Mohammed Zahidur Rahaman is a development professional with experience in programme designing, implementation, coordination and multi-donor management spanning Asia and Africa in strategic and operational capacity. He holds a master’s degree in Science, Geography and Environment from University of Dhaka. He is experienced in fundraising, networking and partnership. He has worked for Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC) as a Senior Manager Operations in Nepal. He’s currently working with a UN agency as a National Program Officer in Bangladesh. In an interview with KathmanduPati, he shares his experiences working in the development sector, what they have taught him and how development in countries like Nepal and Bangladesh countries can be sustained.
You have dedicated a lot of your life in the development sector, having worked in many international organizations. What inspired, motivated, or made you want to work in this particular field?
I have been working in the development sector for around 14 years, and many things inspired me to do so. One of the first things is that I am a citizen of Bangladesh, which is a developing country, and from the very beginning of my life have seen issues such as poverty and unemployment. Back in the 90’s, Bangladesh had more than 40 to 50 percent of its population under the poverty line, four to 5 percent were unemployed, and the infrastructure was very weak. Being aware of these things, I felt compelled to work in this sector so that I could contribute to the development of my country.
I began my studies in the humanitarian sector, specifically development, gender equity and microeconomics. Then I joined BRAC in 2008, where they were doing a lot of research and implementation of knowledge at the field level. Their projects appealed to me, and I joined them so that I could contribute more towards vulnerable communities. There were also huge opportunities in this sector because there are huge gaps and challenges that needed to be filled, and which young people and professionals were more than capable of filling.
You’ve traveled to various countries including Nepal, Bangladesh, South Sudan, and Uganda as a part of your work with many different organizations. How would you describe your professional journey so far?
After getting a Masters degree from the Geography and Environment department of Dhaka University, I began research in Geographical Information Systems, where I implemented technology in urban development. I then worked for the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research in Bangladesh (ICDDRB). After seeing a gap in how the findings of research were not always implemented in the field, I felt the need to contribute more. In the meantime, BRAC had put out an opportunity for young professionals in the development sectors, where they were training mid-level managers for higher-level leadership professions. I was there for a year in both classroom and practical settings. After my training ended, I was deployed to the disaster, environment and climate change program for Bangladesh, where I found that a lot of contribution was needed in direct disaster response.
However, responding to the community was not enough, so we began to support the development of Standard Operating Procedures as well as capacity development. We provided 8,500 mid-level manager training at BRAC on disaster management. I was transferred to South Sudan for three years based on my learnings and experiences in Bangladesh, and there I implemented various projects. Then I worked in Nepal, where I took various initiatives in both urban and rural areas with the help of my prior experiences. I am now again in Bangladesh, where I work in the health sector and towards hunger response at the World Food Programme. My professional journey thus far has been connected, from one experience to another.
In your experience, are there differences in how development organizations operate and run, or are they all the same?
All organizations operate differently in terms of activities, policies and modalities. Categorically, some of them are national organizations, while others are international. BRAC, for example, is operating in more than 10 countries whereas Oxford Management Policies operates within 180 or 170 countries. National organizations, on the other hand, operate in smaller contexts. Nevertheless, both are very important because although international organizations are working in large scale operations with multi-donor agencies, national organizations are working with smaller communities, but in more qualitative contexts. Every organization is also categorized into different sectors like food security, skilled development and human development, all of which focus on different issues. For example, UNICEF focuses on child development and peace, Oxfam on agricultural development and organizations like BRAC on youth development.
There are also organizations that focus on policy formation and specifically on research, analysis, implementation and advocacy, working at the very top levels with policy makers. The targeted group also varies between organizations. For example, some organizations in Nepal are working for Dalit groups, while some organizations are working for farmers and other groups involved in agriculture. Similarly, while some organizations only provide research, others work on the implementation of research findings. Essentially, it all varies based on factors like an individual organization’s key focus, sector and targeted groups.
What have the projects you have worked on so far taught you?
The most important thing to understand I think is the context of the country in which you are working. For example in Nepal, people from the Terai have different experiences from the people living in the hills. Similarly in Bangladesh, people living in the coastal areas struggle with issues unique to their geography, like water. So every country, every context, every geographical area is different. At the governmental level too, some governments have strong policies while others do not.
Culturally too, every country is different. It is important to understand the country’s context first before implementing policies, to know what specific gaps and needs exist in the communities because professionals and development workers may sometimes be misguided about how to best help a community. As a development professional, one needs to be able to work alongside people at various levels, especially policy makers, the organization and the community itself. I have learned that dissemination of information is also extremely important, and to ensure that your projects and efforts are understood by others and actually sustainably impacting the community and its people.
What sorts of challenges have you faced and continue to face working in the development sector?
As a development professional, I always try to understand the community first because implementing policies without doing so can be very harmful. Lack of coordination in developing initiatives can also be a challenge. For example, in some organizations around 50 to 60 percent of people are working in the same sector, which means that other sectors are deprived.
Another challenge that I have encountered is trying to create larger scale adaptations of small initiatives and projects. When a project is quite small, an organization may not have enough funds and resources to implement policies, but bigger organizations that have the capacity can easily take their initiatives to larger scales because they have more resources. Donor funding, organizational, human and technological capacities can all be challenging when working in this sector.
