50. Journeys (11): Cox’s Bazar: a conference by the coast, a refugee centre and a coral island

I have spent the last week in the Cox’s Bazar district of the Chittagong division. (See post 8 pt. 13.) The VSO Annual Volunteer Conference took place in the Hotel Sea Crown, situated on the beach in Kola Toli, a few miles outside the town of Cox’s Bazar. Following the conference, I took the opportunity to visit the Kutapalong Rohingya refugee camps in Ukhia, and afterwards continued south to St. Martin’s island. Unfortunately, illness shadowed me on this trip and, for that reason, though there was much of interest, it wasn’t quite as enjoyable as previous journeys.

Conference: Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)

The theme of this year’s conference was monitoring and evaluation. On the first morning we had two very interesting presentations from guest speakers. Barsha Khattry, an economist at UNDP in Dhaka, provided a global picture of ‘poverty’, MDG progress and the UNDP Human Development Reports and indices. She showed us worked examples of how four of these indices are arrived at, which made them more real and understandable. (The four indices were the HDI, the HPI, the GDI and the GEM.) Incidentally, she used the same quote from Amartya Sen that I had used in my blog post on ‘Poverty’ – see post 30.

Following on from this global overview, the next presentation was from Monower Mostafa, research director at the Development Synergy Institute and a policy analyst with the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Bangladesh. He situated his presentation in the Bangladeshi context, and discussed poverty and the MDGs against the backdrop of the PRSP (Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper) and the NSAPR II (the National Strategy for Accelerated Poverty Reduction II). Finally, he took us through the monitoring and evaluation system used for the NSAPR II.

I enjoyed these two presentations. My thinking constantly shifts between the global and the local and so I had been reading a lot of this background material. It was a luxury though to sit back and have information presented so clearly and succinctly, in a way that helped consolidate and clarify certain areas for me. The rest of the conference focused on VSO’s monitoring and evaluation of its programmes in Bangladesh, and our (volunteers’) related monitoring and evaluation of work in our placements. Finally, the conference dealt with other issues of relevance to volunteers. (It transpired that there are a lot of unhappy volunteers in Bangladesh and the atmosphere at times was highly-charged.) I also had a couple of work-related meetings with the head of VSO in Bangladesh, and was surprised that she unaware of my work situation. I would have thought that volunteers’ quarterly reports would have been on her agenda, particularly if placements were proving problematic.

For me, much of the work and discussion on monitoring and evaluation didn’t make sense in the context of my placement (see post 25 and post 48). I used the time though to reflect on my work, and to read around issues in monitoring and evaluation in development contexts. From what I have read so far, there’s nothing very different to my personal experience of monitoring and evaluation in training, project management and research. I think I can safely conclude that I have read and thought enough about monitoring and evaluation in development at this stage (see also post 34 and post 48). What I need to do now is to observe, and work with, an effective and reputable monitoring and evaluation system that is operating successfully in the development sector.

In my work in Dhaka, there are so many anomalies in the way the placement is currently structured that monitoring and evaluation, not to mention participatory monitoring and evaluation, is nonsensical. The unequal power structure and the lack of a culture of sharing information militate against any kind of participatory monitoring and evaluation. In the first place, the principle of participatory development was flouted in the establishment of the placement (see post 48). The resulting resentment, disinterest and apathy made for weak identification of stakeholders and locally relevant indicators. I tried to tweak the existing monitoring and evaluation system (which would never work in my particular placement context) to make it more flexible and adaptable. This means though that my ‘results’ and potential ‘achievements’ do not fit within the VSO Bangladesh (VSOB) monitoring and evaluation framework. From what I have learnt at this conference, meaningful participatory monitoring and evaluation is weak in VSOB and this leaves me feeling disillusioned (see post 48 and post 34).

Consolation: Cox’s Bazar and the beach

The views from our hotel, to both left and right, are of a stunning and clean beach running to infinity in both directions. Cox’s Bazar is Bangladesh’s only beach ‘resort’. However, it’s very different from the western notion of a resort. The beach is undeniably beautiful, stretching as it does for 78 miles, or thereabouts. According to Bangladeshis, it’s the longest sea beach in the world (though I remember being on a 90-mile beach in New Zealand’s Northland). Beach culture is very different here from that in the West. Despite the length of the beach, people seem to crowd together on certain stretches whereas we, by contrast, seem drawn to the prospect of ‘space’. There is no sunbathing, though there are scattered clusters of sun loungers with umbrellas. Swimming is primarily the domain of men and boys, though in general there isn’t a lot of swimming either. Women stand at the water’s edge and if they do swim they do so fully clothed. Normally, I never miss an opportunity to swim: I have already swum in the Bay of Bengal (see post 38). This time though, the prospect of doing so fully clothed, and under the gaze of the crowd that I would inevitably attract, was just not that appealing. The fact that I was feeling ill was a factor too.

