After Rana Plaza

Why were NGOs left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza factory collapse?

Shahadat Hossain Samina Luthfa
7 February 2014

A decade ago, it would have been extremely hard to find an NGO in Bangladesh working to support the country's “poor”. After independence an influx in NGO-work led to growing mistrust of NGO-isation of the Bangladeshi state and subsequently a general withdrawal of NGO services. Recently however, there has been somewhat of an NGO-renaissance in the suburbs, due to increasing migration of the country's displaced rural workers to the capital's peripheries.

Those living in Bangladesh’s urban-peripheries are becoming increasingly dependent on services provided by the NGOs. While the slow-burning replacement of the state by the NGOs in basic health, education, nutrition services and so on, is perhaps not a new story to come out of a Bangladesh, nor indeed the UK; what is surprising is that even during the worst of national disasters, the state remains similarly apathetic, unmoved and distant in supporting its people. The now internationally infamous Rana Plaza disaster is a classic example of state failure and concurrent NGO-isation of basic services, after Rana Plaza it was non-state agencies and not the elected state that carried responsibility for the rescue operation, relief and the rehabilitation of victims.    

NGOs in Savar

Savar is one of the fastest growing peripheral areas of Dhaka where a huge number of people from rural areas make their home every day. Macroeconomic structural adjustment policies introduced throughout the 1990s have caused widespread de-agrarianisation of the countryside and the emergence of manufacturing industries, especially readymade garment production, in urban-peripheries has caused a race to the suburbs by the rural-displaced; in amongst this Savar emerged as Bangladesh's centre of readymade garment exports.

With the growth of the industrial population in Savar, and the rolling-back of state services in the 1990s, Savar has also become a hotspot of NGO activity. A great many NGOs focus on supporting people with work-related injuries; an often ominous sign of poor workplace conditions. For example, the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed (CRP), the Centre for Disability in Development (CDD) and Gono Shasthaya Kendra, all provide health and rehabilitation services to the local worker communities in Savar. And as one might expect, numerous local initiatives popped up in Savar after the collapse of Rana Plaza, indeed during this period, it would be difficult to find an NGO not somehow involved in providing support to the victims of disaster. Thus we decided to probe into the newly emerging NGO-complex in the post-Rana Plaza era.

After Rana Plaza

The 24th April 2013 disaster at Rana Plaza – a garment factory in Savar-- killed at least 1129 people and is the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. Some refer to it as the world’s worst industrial accident since the Bhopal gas leak in India, 1984. It was however neither the first nor last industrial disaster in the Bangladesh’s apparel industry. More than 700 workers have died in workplace fires since 2005. However, the Rana Plaza collapse attracted world-wide attention to working conditions in Savar for the first time, and was termed a ‘murder’, ‘crime against humanity’, ‘genocide’, ‘corporate manslaughter’, and a ‘holocaust’ by Bangladeshi media, even invoking Pope Francis to denounce conditions of garments workers as ‘slave labour’.    

The victims and local communities we interviewed were mostly critical of the role of the government during the post-disaster period. According to them, the local administration could have, but didn’t respond quickly enough, condemning many to their deaths. Both during the disaster and in its aftermath, there remained a striking absence of any notable disaster initiative from the Savar administration. Although volunteers and local communities desperately participated in the rescue, the local administration was reluctant and slow in the rescue attempts. A local MP from the ruling party indeed came to protect Mr. Rana, the owner of the plaza from attack by local people. Muhit, a volunteer who joined the rescue work from the first day of the collapse commented, ‘The local MP came to save Mr. Rana and quickly left with him. If he stayed there for some time, the local administration could have taken necessary steps immediately.’

Volunteers and members of the community who participated in the rescue also criticized the role of government security forces in rescue attempts. According to them, these agencies could have taken a more effective role and done much more to save lives. They blamed the bureaucratic procedures of state agencies for the delay in state participation in the rescue. Kakon, a volunteer noted, ‘the authorities were not prepared to work in such a severe situation. We found them renting cranes needed for the rescue from private companies like Orin Group and Beximco.’

