Friday, June 29, 2012

The Moment I've Been Waiting For

Since arriving in Bangladesh, there is one thing I have wanted to do pretty desperately. The problem is, it was not something I had much control over. It relied on me planting strategic, passive-aggressive comments in conversations and knowing the right people. Last night, my diligence and desperation paid off; I attended a wedding ceremony.

During my first week of work, I had expressed my curiosity of Bangladeshi weddings to my intern supervisor. She told me about how she had taken 10 days off of work for her five-ceremony wedding (the ceremonies are held every other day). When I told my host mom about this, she retorted, "Only five days?! That's a short one." During the field visit in Manikanj, I had a little sneak preview of a Bangladeshi wedding, which only further excited me.

Then last night, in the midst of a fancy meal at Spaghetti Jazz, The Lonely Planet's #1 restaurant recommendation in Gulshan, I received a text message from my work partner, asking if I would like to attend a wedding event with her. Obviously there was no real question here, and my friends and I gulped our dinners down as quickly as possible. The ladies raced home and suited up in our nicest kameezes, and our male counterpart dressed in his best panjabi (which he had to borrow from my work partner's father).

Ornately decorated stage.
Look at all the flowers!
On the ride to the event, my work partner explained exactly what this event was that we would attend. It is called holud, and it is a party that the bride and groom both have on separate nights before the wedding. Last night, we attended the groom's holud. By the time we arrived, we had missed the groom's ornate processional into the room, where he rode on some sort of throne under an umbrella while being fanned with giant, golden, bejeweledpeacock-feather-covered fans. In the front of the room, the groom sat with platters of sweet foods and turmeric powder. Groups of friends, family, and acquaintances came up to the stage, smudged turmeric powder on the groom, and spoon fed him sweets. What is the purpose for all this? When I asked my friend she giggled and asked her mom, who also giggled and asked the mother of the bride. The lucky mother came over and told us how the turmeric powder is supposed to brighten the groom's complexion and make him glow for the wedding. We feed the groom desserts to give him something sweet before the wedding.
feeding the groom rice pudding
My first observation was, of course, the extremely brightly colored and coordinated clothing. I asked my friend why most everyone was wearing red and green, and she told me people like to coordinate their outfits. Almost all the men wore green panjabis and many of the women wore red saris, particularly the bride's family. Their outfits were beautiful. I was particularly enamored with their earrings which were made with actual flowers. I am definitely making myself a pair of those for my wedding. Another interesting fact is our relation to the soon-to-be-married couple. My friend's mom's sister's sister-in-law's daughter was the bride. Does that make sense? The point is, Bangladeshi weddings are extremely inclusive, a trait I would also like in my wedding. Finally, I had to ask about the religious aspect of the wedding. Many of the women wore bindis (the small circles worn on the forehead, often seen in Indian culture), which I did not realize was prevalent in the Muslim religion. I also learned that this particular ceremony, though Muslim, was specific to Bangladeshi-Muslims. Having been part of India, a predominantly Hindu nation, Bangladeshis have mixed a lot of Hindu culture into their Muslim culture. The style in which Bangladeshis celebrate weddings would not be the same in the Middle East, for example.

Of course a South Asian event cannot be complete without adequately feeding the guests. The waiters rushed out of the kitchen with heaping plates of naan bread, yogurt sauce, fried beef cakes, and chicken. That was our appetizer. Next came the mutton byriani, a rice dish with goat meat and potatoes mixed in. Of course, the boneless, skinless variety does not exist here so I had to pull some gigantic bones out of the tender mutton chunks. The rich meat tasted divine; I could not come close to finishing my plate of food.

Next came my favorite part of the night: dancing. The men were the first on the dance floor. It was especially interesting to see a relatively modest crowd of women. I always feel I must beg most of my male friends to dance with me and my female friends willingly join. It was so fun to see everyone so happy and spirited. Many movies that westerners see about marriages in South Asia tend to have negative portrayals of the forceful, pressure-filled marriages. These certainly exist, but during this event, all these feelings of animosity were forgotten as families and friends came together, ate, talked, and danced.

This was probably one of the more fun nights of being in Bangladesh. It was a chance to experience one of the happiest aspects of any culture. In their state of merriment, the family graciously invited us to attend the wedding reception tomorrow, and I cannot wait!

