In September 2017 Integral Alliance launched a Disaster Response for the mass displacement of communities from Rakhine State, in Western Myanmar, into Bangladesh. Sixteen Alliance Members are responding to this crisis, with six operational in Bangladesh. In order to assist with the in-country coordination a short-term Integral Coordinator was seconded from Mission East. Kendrah Jespersen has now finished her assignment. Here she tells us about her experience …
What were your first impressions when you arrived in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh is already a densely populated country, and recently over 600,000 people were added in just 2 months. Thousands are still coming in weekly as they flee violence in Myanmar … it’s overwhelming to think about.
The small strip of land running between the border of Myanmar and the Indian Ocean Bangladesh, called Cox’s Bazar District, is now home to more than 830,000 refugees. Visually, there are locations in the camps were you can see endless rows of makeshift shelters, sprawling as far as the eye can see. To make matters worse, many of those arriving have been through deeply distressing experiences. It’s a desperately sad situation.
What was the purpose of your role?
I was deployed to provide short-term coordination support between Integral Members and also their local partners responding in Cox’s Bazar. Members are constantly coordinating in ad-hoc ways as well as through pre-agreed Alliance mechanisms, but interactions are particularly intense in the early phases of a crisis. Coordination itself is a big piece of work, not only between Integral Members, but also with other NGOs and the UN in the wider humanitarian community.
I was able to ease this burden by providing one central hub for sharing and accessing information. This was particularly useful as the Members were at very different stages in their response with differing needs for information. I was able to take some pressure off Members receiving questions and requests from each other by acting as a central information hub.
Can you give us some examples of how Integral Members are coordinating? What difference is this joint working making?
The Members are coordinating and collaborating in countless big and small ways – here are some examples:
Fundraising for each other’s programming; carrying out joint assessments; supporting each other’s legal permissions to operate in Bangladesh; loaning staff with particular expertise to advise on small questions or to be seconded for weeks at a time; providing office space and accommodation for each other; providing logistical support and allowing visiting staff to visit their project sites; sharing photographs and stories with each other to aid fundraising and awareness efforts; sharing tips and information on everything from security to market research to good places to eat; listening to each other’s worries and celebrations and bearing these together in prayer.
It’s difficult to measure the total impact of all these points of interaction, but we are clearly stronger and able to achieve more together than we would be able to do apart. Some organisations simply wouldn’t be able to do the activities they are doing without the financial support they’re receiving via other Members, and all of the little interactions make the work easier in an environment that is extremely challenging.
Tell us about any highlights from your time in Bangladesh …
I’m particularly grateful that I had the chance to join with refugee Community Health Workers employed by Medical Teams International and Food for the Hungry’s joint project. This was an opportunity to see first-hand the impact that our work together makes. It is so encouraging to know that lives are being saved – sick individuals were helped to get treatment at health facilities, families are gratefully receiving vital health messages they were not aware of that will prevent disease, and that those who’ve experienced so much suffering are now receiving care from compassionate staff.
What was the main challenge?
During my weeks in Bangladesh the Members were at a challenging point in their response, still waiting for permission to work in some cases. Commitments to funding from the international community were also slow to come through. This meant that we weren’t able to move ahead as quickly as we would have liked, and it also constrained the possibility for us to coordinate on joint programming or joint funding proposals.
Now that your role has come to end, how will Members continue coordinating?
I established a few simple systems and tools for coordination – an online matrix to provide a central point for key information, a weekly meeting with a standard agenda, and instructions/templates for a chairperson to send out weekly reminders and chair meetings. The responsibility for chairing is being rotated among Members. Of course, there are also various forms of bilateral and ad-hoc interactions which happen continuously. There is plenty of good will for ongoing coordination, and I think Members are quite conscious of the benefits – which will ensure it carries on, whether formally or informally.
And lastly, how does Integral inspire you?!
It’s encouraging to see what we are able to do collectively as we each bring our different approaches, skills and expertise to the table. There are Members with access to more funding helping those facing gaps to run their programme. Other Members are able to scale up in a big way at the start, followed by those working in a more gradual way with local partners; and there are other Members with one particular area of expertise advising those who need it, and so on.
I was also pleased to find myself welcomed into a family among the various Integral staff in Cox’s Bazar. Although I had never met any of the people I was working with, and though different organisations, cultures and approaches were involved, I still felt that I was joining something that was already familiar as I spent time with “Mission East’s extended family”.
Integral would like to thank Mission East for allowing Kendrah to be seconded to the Integral Rakhine response for three weeks. This is the third crisis we have had seconded staff to represent Integral and is another way of ensuring more collaboration and coordination in the early days of a new Integral response.