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The WFP man was surprised as this man politely declined per diem in dollars
Cox's Bazar sea beach

The WFP man was surprised as this man politely declined per diem in dollars

Mostafa Kamal Majumder
After the April 29, 1991, devastating cyclone that ravaged the Southeastern coastal belt of Bangladesh with the official death toll put at 140,000; a spectacular post-cyclone agricultural recovery was achieved in the Kutubdia Island Upazila of Cox’s Bazar. The polder embankment around the island was rebuilt. Monsoon rains helped wash away the saline water whipped up by the cyclone back to the sea from the fertile lands. Transplanted IRRI paddy grown all over the island was promising a bumper harvest and help recoup the losses suffered by the people of Kutubdia.
The World Food Programme was interested to bring this successful post-cyclone rehabilitation work to the notice of the people and made a request for its coverage in The Daily Star of which I was a Senior Staff Correspondent and editor of its ‘Education’ page at that time. Respected editor SM Ali assigned me to visit the area and file stories that I gladly complied.
My host was Mr. SR Khan, the knowledgeable second man at WFP Bangladesh office at that time who took care of the travel arrangements with a two-night stay at the Cox’s Bazar Water Development Board Rest House. We flew to Cox’s Bazar and from there went to Kutubdia by Sea Truck.
A man from Mymensingh, SR Khan was amazed to see how I packed all my necessary articles including a camera, notebooks, a tape recorder and spare clothes to change in a small bag he fondly called a magic box. In Cox’s Bazar, the Executive Engineer in charge of the rest house was an interesting person. As we sailed for Kutubdia in a sea-truck on a shiny morning myself expressing satisfaction at the good weather, he said, ‘Morning does not show the day in Cox’s Bazar’. You may see sunshine in the morning and yet experience heavy rain at midday or in the afternoon. Yes, before reaching Kutubdia after a bumpy voyage through the Kurubdia Channel we had a heavy shower accompanied with gusty winds. However, it did not rain when we walked about in Kutubdia and witnessed the luxuriant IRRI paddy crop almost ready for harvest. The marks of destruction wreaked by the cyclone were still there on the Island. Big boats driven by the sea storm were stuck on the land, walls of homes felled by the storm surge and many still unrepaired homes were visible. The paddy crop brought smiles to the residents. It was a big success story after the climate disaster.
On the return trip, we drove from Cox’s Bazar to Chittagong in a Jeep and on the way I took photos of the last remaining four sundri trees in Chokoria. The once-famous Chokoria Sundarbans had been reduced to this by human interventions for shrimp culture. I have not gone back to the area for a long time and do not know if those trees are still there or have been felled by greedy people.
At a luxurious hotel in Chittagong, my host SR Khan told me I would get a fairly good amount of money as per diem in dollars. (That would have come to about 1000US dollars). I told him I cannot accept the per diem because I was on an assignment from my paper which paid me a salary for doing the work. He was surprised, so was his boss in Dhaka, Gaston Iben, the WFP Bangladesh Country Director at that time. Clearly, they were impressed by the integrity demonstrated by a not-so-solvent Bangladeshi journalist. I knew this also increased the image of the paper I worked for. I told SR khan I can take remuneration if I am commissioned by WFP to write for the agency, not under assignment from my paper.
Swiss national Gaston Iben remembered me for several years during his tenure in Dhaka and used to invite me to all WFP ceremonies that were held in the city. As a gesture of honour to me, he treated me to a lunch at the Dhaka Sheraton along with SR Khan. Several years later there was a big programme of UN chiefs of agencies in Dhaka. Gaston Iben decided that the WFP Executive Director Catherine Bertini would be interviewed by none else than me. I gladly agreed to the offer. WFP men ran to me with their prescribed questionnaire to make sure that the interview did not embarrass their boss from the US background. I said ‘no’ to their suggestions and told them I can take the interview only if I am left free to ask any question I deem fit. Gaston Iben intervened and allowed the interview. The outcome was spectacular, the story that I wrote focused on food assistance that existed also in the USA, something that was not known in our part of the world.
Yes, Gaston Iben and his men did commission me to write some features on the following World Food Day on some WFP-supported programmes in Bangladesh and paid me for those, though nowhere near the nearly $1,000 dollars I politely declined in the 1991 rainy season. Gaston Iben retired from his WFP job in Dhaka. After his retirement contacts with the WFP Dhaka office have over time been lost.
In 1991 my stories on the advance preparedness of Bangladesh’s Cyclone Preparedness Programme (CPP) that had helped save many more lives and post-cyclone rescue and relief operations published in The Daily Star attracted international attention. The financial integrity demonstrated by this tiny journalist did help increase the prestige of the paper in particular and journalism in Bangladesh in general. The memory is quite fresh as it is pleasant.
Dhaka, 01 July 2019

Mostafa Kamal Majumder