Another issue was the immediate health care provision afforded to disaster victims. In the aftermath of the disaster, due to low capacity at local public hospitals, the majority of victims were taken to private hospitals. Enam Medical Hospital, a private health service provider in Savar, for example, cleared most of it's floors for the victims. One of the doctors working in the hospital explains his experience of handling such a huge number of victims. He noted, ‘we extended all our support to the victims as they had limited options to go to other hospitals. We all worked hard for the victims from a sense of humanity.’ The fact is however, the overwhelming dependence of the victims on this one private hospital made only more evident the lack of provision of public hospitals in Savar.

Gonoshasthaya Kendra and the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed also played an important role in supporting Rana Plaza victims. The CRP predominately provided tertiary medical support to the victims through long term treatment and rehabilitation programmes. As far as we could ascertain, victims trusted CRP and preferred staying there rather than going to public hospitals. A number of victims sent to public hospitals returned to CRP after taking release from there complaining of negligence. Ripon Mia, who severely injured his spine in the disaster, explains his experience in hospital: ‘nobody cared for me there (Dhaka Medical College Hospital) although I cried and cried for an hour due to pain. At last one of the doctors attended me and provided some medication. Once I felt better, I moved here (CRP) to get better treatment’.

During the post-disaster period the victims desperately needed help to resettle into employment in order to keep up with payments, rents etc. The government however failed to take any meaningful initiative to help victims return to the workforce. Again, it was the NGOs that provided employment training to the victims. While visiting the employment training centre of the CRP, we found a number of victims of Rana Plaza who were taking training for income generating activities. Most of them were severely injured and unable and unwilling to return to the garments factories for employment. They were receiving various forms of training including sewing, electric and electronic works, and business management etc. Rehana Akhter, a victim who lost her legs in the disaster was taking training on sewing so that she can do something with her life. Alauddin, a young man age of 20 years was found receiving training on electric and electronics. He also wants to start a new life with the employment training received from CRP. These victims depend on the training provided by the NGO as they have no access to any kind of rehabilitative training from the government. It is patently clear that greater investment in the public sector is essential to help the victims of this tragic disaster.    

The State, the private sector and the victims

Many speculate that much of the non-governmental and private sector involvement in post-disaster service provision, including private donations to victims and private medical provision, was carried out in order to curry favour with the government. 

Privatization of medical provision under neoliberal reforms has led to the development of a huge number of private medical service providers in Dhaka and the surrounding areas; of course the poor have limited access to these services due to the high levels of fees while a very profitable private health industry has been built. Privatization of medical services, has of course had a huge impact on public health provision, serving to justify under-spending and undermine the capacity of public services, such that they are broadly unable to provide a sufficient service. While, medical professionals working in public hospitals increasingly render their services to private hospitals which further limit public capacity. However, it was only in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster that we saw such high levels of involvement in public health provision by the private sector and particularly by one single institution; the Enam Medical Hospital. We recently came to understand that the owner of the hospital was nominated from the ruling party as their candidate of the 10th national election held in January 2014; typical of the nexus of power between the non-state actors and the ruling party politicians in contemporary urban Bangladesh.

Since the disaster, the state has had an equally poor record in siding with the interests of the private sector and a local comprador class over the victim-population. It is well known that Rana plaza’s collapse was a manmade disaster, one which the corporate world, and particularly garment industry and it local allies, were highly culpable. The private sector had a responsibility to provide adequate compensation to the victims, a responsibility the state wholly failed to enforce. Aside some support government-support to severely injured victims, for example to those who lost limbs in the disaster, there has thus far been no compensation paid out. Still there remains hope and campaigns continue to achieve small pots of compensation. A number of initiatives have been taken by INGOs like Oxfam globally. But it is important to question whether the human rights movement is effective for the workers' struggle, as complicit they are with neoliberal governance. The fact is, INGOs mostly receive funding from neoliberal actors for campaigns and development activities, it is difficult for them to take a bold stance against their very own paymasters.   

The NGO-isation of post-disaster services must be viewed as directly linked to withdrawal of public services under the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s, complicated by the tight nexus of power between the private sector and the state in contemporary Bangladesh. And despite widespread participation in electoral politics, the authorities seem to remain untouchable. Despite democracy and despite tragedy, the working-poor who drive the country's export-economy must be somehow satisfied with the charitable, fragmented, services of the NGO and private sectors.

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