The bride's family circling the groom. Check out their beautiful, handmade earrings. Those are real flowers! Some of them also have chains of orange flowers in their hair. They looked so beautiful.

A very happy groom.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Book of Job

Unfortunately, the only way I can describe this past week is through the gruesome Book of Job from the Bible. Those who have read it know that in this story, God decides to test Job, one of his most devoted worshipers. He plagues Job with horrible diseases, pain, and suffering. Since I moved into this new apartment, I have gone through a series of less severe ailments that have made living in Dhaka miserable. Is God testing me too? Maybe.

So I went to the doctor, which per usual, was an adventure in and of itself. The first rickshaw driver I flagged rolled his eyes and pedaled away when I asked him to take me to the hospital. It’s not like this country has fatal diseases or anything… The second rickshaw driver, older and probably with a daughter of his own, gladly took me on the journey. The ride was oddly scenic, as it twisted and turned through foliage-covered apartment buildings. Every sharp corner, I braced the rickshaw seat like it was a rollercoaster. A few minutes deep into this labyrinth, we suddenly met the busy road.

The rickshaw wallah dropped me off and pointed to the “Cholera Hospital” building. His kind heart and my relief made me feel extra generous, so I gave him a whopping 100 takas, a little less than a dollar and a quarter. I was thankful find that almost everyone I encountered in the dirt cul-de-sac of hospital buildings was actually bilingual, which came in handy since this hospital was not organized quite like a Park Nicollet. I found the Traveler’s Clinic in a semi-deserted building with shards of drywall swept into the corners of the hallways. The service was great; I couldn’t have asked for a better visit. Now the challenge will be staying healthy for another five weeks. Last night, I was not sure, but today I am up for that challenge.

Speaking of challenges, I have finally begun to wrap my mind around the challenges BRAC faces in maintaining a good reputation among Bangladeshis. One of the Bangladeshi interns studies journalism, so over the weekend, she went to a conference for journalists sponsored by BRAC. I was shocked to hear the horrible things some of the journalists said about BRAC. As favors, BRAC distributed nice notebooks, and one of the journalists muttered under their breath, “The one nice thing BRAC has ever done.” Unbelievable!

I thought back to a scene in one of my favorite movies, Slumdog Millionaire. Remember when the protagonist is in the bathroom, and the game show host slyly feeds him an answer? Remember how the protagonist takes the 50/50 lifeline and opts not to choose the host’s recommendation? His whole life, the slum dog had to very carefully choose who he could and could not trust. If he trusted the wrong person, he could end up dead. I use this explanation to justify the way Bangladeshis feel about BRAC. Bangladeshis have watched their government, development organizations, and ordinary people cheat and come out on top. Corruption has plagued this country and stifled its ability to flourish. It’s no wonder they are skeptical of BRAC.

On the flip side, BRAC could be doing a better job of advertising its achievements. Just the other day, I was having a conversation with a couple of the interns, one who is interning with the social media branch of communications. She wondered why western-based development organizations like Oxfam received so much more publicity. When one of their workers is kidnapped, it’s all over the news. When a BRAC employee is kidnapped, no one knows. In my opinion, the western countries see their work as a selfless charity. They are reaching outside of their borders, into worlds unknown to them, to do work that doesn’t necessarily benefit them. In the western world, selfless acts don’t receive much monetary compensation, so they get recognition. That’s why resumes have volunteer sections, so that employers can see that you are more than just academically and professionally excellent.

BRAC, on the other hand, was founded in a developing country, and the work it does directly benefits Bangladesh. BRAC came about as more of a necessity than a selfless act. No one would put house volunteer on their resume if they clothed, fed, and medicated their siblings when their parents were out working. This is a necessity, not a volunteer opportunity. What I am trying to say is that BRAC’s leadership sees its work as essential, and therefore, BRAC has been modest about its achievements. When westerners find out what BRAC is doing, they are amazed at the difference it has made in Bangladesh, and now throughout the world.

