Cox’s Bazar: Host communities rebuild lives with microeconomic initiatives

Life has been a constant challenge for 50-year-old Johura Khatun since her husband died. A resident of the Chakmarkul area in Cox's Bazar, Johura was already struggling to support her family of nine, when displaced people from Myanmar's Rakhine State started taking shelter on her land in September 2017. With that, Johura lost her only source of income – her land. In dire straits, she turned to her neighbours for help. "I had to borrow money from my neighbours to feed my family," she recalls.

Similarly, 32-year-old Abdur Rahman, who used to own a tree garden and some vegetable fields, lost his only source of income when people from Rakhine started settling on his land in September 2017. Faced with the challenge of feeding his five-member family, Rahman decided to put his car repairing skills to use by starting a little workshop. However, endemic electricity outages in the area made it impossible for him to finish tasks on time. "I was losing customers and my income was decreasing fast," Rahman shares. A generator would have been a great help, he thought.

Thousands of locals in Ukhiya and Teknaf, two of the most affected areas in Cox's Bazar, have been impacted by the massive influx of displaced people in the last two years. At first, the locals were empathetic to the new arrivals and generously shared whatever they had, mainly shelter and food, in the early weeks of the crisis. But soon, the new arrivals' growing numbers started to strain the existing community's resources, infrastructure, public services and the local economy. And, one day the newly arrived people outnumbered the host families who had been living in the area for generations.

As the community attempts to revive the local economy, the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), with support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has been assisting locals like Johura and Rahman through Microeconomic Initiatives (MEIs) – an income-generating programme that takes a bottom-up approach, involving beneficiaries personally in identifying and designing the help they receive. This can be vocational training, productive grants or microcredit loans, or a combination of all three.

This way, host families can invest cash in agriculture, livestock and small-scale businesses to generate income and consequently improve the local economy.

Just six months after receiving money through MEI, Johura and Rahman are already seeing improvements in their lives.

Johura, who invested in 1.6 acres of land to cultivate paddy, has already turned a profit. Now she's planning expansions.

She says, "Next season I am planning to cultivate more land and grow vegetables alongside the paddy."

Meanwhile, Rahman used his money to buy a much-needed generator and revive his struggling business. This has not only doubled his income, but also made previously impossible dreams seem attainable. "I am solvent now and even bought jewelry for my wife. I'm also saving up money for my children's future," Rahman says.

How the programme works

The MEI programme identifies the most vulnerable families and communities through a thorough preliminary needs assessment – relying exclusively on the BDRCS's diverse network and local administration's support – and then reaches out with assistance.

Baktiar Mambetov, an ICRC delegate in Cox's Bazar, explains: "The MEI programme aims at supporting vulnerable people to protect, diversify or improve their income-generating capabilities. It is basically helping them help themselves."

In Bangladesh, the ICRC together with the BDRCS runs MEIs for host communities in Cox's Bazar and the most vulnerable communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), offering cash grants, training and support so they can increase their dwindling incomes. In 2018, the ICRC and BDRCS's efforts helped improve the lives of nearly 2,800 host families in Cox's Bazar alone.