However, I had a few nice beach walks (albeit slow ones) from both the hotel-side and the town-side. It was good to hear the sound of the sea again. I’ve always lived close to the ocean and had been missing it. In front of our hotel, on the beach, there was a cluster of wooden, pagoda-style restaurants on stilts and on my first night, after checking out the local area, I stopped (or should I say dropped!) in at one of these – the Angel Drop – for a late night lassi.  It was magical sitting there listening to the waves rolling in underneath the building. I met a couple from Sylhet, San and Bushra, who had recently been married. A lovely little child came to our table and sang beautifully for us, for a little baksheesh (tip).

During the conference we took a trip south to Inani beach, stopping off at Himchari, a popular tourist spot where there is a hill and waterfall. There were nice views from the hill but the waterfall was waterless: even in the rainy season I would consider it a small waterfall. It reminded me of the ‘waterfall’ site in Shailopropat near Bandarban (see post 43). As in Shailopropat, there were tourist stalls selling local crafts and holiday bric-a-brac. On Inani beach, I met a group of children who were chasing crabs between rock pools. When they caught one of the unfortunate creatures they tied a piece of string to one of its legs and used it as a lead. The crabs were a rich red colour with protruding eyes. The children were full of fun and very interested in my camera and in taking photographs. I was headless in many of the pictures they took of me. I enjoyed their exuberance and their playfulness.

I moved into the town of Cox’s Bazar (the Renaissance Grand Hotel in Jhawtala) for a night after the conference. I liked the town, though I didn’t have the necessary energy to do it justice. I met a friendly guy called Max and visited his university with him, which was interesting. He brought me to see some white Buddhist stupas on a hill. I thought we were going to see the Buddhist monastery that I had read about. In any case, I met a lovely monk from Rangamati, with whom I lit incense sticks in some of the stupas. Later that afternoon, I had tea with a law student called Abu in a very atmospheric bakery and tea shop. (I came back here for breakfast the following morning: I have never got so much for 50 taka (less than 50 cent): I had 2 coffees, 2 delicious, freshly-baked, warm muffins and a mango juice.) Abu invited me to visit his home and so we took a rickshaw to a large, stone house at the edge of town. What was interesting about this visit was the fact that his father had married twice, and he introduced me to his two ‘mothers’ and some of his siblings. Abu told me that he felt privileged to have two mothers, both of whom get on well together and share the household workload.

I spent much of my day walking on the beach. During parts of the walk, I was completely alone until suddenly I would arrive in an area buzzing with activity. I happened upon a busy, beach market; a group of children gathered in awe around a dead turtle; and most spectacularly, a Hindu festival. People were carrying colourfully-decorated, life-sized statues and straw effigies on platforms into the water, amidst drumming and singing and incense-burning. I met lifeguards, Buddhist monks, a fashion designer, Imran, from Dhaka and a UPF volunteer, William, from the US. I took a much-needed break for coffee at the Sea Stone Café in Kola Toli. The coffee was really good. (‘Just the ticket’, as Faunia Farley might say in Philip Roth’s, The Human Stain, which I’m currently reading.) I had been at this café the night before with the VSO group, but hadn’t enjoyed it much. I was glad I made it back. It was so peaceful – a leafy, bamboo oasis in the midst of the surrounding concrete. There’s a lot of construction going on in Cox’s Bazar along the beach, none of it very sensitive unfortunately. Just as I was about to leave the Sea Stone I met Shahin, who had designed this café, as well as the similar Mermaid Café next door, and he invited me to join him. He has lived overseas for years (in Germany and in the US) and we had a very interesting conversation about Bangladesh, architecture, travel and music (he is also a musician). I enjoyed his company. It felt good to sit in the shade: it was a blisteringly hot day. Although there were lovely outdoor tables, everybody was sitting indoors to escape the heat.

Kutapalong Rohingya refugee camps near Ukhia

In the Cox’s Bazar district there are four Rohingya refugee sites. There is both an official and unofficial refugee site in Ukhia and in Nayapara. I visited the two camps in Ukhia. The Rohingya are a Myanmar (Burmese) Muslim minority who fled persecution from the military dictatorship. Although the Rohingya have lived in Burma for hundreds of years, they are treated as illegal immigrants and are not counted amongst the country’s 130 or so ethnic groups in the population of 55 million. In their ‘home country’ they require permits to travel and to marry and are barred from higher education in professions such as law and medicine. They are effectively, officially stateless.

There have been two large influxes of refugees into Bangladesh, one in the late 70s and the other in the early 90s, numbering around 250,000 people each time. Large scale repatriation followed, sometimes involuntary. At present there are 29,000 recognised refugees hosted by Bangladesh and an estimated 36,000 who have clustered in unofficial camps near the official sites. There are thought to be many more undocumented Rohingya living unofficially in the district, and throughout Bangladesh.

On the bus journey from Cox’s Bazar to Ukhia I chatted to two local men, who had reasonably good English, about the refugee situation. While they were sympathetic to the plight of their Muslim brethren, they also highlighted the many problems that Bengalis must face in the daily struggle for survival. They told me that many local people are very angry because refugees are getting everything ‘free’ (e.g. housing, food, water, fuel, healthcare, etc.), while Bengali poor people must struggle daily to try to put rice on the table, or cope with the fallout from yet another natural disaster. A third man joined in and told me (through translation by another man) that there are stories about women in the camps being given brand new sewing machines to enable them to earn a living, while local, poor, Bengali women could never hope to own such a luxury. They told me that children in the camp go to school, while many Bengali children must work long hours in order that their families may eat.

Having witnessed for myself the extreme poverty and everyday struggle being described to me by these reasonable men on the bus, I could very much understand and empathise with their points of view. Bangladesh, as a country, is not in a position to cope with a refugee problem of this scale and longevity. Kutapalong, near Ukhia, the town I visited, has not benefited from the economic growth, albeit modest, that other parts of Bangladesh have experienced.

There is no doubt that life is difficult for the refugees, particularly in the unofficial camps. Freedom is curtailed, as it was in Myanmar (Burma). I was only allowed to go so far in the official UNHCR camp, but what I saw looked pleasant and well-maintained. The unofficial camp had a more makeshift appearance. Unfortunately, I didn’t gain a lot of insight from my visit because of the language barrier: I didn’t have conversations with any of the refugees. Of all the places I visited in Bangladesh, Kutapalong has been the least ‘friendly’. I could sense the tension in the town. Ultimately, I think that instead of criticising the Bangladeshi handling of the refugee problem, there needs to be more international support for Bangladesh in this respect, and a focus on tackling the source of the problem in Myanmar (Burma).

While this journey was difficult to organise, and ultimately frustrating in that I wasn’t allowed to enter the official camp, I am glad I made the effort. Because I didn’t meet people I could talk to in the camps, I was prompted to find out more about the issues surrounding the Rohingya refugee crisis. I remember seeing Burmese refugee camps in northern Thailand in the 1990s near Mae Hong Son. (I failed to get to Burma on that occasion too, as I have failed on this occasion – see post 33.) You can read more about the Rohingya refugee situation on the UNHCR website. You will find reports, videos and photographs there, including the photographic exhibition, Living Silence: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, by award-winning photographer Saiful Huq Omi. You can watch a video too portraying the story of Noor Jahan, who fled Myanmar (Burma) in 1992: in this clip she talks about her life in the camp.

Finally, below is a video from Amnesty International on the plight of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.

St. Martin’s Island (Narikel Zingira)

I had heard a lot about St. Martin’s Island, the only place in Bangladesh where coral colonies are found, and a popular tourist destination. To get there I had to first get to Teknaf. Leaving the townscape and beaches of Cox’s Bazar behind, I travelled south by bus through hill-framed, gentle, rural landscape. Unfortunately, I discovered that I had missed the last ferry from Teknaf, as did a group of students from Dhaka. We joined together and decided we’d try to hire a small, local boat. I didn’t feel very well and I have to admit that I left all the negotiations to the boys. They were so kind: they bought me tea and energy biscuits while we waited. Eventually, a deal was struck and we boarded a small, traditional boat. It was rather uncomfortable, but characterful. If I had been feeling better I would have been ecstatic. Still, I appreciated being out on the water in the Bay of Bengal. And it was amazing to pass so close to the coast of Burma: at one stage, with the help of my zoom lens, I could see a golden temple sitting by the water.

St. Martin’s island, known locally as Coconut Island, is 5.5 ml. (9km) south of the tip of the Cox’s Bazar-Teknaf peninsula, and 5 miles (8 km) west of the northwest coast of Burma, at the mouth of the Naf River. It has an area of 3ml2 (8km2). Most of the island’s 7000 inhabitants live primarily from fishing, and between October and April fishermen from neighbouring areas bring their catch to the island’s temporary wholesale market. Rice and coconuts are the other staple crops.  Algae is collected and dried from the sea rocks and sold for consumption to Burma.