My first thought upon hearing about BRAC was not “Hm…this story seems too good to be true. There must be something off here.” It sounded a little bit more like “Wow! This is great! When can I start changing the world with BRAC?” Maybe I am too optimistic. I think that growing up with a relatively transparent government, has made me a trusting person. The Bangladeshis, like Job, have been tested time after time to have faith in their government and corporations with no transparency. Since BRAC is not God, it is time for BRAC to come clean with its facts and figures. From what I can tell, BRAC will only benefit from becoming more transparent. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

True Life: I Grew up in a Developed Country

For those of you that haven’t heard of MTV’s series True Life, it is a reality TV show that documents about five people per show who all share a certain quirk. Episodes have included True Life: I am a Beauty Queen, True Life: I Live with My Parents, and True Life: I am Obese. As you can imagine, some shows are more dramatic than others. The most shocking episodes are those in which the interviewees gradually realize their destitute state after living a life of ignorance. As the title of this blog post suggests, I realized just how provincial of a life I have lived.

Having my Brazilian friend from school visit was probably the best thing that could have happened in my dire state. Saturday afternoon, I woke up feeling mediocre and by 7:00 that night, I knew I was ill. I woke up Sunday morning hardly able to open my eyes, fearing for my life (who knows what kind of diseases one can acquire in Bangladesh). At this point, I was extremely flustered; away from home, the only consistency one has is the comfort inside their own skin. Suddenly, I no longer had this consistency or comfort.

After a few hours of complaining on my part, my friend explained that no matter where people travel for extended periods of time, they find something to complain about, a cultural trait that drives us mad. Suddenly I realized that every year at college, not only do the international students suffer the rigor of college academics, but they feel just as destitute as I did this weekend. When I thought I experienced a little culture shock moving from Minnesota to California, I was clueless.

Throughout my life, I had put America on a pedestal and assumed everyone else saw it this way. When I asked international students if they planned to stay in the United States, I was always shocked to hear that they wanted to move back home. Why would you want to leave this beautiful, free, limitless country? Well, not everyone sees it this way. Through the support of a friend from college, but born in a world so different than my own, I was able to fully comprehend Judy Garland’s famous line, “There’s no place like home.” The Bangladeshis I work with get sick when they come home for the summers, they hate the traffic in Dhaka, and they find their country’s cinema repulsive, and yet they miss home horribly when they study overseas.

Part of me is a little embarrassed that all this time, I assumed citizens of third world countries would choose life in the United States over their lives in the developing world. There may be some benefits to life in developed countries, but nothing can replace the culture and people that make your nation feel like home. Having accepted that I will not feel home until I am with my family and within U.S. borders, I am focusing on aspects of the culture in Bangladesh that I like and will miss when I am home. There are so many things I am learning here that I could not have learned in the United States, even at one of the top universities in the world. 

Just for fun, my friends showed me this super endearing olympics promotional video. I almost cried, maybe because I'm a little homesick, but the video also reminded me that it doesn't matter where in the world you are, the support of family is universally important.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Weekend Warrior

Where do I begin describing the last 24 hours. They have been the most shocking and exciting since arriving in Bangladesh. At this time yesterday, I was in route to exchange keys and move into my new apartment. My new roommate and I made it just in time before the previous tenant left for the airport. Simultaneously, my Brazilian buddy from College, just arrived safely at his hotel. Like any average person, the traffic left him dumbstruck as he experienced six near-death experiences on the 11 km journey. He did not believe me when I told him the best way to get from his hotel to my apartment was via rickshaw.

On his way to the new apartment, I met the co-tenants who stay in the other bedroom: a young, eccentric Spanish couple. They appreciate the origins of my name, and I have spoken a little Spanish with them. I managed to set up some sort of internet access (still cannot access my school email or blog; I had to upload this remotely). Interestingly, my American phone found cell service. Our friendly co-tenants also gave us the low down on the party that we would attend that evening.

Last week, the Australian intern did a bit of research on the expatriate clubs in Dhaka. She found out when all the parties are, particularly those which do not require membership. Every Thursday, the Nordic Club hosts a dance party so the BRAC interns decided that we must go. Sure enough, the DJ for the night was an Italian friend of our co-tenants. 

When we arrived at the club, I experienced a second wave of culture shock. Firstly, I had not been surrounded by that many Caucasians since being home. Secondly, I had never been surrounded by so many blondes in my life. If I had spontaneously developed amnesia last night, I would not have believed that I was in Bangladesh. As more and more people arrived, the crowd became increasingly diverse. The craziest event of the night was running into a fellow Claremont McKenna College student (CMC-er). Interning at Grameen Bank, another microfinance and development organization, we enjoyed exchanging our experiences working at our respective organizations. The night was a remarkable display of the forces that bring people together. I could not believe how Bangladesh, this country the size of Iowa, had connected all of us from far corners of the world. 

