After nearly six years in Bangladesh, Sudipto Mukerjee is all set to catch a flight to the Middle East today (1 September) and five days later, start working at his new posting in Damascus, Syria. He completed his last official working day in Dhaka's Agargaon office on a recent Thursday with a heavy heart.
Mukerjee, with nearly 30 years of working experience in international development across Iraq, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh under his belt, spoke with The Business Standard on an array of topics, ranging from climate change, women empowerment, the Rohingya community, migration, development challenges and, of course, his journey as a Resident Representative.
This is an edited and shortened version of the interview for clarity.
You have emphasised climate change and its effects, specifically climate refugees. In December 2018, the government and the UNDP signed a $33 million agreement for a climate adaptation project with the objective to "enhance the adaptive capacity of coastal communities, especially women to cope with climate change-induced salinity." Can you tell us where this project stands now?
When the Covid-19 lockdowns started to take effect, we [also] saw reverse migration taking place. Everyone started to go back to their village towns. But those who had been displaced because of climate change didn't have a place to return to.
They were stuck there [in the cities] and they had to go through the lockdown impacts.
I have always been advocating [for a few things]. To begin with, the places which are at risk of climate change and we know where there will be large-scale displacement in future, for the people residing there, [especially] the young people who will face the biggest brunt of climate change and eventual displacement, we should think about whether we can actually creatively think of some skilling programmes, I will say portable skills, the ones you can carry, and which will help them fit better and cope with the urban labour market.
Secondly, the cities also need to be prepared to be able to absorb these large influxes of people. If we look at Dhaka — which is increasingly bursting at the seams and becoming less liveable. After a certain size, we have to understand that the per capita cost of city life increases.
[For instance] if earlier, I had to take solid waste 5km away for disposal, now I have to take it 15 km far out. We have to see Bangladesh as a whole, not just city-wise. And we must make migration or displacement, in a way, easy, affordable and dignified as much as possible.
Our job is to actually help work alongside the government, both identify and understand in better appreciation of the problem [and] where solutions lie. And then the possibility of piloting potential solutions. This is an area where we are better placed than any government because in most bureaucracies, the space for experimentation is extremely limited. This is where international agencies come in. And when [and if] there is success [with the pilot projects], we can help them look at policy and programmatic solutions which will help them [govt] to scale up solutions.
Thus, all the programmes that we have done in regard to climate change, you can say are innovations, especially in the area of adaptation.
The $33 million project came from the Green Climate Fund - a coastal adaptation programme. Initially, we were supposed to work in six districts, but we first started with two. There were three components: 1) How to get affected communities to adopt alternative adaptive livelihoods, 2) how to improve access to potable water and 3) some capacity building so that the community as well as local authorities are able to sustain the gains.
In the case of the drinking water, we have introduced rainwater harvesting, both at the household level and community level - which means local school grounds, union parishad complexes and then try and introduce governance measures to ensure equal access, keeping in mind the added complexities of any shared or public facility in terms of operations and maintenance.
We have already completed most of the installations at the household level. We are also fairly advanced in completing the facilities at the community level. And [now] in the process of handing them over. And we want to make sure that these facilities are subsequently properly managed and maintained.
In the next two years, whether through local community structures or through public-private partnerships, [we want to make sure authorities] are able to operate and maintain the investments or the new facilities that have been created.
On the issue of livelihoods, at first, we targeted 24,000 - all women.
From my personal nearly 30 years of experience in international development, [with] every taka invested on a woman, the returns are significantly higher because it impacts on her, her family and the community. It's proven in every corner of the world, it's not Bangladesh specific. Anywhere in the world, [when] you invest in a woman, returns are multifold. Simply because when you ask a woman what she does with extra income, they will say better food for her children, better education for her children. Their investments are always family-focused, [and] community-focused.
To more than 50%, more than 12,500, the first round of capacity building has been completed. These are not livelihood options that have been imposed on them. We gave them a menu of options to choose from. And they themselves identified eight options and we are equipping them with the needed skills.
They have been provided training [and some additional inputs necessary for startup businesses]. One of the inequities, [especially in the] Covid-19 era, is the lack of a smartphone. So we tried to crack that. Connect all these businesses to digital markets, for which financial inclusion, and digital inclusion are very important.
[Additionally] we are trying to see who else is in the market [to offer the same]. UNDP has joined hands with many partners. [This can] make a much bigger impact.
