Bangladesh Questions Links
By Brian Small at Sep 03, 2009
I've been looking into some questions stemming from conversations in Bangladesh. I can't speak Bengali (Bangla) yet (I'd like to work on that) and spent more time speaking with the Japanese tour participants and NGO staff than the Bangladeshi staff but there was still a lot of food for thought.
A fifteen year veteran of NGO activity in Bangladesh thought that NGOs were like small businesses, just that they're funded by microcredit. That made me curious about how the relationships between all the 'business' ngo staff and the micro-credit recievers are working out. A quick search led me to the paper, The Limits of Microcredit from foodfirst. In this Backgrounder paper "research was conducted cooperatively with a group of landless laborers living in Arampur, a village in Northern Bangladesh. Using digital voice recorders, they conducted unstructured interviews with their peers and neighbores, gathering life histories and experiences with microcredit."
Reading the responses makes you think of loan officer confessions excerpted from American Casino on DemocracyNow! "One respondent observed, "At the beginning, the NGO's said that their loans would bring happiness to our lives, as we would get money to start businesses. They lured us by telling us we would have chickens, a latrine, and many other things. ..... But later we felt the burden. Then we understood that we could never get rid of the loans even after selling our skin." I suppose regular Znet readers won't be surprised to find serious problems in Microcredit which although it 'has enormous potential as a tool for poverty alleviation' as it "moves into the development mainstream there is an urgent need to reflect on its role in market-led development inititiatives."
There is a book (and an NHK (Japan's PublicStateCorporate TV) special whose introduction doesn't dwell on why the government doesn't 'function enough') extolling the virtues of the largest microcredit NGO. It's blurbed by Soros on Amazon, ' "The billion dollars in micro loans that BRAC extends each year to poor people is just the beginning of the story of this remarkable organization. Smillie writes about how determination, ingenuity and enterprise can end poverty." --George Soros' I can only imagine most people would prefer publications from an organization working with Susan George, ' "Here, in a microcosm, is a fascinating, carefully constructed account of the way life works in a million Third World villages."--Susan George, author, How the Other Half Dies. In the introduction to series on 'boiling' cities NHK regurgitated the tripe about borders having less meaning as a result of globalization, every time you open up an English newspaper from Bangladesh there's stories about Indian border guards shooting people from Bangladesh. I stopped watching (and paying the fees for) NHK after they caved into political pressure on the Women's War Crimes Tribunal. But it had been coming for a while, one of the technology shows revered a manager and turned into a commercial for Toshiba. I guess by thinning borders they mean for corporate financial markets, what else should we be worrying about? I sure am glad I don't pay their fees anymore.
While I was in Bangladesh I kept thinking, where's the State? Why isn't there tax money doing sanitation, water supply, swine flu prevention awareness. This seemed like the big question - the NGO projects we drove around to visit looked great but you couldn't help but feel there were bigger questions to be asking. Like can we track down the nearest Jubilee South people and ask how much public money is going to service debts? Can Bangladesh be like Japan and Korean and control the capital flight of it's rich people so it can be used for domestic development? An NGO staff member said that was what angered him the most - rich people fed people one day a year, only one day! It seemed like all the money went abroad.. How much of the money we paid for the Fay tissues stays in Bangladesh? ?hat percentage goes to the corporation that liscensed their production from London? Out of Curiousity is the word 'unlimited' a recent PR hot word? The TV show 'Roxena Unlimited' the billboard 'Banking Unlimited'.. Inquiring Minds Want to Know.
Who makes the toilets? In Japan, every restroom I go to has either Inax or Toto, Japanese manufacturers. In Mexico it was all American Standard. Should we call Armatya Sen and see if he can find the relationship between industrial development and domestically manufactured toilet installation? In Bangladesh whenever I wasn't preoccupied with squatting and figuring out if I had to find my own paper (evenutally those cool little water jugs work fine but like everything new - they're an acquired taste) most of the bathroom fixtures seemed foreign(as in not from Bangladesh), British or Italian...
I tried to provide the Noam Chomsky background about Daniel Defoe being in Bengal in the 1700's saying the textile industy was more advanced than England's. (Powers and Prospects,p.101) The Japanese staff could accept that India might have produced more iron than all of Europe in 1820 (Profit Over People, p.35, p. 45 in the Japanese trans.), but Bangladesh? Hard to believe. If you were looking you could find hints though. There was a display of muslin (?) cloth and a picture in the War of Liberation museum. A Japanese student told me that weavers had their thumbs cut off by the British for refusing to teach the secret production techniques. Internet searches for 7157, weavers, and thumbs says people cut off their own thumbs to avoid forced labor. Regardless, the date and display open up the mind to think about the history of poverty in the area. I had a couple of the University students pondering the key Chomsky questions - what happens if you compare Cuba and Guatemala, or Russia and Brazil..
Food First's Needless Hunger book, which I ordered but I think you can read the whole thing here. It's a nice answer to Henry Kissinger calling Banglaesh an 'international basket case' as quoted by Stuart Butler in Lonely Planet's Bangladesh guide. The Lonely planet guide was pretty good, the column on 'Lalon, the singing saint' sparked some good conversation, 'The mustans'(p 69) charging for using the public streets on their territory was a local avenue for discussing Mike Davis' Planet of Slums and Chris Albani's Graceland. The Japanese NGO people said the Lonely Planet guide sounded more interesting than the Japanese travel guide, probably because more of Bangladesh's people speak English than Japanese. Several portions of the Japanese guide were written by AAN staff.
