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"It helped heal our pain"

By Elizabeth Stevens
Samiya and the goat her family bought with their cash grant from Jago Nari. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

An Oxfam partner in Bangladesh blends local knowledge with speed and transparency to deliver effective humanitarian response.

When Cyclone Fani roared into southern Bangladesh in May 2019, it tore the roofs off houses, drowned livestock, and inundated crops. Oxfam partner Jago Nari rushed to the scene.

“Jago Nari arrived quickly,” says Champa Begum, who lives in a riverside community that had to evacuate to a cyclone shelter. “First they came to ask what we needed. Within three or four days they were delivering things to us.”

“Jago Nari gave us each a water jug, soap for washing ourselves and our clothing, a water pitcher, and ten packets of ORS [oral rehydration salts],” says her neighbor Hafiza Akhter, “and they gave us 4,500 taka [53 USD] in cash.”

The cash was precious: It enabled families to tailor the assistance to their particular needs. While one might have a pressing medical expense, another might want to purchase something that could generate income.

“Fani came right at harvest time, after we had invested everything in our crops,” says Hafiza. “It was all washed out. Our fishing nets and boats were also lost in the storm.” But with the cash she was able to replace her sewing machine. “With the income from my sewing,” she says, “I’ve had money for food and other household expenses.”

But, says Champa, “Jago Nari didn’t just give us things. They talked to us and listened to us. It helped heal our pain.”

Support at a crucial time

Not far away from the cyclone-stricken settlement of Champa and Hafiza sits the coastal community of Boroitola, where families depend heavily on fishing for a living. Fish stocks are declining, and in 2019 for the first time, a 65-day ban was enacted to protect the fish during the breeding season. The fishermen understood the importance of the measure, but there was a problem: they had little warning about the timing until the ban was in effect. The government provided them with rice, but there was no time to figure out a way to support their families before their incomes dried up entirely.

As an emergency, it fell below the radar of international aid providers, but Jago Nari, which is engaged in gender-related issues like early marriage and gender-based violence in this area, heard about it through its local networks.

Soon, Jago Nari and two partners were distributing cash grants—again, 4,500 taka (53 USD) per household, and more for those with disabled or elderly members; in all, they assisted 900 people.

“Jago Nari saw our suffering and responded to it,” says fisherman Badal Pahalan, who purchased chickens with his grant. “They supported us at a very crucial time.”

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"With the income from my sewing, I've had money for food and other household expenses," says Hafiza Akhter. Photo: Elizabeth Stevens/Oxfam

Jago Nari had it all

Behind the scenes, Jago Nari was breaking new ground.

The organization is part of an Oxfam program known as ELNHA (Empowering Local and National Humanitarian Actors), which is dedicated to helping strengthen the ability of local organizations to launch effective emergency responses. Over the course of three years, Jago Nari and 55 other Bangladeshi nongovernmental organizations underwent trainings to build their capacity to carry out disaster responses that meet international standards for quality—not only improving their knowledge of good humanitarian practices but also their internal systems and capacity for fundraising. Why support local organizations? Because they have the potential to be the fastest emergency responders, and also the most sensitive to local cultures and needs.

Oxfam provided funding for the Cyclone Fani response, but when Jago Nari heard about the fishing ban emergency, they were ready to try something new that would challenge and strengthen them: apply for their first humanitarian grant since graduating from ELNHA.

They quickly formed a consortium with two other ELNHA organizations (the Association of Voluntary Actions for Society and Nazrul Smriti Sangsad) to maximize the speed and reach of aid delivery.

As a funding source, they chose the Start Fund, which was perfect for their situation: one of its goals is to support small-scale emergency responses, and it aims to boost the work of local organizations. Start poses a rapid-fire set of deadlines, but all went to plan, and within four days of receiving the grant, Jago Nari and its partners were delivering cash to the fishermen. 

This was a first in more ways than one. It was Jago Nari’s first attempt at securing a grant from an international foundation. It was the first time Start in Bangladesh had ever funded a local organization directly. And the first time any organization in Bangladesh had ever met Start’s demanding schedule for aid delivery.

Jago Nari gives a lot of credit to ELNHA. “ELNHA staff are very active, very supportive. We can call them anytime,” says Duke Ivn Amin, who directs Jago Nari’s communications and fund-raising work. “During the Start process, we called them at midnight.”

Furthermore, he says, “Before ELNHA, we weren’t linked to other local NGOs in the area. Some we barely knew; others we competed with. Our thinking was individualistic. Now we understand each other and are able to work together. We realize that we can achieve more working together than working alone.”

“When it came to the Fani and fishing ban emergencies, Jago Nari had it all: speed, transparency, and aid that really helped people,” says Mehbuba Yasmin, the ELNHA project’s advocacy officer. “And because they were rooted in these communities, they had already built relationships of trust, so they could address the emotional side of the emergencies.”

“Cyclones can be very traumatizing,” says Jesmin Begum. “Sometimes we lose our houses and livestock and everything we own. The Jago Nari people listened to us and consoled us. They gave us hope that someone will always be there for us.”

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UPDATE: When Cyclone Bulbul approached Bangladesh in early November, Jago Nari sprang into action again. At headquarters, they monitored the storm and coordinated with the government and other NGOs, while field staff prepared to participate in rescue and evacuation efforts. They provided food packets to people gathered in cyclone shelters, and as soon as the storm abated, helped assess the damage and—with Oxfam’s support—made plans to distribute cash assistance to families in need.

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