Thus far, we have reached 43,000 women due to government funds and support. This success will be significantly amplified or expanded and accelerated through natural resources and natural budgets.
We bring change with small amounts of money and influence. Thereafter when the government starts financing them through national budgets, the impact will be much, much bigger. And that's exactly what we are planning to do. I think that success is beginning to happen, which is changing the whole public approach to this kind of climate action.
What are the current challenges that impede women's empowerment specifically in rural Bangladesh?
I am from the region [West Bengal, India]. I probably have insight that is quite different from those who sat in my position before.
The challenges are actually multi-fold. Whenever there is uncertainty because of natural disaster [or] climate change. There is always the tendency for parents to marry off their young daughters. Because they still see them as a burden. This deprives girls of the full opportunity of accessing education. That's one reality.
The more disaster-affected an area is, the more this occurs and the situation was exacerbated with the pandemic induced school closures. Even among those that are more affluent, we see a tendency to invest more on a boy child than on a girl child. Of course this is not the case in affluent families.
Another thing we see is that - and this represents a larger picture - is [the socio-economic effect] of one of the second biggest foreign exchange earnings: our remittances. This shows the scale of people going out of the country to earn money.
And some of our microscopic studies found this: At first when they earn money, they pay off loans/debts. Second, money is spent on improvements to the house. For instance, tin shed houses become cement houses.
The third thing they do, if the wife is working, they tell the wife to leave the job because the money is no longer needed. That the woman no longer needs to go outside. Now earning money for the woman is not only about income, it is an identity issue [too].
Outside [homes], women are able to potentially influence public policy. For instance, if there are no women in the public space [to begin with], then how can we have a policy on women's safety in public spaces? That's also a problem.
Also, typically what happens is that the distribution of [household care] responsibility skews toward women. Even when we look at [climate change] displacement. At first, the men come to the city while the women stay back. And their burden of care for the family disproportionately increases.
Globally, in cases of forced migration, the ones who are the most capable, leave first. And the ones most vulnerable or poor, cannot go. They remain back. That's a reality. It is the women who come last. And you can imagine, for a woman, how much worse life is in urban slums than men.
What we saw, during Covid19 [lockdowns], [with] enough statistical data that domestic violence, intimate partner violence increased.
It's not always the responsibility of the governments alone to address these social ills and especially where such large scale social transformations require not just years, but more than decades. I read a figure somewhere that based on the current rate of progress in gender parity and women empowerment, it will take at least 200 years for women to enjoy the same level of socio-economic and political opportunities as men. And Covid-19 has made it worse.
And to that end, while we must rejoice that in Bangladesh, we do have some women in top positions, such as the Hon Prime Minister and the Hon Speaker, it is time to look at much larger numbers.
What we need to do is be patient [for social transitions]. We have to remain optimistic. It will require a lot of work, a lot of advocacy, and a lot of investment in the communities themselves.
After I came here [Bangladesh], what I tried to do is to have all our programmes focus a lot more on civic education. So in every project, every initiative, we talk to people and tell them you have a stake in the development. People [also] need to be aware of their rights, aware of their responsibilities, so that they have a better chance of having sustainable development.
Your last official working day in Dhaka is in August, which coincides with five years of the 2017 Rohingya exodus. How have this community's needs changed in the last five years and what can you predict will happen in future?
At first, they needed relief to stay alive, and start healing from their mental trauma. Over a period of time, largely because of govt-led efforts and obviously with support from both domestic and international partners, we were looking at how to stabilise the situation.
The first responders, as is always the case, were the local NGOs and host communities. They played a magnanimous role. And I must highlight that Bangladesh is very blessed to have very capable NGOs. And this is for any country, a major asset.
Recently, during my [Rohingya] camp visit [in Ukhiya, Cox's Bazar], I saw a lot of improvement: Roads, education corners, women's centres and it has become more green [tree plantations].
The government has also allowed some level of education in the Myanmar curriculum so that is certainly a very welcome and laudable initiative. The entire displaced community have also been covered in all public health campaigns including the Covid 19 vaccination programme.
But we will need to look at longer term and durable solutions and obviously the most ideal solution is dignified and safe repatriation to Myanmar. Third country repatriation [moved to a different country than the country of origin] could also be a possibility, but here the situation is not particularly conducive.