The Lonely Planet guy and the foreigners I met there seemed kind of cheap. Do you really want to haggle prices with people where they generally survive on less than a dollar a day? Maybe if you're a backpacker student with no money but still, if you have the means to travel you probably have the means to pay a bit extra, maybe even hand out a few dollars if people look hungry, or have to be carried by their grandmother, or lost the use of eyes in the top, burned half of their face and need to be led by a daughter. A Peace Corp kinda guy might tell me he doesn't have time for people doing the 'work' they chose. It was our last night so I didn't have time to follow him to the nearest 'Hello Work' Unemployment office to peruse the 'beggars' employment options.
There's a lot of good information in the "English-born Stuart Butler"'s Lonely Planet guide but you don't get the impression he's very concerned with hunger - "Rickshaws, Pure exhiliration or pure terror, it's hard to decide. take a rickshaw (p 179) and admire how the world's tiniest man navigates you through a seemingly unmoving mass of vehicles, people and animals."(p. 5) Why are the rickshaw pedallers so skinny? You find hints later, they don't own their own 'vehicles',(p. 34) I can't help wondering if it's impossible for a tourist book to be more explicit in tying together an 'unsung Lance Armstrong'(Mike Davis) in your rickshaw puller appearing to be the 'world's tiniest man' and the observations that the movie star faces decorating the vehicle appear 'plumper than in real life - a slim figure isn't a fantasy when so many go hungry.' Is there a well-concealed concern for labor standards in the guide? From the "Don't miss" blurb "I'd seen the chimneys of brick factories many times, but didn't realize just what making bricks entailed. The guys doing it have to have one of the most dangerous jobs in the world; they're literally working on top of a volcano. Go and visit one. A bad day at the office will never be the same again!"(p.4) Maybe this is the secret to lowering Japanese 30,000 peope-a-year suicide rate?
The Lonely planet guide mentions foreigner feeling like famous idols in Bangladesh. The Japanese group also talked about how 'everywhere you go' you end up surrounded by people. Like the guide recommends, you start communicating with people and it's fun. I went out onto a road to check out the scenery, watch life go by and try eating some sugar cane. In 5 minutes I had a dozen people trying to tell me the proper way to eat sugar cane. How would I know? I'm from Philadelphia. I have to learn Bengali instead of just hamming it up instead of just laughing about starting to smash a pomegrante open on my forehead they seriously discouraged it. I ended up being taken to the local chairman's office so he could squeeze out the seeds properly. I ended up with tea and everything. Later two kids were happy to get the extra pomegrante - one with an audience of 40 guys waiting for paper work was enough. A woman who may or may not have been related to the children explained how her first husband was killed by a tiger, I couldn't make out a lot but there may have been a second husband killed by something else, a cyclone or something.
In Cyclone devastated Gabura too, people were glad to see us, trying to make us understand. Maybe they thought we were some kind of big international organization that could do something - put up more cement buildings, install pumps to drain more seawater out of the fields. Maybe they(some) were just bored and our entertainment value didn't turn out to be a disappointment... Bill Quigley's article on Haiti's Gonaives reminded me a lot of Gabura. Noam Chomsky's comparison of Hurrican death rates in Cuba with Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala come to mind too. An independent functioning ('enough') state would seem to make a big difference in responding to disasters. The States is seeming more like a Third World country all the time, Katrina in New Orleans, The rich don't pay taxes...
Another big thing visitors (tourists) in Bangladesh have to deal with. What do you do with the people asking for money between the car and the restaurant, around the bus stops, here and there? If they look hungry or traumatized why not give? Harold Moss of CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) would approve. Listening to him during a high school 'service project' helped a lot. Foreigners (Japanese) that have been in Dhaka a long time have excuses, their bosses (mustans?) take most of it anyway, the women with babies give the kids sleeping medicine. It's an Islam thing the rich have to give to the poor or they don't go to heaven. What do I know but those statements don't seem very accurate to me. The kids I saw looked fairly alert, if the bosses do get a hold of it, the mal-nourished traumatized person should still get a least a meal out of it. Maybe there's a way to be subtle and slip two bills into a hand, one to declare one to go eat with.... I'm no Jesus or
Father Gerard Jean-Juste but a few dollars here a few dollars there won't kill you. Trying to do the right thing and living like Father Gerard Jean-Juste, Jesuit Ignacio Martin-Baro or Che Guevara might though. It seemed like a cheap compromise that let me look a few hungry-looking people in the eye while thinking of something more substantial to do.I have to figure out if finding ways to take fellow gringos and Japanese people to Bangladesh and trying to get them to think on the background and imagine the exhaustion of the lives there would be a worthwhile thing to do. It's a fascinating place, and you with opened eyes you can start to grok, climate change, development, trade, poverty all the 'globalization' issues. And it's easy to follow it all right back to the big C word colonialization...
Besides, where else can you get 40 people to crack up by gathering them around and announcing "Ami Bideshi," I am a foreigner. It must have some special nuances because two guys protested, 'no, you are my guest...' It's a shame we were rushing around so much at those times I couldn't hang out with them some more...