FINISH Mondial Bangladesh is the youngest member in our FINISH family. The programme has been up and running for only two and a half years. But despite its youth, it has already made important strides and gained both national and international recognition, having recently been granted general membership in the prestigious Bangladesh FSM Network. Since October 2022, the programme in Bangladesh has been headed by Wahida Anjoom. She tells us about the progress made in financial and social inclusion in sanitation, how FM Bangladesh is transforming the fecal sludge and waste management landscape in the country and how she found her passion by switching from a corporate banking career to the international development sector.
Wahida, can you please first briefly tell us what the current sanitation situation is in your country ? Bangladesh has reduced open defecation to almost zero a decade ago, thanks to some strong political commitment in the past 20 years. This is without doubt a great achievement! At the same time, we cannot say that sanitation is safe in Bangladesh. Two thirds of Bangladeshi households still lack access to safely managed toilets and treatment systems. My country is full of rivers, canals and ponds, it’s a mesh of waterways, small and big. While beautiful, this also sadly means that there is always a water body next to your house in which to dump the contents of your toilet or pit. Many households just connect their toilet directly to the river or ditches, which poses a major environmental and health hazard.
FINISH Mondial Bangladesh is still young, how did it all start and what was the journey in the last two and a half years?
We had to start FINISH Mondial Bangladesh completely from scratch, we did not have a big local partner, like some of the other countries in our FINISH family. So we very much had to run our own show. In the short time we’ve been around, we haven’t been able to perform miracles, obviously. But we are making substantial progress in the states we are working in. The private sector is keen to support our initiative, many households are benefiting and communities are happier and healthier. We are currently working hard on fundraising, setting up all the necessary legal steps and working on building key partnerships. For now, our work concentrates on urban and peri-urban areas. We started in 6 municipalities and 1 city corporation, with different contexts and requirements, and are progressively working for systemic change in the whole sanitation value chain.
As you mention, you work closely with municipalities, can you tell us more about how you approach these collaborations?
Yes, we always collaborate very closely with them, we want the municipalities to be in the driver’s seat, because waste management is their mandate. In practice, though, they often don’t have the resources, the required skills and/or capacities to implement proper waste management, so we are here to support. We usually start by doing a city sanitation plan for them and then start the capacity building work. In Faridpur, for example, we re-capacitated the informal pit emptiers who were working barehanded, barefooted, in a very unsafe fashion. They are now organised in associations and have formal jobs and safety and hygiene trainings. In other cities, too, we are working to raise the living standard of the socially excluded groups. We also trained other sanitation entrepreneurs, masons and traders and are doing awareness raising in the households about safe sanitation and hygiene.
What type of challenges do you encounter on the way?
We frequently encounter challenges related to behavioural change within our initiatives. To illustrate, we have been collaborating with Dalit pit emptiers, who have traditionally been engaged in this occupation for generations. Despite providing them with comprehensive training and essential safety equipment, a portion of this group still expresses reluctance to adopt safer practices, such as wearing boots and hand gloves. Their belief in their predestined role in this task, along with the expectation of a better life in the future, as a reward for their work, often hinders their willingness to embrace safety measures. It can be quite disheartening, as our primary goals are centred around ensuring their safety, facilitating their professional development, and ultimately fostering social inclusion. It’s difficult when we encounter resistance due to deep-rooted social taboos and beliefs that are held.
Climate vulnerability is undoubtedly another significant challenge. Our efforts in Satkhira, which began in 2021, were making notable progress. However, we faced a setback when a cyclone struck and completely obliterated the Faecal Sludge Treatment Plant (FSTP), washing it away.
In addition, we’ve had to contend with political challenges from time to time. Some municipalities have not fully grasped the significance of our sanitation initiatives and the importance of safe sanitation practices. In a particularly challenging instance, we had to navigate a situation where a recently elected mayor chose to dismantle the FSTP to construct a club. This incident underscores the pressing need for creating greater awareness among political leaders. Thankfully, the Department of Public Health and Engineering (DPHE) is implementing a project funded by IDB and building a new more advanced plant there. FINISH Mondial Bangladesh is actively engaged in collaborating with the municipality to enhance their understanding and capacity for effective sanitation management in the city.
One of your objectives in the past two and half years has been to gradually include more beneficiaries from the lower income quintiles and promote greater financial inclusion. Can you tell us more about your work in that area?