The drive home at 2:30 am was less than pleasurable, as the barren streets and eerie atmosphere left us all quite spooked. Luckily we had a safe mode of transportation, but it made me hyper aware of the limitations men and especially women have in enjoying their home city. Any woman without the luxuries of a driver can kiss the night life goodbye. 

Awesome boat tour! Best part of the day in Old Dhaka.
Fast forward five hours later to my alarm clock, alerting me to wake up for a 9:00 am walking tour of Old Dhaka. About 7 km south of BRAC Center is Old Dhaka, the more historical and central area of Dhaka city. It houses many old and beautiful places of worship and ruins that date back to the Mughal Empire (early 1600s). This part of Dhaka itself dates back to the 7th century, and the people exhibit these traditional roots. Normally during the call to prayer, people continue about their daily routine, but in Old Dhaka, we saw people congregate and all worship in unison outside of mosques. 

When the tour guide approached this super creepy, hole in
the wall,  I could not believe he expected us to enter. He
led us through a maze of small caverns which were
apparently used to host overseas travelers centuries ago.
As you can see, these made for very cozy accommodations.
Being a foreigner became very apparent in this part of town. The lack of large companies in Old Dhaka means less frequent foreign visitors. Needless to say, our tour group expanded gradually throughout the day with gawkers. The most exciting part of the tour was riding boats along the river. Kids excitedly waved at our group and swam up to the boat to greet us. On the scenic (depending on how you look at it) boat ride, I thought about how welcoming the Bangladeshis were toward us. Although their friendliness could be interpreted as creepy and invasive, I find it endearing and inspirational. On numerous accounts, Bangladeshis have referred to their country has poor. The sight of foreigners in their country excites them; they are thankful to see that people care about their country and appreciate its beauty. 

At the Nordic Club, one of the Bangladeshis I met responded to my positive remarks about Bangladesh saying, “Go home and tell all your friends about how great Bangladesh is. Tell them to come and see this beauty of this country.” Like me, this boy has immense pride for his country.  The difference is that the Bangladeshis welcome foreigners with enthusiasm. In its commencement, the United States did just this, helping to create the melting pot it is today. The reputation we have gained has caused us to take our desirability for granted. Instead of welcoming foreigners like we used to, we are tightening our borders, making it harder for others to enjoy the beauty we have created. I hope that the United States can regress to its welcoming attitude. Instead of simply applauding diversity, I hope Americans can embrace foreign thought, culture, and people the same way Bangladesh welcomes its foreign visitors.

This picture started off with just the boy in the yellow shirt and myself. Within a matter of seconds, a crowd formed, cameras ready.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cheap Cheap Cheap

Tonight has been a sad night, as I finally broke the news to my hotel: I am checking out tomorrow. I have decided to venture into the big city and live in an apartment with a fellow intern. It will be hard to give up the convenience of continental breakfast, a stocked refrigerator (don't worry, as a Muslim country, Bangladesh prohibits the consumption of alcohol), and my office only 19 floors above me. I have grown close with the restaurant staff, housekeeping, and front desk managers, which explains my current heartbreak. Why do you move, you ask? I ashamedly admit, I am motivated by money.

Bangladesh is a country made for thrifty people like me. The top-floor, three-bedroom, three-bathroom apartment I am moving into will cost me $175 for the month. The 3-day, 500 mile boat tour I will take from Dhaka City to the Sundarban National Park will cost at most $185 (look forward to that blog post). To top it off, my subsidized lunch at the BRAC staff canteen costs me almost 40 cents. This certainly makes up for my rather pricey plane ticket to get here in the first place. So, I am giving up the carefree hotel life for a fraction-of-the-price, 15-minute-walk-away, independent living situation. 

In yet another interview with a Social Enterprises guru, I learned just how cheap Bangladesh really is. Nestled in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh are breathtaking tea estates which under British Colonial rule used to resemble slave plantations. Even after India gained its independence, conditions on the estates did not change. Even when Bangladesh gained its independence from India, conditions on the estates did not change. Currently the government owns about half of the tea estates and private entities own the rest. BRAC has rented 14 tea estates from the government formed BRAC Tea Estates. On these plots of land, BRAC strives to give workers better working and living conditions. By law, the tea estates should be growing tea at 50% capacity, but they currently grow less than half this. BRAC also works to reach the 50% benchmark.

