NARAYANGANJ, Bangladesh–“I never reach for the stars,” says Runa Khan during our interview. As the founder and director of Friendship, a Bangladeshi non-governmental organization (NGO) in a country of more than 20,000 NGOs, this is quite the statement. “I look at the stars, I see the stars—I want that. But…the key to the work that Friendship does is simplicity.” Khan, an emerging leader in satellite health and social service provision to the coastal areas of her home country, is not afraid to cause a commotion.
Khan, born and raised in Dhaka, is the brains, and beauty, behind Friendship, an NGO that began work converting river barges to sustainable health clinics in the vulnerable chars, islands made of sediment in the North. This innovative service provision model has been integral to this floodplain area. Each char has a short lifespan of a few months up to several years due to riverbank erosion. Static clinics built on the islands also go underwater with the changing river patterns. Given their success in such a novel field, Friendship has since expanded to the cyclone-prone areas of Southern Bangladesh and broadened their services to education, disaster management, economic development, and cultural preservation.
When Khan first began work, most partners told her that the idea of floating hospitals was too innovative, if not outlandish. Even with barges to access the chars, Khan faced other unexpected difficulties due to geographical isolation. Local people feared foreign doctors, with rumors abounding that their organs might be stolen and sold on the black market. Against these odds, however, Friendship has now served more than 1.5 million people through its 200 satellite clinics since its founding in 2002.
A grassroots pragmatist with a wealth of international experience, Khan identifies as “sub-continental.” Educated at an international school in Dhaka, she was then sent to a convent in Pakistan, where she lived through Bangladesh’s War of Independence against Pakistan in the early 1970s. She went on to attend university in India, after which she returned to Bangladesh for her first marriage at 19. Before founding Friendship, Khan wrote academic texts and storybooks, started a fashion house and security firm, and built traditional Bangladeshi boats for both tourism and cultural preservation.
The project behind Friendship first began when Yves Marre, a French sailor sailed a retired oil barge from France to Bangladesh for humanitarian aid. Khan, then a divorced mother of two, was living in Dhaka with her father and two sons. Marre delivered the barge to Khan’s father, with the intent to return to France. Though he meant to leave after delivering the retired ship, Marre met Khan and has been in Bangladesh as her husband ever since. Khan had two conditions: they would live in Bangladesh and raise their children there as well.
Tenacious, well spoken, and audaciously genuine, Khan admits that she was an unlikely candidate for the helm of Friendship. When starting work, she took stock of her “minus points and plus points” that she brought to the table. On the “minus” side of the equation, she had no clue what an NGO was, how a hospital ran, or how to fund her venture. In the very poor and violent region of the chars, she was not only unsure about whether her floating hospitals would work, but also questioned whether she would come out alive. Khan lists these “challenges” with a laugh and matter-of-fact tone. She knew the help was needed and that she was the person dedicated enough to make it work, if it could work. Friendship has since revolutionized health and social service provision in Bangladesh’s most neglected regions.
Unapologetically committed to her work, Khan once upset an acquaintance by calling Friendship her fourth and most important child and named the past decade spent working on the NGO, the best years of her life. As one of few women founders among Bangladeshi development organizations, Khan says it took a lot of time for people in the predominantly Muslim country to accept her. She admits that there are quite a few people who don’t like her, particularly for what a friend calls “her non-negotiable values.” She hopes to have taught her three sons, whom she adores, to go into the world independently. Friendship, however, has just passed out of infancy and still needs her care in serving its more than one million clients.
There are still significant challenges and opposition to Friendship’s work, Khan says. The political climate in Bangladesh is unstable, at best. Nobel Peace Price recipient, Muhammad Yunus, was ousted from his own Grameen Bank by the national government in 2011, most likely for political reasons. Others criticize Friendship for their mostly free health care provision, something that is attacked as “unsustainable” in the age of social business. Khan says she is working to include corporate strategies within the overhead organizational structure, but this may be difficult in a country so saturated with NGOs and regulations.
Nonetheless, Khan is an unabashed proponent of novel approaches to development. Supported by private-sector sustainability and management practices, she has thus far seen incredible results and expects to double the number of satellite clinics to more than 500 by mid-2013. In a country where much of business gets done through bribery, Khan believes in transparency. In age of local determination of NGO projects, she still believes in the value of outside insight to community problems. Khan’s colleague, the half-sister to President Barack Obama, Auma, likens her to “an equally powerful woman”, Margaret Mead. By land and by sea, Runa Khan will certainly be a force with whom to be reckoned in the years to come.
This post is part of a series produced by Student Reporter for The Huffington Post and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. To see all the posts in the series published on The Huffington Post, click here.
Feature Image: Friendship Hospital; Source: Friendship.