When Cyclone Aila tore across Southern Bangladesh in 2009, whole villages were almost wiped from the map. As waves crashed through embankments, huts built without foundations and supports quickly disappeared beneath the surging water. When the rains stopped, tens of thousands found themselves homeless. Among them was Khadija Begum.
On paper, Khadija is one of the lucky ones. While thousands were forced to shelter in schools and hospitals for over two years, and she was selected by the government for one of 2003 cyclone-resistant houses. A project was undertaken with national climate funds to build durable accommodation made of iron rods and cement. Unfortunately, for Khadija, the project did not deliver on its promises.
“Home!” she says, gesturing to a half-finished frame of a building, “is it a home?” Each house was assigned US$1400 to cover the costs of construction, yet the builders did not even finish the basic structure. Her new home is no more than a floor and a roof, supported by four pillars. She has no running water and no toilet.
The department in charge says it offered residents the chance to complete their homes themselves to enhance local ‘ownership’. For people like Khadija, who lives alone with her orphan granddaughter, the suggestion seemed absurd. With no income to support them, they cannot even afford a bag of cement, she says.
According to local people, the issue lies with the builders who were subcontracted to carry out the work. These local contractors were not officially accountable to anyone, they say, nor was their work properly monitored by local government officials.
Captured on film, Khadija’s story quickly attracted attention in Bangladesh. But hers was just one of many tales we heard when we visited the affected areas. Together, they paint a powerful picture of what happens when projects fail to listen to and address the needs of the communities involved, and spending goes unchecked and unaccounted for. As Khadija’s story shows, change is needed urgently.