‘SDGs must undergo their own sets of trials and errors’


An interview with Dr Shawkat Alam

Dr Shawkat Alam attended this year’s National Conference on Urban Resilience. There, his keynote speech on “International Law And Policy Informing Bangladesh Climate-Induced Migration Policy” focused on the policy frameworks and plans needed to ensure that climate resilient, migrant friendly cities can be developed in Bangladesh. To gain further insight into his extensive work and the possible way forward for Bangladesh to handle climate-induced migration, the following interview was conducted.

Tell us a little bit about your work in Bangladesh.

My research interests are primarily focused on the problems faced by developing economies. When I examine developing economies, I look at them through social, cultural and interdisciplinary lenses. Each of which has its own merits and problems.

The field itself is very demanding because the problems in this area are very complex, and attempted solutions to problems often miss out on the intricate links. For example, the relationship between developing economies and climate change is very complex. Both aspects can either complement each other, for example through better job opportunities, or they can create problems such as overpopulation.  In cities like Dhaka, where the economy is thriving and also experiences climate migrants, a partnership between the SDG goals, especially goal 16 (Peace and Security) and goal 17 (Partnership) is particularly difficult to achieve. Such a partnership can only be achieved successfully if there is a strong relationship between the government and civil societies.

We often ponder the negatives when talking about vulnerability, but in contrast, we need to learn to look into the positives as well. A positive for Bangladesh has been that amidst this vulnerability, the people here are resilient. There are 40 million people who are smiling. Even though Dhaka is highly populated, people here are accommodating each other. What Bangladesh has to offer in terms of its resilience to climate change is something that other countries can learn from. Our country has the potential to pioneer the climate change adaptation field.                               

Can you define migrants and how they are connected to climate change?

Defining migrants and how they are connected to climate change is really important, but being stern on a definition is not assistive for our purposes. Climate change can be many things. It can be sudden or slow onset. Climate change affects each area and person differently. Push and pull factors can also affect different groups disparately, and people are often displaced due to climate change. From my experience, migration can be linked to slow and/or sudden onset climate change impacts. The term climate-induced migration has some limitations due to the negative connotation that these migrants being a liability. I prefer to use the terms ‘Climate Migrants’ or ‘Climate Displaced Population’ interchangeably as they are less restrictive and provide me with greater leverage to encourage policy change. This is what I call the piggyback approach to pursuing policies that meet the issues at hand.  

Can you elaborate?

Migration should be considered ad-hoc and our contribution as researchers should not be focused on how we are identifying migrants as liabilities, but rather encouraging time and energy to be spent on taking action to mitigate risk and harm. Some people have positive reasons for migrating such as to seek better job opportunities. People losing their jobs or homes in their place of origin may decide to migrate. This is the same case for refugees or people coming to Dhaka to seek better livelihoods.

Who decides for migrants, where they will migrate?

In my experience, people migrating inside the city decide to move to a particular location through their existing connections or network such as their predecessors or relatives who have moved before them. The middle man and then some local leaders generally maintain a connection with people back home. These people provide the necessary connections or a platform for prospective migrants to decide on a location to migrate. 

My research has looked into these “push and pull factors’’ affecting decision-making, as well as asking the difficult questions. For example, what is the role of city planners? What are the planning instruments? How much space is allocated to these migrants, as they are moving into the city? These are questions that the city council should be looking into.

A slum starting and expanding in the city is not factored into city planning. Someone has to own it, especially from a humanitarian perspective. The human rights mechanism specifically mentions that it is the role of the government to ensure the people have access to basic amenities. Migration is an adaptation strategy but it needs a very coherent framework of governance, especially from municipal leaders.

What do you see as major obstacles for migrants in the long term?

The governance here is very traditional. There is a lack of collaboration between different ministries and between municipal bodies. The lack of internal or horizontal coordination and management is creating this obstacle. Everybody’s business is nobody’s business.

I think the mixture of so many different sectors and fields, their consecutive polices and the proper implementation are all important. The synergy of all these factors should come into play in the development sector to cater to migrants. Achieving SDG goals can also help to close the gaps.

You are working closely with the SDGs, especially SDG 16 and 17. Do you see SDGs being achieved or used effectively?

As you know, SDGs evolved from the Millennium Development Goals (‘MDGs’). In the beginning, people were very skeptical about achieving the MDG goals, but in contrast, SDGs have enough flexibility to make practitioners and implementers use these goals effectively. But, as every new thing, the SDGs must undergo their own sets of trials and errors. Md Abul Kalam Azad, Principal Coordinator (SDGs), mentioned a couple of times that we have many constraints such as a lack of goal, limited availability of data, and the lack of capacity to convert those goals into actions; and he was not wrong in saying that. We have problems such as the availability of finance, skills, and human resources, as well as technological limitation. The SDGs and sustainable development require a whole of government approach and consecutive manpower to reach the targets. But we always need to be positive. I think the work so far has been optimistic and as I mentioned earlier, we are utilizing enough resources to begin to bridge those gaps.

Can you elaborate on how things could be done better?

As I see it, the current development strategies should require us to incorporate nature-based value systems, or to development proper partnerships. The value of nature is really important and often overlooked. For example, when we talk about education it is not always a straight system where you teach and students learn. The education system incorporates social, cultural, economic factors that give an overall flavor of various affairs. Similarly, our current development strategies should be in harmony with nature because at the end of the day, we are relying on it for resources and when it is negatively affected it always hampers us in some way or other.

Another thing that should be stressed is the importance of ownership. If people who are working in this particular field take ownership for their actions, things could be much smoother.

Do you see the current affairs regarding migration and adaptation solution or a problem? Do you see adaptation measures that can help migrants?

I don’t see adaptation measures failing, I look at it the other way round; I see them as a vehicle. Migration is, and should be, viewed as a form of adaptation. It adds to the economy and the growth of the host city. However, there are always avenues for improvement.

In places where dialogues don’t exist, there are always avenues for collaboration. This could be achieved through international law and policy. These changes should be seen as optimistic avenues for change. For example, the conversation we are having today about migration would not have taken place a few years ago. But the step we took to address the issue started off a chain of events, and now we have the platform to address and solve these issues.

We should also look into the political aspects of the issue as well. I think bridging the gaps between international and domestic politics along with SDG synergies will also strengthen migration as an effective adaptation tool.

What is your advice for the new generation of researchers?

To the new generation of researchers – I urge you to challenge your boundaries. Don’t get dragged into a stereotype, you are the navigator of your own research.  

Something I always tell my students is, “the biggest contribution you can make to the field of research is your truth – researchers must use their findings without filters. The contextualization of research is what provides the most valuable insights”. 

Dr Shawkat Alam is a Professor of Law and the Director of the Centre for Environmental Law at Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University, Australia. He holds an LLB with Honors from Rajshahi University, an LLM from Dhaka University and a PhD. from Macquarie University. His research focuses on the opportunities and challenges faced by developing economies to achieve sustainable development, by examining international legal, institutional and policy frameworks.