from catastrophe to development

RDRS in context

1. Introduction

Few modern nations have suffered such a traumatic birth as Bangladesh. The country is the product of not one but two successive and violent partitions of larger nations. First in 1947, when India split into its separate Hindu and Muslim wings, then in 1971 when East Pakistan fought for its liberation from West Pakistan.

The war of independence of 1971 created the largest outpouring of refugees in modern history, with 10 million seeking refugee across the border and millions more displaced within the country. The brutal war with the Pakistan Government devastated the country, destroying roads, bridged, schools, undermined agriculture and almost undermined the economy. After 9 months of bloody struggle, with the intervention of the Indian army, liberation was achieved for the newly independent nation of Bangladesh in December 1971. (Bangladesh means the land of the Bengalis).

Before the war, Bangladesh had been poor but now the task of reconstruction was massive with most pressing demands for the food, shelter, medicine and repair of infrastructure. However, serious natural disaster in the form of drought and flood struck the weak new nation causing further loss of life and widespread distress. The period 1971-1976 became recognised as the most catastrophic period in the history of the country.

The images of suffering, strife, famine and poverty from Bangladesh circulated in the worldwide media and the country's name alone became closely associated with acute distress and despair. Today, the view of Bangladesh held by many outside the country is shaped by these disturbing picture and this dismal image. Today Bangladesh is still a poor country but has steadily climbed the international league table of development (it is now perhaps the 25th poorest country in the world) and attained a basic if fragile level of political stability, food security and an economic foundation.

2. Turning Weakness into Strength

Though Bangladesh has had difficult upbringing, there have been many positive aspects of this harsh birth and childhood. The country became experienced and skilled in disaster preparedness, response and in poverty alleviation. The newly-formed Government in 1972 appealed to the international community and to Bangladeshis to come forward to help. This was the start of an NGO movement and an expertise which has become substantial and increasingly international.

The history of RDRS and its work, though unique, can also serve as a typical example of how the country, the organisation and the people have moved froward from the initial catastrophe to development. This work has developed in three broad phases:

1971 - 1975 Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation
1976 - 1987 Sectoral Development and Innovation
1988 - to date	 Integrated Development and Expanded Impact

3. Phase I: Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation (1971-1975)

The plight of Bangladesh refugees in India in 1971 prompted the first wave of assistance to the refugees from East Pakistan sheltering in India. The Cooch Behar Refugee Service, the forerunner of RDRS, was set up by Lutheran World Federation by a Norwegian missionary (Dr Olav Hodne) to establish and manage some of the refugee camps. CBRS helped run refugee camps, and provided food, medical aid and basic essentials for the refugees and also sonic cross border aid for northwest Bangladesh.

When the war ended, the new Government invited LWF to establish a relief programme inside Bangladesh to help reconstruction. Since most of the refugees in India had come from the remote, backward and war-affected northwest Bangladesh, the programme concentrated in greater Rangpur Dinajpur. RDRS continued emergency relief distribution work through 1972 to help the returnees resettle in the greater Rangpur Dinajpur region during the post war period. The initial RDRS program was one of rehabilitation and reconstruction and even included tasks such as large-scale ploughing and agricultural input supply to accelerate food production in the difficult early years. Other initiatives included the establishment of vocational training schools, running clinics and a hospital, and the setting up of small enterprises.

After resettlement, RDRS quickly concentrated on rehabilitation work. This was necessitated not only by damage and neglect but also by further disaster. Major flood and drought emergencies struck in 1974, affecting 80% of Bangladesh's 75 million population. RDRS took action for the affected adults and children by providing intensive nutrition and health care. Non Bengali had to be resettled and the Bengali communities were assisted through the construction of houses, latrines and tube-wells. However, the passing of the flood paved way for the more important task of rehabilitation and reconstruction including houses, high schools, primary schools, hospitals and clinics and the setting up of a sericulture programme and fishermen's cooperative.

4. Phase 2 Sectoral Development and Innovation (1976-1987)

Despite the heavy involvement in early years in relief and rehabilitation, the need for a longer term approach to raise living standards of the rural poor was felt by RDRS and other NGOs. Development assistance thus gradually shifted to initiatives aimed at promoting greater self-reliance in six major component areas agriculture, community motivation, women's activity, health, construction and works projects. This sectoral approach dominated the next decade of RDRS' development intervention.

With this long-term sectoral emphasis also came the first efforts at a `target group approach' so that interventions were focused on selected Groups Member Households deemed to be the most needy and deserving. Other new approaches featured in this evolving development program. Food distribution was widely replaced by Food-for-Work schemes, medical services became more preventive rather than just curative, farmers were provided with seeds and implements a subsided rates rather than free of cost. Construction works started 30% local contribution of the cost. This was the beginning of RDRS's new partnership with the community. Major noteworthy achievements included the construction of the 35 mile long Rangpur-Kurigram road. A silk factory was established in Thakurgaon and 1000 families trained and assisted in sericulture. The Green Revolution arrived with improved high yielding varieties of seed and RDRS actively promoted crop diversification, including the introduction of wheat, potatoes and vegetables. Assistance was provided to farmers through cooperatives. Nutrition, health and family planning were extended to cover two Thanas. Health workers were trained to make home-visits to the clients. Social awareness and community motivation was emphasized in the various programs of hygiene, health preservation, kitchen gardens and savings. Landless or near landless were motivated to organize themselves. A Women's Activity Program was also started.