Even without growing tea at full capacity, the BRAC Tea Estates are extremely profitable. This seemed quite plausible when I learned that BRAC pays a mere $6 tax on the land it rents, per year. Here's the catch: the government of Bangladesh has created a tea auction in which tea leaf producers must participate in order to sell their leaves. Tea companies purchase the leaves and the government collects 37% of the income from the BRAC Tea Estates, a rather high tax rate for a social enterprise.

As much as Bangladesh charms me with its low prices and the ability to bargain for every buck, there does come a cost. Finding a fly in a loaf of bread and on a saucer in a restaurant (with white table cloths may I add), finding food residue, that I did not order, on the same plate as my entrée, enduring countless power outages on the daily, almost bouncing off a rickshaw. Although inexpensive, these services came with obvious costs. Going overboard on the flavorful, absolutely delicious Bangladeshi food cost me two nights of white rice and naan bread for dinner.  These struggles made me reminisce about the Lonely Planet Guide's article on the best bargain vacation spots in the world. I agree that Bangladesh is one of the best places to get a bargain in the world. But in order to feel at ease in this country, one must be able to accept that with a bargain comes a surprise.

In the case of the BRAC Tea Estates, one could interpret the surprise as the unbelievably high income tax. Believe it or not, there is an even bigger surprise in this story. Having known no other way of life, the workers on the tea estates show a general reluctance to improving their way of life. BRAC has tried to teach them sanitary living habits, introduce toilets, and provide healthcare and education to the workers' children. Instead of immediately accepting and appreciating these services, the tea workers see this change of lifestyle as a burden. BRAC has had to work very hard to teach the tea estate workers about their rights as human beings and the importance of sanitation and education. For the workers on the tea estates, who have lived in the Sylhet region for generations and known no other way of life, ignorance was bliss. Jean-Jaques Rousseau would reproach BRAC's efforts to educate these people on how to improve their lives. Maybe Rousseau's theory of the "noble savage" makes a good point: people are happiest at some middle point between cavemen and our present, arguably sophisticated state. At this point, we are aware that we have what we need and unaware that we could have better. Although the noble savage does not pity itself, I do. Even though the tea workers have what they need, I think it is unjust to deprive them of the right to create their own lives. Giving the tea workers and their children a chance to escape oppression, I think BRAC does a neat thing in Sylhet.

To learn more about BRAC, check out this link which posts reflections from the entire intern crew. You may experience a little déja vu when you read my posts:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

How Going with the Flow Can Still Feel Like One Is Swimming against the Current

Over the last few days, I have conducted a half dozen interviews with the General Managers of BRAC's Social Enterprises. With the help of two Bangladesh natives, we are trying to uncover all the nitty-gritty detail of each enterprises' evolution. While tracing the enterprises' progression, we are focusing on how the enterprises work together and form a value-added supply chain. This, in my opinion, is the essence of BRAC's operations.

BRAC's three main branches include Social Enterprises, Development Programs, and Investments. Not only do the Social Enterprises work together, but often the Development Programs and Social Enterprises support each other. The main value-added chain we have focused on over the past two days has been the BRAC Chicken supply chain. Five enterprises make up this chain: BRAC Feed Mills, BRAC Poultry, BRAC Poultry Rearing, BRAC Chicken, and BRAC Printing Pack. BRAC began with a goal of generating income among the rural poor. They also wanted to supply healthy, safe, and nutritious chicken meat to the market. To create the healthiest chickens possible, BRAC needed access to high-nutrient chicken feed, which was not available in Bangladesh until BRAC established its feed mills. To top it all off, BRAC created a printing pack to package its chicken for market sales. It created a system for itself to make profit and the rural poor to generate income.

These enterprises overlap with BRAC's microfinance program. To properly rear chickens, BRAC distributes small loans so that the rural poor may purchase day-old chicks from BRAC Poultry. Then BRAC teaches these people how to vaccinate, properly feed, and sanitize their chickens. When these chickens are ready for slaughter, BRAC purchases the chickens for a fair price and sells the meat. BRAC Chicken has become a huge supplier of chicken across the nation, serving clients such as KFC. As other chain restaurants (which shall remain nameless) plan to open doors in Bangladesh, BRAC Chicken plans to supply to these vendors. This value-added supply chain represents one of BRAC's most well-thought out, resourceful, and successful schemes.

