Raymond Bhai– a great friend of Bangladesh
Since Bangladesh government has taken a decision to recognise foreign friends during its War of Independence, being a friend of Bangladesh, I take this opportunity to let the young generation of Bangladesh know about a great Canadian friend of Bangladesh who played a significant role in the birth process as well as state building process of Bangladesh being a visionary of the NGO movement in Bangladesh.
He is Brother Raymond Cournoyer, or Raymond Bhai, as he is remembered by the many in Bangladesh and elsewhere who have known him. He died at the age of 70 in 2002 in Montreal Canada, after a short illness.
Raymond first came to what was then East Pakistan in 1958. In the course of his teaching at St. Placidâs school at Chittagong, he took great interest in the culture and the music of the country and having mastered the language very well, came to love the country and its people. Raymond instilled a sense of self-belief into the hearts and minds of many of his students at St. Placidâs, so that they often far exceeded their own expectations. He was also deeply affected by the poverty he saw and at times felt quite helpless to do anything about it. He could, however, identify with it.
The youngest of a rural Quebec family of four brothers and two sisters (two other children died at birth), Raymond grew up in considerable poverty in the 1930s. He remembered his two sisters at 12 and 14 being sent away to be maids to help the family income and lessen the expenses. This memory stayed with him to such an extent that he did not feel at all comfortable to have a domestic servant in Bangladesh. He once wrote, “I carried with me, as well, the deep experience that poverty does not bar anybody from enjoying an enriching atmosphere of frugality and that “peines d’argent ne durent qu’un temps” (money-related problems do not last for ever) as my mother would often say. This helped me greatly not to get emotionally involved in front of poverty situations. Too many so-called do-goers, as somebody now wishes to call the dogooders, walk around villages in developing countries with their hearts in a sling.”
Into the World of NGOs against the backdrop of the War of independence
After returning to Canada in 1965, he was executive director of Oxfam-Quebec and then in early 1971 came to India as Oxfamâs representative for Eastern India and East Pakistan. Within a few weeks of his arrival, the Liberation War got under way and streams of refugees started entering India. Raymond warned Oxfam that up to 10 million refugees could come to India. A few of us had been working on what was, at that time, Oxfamâs single largest ever rural development project in Bihar. Raymond lost no time in asking us to come to Calcutta and set up the administration of a relief operation that eventually, at that time, became the largest relief operation with which Oxfam had ever been involved. Raymond soon showed that he was âdifferentâ.
While other agencies were flying in expatriate teams to run their programmes, Raymond, with my support, was quite sure that all the trained manpower we needed was available in India as well as in the refugee camps themselves. Oxfam ended up having a huge programme involving doctors from Calcutta and Bombay medical colleges and hundreds of volunteers from various Gandhian organisations.
About 500,000 Bangladeshis were assisted in various refugee camps. And when Raymond was away attending to other Oxfam work and publicising the relief work of Oxfam in Europe, Canada and USA, I was setting up my office in a hotel in Calcutta. One by one, young ex-students of Raymond, in India as refugees, had heard about Raymondâs whereabouts and came to search him out. I ended up with a dynamic and dedicated staff drawn mostly from ex-students of St. Placidâs.
Contribution to the building process of Bangladesh
By December 1971, it was clear that the emergence of an independent Bangladesh was merely a matter of time, so Raymond was the obvious choice as Oxfamâs first âField Directorâ in Bangladesh. However, it was not so simple. He told Oxfam in UK that he wanted âcarte blancheâ regarding the development activities to be supported in Bangladesh and that he did not want to have any part in distributing relief supplies.
âGive them to CARITAS or Mother Teresa!â he thundered, âI want to invest for the long-term in young Bangladeshis with vision.â And so, as we wound up our operations in the refugee camps, the relief supplies were given away, cash was provided to CARE for a massive housing programme and more funds were allocated for the purchase of new ferries and repair of old ones. It was a measure of his great love of the fabric and culture of Bangladesh, that Raymond insisted that the new ferries not be named after famous Bangladeshis or martyrs but be named after Bangladeshi flowers.
With major funds having been allocated, Raymond was able to get on with what he saw as his âmissionâ, to support new and emerging NGOs. His strong belief in their aspirations is how Oxfam became BRACâs very first donor and Oxfam supported Gonoshasthyaya Kendra in those early days too. He was a man not only of vision but also ideas and dreams. Raymond nurtured the formation of Bangladesh Development Service Centre (BDSC), which is still going today, and later on when he came again to Bangladesh with CUSO, his vision and faith in people again shone through when he was the guiding spirit behind the establishment of PROSHIKA which was literally born in his office and house.
It is true that he has not always been entirely happy about how NGOs as a whole have developed in Bangladesh-he worried about NGOs becoming big-and of the role of donors, but he always retained his great faith in the people he knew and loved. And to know them as well as he did, he immersed himself in their culture, their music and their food! He planted seeds of his ideas and these have flourished and grown and he will be remembered for a long time to come.
Julian Francis, Programme & Implementation Advisor, Chars Livelihoods Programme (CLP), and was the coordinator of Oxfamâs relief operation in 1971 which assisted 500,000 Bangladeshis taking temporary shelter in the refugee camps in India.