it is a question of putting elements together. It is a question of delivering with commitment, making sure that you have not taken away more than you have given.
What were the financial means at your disposal?
My goal was not to access donors for money or which organisation I could bring in. The goal is the six million people in Bangladesh who live beneath the poverty line. I don’t mean the World Bank poverty line; these people live way below that line. Ultimately, it was to make sure that these people had enough food to eat, that they know where to go when they need some help and that they can survive when I go away. Poverty is multidimensional.
I cannot bring in one tool and expect poverty at that level to disappear. Financially, different dimensions have to come in too. You need the help of the Luxembourg Ministry of Finance; you need the help of big organisations and companies, and so on. Companies don’t run away if your product is good.
Could you name some of your projects?
One of our projects is the Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital which was initiated by Friendship in 2001 with the aim of providing essential healthcare services to the char (nomad islands) population. The project was designed to reach population clusters that are isolated from the mainland in terms of physical distance and basic health care service.
Then we have satellite clinics which are an effective way to provide basic primary healthcare services to people living in chars, particularly women and children. A satellite clinic is a small boat that carries a team of one paramedic, one health educator and a medical assistant or nurse to remote islets. Another project is the adult and adolescent literacy program.
After completion of the eight month course, adult students are able to handle daily activities with greater ease such as, carry out business transactions, write letters and comprehend written messages.
You have been coming to Luxembourg on a regular basis since 2004 and thus created Friendship International here. This time it is the fishermen’s project that brought you to Luxembourg. Can you tell me more about this pilot project for which you joined forces with Banque de Luxembourg?
The fishermen’s project is a very unique project for Friendship and it is addressing an area of need which has never been addressed before in Bangladesh. The fishermen’s world is a completely different world and Bangladesh is the land of the thousand rivers. Most of the country goes underwater so you are linked with water one way or the other.
We have more than 300,000 fishermen along the coastal line and they are more affected by climate change than before. Cyclones now come more or less every year; at the time it was every ten years. This is a community people don’t know anything about. Hence, they are left out of all credit access. So we have a very holistic approach, we are not going in for a banking model to be done.
So what are you doing?
We want to ensure that these people are in a different economic bracket tomorrow. Whether they are giving us back our money or not is not solving the problem and we are not calculating that as a success. When you have ensured that these people have a roof over their head, you have to see which loan to give them. The fishermen’s project is divided into three levels which start with a pre-level. Before we launched this pilot project, we worked with these fishermen for two and a half years in order to identify their needs.
What do the different levels look like?
At the first level we have to make sure that they earn money, at the second level we scale up the model and at the third level we see how we can help them financially. Credit is only one of the components. We need a whole package, because these people are so poor, it is unbelievable but they have the capacity of earning a lot of money.
Let me tell you the story of these fishermen. They take out a loan to pay for their boats because they cannot make boats. This loan is higher than what the microfinance organisations are offering. They get the loan from middlemen because these fishermen don’t have the money. The problem is that these fishermen have to pay back loans over two generations. The father takes out the loan and the child is still paying back.
So we have organised a liberation loan with the Banque de Luxembourg. Then they need an operational loan: their nets will get torn, they need petrol for their engine and sometimes they need cash to feed their family. Finally they need a boat loan. What we have done is that different loans can have different payback schemes.
What happens next?
We are doing a cash flow portfolio of all these people, that is to say 12 groups of 4 fishermen. We keep this record for one year. Another important information is to see how the boat works. The fishermen will have these new fibre glass boats which are very interesting. We have done tests and they are unsinkable. So we give them six of these boats and six wooden ones to see which ones are better.
After these fifteen months of pilot project we go on to the second level where we want to scale up the project in order to make it a financially sustainable model. Then in the third phase (after three years) I hope that we start the banking system.
How easy was it to convince the Banque de Luxembourg to join forces with you?
A lot of elements were working together for me. You need a bit of luck, a bit of goodwill and some good contacts. Then you need on the other side people who have a vision. People from Banque de Luxembourg understood that this project was something special. I think that there is a lot of vision from both the bank and the people from Friendship International here in Luxembourg. CW