Through conducting these interviews, I found myself a bit out of the loop. Although I have done so much reading and research on BRAC as a whole and its enterprises, nothing can replace general cultural understanding. Not to brag, but when the Director of Communications quizzed the intern group on BRAC's components, I (almost obnoxiously) led the charge. In the interviews, however, half the questions I asked provoked a quizzical expression of raised or furrowed eyebrows. Having pretty thick knowledge of factory farming in the United States, I could not imagine the rural people that I met last week with syringes, injecting complex medicines into our feathered friends. The more time that passes in Bangladesh, the more I realize how much I do differently than the Bangladeshis.

This realization literally hit me when I tried to press the "1" button in the elevator, and the lift attendant slapped my wrist. Bright red in embarrassment, one of my co-workers explained that at the end of the day, the attendants manually run the elevators to make sure everyone makes it down the 20-floor BRAC tower without enduring a long wait. After a day of driving in flooded roads, stop-stop-still stopped-and-go traffic, and still not meeting with the people I needed to, a slap on the wrist had more of an emotional effect on me than the lift attendant expected. Hurt and offended, I returned to my room pensive. Showing up late to meetings, not showing up for meetings, and not even showing up to the office are not a reality at home. When one schedules a business meeting, those who commit to attending show up promptly and ready to engage.

Instead of growing frustrated with how different life is here, I realized that I must accept it. The United States only makes up 300 million people on this planet, and if I'm not mistaken, about 5% of our world population. The reality is that the majority of the world does not live like I do at home. I cannot expect Bangladeshis to speak English, change their office culture, or understand me and where I come from. I will claim my discomfort as an opportunity to learn about a new culture in which 2.5% of the world population lives.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Innovation Across Hemispheres

You know you love your job when you feel totally exhilarated after coming back from a three-day weekend. Over the weekend, my only inspiration for a blog post was seeing numerous male couples holding hands. Initially, I assumed these couples were together romantically, since the only time you ever see men holding hands publicly in the United States is when they are together romantically. I came to find out that men in Bangladesh, and as I understand most of South Asia, hold hands publicly as women do in the United States. Interestingly, women in these countries do not physically touch. When another woman does touch you, it is a sign of extreme affection. This made me think back to the moment I had with the village millionaire in Manikanj. She grabbed my hand and held it tightly, looking deeply into my eyes. I felt very special in this moment, but after uncovering the cultural context of this moment, it feels even more intimate.

Today at BRAC was another really fun day. I read a lot of fascinating articles all about innovation. Part of me was annoyed by the articles because many added a very academic, theoretical element to the term "innovation," which I find entirely unnecessary. In fact, I believe adding this theoretical element makes innovation seem less accessible to wider audiences. On the other hand, I enjoyed reading about the term "frugal innovation,"which the Global South (developing countries) has claimed as its primary research and development tactic.  While the Global North (developed countries) will spend millions of dollars on research and development to invent usually more expensive technologies, the Global South uses low-cost models for development. The idea of "frugal innovation" is about finding clever and inexpensive solutions to problems. It capitalizes on manpower, not financials, to face challenges.

Analyzing the culture here in Bangladesh, I see components of this scheme all around. For example, the garment industry is HUGE here. Instead of spending millions of dollars building complex machinery to embroider garments, millions of workers do it by hand. Instead of spending millions of dollars producing farm machinery, millions of farmers here tend their farms with simple, archaic machinery. I will admit that most people in the Global North do not care to tend their farms by hand or sit for hours in a garment factory and make minimum wage. This may partially explain the difference between the research and development methods of Global South and the Global North. However, I do think the Global North can learn from the Global South.