From your experience, what are the most pressing issues that South Asian countries like Nepal and Bangladesh face as developing countries, and how much progress has been made in terms of addressing and solving those issues?
From my understanding and based on my professional experiences, countries in South Asia like Nepal, Bangladesh and India have made significant progress in terms of development. The poverty level in Bangladesh is at 14 percent, when it was around 47 percent in the 90’s. In Nepal, the unemployment rate is at less than two percent. However, much progress still needs to be made in terms of income disparity and education. Primary school enrollment levels have increased, but tertiary enrollment is still lagging, especially for young girls and women. Although Bangladesh has a female prime minister, achieving equity between men and women in all sectors is still challenging for countries like ours.
We also need to focus more on economic development. Although there are many different policies in place, countries like ours engage in primary sectors of the economy like farming. Transferring to secondary economic sectors by processing already existing raw materials is very important. Despite making a lot of achievements, we still face challenges in many aspects.
How do you think Nepal can sustain the progress it’s made so far?
Nepal needs to identify what issues are most relevant in the context of the country because although there are many projects and initiatives happening all over, not everything will be as effective for certain communities. It is important to identify the best approaches and methodologies before implementation, and to conduct extensive research beforehand.
Additionally, in order to sustain the progress that has been made so far, a country needs to have strong policies. For example, a country may be reducing its poverty rates but in case of unforeseen challenges like a natural disaster or more recently, a pandemic, all the progress is lost unless the country is able to adapt properly. The government should thus ensure that it has a plan in place to effectively deal with any kind of disaster and to prepare accordingly so that development is sustained.
What skills do you think are the most important when it comes to working in the development sector?
It varies from person to person. In the development sector, we may need professional people, skilled in engineering or medicine or any other profession. A person already gains the basic skills from their educational background. Then when they begin working on the field, they need to be aware of how their work will contribute at the community and country level. It is important to understand that and be adaptable because there will be many challenges.
It is also important to understand that not all policies may align with the person, but as a professional they should be able to adapt and connect the dots. Even the smallest efforts count. For example, when I implemented a program in South Sudan, it impacted only 250 households. However, these 250 households helped the government to take initiatives in food security policy. Some necessary skills are knowing how to disseminate information, being resourceful and connecting with donors, government policy makers and other organizations.
In the development sector, project management cycles that include fundraising, project designing, implementation and adaptation, among other things are very important. Without completing the cycle, a project will not have any impact on the community. Apart from this, many other skills are necessary and ultimately one’s level of professionalism will be based on how much they know and what skills they have.
How can aspiring development workers immerse themselves into a community to better understand the issues there and what kinds of projects need to be implemented?
As experts, we sometimes go and try to implement things we have learned, although there is a possibility that they may not be accepted by the community, which can be dangerous for reasons that it would be a waste of money, time and will harm the organization in the future. As an expert, I always try to work with my team on every project that I am a part of so that I can support them on implementation. Analyzing the policies of the government is also crucial because in every country, the government and the organizations are different in terms of policy.
It is important to create a mapping of donors, initiatives and activities to have a clear picture of what the country needs. For example, Bangladesh has a strong disaster management policy, but culturally, around 90 to 95 percent of the population is Muslim. A project involving anything that goes against Muslim beliefs and practices would not be accepted by the community. Analyzing those gaps is very important.
What advice would you like to give to those aspiring to work in the field of development?
I have found that one will face many challenges in life but one needs to treat these as an opportunity. I went to South Sudan, where there is hardly any electricity, communication, with more than 50 percent of its population under the poverty line, and yet, the people there are still persevering.
Whenever there is a challenge, there is also an opportunity to solve the problem and help many people along the way. In the beginning of my career, I was working for the Fred Hollows Foundation, which is a prominent Australian organization operating in nearly 30 countries in the health sector. I did not have any experience in the health sector, which was very challenging for me. Nevertheless as a manager, I led the team there at different levels of advocacy, working alongside the government and policymakers.
Whatever experiences one may have, may it be from working in the food sector or equality sector, it is important to be able to adapt to different contexts and to be willing to learn about anything. I wanted to learn about the different sectors of development so that I could implement my learnings at various levels. I would advise the younger generation to be resourceful in gathering different kinds of information, knowledge and experiences so that they can have comprehensive and meaningful impacts on their communities.
Simona Shrestha is a sub-editor at Kathmandu Pati English, covering politics, peace, conflict, security, defence and diplomacy issues. She is a student at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, pursuing a major in Environment and Development Studies. She previously worked at Nest Media, where she was an editorial coordinator. Her areas of interest include the intersections between sustainability and development. You can find her on Linkedin as Simona Shrestha.
Smriti Shrestha is a writer and sub-editor at Kathmandu Pati English, covering politics, peace, conflict, security, defence and diplomacy issues. She’s a recent social work graduate from St.Xavier’s College and currently, a fellow of political leadership at the Young Women Political Leadership Institute, Women LEAD. You can find her on Linkedin as Smriti Shrestha.