October 31, 2013
by Natalia Alonso, Head of Oxfam’s EUs office
My first impression of Bangladesh was very similar to my experience many years ago when I first stepped foot in Delhi: being a foreigner raised curiosity but always got a gentle smile and respectful glance. The well-known reputation of Bangladeshi hospitality was topped when, that same night, my dinner bill was paid in the name of welcoming me to the country. I had enjoyed a tasty, spicy rui fish with rice at a popular restaurant that was getting really packed. Then, three young women asked me whether they could share the table with me. We started to chat and I found out that they were three sisters celebrating the Eid holidays with a family outing. They were thrilled that I had come all the way from Europe to discover their country and before I could realise it, they settled the bill. A truly generous act that really touched me.
During the following two days I participated in an advocacy training workshop organised by Oxfam with twenty-five partner organisations. I was impressed by the knowledge and the skills of the participants, discussing at ease their different advocacy tools and sharing their experiences in long-standing campaigns, from succeeding in getting the Education Act adopted with ‘My Rights’ campaign to the Disaster Management Act. I was thrilled to facilitate the session around the upcoming elections in Bangladesh where the participants came up with clear cut messages that would unite their work around budget tracking, right to food and Adivasi recognition as a minority.
Later on, a heavy storm threatened to interrupt our imminent walk to meet with the EU Delegation to Dhaka. It was at this point that Oxfam Bangladesh’s campaigning material came under scrutiny. Luckily, their GROW umbrella, with the campaign line of ‘Food.Life.Planet’ emblazoned on the colourful tool, passed the test with flying colours, ensuring we reached the meeting without getting wet.
We met with four staff working in development cooperation at the EU Delegation joined and a lively exchange ensued. They were surprised about our assessment of the EU as a donor that is willing to fund certain activities perceived as ‘risky’, such as human rights or good governance, as well as actions that bring intangible but fundamental results such as policy change in climate action. We made our case in connecting climate change work from local –through our programs adaptation- to national –through engaging with the Bangladesh civil society platform- to regional –through the recent Bangladesh lobby tour to Brussels and Paris meeting EU institutions and the French Government- to global – through our engagement towards the next climate meeting in Warsaw. These links are one of Oxfam’s added values as a global organization focusing on advocacy.
We also pushed them to take up the challenge and actively engage with the robust, diverse and varied civil society organisations in Bangladesh. They agreed that it should be a long-standing engagement and not a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise. Although it is not an easy task, establishing channels for policy dialogue can be very rewarding and beneficial to both sides. Oxfam in Bangladesh is a fantastic pillar on which to build this engagement, with a team that has vision and a strong drive, a ‘djjin’ -as some would say- to make change happen.
On my last day in Dhaka, I wished that the political turmoil ahead of the elections does not turn into a deeper conflict and that rickshaw-wallahs get a priority lane in the chaotic Dhaka traffic!