Graham Reeder ’13 received a Watson Fellowship to travel to Norway, Poland, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and the Maldives on his project, “Preparing for a Changing Climate: Community-Based Adaptation Strategies.”

“Bangladesh used to be the most vulnerable country in the world. Now we’re resilient and we have our dignity back.” —Khalid Islam

Khalid is a young volunteer with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society in Bandarban, a small city in the south east of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, not far from the Myanmar border. He works with a community-driven initiative that seeks to secure safe drinking water in this mountain region of the country. After spending nearly a month unable to leave the smog and traffic of Dhaka because of post-election political violence, I relished the news that the national strikes, or hortals, to protest the recent sham election were easing. It would again be safe to get out of the offices in the capital where plenty of lip service was being paid to Bangladesh’s newfound resilience to climate change. There I could speak with those who were adapting their lives to the impacts of these changes—what I sought to learn during my Watson Fellowship year.

Bangladesh is widely celebrated as a success story in the making. Despite being one of the world’s forty-nine least developed countries, over the past decade it has gained a reputation as a world center of resilience, particularly in the face of climate change. This reputation has largely come from the prominent work of Bangladeshi negotiators at United Nations climate talks, and a group of Bangladeshi scientists, four of whom have become lead authors for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But how has this work translated into actually making people and communities more resilient? Measuring this is no small task, and I won’t pretend I can even scratch the surface of the issue in my few short months here. I do think—regardless of the status of actions on the ground—that Bangladesh’s changing narrative is important.

This country has seen endless foreign involvement under the paternalistic guise of poverty alleviation. A Bangladeshi anthropologist I met described doing research with communities living on chors, or small river deltas. He noted that, “the NGOs have colonized every single town in this country. It is impossible to find a community without Western NGO presence.” This is not to say that all NGO presence is necessarily neocolonial. WeAdapt runs an open-source database that highlights community-driven adaptation research and projects, and its map of Bangladesh is chock-full of good work being done. Not many places could bounce back at the rate communities in Bangladesh have in the face of some of the most severe climate impacts we’ve seen to date, a testament to local government’s seriousness about disaster preparedness and water management.

The story of a Bangladesh that has the capacity to advocate for itself, on its own terms, and can figure out what is required to deal with climate change, poverty, and other systemic issues, is one that Bangladeshis are keen to tell, and it’s one we can all benefit from hearing.