Stories from Bhola – Learning from approaches and experiences of Watershed Bangladesh

Civic Action,Climate & Natural resources,Poverty & Inequality07 Oct 2020Yannicke Goris

Earlier this year, The Broker, in a short project commissioned by Simavi, turned its gaze to South-East Asia – to Bangladesh. There, in the hard to reach coastal district Bhola, at the heart of the Ganges delta, three of Simavi’s local partners have implemented the ‘Watershed-Empowering Citizens’ programme. While evaluation reports show that the Watershed programme in Bangladesh has yielded positive results, capturing in detail what happened ‘on the ground’ has proven very difficult. How exactly did the implementing partners realise the positive change? And how did community members experience the Watershed programme? It was up to The Broker to bring to light these stories and draw lessons from the implemented approaches for future programmes and collaborations.

‘Watershed-Empowering Citizens’ is a five-year partnership (2016 – 2020) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, IRC, Simavi, Wetlands International and Akvo. The programme, the primary aim of which is to build capacity of civil society organisations (CSOs), is being implemented in six countries: Uganda, Kenya, Mali, Ghana, India and Bangladesh. 

The main aim of the Watershed programme is to strengthen capacity of CSOs to advocate and lobby in the interrelated fields of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM) and Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) to ensure equity and social inclusion, as well as sustainable usage of water resources. By making the voices of citizens –and especially of the most marginalised– heard and strengthening governance and accountability, Watershed seeks to contribute to the Sustainable Development Goal for universal access to water and sanitation services and water security (SDG 6).

To answer the key questions of this project and bring to light the experiences of the people involved, The Broker started with conducting a brief desk study, distilling relevant information from project documentation. Thereafter, multiple in-depth interviews were held with representatives of Simavi and all the implementing partners: Development Organisation of the Rural Poor (DORP), Gender and Water Alliance (GWA) Bangladesh, and WaterAid Bangladesh. The original plan was to have local researchers interview community members in Bhola but unfortunately the COVID-19 pandemic made such on-sight visits impossible. Luckily, and with the help of a translator, it was possible to interview one member of a local boat-dwelling community: the inspiring Kohinoor Begum.



Despite the limitations caused by COVID-19, the rich input of the interviewees, combined with the story of Kohinoor, was enough for The Broker to formulate an insightful report: Capacity building in Bhola: Identifying approaches and experiences of implementers and local communities in the Watershed programme in Bangladesh. The report – which can also be found on the Watershed website, in addition to more information about the programme- captures some important lessons for members of the Watershed consortium as well as for the wider development community. Some of the main take-aways include:

  • The interplay between power dynamics, confidence and culture can form a barrier in effective communication, collaboration and evaluation.
    For example, the fast and direct style of dialogue and reporting that Northern partners are used to, does not necessarily match with conventions of our Southern partners. This can make open and equal communication and mutual understanding difficult and warrants reflection on the part of all Northern organisations. If the intention is to work together as equals and put the implementing parties in the lead as much as possible, we should question the way in which the ‘Northern communication model’ is often imposed on our Southern partners.
  • Identifying the most marginalised communities ‘on sight’ should be an integral part of programme start-up.
    Rather than deciding beforehand who the most marginalised are, the Watershed Bangladesh programme shows that going into the field to determine which communities are excluded is the most effective way. From the very start, approaches can be targeted to the right people and relationships with the most marginalised can be built straight away.
  • To lower the threshold for marginalised communities to join activities that demand their time-investment thoughtful interventions are needed sensitive to the barriers they face.
    Successful measures in Bangladesh included 1) organising additional meetings in the area so community members did not need to travel, saving time and effort; 2) bringing along members of other local, marginalised communities when first establishing contact with new communities; 3) approaching communities with great patience and cultural sensitivity, avoiding putting pressure on community members.
  • Successfully setting up an inclusive local CSO will benefit from various factors and approaches, including: 1) using pre-established local networks; 2) adopting a special focus on gender inclusion in member-recruitment; 3) approaching the inclusion of stigmatised groups with great cultural sensitivity, beginning by facilitating open dialogue to build trust and understanding over time.
  • Realising a transformation in confidence and mindset takes patience, time and the involvement of leaders of the community. In Bhola the most outspoken and leading community members were made aware of their power and responsibility to engage those members who are often quiet and invisible. In this way, building an inclusive and resilient community, where even the most marginalised gain confidence, becomes a joint effort.

For more lessons, inspiring approaches to capacity building, and the full story of Kohinoor Begum, download the full report and watch the video Building Bridges in Bhola below: