Reaching refugees and boosting small businesses in Bangladesh

Corrie Sissons Emergency, Food & livelihoods, Humanitarian, Refugees and IDPs

By providing emergency cash or vouchers Oxfam can help people in crisis to get desperately needed food and other items, while boosting local businesses at the same time. Corrie Sissons explains what this looks like in Oxfam’s Rohingya Crisis response.

At Oxfam we help those in crisis to meet their emergency needs in a way which does no harm. This means, where possible working with local markets to ensure that we are not undermining them in the way we deliver our aid by delivering it via or alongside local businesses. This last year for example, we have helped water vendors in South Sudan to provide safe affordable drinking water to poor communities, helped refugees running a recycling project to scale up by linking with existing private sector actors in Jordan and coached young entrepreneurs in refugee camps in Uganda to start retailing activities powered by solar panels such as barbershops.

The rationale for our approach is simple, imagine you sell soap. You’re selling soap to people in your neighbourhood for 50p a piece. One day there is a big flood in your area and a lot of people from neighbouring areas come to live on your street. ‘Great!’ (you may think) – ‘more soap sales for me’, but then a local big supermarket comes and starts selling soap at 25p per bar as there is so much more business now. Your soap stand suddenly is overshadowed by the supermarket– your business starts to suffer. In the above scenario, we might try and see if we can direct some business towards those small soap vendors, seeing as there is an increased number of customers. Helping the storm survivors to get soap and your soap stall to stay in business.

‘When we started doing assessments of the food, water and protection needs of affected populations, it was critical that we combined it with an analysis of the local markets’
Right now, in Oxfam’s Rohingya response team in Cox’s Bazar we’re doing just that. Since 25 August 2017, massive human rights violations and systemic violence against the Rohingya in Rakhine State, Myanmar, have forced 646,000 people to seek refuge in Bangladesh – currently the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. There are more than 858,590 Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar: These refugees are now living in ten different camps, and among Bangladeshi host communities meaning 1.2 million people in need. When we started doing assessments of the food, water and protection needs of affected populations therefore, it was critical that we combined it with an analysis of the local markets.

Bangladeshi traders who have been living and doing business in these areas have also been affected by the influx of Rohingya refugees in recent weeks, for some business is booming but for others the context is having an adverse effect on their trade. Those who sell staple items such as rice for example are facing challenges now that rice as food aid is being provided in large quantities in the camps, whilst some vegetable traders from nearby markets had moved to be closer to camps as they saw opportunities for more business.

Oxfam interviewed local traders selling food, clothes, bamboo, soap and other items alongside Rohingya refugees living inside the camps and spontaneous settlements in Cox’s Bazar. The aim of this was to try and understand the impact the crisis has had on their trade and their capacity to work with Oxfam to meet emergency needs. The results showed high capacity and willingness to respond to an increase in demand, should Oxfam want to work with them.

‘We’re hoping to pilot electronic vouchers for essential items such as fresh food on local markets’
Markets in and around some of the chaotic, overcrowded camps are already blossoming however refugee populations have little money to spend in them, having fled with very little and without any means to earn an income. In the coming months, we’re hoping to pilot electronic vouchers for essential items such as fresh food on local markets with these vendors, giving vulnerable Rohingya refugees more choice of how and when they access humanitarian support.

The technology, which Oxfam already uses as part of our responses in Iraq, Nigeria and DRC, could allow households to buy items with a plastic smart card (much like a standard debit card) every few weeks from selected vendors. This makes transactions simple for vendors and means they get paid efficiently and it allows Oxfam to track purchases and spending patterns. Through this innovative system we can therefore ensure increased business for local traders, support for local economies and a more holistic response which works alongside local communities to save lives and support livelihoods.

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Corrie Sissons