I always enjoyed the joke about NASA creating a special space pen so that astronauts could take notes in space despite the lack of gravity while the Russians opted to use pencils. I did a little research on this urban legend, and it turns out a private company invented the pen, it cost millions of dollars, and both Americans and Russians use it. Needless to say, the frugal innovation here is using a pencil in a different context than earthly matters. The more sophisticated frugal innovation I read about today is an invention called a Mitticool. After an earthquake in Western India, a man named Mansukh Prajapati had is entrepreneurial "aha" moment. Upon observing a picture of a smashed clay pot in the newspaper captioned "Poor man's fridge broken!" Mansukh began brainstorming. Without access to electricity, the people of this area would use clay pots for cold storage. Why not use clay to create a device that resembles a refrigerator and uses similar technology but without the need for electricity? Poof: an inexpensive, low technology method of keeping food cool. Mansukh has been able to train people on how to sculpt these refrigerators out of clay, creating jobs and preserving food at a low cost all across India. 

To think that a clay artisan has changed so many lives in India because of this simple solution both astounds and inspires me. Sometimes the simplest yet most brilliant solutions are right in front of us. Many of the articles I read today stressed the importance of empowering all levels of employment in organizations to think creatively and implement innovative ideas. I stand by my belief that no question is a stupid question; many times asking these questions can help formulate an innovation. If anything, asking questions fosters an environment for sharing and deliberation. Everyone has been in a classroom or conference room where the discussion leader poses a question and you can hear a pin drop. It sometimes takes one brave person to inspire others to speak. Being a curious student or inquisitive employee, in my opinion, has a high reward for those brave enough to take the risk.

One of the reasons BRAC has reached so many impoverished people is because of its ability to expand in a low-cost manner. I think the culture they foster allows its employees to think outside of the box. On the first day of work, multiple supervisors told us to critique BRAC when we can, sculpt our internship projects how we saw suitable, and always ask questions. They even said that our assignment this summer was created for interns because they wanted an untainted, external perspective in the communications department. They believe that one of the reasons BRAC has not articulated itself well internationally is because its mission is so obvious to those working within. BRAC hopes that interns will ask questions that current employees would not think to ask and explore areas current employees would not bother exploring. Through our naivete, we may be able to take BRAC to the next level in international reputability. 

Just for fun, this is the most famous scenes in Bollywood according to my Bangladeshi peers. I know I am not in India, but Shahrukh Khan, the "King of Bollywood" has had just as large of an influence here as in India. My short term goal: to learn this dance. My reach goal: to reenact this scene on a train to the Tea Estates in Bangladesh. Classic...

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Putting Dhaka to Rest

A day off of work meant a day of exploring Dhaka. The pre-itinerary began with a divine "Bangladesh style omelet" meaning an omelet filled with chilies - I finished it like a champion. My cheap self proceeded to hand wash my clothes in my hotel bathroom. The first complication was trying to wash my pink pashmina and turning the soapy water pink almost immediately. To make matters worse, the tub also appeared to have some sort of leak in it because the floor was drenched. I could not ring out the pashmina according to the washing instructions so I simply had to let it drip pink all over the bathroom floor until it dried. I managed to wash almost all of my dirty clothes, but I ashamedly left the "do not disturb" sign on my door handle all day so I could spare housekeeping of the mess I made.

After this mess, the itinerary began with a wild goose chase to find an Apple Store to replace one of the intern's fried computer chargers. Next, we met up with two other interns at Gulshan Lake Park, a scenic destination where one can often find joggers. Interesting note - women work out in their shalwar kameezes. In that heat, I was drenched riding a rickshaw; I can't imagine working out in a long shirt, scarf, and pants.

Before entering the park, I purchased my first coconut water in Bangladesh. The coconut water vendors actually take young coconuts, slice the tops off with a sharp machete-like knife, and place a straw in the top. You can't get fresher than that for forty cents.

On the way into the park, a Nigerian student from one of the local universities struck up conversation with one of the interns and myself. Even after we met the two other interns, he did not leave us. He sat with us while we ate a late lunch of biryani, curried vegetables, and a lentil dish that was out of this world delicious.
CNG: a three-wheeled death trap that runs on
compressed natural gas

Since the other two interns had not yet visited Aarong Handicrafts, we ventured there via CNG after unsuccessfully trying to haggle with at least seven rickshaw drivers. We did, however, successfully ditch our stalker. Unfortunately, we decided to get on the road just as rush hour traffic picked up. Waiting at the stop lights was the least of our worries as beggar after beggar stirred our emotions, even causing one of the interns to start crying. We finally made it shopping and met up with another intern, and the five of us did some damage.