For instance, in Syria, third country repatriation happened because portable skills influenced countries to take them in. [Syrians] faced less difficulty [relatively] because they are educated, they are skilled.
So even if we are to take this approach, we have to expand the programmes of the elementary skill training that we already see. We have to also see, in the ideal situation, if they can contribute to their own living cost because how long will they remain as passive recipients of public care.
Unfortunately, I don't have a quick and easy solution to offer, but I know that collectively we will have to think about it. Additionally, in the last five years, the population has grown and those born here have no connections to their homeland . We have to think, in the longer term, what is it that we need to do to assist them to move forward.
This is a very difficult question for any country, any government.
Even if you look at the very rich countries, even with Ukraine [war] displacement, the so-called much richer countries are asking for assistance. They are not taking in refugees without help.
As an optimist, I think repatriation will happen over time but certainly not overnight. The impression I always get when I interact with these affected people is that they would certainly like to go back if conditions are improved, and safety and dignity as equal citizens are ensured. In the meanwhile, we want to make sure they remain skilled.
It is easier for me to say this, but much more difficult for any government to do.
You have worked in Iraq, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh in UNDP. Although these countries are vastly different, can you tell us what common factors you have found working across these countries?
These countries are not comparable at all, except that one thing that binds all of them is the resilience of people. In Iraq, with the war [US invasion 2003], in Sierra Leone with the protracted civil war and in Bangladesh with decades of lower development levels in the initial years 10-20 years than desired and frequent natural disasters, people have remained extremely resilient.
Additionally, Iraq and Bengal both have very rich cultures. And when people have a rich heritage and a cultural past, people tend to hold on to it and that enriches their lives and enhances their aspirations.
After nearly six years here, what do you think are Bangladesh's potential and promises; and what challenges lie ahead for the country?
Let me start with positive. I used to come to visit for work from Delhi approximately 20 years ago. And later when I came, I saw visible progress. Tall buildings, expensive cars, fancy restaurants - the level of prosperity has become visible. Another positive development is the decreased death toll from natural disasters.
A second positive thing is a widely pervasive sense of hope for a better future.
Now onto a couple of concerns that still need more public attention. The environment is one area that demands more focus. With increase in prosperity, comes increase in consumption as well as the tendency to waste. So how to ensure more responsible consumption and better care for the environment? I would certainly like to see more public discourse around this. The second area is while, in general, poverty has been declining but disparities are rapidly increasing. This will need to be addressed through policies and programmes or else social cohesion is likely to be at risk
In general, I am an optimist, [however] for some people, the doomsday is here tomorrow. But we need to remember, optimists created the aeroplane and pessimists created the parachute.We can take measures in advance and prepare. After Sri Lanka, many have become aware and taken measures to prevent a similar situation from occurring here.
Climate change is becoming more and more of an urgent global phenomenon. Then we had the Covid-19 pandemic and now the Ukraine-Russia war. How has all this made your job - or that of international development agencies in developing countries - more difficult?
Extremely difficult. If you need a world that constantly needs humanitarian support, then the effort needed for improvement gets sidelined. People become more focused on saving lives than preventing a conflict in the first place.
We work with democracy, governance, etc and many of those issues have taken a backseat. [Additionally] UNDP was a much bigger player in the past but with increased capacities of the government, we are now having to deal with much less resources while expectations on our support role has not commensurately reduced.
Among the many projects you have worked on or spear-headed, which topic or area have you been the most attached to? Anything you would like to say about leaving Bangladesh?
I cannot and should claim all the credit, as I'm only a captain of a team. [Our] focus has been on women's empowerment and participation, even in the political sphere. During the last elections together with UN Women we worked to promote greater participation of women in the elections, both as candidates and voters.
Youth empowerment is another topic [I have been closely attached to]. Bangladesh has a very young population and they are no longer passive recipients of development. They are much more able and engaged.
One of the things that helped me in my job is that I belong to the region. Familiarity and the ability to communicate in Bangla certainly helped but more importantly was my deep understanding of the psyche of the Bengali people being a Bengali myself. That certainly helped to appreciate operating context better and make our programmes more relevant.
It's been a wonderful journey, both in my personal and professional life. Somebody who has been invested in Bangladesh, I will remain invested wherever I may be.
And as a well-wisher, I wish the progress can be sustained. [And] that every place of development and progress follows the rule of law, I wish the same for Bangladesh.