‘Philanthropy feeds my mind’
Mahmudul Islam, Thereport24.com, Dhaka:
Mahdin Mahboob Khan is an educator, currently teaching engineering at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. He is the founder of Savar Foundation, a charity organisation formed last year to help the victims of Rana Plaza collapse, the country’s deadliest industrial accident which took more than 1,135 lives and left nearly 2,500 injured.
Through his foundation, Khan has so far provided a number of families of the victims with financial assistance. Apart from that, he says his efforts now mostly involve rehabilitation of the victims.
Mahmudul Islam sat with Khan on occasion of the first anniversary of Rana Plaza tragedy and he talked about a wide range of aspects of his efforts to extend support to the victims and their families.
Q. Where were you on April 24 last year?
A. Well, I was home. I woke up in the morning, switched on the TV and it was on the news. That is how I first came to know about the accident.
Q. Can you recall your instant reaction?
A. It was very disturbing and shocking. A building has caved in with several thousand people inside. So although initially only a few deaths were reported, it was understood that the toll would rise.
Q. Following the incident, you founded the Savar Foundation. What is the story behind that? What motivated you particularly to initiate such an organisation?
A. In my life, I’ve always, more or less, been involved in social activities. As for Savar Foundation, it was not certainly planned earlier, it just happened. As far as I can remember, on the night just two to three days after the accident, I was online, checking emails and browsing Facebook. One of my friends told me on the Internet that the firefighting officials at the site had announced that they were in urgent need of diesel to run the excavation equipment because the volume of diesel they received from the government was inadequate. It was a situation where you would need hundreds of liters of fuel to operate the machines.
After knowing about it, I felt an urge to do something. I still remember that the next day was my working day. Yet, I worked the whole night, calling up people and asking them if they would contribute. One of my friends alone pledged Tk 10,000 in aid. Some of my colleagues and students also said they would contribute. This is how it started.
The next morning, I collected all the money, included some more from my own earnings, bought almost 300 liters of diesel and sent it to the site through one of my students.
Since I founded Savar Foundation, I kept telling people that everyone was welcome to come forward with any amount and contribute.
I remember telling them that even if they could not contribute a single dime, they could be with it as only well wishers and that would also be welcomed.
So far, I’ve received contributions from a range of people, including my family, friends and acquaintances. Another point is that apart from people in Bangladesh, there were also donations from people living abroad. One of my cousins raised $1,000 in Australia and sent me that amount. My sister contributed from England and my aunt did from the US. There was help from Belgium, and help from Japan. There were donations from as far as Alaska in the US!
I had a friend, whom I met during my post-graduation studies at Southampton, who came up with an excellent idea. She was skilled at making cupcakes and thought she could use that skill to raise money for my foundation. Each of the cupcakes cost her 20-30 pence to make at most but she sold those for five pounds each and told people that the money would go to the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse.
For people living in foreign countries, they were saddened by the fact that although they had money to contribute, they could not do so because of lack of viable channels. So my foundation worked as a trustworthy channel for them and I received contributions from many places. I opened a dedicated bank account for the foundation for receiving foreign contributions.
On the other hand, to ease the process of sending money for people living in Bangladesh, especially, outside Dhaka, I opened a bKash account.
This is how I was able to run the foundation on the virtual platform, without worrying about any infrastructural cost or paid employee.
Q. That means the whole thing was on the Internet, wasn’t it?
A. You can say that yes. There is a Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/1kdCjfK) for my foundation and I frequently post updates there. The updates are not only about the activities of the foundation, I post information on all related aspects of the situation, both positive and negative.
For example, this time our RMG exports surpassed that of India and that is positive news. I posted it on the page. So the page is not just all about garment factory disasters, there are loads of factors that the page tries to inform people of.
Another thing is that there are so many events happening in our country that we lose track of the past events whenever a new issue emerges. Let’s say if a launch capsizes in the monsoon season and kills 700 people, we would forget about the Rana Plaza tragedy. So with the Facebook page, I wanted to keep the focus on it so that in the long run, I am able to do something for the thousands of victims.
Q. When you started the project, did you ever think this would grow into what it has become today?
A. Well, I would say no. I didn’t think so many people would respond this way.
Q. You are a teacher and you have many students. Did you involve them in the fundraising activity for your foundation?
A. No, students were not involved in fundraising, but in other voluntary efforts. For instance, one of my students lives in Savar and once in a week, he visits the site to collect information on the victims - who received less compensation or no compensation at all, so that we can help them.
