I saw the doormen and drivers gathered around my building's downstairs television. Bangladesh often had bad news, and I had a meeting, so I didn't pause to watch.
I caught a cycle rickshaw for the short journey to my boss' house. He was watching the same thing. Unlike me, he had immediately understood the significance of the tragedy and how it would become a major focus in our lives.
It was 24th April 2013, and we lived in the most privileged neighbourhood in Dhaka. 25km away from us, where the capital sprawled into industry, the Rana Plaza building had collapsed. Thousands of garments workers were trapped inside.
Very soon the whole world was watching. Through the days after, over 2,500 people were chaotically rescued. But inside the ruins, alongside the clothes being made for western wardrobes, over 1,100 were dead.
I worked on the response for over a year, trying to support survivors, especially those with injuries and acquired disabilities.
This edition is how the experience shaped me. It's a a view from inside the international response: what we did, why it wasn't enough, and how I live with it. Failure gives us new ways to know and feel.
These are the words I wrote to see through my tears.
Bangladesh was a young country, growing quickly. I started my career there in 2011 as it celebrated 40 years of independence. Its rapid economic and social progress made it a “laboratory” for the development sector I was joining.
I was one of millions in Dhaka to make their future. The population of the city had multiplied by more than ten times since 1971. Infrastructure had not kept up. Often there were so many of us striving to get ahead that none of us were getting anywhere at all.
It's not just the legendary traffic jams that kept us at a standstill. Bangladesh's fragile democratic settlement was disintegrating. The government was increasingly authoritarian, and opposition parties took to the streets. Like most days that April, the 24th saw a nationwide hartal, a shutdown enforced by violence. That's why my boss and I weren't in the office.
Garments workers did not have the privilege to stay home. Clothes are Bangladesh's main export, and the industry had powered the country's growth, transforming opportunities for millions of women, including some women with disabilities. But it also made the managers and owners dangerously powerful, and they had production targets. The work had to go on.
The Rana Plaza building hosted several of these factories. Eight floors had been stacked on top of each other in a building which only had planning permission for four. A crack had been seen in the walls from the day before, but the next morning workers were ordered in anyway. As they entered, and machines were switched on, it collapsed.
Putting solidarity into practice
The Rana Plaza collapse made starkly visible the costs of global business, and how clothes get paid for. As the world looked on, it swore to make things better. Similar commitments had been made six months earlier, after a deadly fire, but this time “never again” got real.
Immediately afterwards, ordinary Bangladeshis dived into the building to try to rescue people. In the months and years that followed, governments, civil society and businesses came together to support the survivors, provide compensation, and reform building standards and labour relations. The focus was on the garments industry, even though it was clear the lack of building safety applied more widely.
I had started as a temporary contractor with the International Labour Organization (ILO) a few months before the collapse. The ILO is the UN agency responsible for rights at work and so, combined with astute manoeuvring, secured centre stage in the international response. I'd been working on disability, and was put on the work for rehabilitation.
There was no central list of who'd been in the building. There was no welfare system to refer people to. Organisations piled in, giving whatever they thought was a good idea. We worried that, god forbid, some survivors had received assistance more than once. More to our credit, we were worried that some survivors weren't getting anything.
I was a small cog in a bureaucratic machine shifting its attention to a new subject. I wrote thousands of words and went to endless coordination meetings to lament a lack of coordination. It was months before I got anywhere near the site of the collapse or met anyone that had been in it.
The tailor's shop
Many months after the accident, we visited survivors in Savar. They were doing apprenticeship programmes in new trades, to get back on their feet. We took the embassies that funded our work to show them what had been done.
The first visit was to people who were learning to repair mobile phones. It was up some stairs and I, walking slowly, fell behind the group. The second visit took our cars off the highway, down an unpaved road, to a tailor's shop.
We crowded in. It was hot, I was thirsty, and we started talking. I started interpreting between Bangla and English. I was several years into the language, plus I had enough rapport to clarify doubts. The challenge was holding back my emotions.
M. and K. told us about being in the building as, in their words, they felt it going down like a lift. M. was trapped in the building for several days, dragged out by rope around her legs, and then assumed dead. The ambulance taking her to the morgue did an abrupt u-turn when they found she was alive.
Their stories and sincerity moved us. And so, when the British had their minister of international development minister visiting, the embassy wanted to take him to the tailor's shop.