Yes, financial inclusion is absolutely key, we want to make sure everybody can afford a toilet. And access to loans, small or big, for WASH is a crucial part of the FINISH Mondial Diamond Approach. In Bangladesh, we are not quite there, yet, but making rapid progress. Until 2021, most of the toilets we built were paid out-of-pocket by the households and our objective was to include more households from the lowest income quintile, the ones who cannot pay out-of-pocket and need a microfinance loan. In 2022, we started piloting the Result Based Finance project and we had very encouraging results with the pilot. Out of 12,900 safe sanitation systems built in 2022, 47% were built by poorer households with microfinance loans.
Financial inclusion is not always an easy endeavour. The poorer segments of society are not the usual customers of banks and they need other financial approaches, which are often non-existing. But it’s very rewarding to be able to include more people and advance the SDG 6 goal of safe sanitation for all. This year, we want at least half of our toilets to be built through microfinance institutions loans. And maybe in the next few years, we will be able to reach beyond this.
Not an easy task indeed, but it seems that FINISH Mondial has chosen the right person for the job, you have a lot of financial expertise indeed…
I am humble. Thanks. I did come from the financial sector, I worked in banks for many years, so I know exactly how the banking sector works. Early on in my career, I also worked for the BRAC Bank, whose mission is to reach unbanked people and support Small and Medium Enterprises. So, working on financial inclusion had already been a part of my career and working for this cause is rewarding for me.
Why did you decide to switch to the development sector and how do you feel in your new job?
After so many years in the banking sector, I felt I had contributed significantly to the field, that there was nothing more for me to learn there and that this sector could no longer offer me any more challenges. I was not loving my corporate banking job anymore, but it was still a difficult decision to switch to the international development sector. I gave away my corporate identity and all the benefits attached to it. But I don’t regret it for a second. I started as a financial inclusion advisor at FINISH Mondial. Little did I know that I would lead FINISH Mondial Bangladesh within a year of joining. That was quite a challenge! But I love it. You have to work against challenges and it feels good when you get the results. When you love your job, you will do well.
What do you consider the greatest success of FINISH Mondial Bangladesh up until now? What are you most proud of?
I’m very proud of the work we are doing in social and gender inclusion. It’s something that is close to my heart and it’s very rewarding to see how we are transforming lives. When I go and visit beneficiaries of our programme, for example the dalits pit emptiers, waste workers who were previously socially excluded, and I sit with them, have a chat and they offer me a cup of tea, when previously they would have been ashamed of doing so, of thinking of themselves as equal human beings, I feel proud and honoured of what we do.
I’m also particularly proud of the work we are doing in faecal sludge management (FSM). We just received the fantastic news that we had been awarded general membership in the prestigious national FSM Bangladesh platform. Our objective in FSM is for greater inclusion of the private sector. Until now, most of the FSTPs in Bangladesh have been operated by donors. The issue is: if the donor leaves, the operation collapses. This is not a sustainable model. So we are working on making the private sector ready to take over. We coach, train and provide technical support to the private sector in the cities.
You are often in the field and see the results of your work, is there maybe one story from the field that stands out for you?
I meet many very inspiring, engaged people in my work, especially women. Our programme has for instance allowed women waste workers to get organised into cooperatives and provided training on negotiation skills with employers and local government authorities. And as a result, we have some splendid women out there, creating and participating in very meaningful sanitation and waste initiatives across the country. One such story is Roshna, an unstoppable women entrepreneur who has taken up one of the most challenging tasks there is, starting a solid waste management business in the city of Rangpur. She faced so many obstacles, with people ridiculing her idea of creating a waste collection service. But she succeeded!
What is your outlook on the future, where do you think FINISH Mondial Bangladesh will be in 10 years from now?
There is so much to do in WASH and waste management in Bangladesh, we won’t run out of ideas for a long time! If you want to get involved in solid waste management, you can do miracles here. Looking into flood resilient toilets and adaptation to climate change is another big topic. The same goes for faecal sludge management and treatment. A few FSTPs are currently at full capacity, with all co-compost selling out to local farmers and nurseries. We can facilitate, expand, build more plants, in more cities, the possibilities to replicate and scale-up seem endless. And first and foremost, we want to continue our work on gender and social inclusion.. We have a lot of work and I look forward to these next 10 years!
What has been achieved so far in Bangladesh: 30,000 safely managed sanitation systems constructed, 150,000 people benefitting, 48,500 tons of solid waste treated, 13,000 tons of faecal sludge treated, 577 technical trainings and business coachings