Natural disasters, a history of corruption, high population density, and extreme poverty. Am I talking about Haiti or Bangladesh? When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Port au Prince and brought devastation, the usual providers of humanitarian aid raced to the scene. But this time Bangladesh, long the recipient of such emergency services, is on the giving end. A 30 person medical team is poised to depart Dhaka for Haiti imminently.
Both countries linger towards the lower end of the World Bank’s 2008 per capita Gross Domestic Product estimates with Bangladesh coming in at 143 and Haiti at 146 in the list of 166 nations. Both countries receive aid for natural disasters from the World Bank and others, but Bangladesh has learned a lot about disaster management since its liberation in 1971. Famine, cyclones, and floods present a seemingly endless cycle of challenges. Building storm shelters and barricades, educating the enormous population on response, establishing permanent means of early warning, and coordinating disaster response have all served to mitigate the impact of the unavoidable.
Recent examples include the relative success in Bangladesh in terms of lives saved and response coordination after Cyclone Sidr in November 2007 versus the devastating loss of life (more than 138,000) after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Similar systems of coordinating aid response may have further helped devastated areas after the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2005.
I have been amazed by the sincere concern of my Bangladeshi friends and colleagues toward the citizens of Haiti—so small and so far away from our home. Six Bangladeshi police force were on assignment as UN peacekeepers in Haiti at the time of the earthquake, which may have brought the kinship closer. But there is solidarity in being able to lend a helping hand.
Tracey Koehlmoos is programme head for health and family planning systems at ICDDR,B and ajunct professor at the James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.