The king wished to see for himself
Virtuous initiatives easily go off-track. One of the best illustrations I know of this is also from Bengal: Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore's parable of a parrot in need of an education from 1918. Scholars and pundits gang up to school the parrot. Hearing their tales of progress, the King wished to see for himself.
The entourage of the King's visit will be familiar to any bureaucrat who's prepared a field visit for a senior official. You can't just take a minister to a tailor's shop. You need to get senior management in-country to go visit first. Off we went back down the unpaved road in our 4x4s.
By the time the minister was due to come I had visited M. and K. several times and we had a kind of friendship. One of my dearest memories of this work is standing with them, awaiting the dignitaries, nervously giggling together as we heard the sirens of the police escort.
The minister himself dispatched with the visit in about 10 minutes.
How solidarity splinters
Another thing Tagore's story shows is how welfare is often more about the giver than the receiver. Regardless of what it might mean for the parrot, they focus on its “education” and it becomes a means for other people to profit.
As the moments of initial crisis passed, the interests of the survivors of Rana Plaza and the institutions supporting them began to diverge. The first divergence was time. The survivors needed help quickly. Institutions have meetings, processes, and approvals. And with delays, things slip.
M. and K. were in a cohort of apprentices that told us clearly that they needed further support to use the skills they'd learned. To buy a sewing machine so they could carry on the tailoring, for example.
A crisis makes bureaucracies fluid, but as time passes, organisations go back to customary rigidity. I tried to raise the issue of support to the apprentices but there wasn't an institutional justification to continue for a small group. The compensation scheme and other programmes were meant to support people now.
We didn't get them the sewing machine, but we did go back to their shop when we needed a video for our website.
As well as our programmes, our objective of “livelihoods” became rigid. It was unsympathetic and cruel for us to insist on asking people if they wanted to go back to work in garments. They told us that there were plenty of reasons not to work in garments even without the factory collapsing. And what better example than theirs, that a livelihood does not always help you live.
A further division we made was that of “disability”. Compensation protocols for industrial accidents can be extremely blunt about this. Knowing reality would be fuzzy, I tried to design support initiatives with a broader view, of “temporary or permanent disability”. Survivors had pain, headaches, and trauma. Their experiences didn't necessarily fit even this broader lens.
“It's only us that didn't eat”
I was frustrated with colleagues, and they were frustrated with me. I was shouted at by a government official, who I could appease, and by an expatriate who I couldn't. I seethed at management's delays and inconsistencies, and, when I passed them down the chain, partner organisations surely felt the same about me.
By the second-half of 2014, I disengaged from the work with an excuse that I wanted to focus on disability-inclusion in other areas. Disability inclusion would soon take me to Geneva. So in March 2015, I went to the tailor's shop to say goodbye.
M. wasn't in Dhaka anymore, so I met with the tailor, K. and S., another survivor. K. told me she was still in pain and living in fear. She was doing some work, but hadn't gotten further compensation or a sewing machine.
“সবাই খাইসে”, they told me, everyone ate. “ILO ate, everyone ate. They showed us off and got money.” If K. had known she wouldn't have given the interviews or permission for her photo. Everyone benefited except for them. “শুধু আমরা খাই নি.” It's only us that didn't eat.
I thought, but didn't say that আমিও খাইসি, I also ate. They asked why my ears were red. “লজ্জা” I said, shame.
Out of the ruins
I spent a long time second-guessing the professional side of what I'd done. Wondering about what I should have said in meetings, wondering who to blame. Several years later, talking with a friend, my sadness suddenly poured out in tears.
I began to unpick the coping strategies I'd made, the stories I was imposing on events. In the rear-view mirror, my anger and grief are visible. That's how I look back on what I learned.
Good things can come from tragedy
On one of our visits to the tailor's shop, K. said that she wouldn't have met me if it hadn't been for the accident. I responded with a pleasantry that we would have. But she was right, and was braver than me in being able to acknowledge it.
Even with my regrets, I try to keep perspective about the contributions of my work. I designed and helped get off the ground a coordination cell that gave survivors information and signposting, and a project that supported a couple of hundred injured survivors. In my heart, I take the connections I could find with colleagues and survivors.