As we approached the island in our little boat, there were crowds waiting to board big ferries that would take them to the mainland. Even coral islands have crowds in Bangladesh! I was to discover that this was a regular pattern. Day trippers arrive in huge numbers every morning and leave in the evening. After seeing a dark and rather depressing room in a guest house, I decided to splash out and stay in the more upmarket Blue Marine Hotel on Delpara.  There are no single room rates (naturally!) but the very charming manager gave me a small reduction. My room, 310, was sunny, clean and marine, decorated, as it was, in blue and white.  From my balcony there was a definite tropical island vibe.

Although I wanted to fall into bed, I forced myself to explore a little before darkness fell. I walked around the north and north-west of the island that first evening and watched a lovely, though brief, sunset. I met a lot of people, including holidaymakers, local children and coral sellers.  I decided to walk back through the middle of the island. There’s no electricity on the island and while that made it a bit difficult to walk on the uneven terrain, the candles and paraffin lamps in the houses along the sandy path made for very atmospheric scenes. In the hotel restaurant that night I met some friendly folk, mostly large, extended-family groups on holiday. I was the subject of quite a few photo shoots. The hotel has a generator which provides electricity from 6p.m. till 11p.m. When I got back to my room I found a hurricane lamp on a hook on the wall and it cast cosy shadows in the darkness.  The lack of any noise from traffic was noticeable.

I awoke the following morning to howling dogs: I had seen them on the beach the evening before. I had noticed them because it was one of the few times that I had seen dogs in Bangladesh. After breakfast, I explored the bustling market area.  Later, I went to the pier to see if I could get a boat to Chera Dwip (see map), but nobody was willing to make the trip with just one passenger, which was understandable. (If I was feeling well, I could easily have walked there.) I could have sat around on the pier on the off-chance that a group would come along, but I didn’t want to waste my time waiting. Instead, I spent my last few hours wandering along the beach towards the south of the island, admiring the colourful boats bobbing in the bay and trying to avoid crushing sea shells underfoot.

I enjoyed my brief visit to St. Martin’s Island: however, if I had been feeling better I would like to have gone swimming and snorkelling near the reefs. I would have done much more walking too and maybe taken a boat trip. Regrettably, I didn’t meet as many local people as I would have liked to. Maybe I will come back one day. I got a large ferry back to the mainland. By this time I was feeling extraordinarily weak, but with the help of a gorgeous little boy who carried my luggage and another (also gorgeous!) guy called Reza, who was in the army, I finally collapsed into an overnight coach bound for Dhaka.

I have read reports on the island that point to the detrimental effects of unregulated tourism and unplanned infrastructural development on its unique ecosystem. The UNDP has produced one such interesting report. It presents a profile of the island outlining its biodiversity and the challenges for conservation. It also suggests the sorts of policies and programme actions that need to be implemented to protect this fragile environment. It’s an interesting read for anyone who wants to know more about the island. Below is a related video clip.

Finally, here are a few photographs from my trip. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (100 photographs in all). Enjoy!

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2 responses to “50. Journeys (11): Cox’s Bazar: a conference by the coast, a refugee centre and a coral island

  1. Very well described. Would welcome description of daily life, food, social issues, education and poverty upliftment programs. How did you find living with a daily life which changes very little over time? What about medical facilities, tourist trade, and marine life based activities? Like to know more about volunteer opportunities to help local industries and businesses, eco-tourism, fishing, boat-building, micro-finance, small business skills training. I have worked in scotland, england, nigeria, ghana, togo, senegal, niger, greece, india, china, brazil, costa rica and usa (california) – I now live in California. Loved Ireland – Connemara, Dublin and Western Ireland. St. Martin’s Island sounds very interesting reminds me of micronesia (marshall islands, palay, majuro).
    Loved the post – very entertaining. Regards, Mo

    • Thank you for your comment Mo. You certainly have a very interesting work history: I’m a little jealous :?.

      To answer your questions: I have written on almost all of the subjects you ask about in various posts throughout my blog, but from my own perspective, and through my particular experiences over a year of living in Bangladesh. However, where possible, I have tried to provide links to more objective data, e.g. official data sources, statistics and other information related to whatever topic(s) I am writing about in a particular post. (It was my aim to provide as balanced an account as possible.)

      With regard to your question re volunteering, I am not, unfortunately, familiar with the volunteering landscape in the US, but I would suggest that you target NGOs working in the areas you are interested in to begin with. Perhaps you could also contact some of the Bangladeshi NGOs I refer to in post 8. I hope this is helpful. Wishing you every success with your future volunteering. Thanks again for commenting.

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