Runa Khan, Founder & Executive Director –Friendship NGO
Runa Khan is the founder and Executive Director of Friendship, a value-based organization in Bangladesh. She is also the Founder & Chairman of Friendship International, based out of Luxembourg.
Her career started with teaching children having learning disabilities in 1982. She then went on to write goal-oriented text-books for children and also won the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994. She joined her family’s printing business very early and also established a tourism company, Contic in 1996 which uses traditional wooden boats of Bangladesh. Contic is successfully running even today, though she has taken a less involved approach of being a partner & consultant.
“I have involved in various other works in Business and Education but I found my home in humanitarian work, with Friendship. I received the Rolex award for Entrepreneurship for my work here in 2006, followed by IDB award and Schwab Foundation fellowship. More than all the awards however, what fuels me is the smiles that I see in the communities that my work is helping. Their resilience, their courage and their love which keeps me going” says Runa.
In the interview below with team ABT, Runa Khan talks about her journey & experiences.
Tell us more about your organisation ‘Friendship’
Friendship started its operation in 2002 with a vision of providing healthcare services to the ultra-poor in the remote communities of Bangladesh. We support communities mainly in the shifting northern river islands, known as “Chars”, of the Brahmaputra and Jamuna rivers and in the coastal areas of the Bay of Bengal. We have 3 Floating hospitals: 2 in the north and 1 in the South.
However, we realized we need further innovation for the health services to reach inland. Upon need analysis we established the 3-tier healthcare system; Tier 1- floating hospitals, Tier-2: Satellite clinics, healthcare teams, visit communities on bi-weekly or monthly basis, Tier-3: Friendship Community Medic-Aides (FCMs) who visits households creating awareness about personal hygiene, nutrition, clean water and sanitation, family planning, diagnosis techniques, ante-natal care, safe delivery & post-natal care, and other day-to-day health care issues.
Over the years, recognizing the broader goal of enabling the communities to improve the living condition and gain control over their lives, the organization has progressively built its distinctive integrated community development model which includes: Health, Education, Disaster Management and Infrastructure Development, Good Governance, Sustainable Economic Development and Cultural Preservation. Our services are reaching out to 4.2 million hard to reach people every year. It is an organisation which makes possible real change to communities outside the economic mainstream.
Recently, a major crisis has driven the country to shelter the Rohingya people from Myanmar who have crossed rivers and land to find a safe place in Bangladesh. Our organization and team has come forward with other NGOs and the government to ensure that these displaced people are given their basic rights that they deserve, and bring back the hope and dignity in their lives.
What has been your biggest challenge as a Woman Entrepreneur?
Being a woman in this world, one needs to work twice as hard as men, to be taken as equally good. Being a woman in the leadership role in development sector leads you to work harder to be a hundred steps ahead for the success and the reputation of your organization.
As a female founder of an innovative healthcare system of a development NGO from the South of the world to establish an organization in the North requires vision which is commonly faced with hindrances. One challenge as an individual is usually people management from different levels. You need to know each and every single person in your organization to build the trust, hope and dignity. Not everyone is the same. And for each individual, you will need to understand the person for her/ him to share the same values throughout the organization. You build the trust with the team members and supporters with time and effort, and you do your best to hold on to it through your actions.
The biggest challenge in my work with Friendship, however, is the problem identification and developing its solutions. Taking the ecosystem into consideration and developing something that is sustainable and ethically applicable with other stakeholders. We design projects based on local needs, and after we implement them, we stay to ensure that the projects are having the desired and lasting impact. Stakeholder management is also a major challenge which includes the local community, local government, national government and other NGOs in the area.
With some May players in the field, there are always possibilities of corruption and solutions must be developed by managing all these factors. We put all our efforts in maintaining integrity and honesty in the field. The structure of the organization and its work is based on “simple solutions for simple needs” with the belief “the poor cannot afford poor solutions. So, there needs to be a balance of simple with quality and sustainability. The challenge lies in the process of how these activities are complemented keeping ethics and dignity for the poor as priority.
Tell us about your leadership style.
I don’t think of leadership separately from my values of work. For me, working with integrity, empathy, hope and dignity is the only option for sustainability. And only like-minded people are part of my organization because that is the foundation of this organization. I found out when you stick to your values, you have people respecting you for these values. Of course, you will need to lead with courage. There will be failures, but you will not be able to lead if you fear it. But, you will need your work ethics to set you aside from the rest. Work with no discrimination, provide opportunities to those with potential, do not fear failures and of course, respect for the team and the communities that we serve.
Who has been your biggest inspiration and why?
My inspirations come from my parents. Philosophical and spiritual guidance from my father, and lessons of gentleness and compassion from my mother has brought me this far to achieve my dreams. My parents are my stars in the sky for guidance on this voyage.
What is that one milestone in your life that makes you happy and proud?
I would like to tell a story here instead of pointing out a single milestone. During the fourth flood of 2017, that affected more than 7 million people of the country, our team was out distributing relief. In one community when we went to distribute, they told us they did not relief that much, and that they could manage with what they had received already, and we should go to another community.
We had been working with this particular community for years with our income generation, agriculture, education, healthcare and other programs and in time of crisis the real indicator of success− the character of the community was vividly visible. This for me is true sustainability, the community that has grown in confidence and honor to care about others even when they are in trouble. This made me happy and proud and I believe this is the kind of change we are truly aiming for.
What would you like to achieve in coming years?
Our organization has been working for over 15 years to establish a comprehensive model. In upcoming years, we continue our advocacy with the Government of Bangladesh to recognize our successful models of intervention, and integrate them into broader policies. We will work to establish ourselves as knowledge partners for other development entities at home and abroad; while we continue serving the communities with the same quality of services.
The vision is identifying gaps and filling in deep development issues, both nationally and internationally; Friendship operations and model to be used as an example for simplicity and trend for ethical behaviour.Each of our programs– health, education and income generation comes together so that the system works holistically together. We truly believe in an integrated model of development work. We want to share our systems and expand our work.
We are also working to strengthen the organisation. We are codifying strategic planning, protocols and guidelines for ensuring that the organization can work with the vision and values on which it was created, even after I am no longer active in management.