After the turn of decade new thinking and innovation began to become more pronounced and the words research, innovation, new approaches, feature prominently in RDRS literature. By 1993, RDRS' most famous innovation had been successfully developed - the treadle pump, a very low cost bamboo tube-well operated by feet for irrigation up to 1-2 acres of land. Over a decade later, the treadle pump is not only widely used throughout Bangladesh but in many neighbouring countries. RDRS also developed a handpump using bamboo tube-wells, primary school building design and concrete pipe culverts, intervention to control diarrhoea disease and a cheaper method of developing cottage silk yarn reeling by using a kerosene stove. In agriculture too, afforestation and low-cost ideas of composting, small-scale fishfarming and chicken/duck poultry scheme were introduced. In the health sector, the training of traditional birth attendants was introduced. Thinking on how to make the basic development approach more effective was also advancing during this period and this led to the adoption of a holistic or integrated approach.

Since programme policy had shifted to development assistance, RDRS changed its name to reflect this becoming Rangpur Dinajpur Rural Service.

5. Phase 3: Integrated Development and Expanded Impact (1988 - to date)

The limitations of applying a sectoral approach to a multifaceted problem such as poverty were becoming clearer as a result of the sectoral experience. As a result, a new phase of integrated development was launched by RDRS from 19988 onwards emphasisng empowerment and sustainable development, which strongly featured the conscientisation philosophy of Paulo Friere. Under the new comprehensive project, the intention was to achieve synergy by offering an integrated package of development education and services to the poor aimed at raising basic awareness and living standards. The covers three broad sectors and nine broad components


People's Organisation and mobilisation
Women's Rights and Gender Awareness
Education (Adult and Primary)
Primary Health Education & Service


Employment Generation

Environmental and Commmunity

Environment Management and Community Resource Development
Disaster Preparedness & Vulnerable Community development

This new approach also involved a substantial `scaling up' of work, and the number of beneficiaries increased massively. Today,a total of 12,500 Primary Groups are assisted at any one time, covering 250,000 families (or around 1.4 million people). Women have become the main focus of RDRS work in RDRS as in other NGOs, now accounting for over 60% of total beneficiaries. Higher-tier self-managed organisations of the poor known as Union Federations - Unions are the smallest unit of local Government - are gaining in strength with RDRS support. Now 260 such Federations are active.

RDRs itself as an organisation has undergone great changes but remains recognisable. It has now taken on the challenge of localisation - becoming autonomous from the Lutheran World Federation - a step into unknown territory after 25 years as an international organisation. This will allow the organisation to shoulder the full responsibility for its work, it will enable RDRS to play a fuller and more legitimate role in development, civil society and advocacy which is denied to international organisations. RDRS hopes the strong links with its loyal long-term supporting agencies such as Church of Sweden Aid will continue. The magnificent commitment shown by Church of Sweden to help RDRS and Bangladesh cope with catastrophe and start to drag itself out of poverty represents an outstanding example of Christian witness. Though the task is not yet complete, both organisations can take pride in helping to transform the desperate reality and thus the image of a troubled country.

6. Conclusion

Life has never been easy for Bangladesh and catastrophe is never far away. The `golden Bengal' of history, a time in previous centuries when the area was considered relatively prosperous, is a distant memory. For most nations, basic survival can be taken for granted, never for Bangladesh.

As the nation has grown mature, it has developed a sense of nationhood but this is still a passive identification rather than an active and deep commitment by all the people. The other pressures are more real. Bangladesh is just a river delta lying at sea level or below. Global warming and the rising ocean levels threatens to inundate the greater part of the country during the next century.

Bangladesh is also the most densely populated nation on earth with 125 million in a small land area (17 times the population of Sweden living on less than one-third the total land area). Dhaka, a city of 10 million, is fast becoming a megacity and there are signs of early industrialisation advancing. To accommodate this huge population burden and develop and economy which can support their livelihoods is a huge challenge. The accompanying social pressures may yet threaten new catastrophes (modern versus traditional, fundamentalist versus progressive, democratic versus feudal, rural versus urban, poor versus rich, women's emancipation, ethnic and religious friction, regional tensions in Burma, India, China or strains to relations caused by the emigration of Bangladeshis, trade, water and transport disputes).

Yet, Bangladesh has somehow defied gravity so far so may possess the resilience to survive in future. Bangladesh has already surmounted several and serial catastrophes in its short history. It will need this experience and expertise along with the continued support of its Northern partners in the years ahead while steadily acquiring full self-reliance.


Population 75 million (1971) 125 million (1996)
Life Expectancy 39.6 years (1960) 56 years (1993)
Adult Literacy 24% (1970) 37 % (1993)
Infant Mortality 156/1,000 (1960) 106/1,000 (1993)
Real GDP per capita $ 621 (1960) $ 1,291 (1993)

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