Q. When was the first time you visited the site?
A. A few days after the accident, I went to the Enam Medical College and Hospital to visit the victims and help them financially.
I also visited the Adharchandra School and the Rana Plaza collapse site.
Q. Can you describe some moments that touched you when you were working with the victims?
A. When I visited the hospital, I saw unforgettable scenes. There were victims, some without hands or legs, lying on hospital beds. Their family members were beside them.
I visited some of the victims at their houses a few days back.
The key point here is that many of the victims were the only earning members of their families. In some cases, there were families where both the husband and the wife, or the mother and the daughter, or two sisters, were employed. For those families, it was just devastating. They lost everything and there was nothing left. It was complete financial doom for them.
I also encountered a disturbing comment from a family member of a victim who died in the accident. The mother of the victim said, that it would have been better for her if her daughter had been killed in the collapse, rather than being gravely injured. I was told that the money they now required to bear the cost of the daughter’s treatment was a big burden to them because of financial constraints. This was in addition to the fact that she was now unemployed.
It was sad but a harsh truth.
Q. What was the focus of your foundation while working with the victims?
A. Since its inception, I focused more on rehabilitation. After the accident, there were cash and funds in terms of relief for the victims. Now that one year has passed, it is more about rehabilitation than relief.
I talked to some victims and told them I would like to set up shops for them. They, however, said shops would not be a good idea as they would be incurring losses within a few days because of local goons who don’t pay for products they buy. They asked me if I could arrange motorised rickshaws for them as that would ensure a more sustainable income.
I learned that their present jobs were paying them Tk 3,000-4,000 a month and they could expect Tk 15,000 if they were given the rickshaw. I loved the idea and gave two motorised rickshaws to two families recently.
However, it does not mean as part of the rehabilitation plan, we will always go for rickshaw. Maybe we will provide something else in the future. There is another plan to sell coffee mugs to raise money for the foundation.
I chose the idea of coffee mug because that will help spread our initiative. If you buy a coffee mug with our logo on it, your friends will have the chance to take a look at it and to know more about the foundation. This way they could be encouraged and you can tell them that you are proud to be a part of this initiative.
Q. How much time do you spend on these activities?
A. When the foundation was in its early stage, I would put in long hours. As it began to grow and took a shape, it did not require me to spend as much time as before.
Q. So this means even if it is a charitable work, there is still a lot to do?
A. Renowned psychologists say being charitable or having the tendency to help others is not something associated with being great. Rather, having that tendency is ‘normal’.
There exists a common perception among the Bangladeshis that if a person is helping others, he has some sort of greatness in him. This is not the fact, I would say. We have this idea because the number of such people among us is very few. But according to psychologists, it is a very normal trait of a human being.
For example, if you are a rickshaw puller and you earn Tk 300 a day, you have the capability to donate at least Tk 1 from your earnings. This is why donating to charities should be a very common characteristic of people. It is a mental illness if someone thinks why he should be donating from his earnings. Such a way of thinking is, unfortunately, the result of an improper upbringing.
Q. How did you develop such a charity-oriented mindset?
A. Like I said, that should be a normal trait for each of us. I will not claim any extra credit for that.
Q. After such a terrible disaster, do you think, we as a nation or our state made adequate efforts to respond to the aftermath?
A. Well, I would say no. But there have been some improvements like strict factory inspection measures and enforcement of regulations related to building codes. Several of my friends are involved in garment business and they have told me that things have changed and the rules have really become stricter these days. It is a good thing, no matter what led to this.
Q. How would you evaluate the response of the West, especially the companies that sourced products from the factories housed in the collapsed building?
A. International Labour Organization (ILO) was trying to raise $40 million to compensate the victims and they have been able to gather $15 million so far. Irish retailer Primark has given $10 million. Part of the amount has already been distributed while it plans to give more. But yes, many brands have not given anything yet.
As I said that only $15 million has been raised in a year, it is because the brands are not legally obligated to pay the compensation. They actually outsource so that they are not required to bother with the responsibility of workers. But when the workers died, well, the blame is partly on them.
However, there is the other side of the equation that concerns us. Because we are a developing country, because our working condition is not good and because our clothes are cheap, we are able to export such a massive volume. So the situation should be judged from both sides.
Last but not the least, whatever we do now, we must be cautious so that the garment industry in our country does not die. This is earning us money. If there are problems, and there can indeed be problems in everything, we need to solve that so that we can take it to the optimum level to get the best output.
Ends/thereport24.com/MI/AMA/May 01, 2014
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