Outside the small part of work I was involved in, the response has genuinely made this less likely to happen again in Bangladesh. Interventions have made sure garments factories are structurally safer. The Accord on safety made between government, brands and trade unions is going to other countries too. The compensation scheme for victims and survivors was substantial, and as colleagues pointed out, far beyond what other victims of accidents in Bangladesh would get. An employment insurance scheme is being tentatively piloted.
These are genuine achievements, and that they only came about from this tragedy shows, sadly, how challenging they were. But much of the global garments business remains the same. Buyers put a lot of pressure on suppliers. Suppliers pass that down to workers. Conditions remain where workers could be forced to do something against their will. Buildings might be safer, but workplaces aren't fairer.
We don't work on human rights in a human way
It's not just that we don't practice what we preach. At a distance, the terms of our solidarity are clear. The way we structured our work had harmful effects on the recipients of our assistance and on ourselves.
It would have been better to meet survivors where they were, rather than through the categories we divided them into. We should have questioned more what type of solutions we could offer and broadened our imagination of their futures. People's needs do not fit the projects or categories we work through.
The most useful things I saw weren't getting people back into work, but getting people into spaces they could heal together. One of the key benefits of the apprenticeship program wasn't the skill as such, but the structure and care given by the tradespeople they worked with.
And as we supposedly helped them, we needed them to help us. Sharing stories with funders is essential to the business of aid. We did so without regard to the cost of reliving their trauma or what it would mean to them.
In the tailor's shop they told me that their community had seen our multiple visits and naturally assumed they had gotten a huge support from us, rather than a limited training programme. We made their photos public domain, and sometimes I see K.'s face illustrating unrelated work that needs a Bangladeshi woman's face to justify itself.
Another harm of the ways we categorise human challenges is the effect it has on us whose job it is to categorise. Working in response to awful disasters is probably going to bring up some form of bystander trauma no matter how you do it. Our focus on dividing the world into levels of deprivation made it harder for me to see my own difficulties in processing what I was going through.
I was working on precarious contracts renewed through the year, thrown, without any preparation, into witnessing and trying to support people in awful circumstances. I found meaning in it, but also anger, stress, tears, anxiety and disillusion. I suppressed them. So now I push back whenever I hear someone minimise what they're going through by a comparison with other people's challenges.
Failure gives us new ways to know and feel
Another of our work's obsessions is achievements. If we don't achieve something it's called a “challenge” and used to justify further work. Our public triumphalism is complemented by cynicism in private. As Jack Halberstam writes in a Queer Art of Failure, embracing failure more directly helps us take a step back from our accounting of success.
Failure gives us a new way to know and feel about what we did and how we relate to ourselves. It gets past (valid) criticisms about the development industry's self-interest and excessive spending on, say, 4x4s and expats. Concern with wasting money is still a focus on the initiative itself, rather than the question of what happened to the people we were meant to help.
Sadly, the situation of Rana Plaza's survivors today has many similarities with when I left in 2015. A recent phone survey of 200 found more than half unemployed, often because of their physical health. A third still face back-pain, and a quarter get headaches. Many still live in fear. Shiuly Khanom, who worked for nine years in the building, said that her life “will never be better”.
We failed in the perhaps impossible task of putting people's lives back together. Because of our failure, people are hurt, or dead.
My prayer to failure
Unclasp the armour
on your heart.
You put it on as protection
from blows and blame.
Forget your stories.
Look again and realise
that your work
– even if you meant it –
has come to nothing.
Maybe worse than nothing.
You got close enough to injustice
to make promises to fix it,
but not close enough
to keep them.
Not close enough to heal
pain and broken lives.
This is a prayer –
That failure will not take part of you forever.
That your voice does not become too harsh
or your heart too hard.
That amid a place of stone
something can grow again.
My deep thanks to M., K., S., and the other survivors I met who trusted me with their camaraderie and stories.
The illustration of Rana Plaza's ruins is by Tan Kuan Aw. Áine Kelly-Costello reviewed a draft.
A previous iteration of this piece had revision by Michael Burns and comments by Alex and Emily. The poem comes from that piece, born of conversations with Kazem and Mathilde. I recently shared the poem with Alchemy.
So much of this piece I have worked out in conversation with friends and colleagues over the years. Conscious that this leaves many people out, they include Adriana, Eddie, Jonny, Leslie, Masum, Ina and Rachel.
Many thanks to readers and Sightsavers for the support that keeps this going. This edition also had support from K Li.