'I see this as my exit interview, so let me tell you…': Outgoing UNDP Resident Representative Bangladesh

The Business Standard recently sat down with Sudipto Mukerjee, the outgoing Resident Representative of UNDP Bangladesh, at his office to speak about issues that are close to him and his professional (and personal) journey in the country as his job sends him next to the Middle East

September 3, 2022

Resident Representative of UNDP Bangladesh Sudipto Mukerjee. Photo: Noor-A-Alam

The Interview was first published in The Business Standard Click here to read the original publication.

After nearly six years in Bangladesh, Sudipto Mukerjee is all set to catch a flight to the Middle East today (1 September) and five days later, start working at his new posting in Damascus, Syria. He completed his last official working day in Dhaka's Agargaon office on a recent Thursday with a heavy heart.

Mukerjee, with nearly 30 years of working experience in international development across Iraq, Sierra Leone and Bangladesh under his belt, spoke with The Business Standard on an array of topics, ranging from climate change, women empowerment, the Rohingya community, migration, development challenges and, of course, his journey as a Resident Representative.

This is an edited and shortened version of the interview for clarity.

You have emphasised climate change and its effects, specifically climate refugees. In December 2018, the government and the UNDP signed a $33 million agreement for a climate adaptation project with the objective to "enhance the adaptive capacity of coastal communities, especially women to cope with climate change-induced salinity." Can you tell us where this project stands now?

When the Covid-19 lockdowns started to take effect, we [also] saw reverse migration taking place. Everyone started to go back to their village towns. But those who had been displaced because of climate change didn't have a place to return to.

They were stuck there [in the cities] and they had to go through the lockdown impacts.

I have always been advocating [for a few things]. To begin with, the places which are at risk of climate change and we know where there will be large-scale displacement in future, for the people residing there, [especially] the young people who will face the biggest brunt of climate change and eventual displacement, we should think about whether we can actually creatively think of some skilling programmes, I will say portable skills, the ones you can carry, and which will help them fit better and cope with the urban labour market.

Secondly, the cities also need to be prepared to be able to absorb these large influxes of people. If we look at Dhaka — which is increasingly bursting at the seams and becoming less liveable. After a certain size, we have to understand that the per capita cost of city life increases.

[For instance] if earlier, I had to take solid waste 5km away for disposal, now I have to take it 15 km far out. We have to see Bangladesh as a whole, not just city-wise. And we must make migration or displacement, in a way, easy, affordable and dignified as much as possible.

Our job is to actually help work alongside the government, both identify and understand in better appreciation of the problem [and] where solutions lie. And then the possibility of piloting potential solutions. This is an area where we are better placed than any government because in most bureaucracies, the space for experimentation is extremely limited. This is where international agencies come in. And when [and if] there is success [with the pilot projects], we can help them look at policy and programmatic solutions which will help them [govt] to scale up solutions.

Thus, all the programmes that we have done in regard to climate change, you can say are innovations, especially in the area of adaptation.

The $33 million project came from the Green Climate Fund - a coastal adaptation programme. Initially, we were supposed to work in six districts, but we first started with two. There were three components: 1) How to get affected communities to adopt alternative adaptive livelihoods, 2) how to improve access to potable water and 3) some capacity building so that the community as well as local authorities are able to sustain the gains. 

In the case of the drinking water, we have introduced  rainwater harvesting, both at the household level and community level - which means local school grounds, union parishad complexes and then try and introduce governance measures to ensure equal access, keeping in mind the added complexities of any shared or public facility in terms of operations and maintenance.

We have already completed most of the installations at the household level. We are also fairly advanced in completing the facilities at the community level. And [now] in the process of handing them over. And we want to make sure that these facilities are subsequently properly  managed and maintained.

In the next two years, whether through local community structures or through public-private partnerships, [we want to make sure authorities] are able to operate and maintain the investments or the new facilities that have been created.

On the issue of livelihoods, at first, we targeted 24,000 - all women.

From my personal nearly 30 years of experience in international development, [with] every taka invested on a woman, the returns are significantly higher because it impacts on her, her family and the community. It's proven in every corner of the world, it's not Bangladesh specific. Anywhere in the world, [when] you invest in a woman, returns are multifold. Simply because when you ask a woman what she does with extra income, they will say better food for her children, better education for her children. Their investments are always family-focused, [and] community-focused.

To more than 50%, more than 12,500, the first round of capacity building has been completed. These are not livelihood options that have been imposed on them. We gave them a menu of options to choose from. And they themselves identified eight options and we are equipping them with the needed skills.

They have been provided training [and some additional inputs necessary for startup businesses]. One of the inequities, [especially in the] Covid-19 era, is the lack of a smartphone. So we tried to crack that. Connect all these businesses to digital markets, for which financial inclusion, and digital inclusion are very important.

[Additionally] we are trying to see who else is in the market [to offer the same]. UNDP has joined hands with many partners. [This can] make a much bigger impact.

Thus far, we have reached 43,000 women due to government funds and support. This success will be significantly amplified or expanded and accelerated through natural resources and natural budgets.

We bring change with small amounts of money and influence. Thereafter when the government starts financing them through national budgets, the impact will be much, much bigger. And that's exactly what we are planning to do. I think that success is beginning to happen, which is changing the whole public approach to this kind of climate action.

What are the current challenges that impede women's empowerment specifically in rural Bangladesh?

I am from the region [West Bengal, India]. I probably have insight that is quite different from those who sat in my position before.

The challenges are actually multi-fold. Whenever there is uncertainty because of natural disaster [or] climate change. There is always the tendency for parents to marry off their young daughters. Because they still see them as a burden. This deprives girls of the full opportunity of accessing education. That's one reality.

The more disaster-affected an area is, the more this occurs and the situation was exacerbated with the pandemic induced school closures. Even among those that are more affluent, we see a tendency to invest more on a boy child than on a girl child. Of course this is not the case in affluent families.

Another thing we see is that - and this represents a larger picture - is [the socio-economic effect] of one of the second biggest foreign exchange earnings: our remittances. This shows the scale of people going out of the country to earn money.

And some of our microscopic studies found this: At first when they earn money, they pay off loans/debts. Second, money is spent on improvements to the house. For instance, tin shed houses become cement houses.

The third thing they do, if the wife is working, they tell the wife to leave the job because the money is no longer needed. That the woman no longer needs to go outside. Now earning money for the woman is not only about income, it is an identity issue [too].

Outside [homes], women are able to potentially influence public policy. For instance, if there are no women in the public space [to begin with], then how can we have a policy on women's safety in public spaces? That's also a problem.

Also, typically what happens is that the distribution of [household care] responsibility skews toward women. Even when we look at [climate change] displacement. At first, the men come to the city while the women stay back. And their burden of care for the family disproportionately increases.

Globally, in cases of forced migration, the ones who are the most capable, leave first. And the ones most vulnerable or poor, cannot go. They remain back. That's a reality. It is the women who come last. And you can imagine, for a woman, how much worse life is in urban slums than men.

What we saw, during Covid19 [lockdowns], [with] enough statistical data that domestic violence, intimate partner violence increased.