We took a short break after shopping to freshen up and meet at an Indian restaurant for dinner. I ate a dish called dosa tonight which is virtually a vegetable (mostly potato) curry wrapped in a sour-dough flavored crepe. Dessert was Movenpick ice cream, a brand from Switzerland that needs to find its way into the United States pronto.

The night culminated with a late-night walk around Dhaka. At this hour, the view from the bridge connecting Banani and Gulshan could have easily been mistaken for a scene in downtown Minneapolis over the Mississippi. We were walking through a rather affluent part of town, the roads were quiet and empty of honking vehicles. The homeless were cozily settled in boats on the river, inviting others to join them. Some were even listening to Bollywood tunes through a small radio on their boat. Other groups were rummaging through trash cans to find dinner. The night almost had a romantic feel like the scene in Slumdog Millionaire where the opera takes place outside the Taj Mahal, and the kids steal from the wallets and purses of audience members. While buildings twinkled on the Banani Lake and the hustle and bustle of Dhaka went to rest, the homeless serenely searched for unclaimed treasures and made themselves a home for the night.

The scene reminded me of a conversation I had with one of the Bangladeshi intern. I asked her opinion about the poverty around her university in Toronto and the poverty in Bangladesh. As a sociology major, she is very in-tune with poverty issues, and I was amazed to hear her answer. She says the main difference in her eyes is the support system the poor have in each country. In Bangladesh, the homeless have a social network. The beggars in certain areas of town know each other and have each other as a support system. In Toronto, the homeless are usually homeless because they do not have anyone: no friends or family to help them escape poverty. They have government programs that serve as their support system. This idea is so interesting to me because I had never thought much about it. When I came to Bangladesh, I had heard the term relative poverty, but I didn't care for it. The poor in Bangladesh certainly looked worse off in my eyes than the American poor. But, my Bangladeshi friend made me think again on this issue and question what's more important: the support of friends and family or the support of one's government?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Field Day in Manikganj

Field day in this context refers to the figure of speech "having a field day," which roots from the elementary school tradition of dedicating one day of the year to outdoor games and activities. Today, the BRAC interns had a field day in Manikganj. We focused the day on BRAC's Microfinance Programe, Human Rights and Legal Services Program (HRLS), Education Program, and the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF)

The Village Millionaire
BRAC's Microfinance Program is unique in a few ways. First, its loans average a 13.5% interest rate, which is quite low for many microfinance loans, especially for a developing country. Second, BRAC processes the loan requests quickly and can pay its borrowers within 15 days. There are two levels of loans: dabi and progiti. Dabi loans are smaller loans while progiti loans must exceed 75,000 taka (1 taka = $85). The village we visited had about 20 women making up a village organization (VO). A VO is divided into subgroups with five members each. The goal of these small groups is to motivate each member to pay back their loans and take out more loans to grow their small businesses. If a member of the group is unable to pay back a loan, the other members of the subgroup can help pay back the loan. Each month, the VOs meet and discuss any new members that have joined subgroups and any requests for new loans. Some of the business these women undertook included farming, creating handicrafts, maid services, and selling raw materials including bamboo, cotton, and rice. The woman pictured to the right was quite remarkable. Her husband died 30 years ago, and she vaguely told us how rough life was for her. Without her husband's income, she was not sure if she could physically survive. When BRAC first formed, she was one of the first microfinance borrowers. Today, she is a millionaire (by taka standards) and directs this VO. I was honored when she looked into my eyes and shook my hand. I hope one day I can be as successful and inspirational as this woman.

Next on the agenda, we interviewed two women who received HRLS from BRAC. This program has a tricky role in Bangladesh because it essentially fills in for the inadequate legal authority in the country. Both women we interviewed had married dishonest men. One of the women was married at 15 while the other was married at 25. After their marriages, their husbands asked for additional money on top of the dowries they had already paid. When the women could not pay this money, the husbands both mentally and physically abused their wives. BRAC has helped inform these women of their rights and represent them, free of charge, in court. The older woman's case has actually become quite complicated because the Chairman of her village will not recognize her case. In the mean time, she has received threats from her ex-husband that he will take their child and sell her in order to pay off the money she supposedly owes him. During her interview, the woman actually began crying because she greatly fears her ex-husband's vengeance. She also fears the village gossip that will ensue if she orders a general diary, which would protect her daughter, allowing this woman to go back to work. BRAC has scheduled a settlement meeting twice now, and her ex-husband has not shown. Two cultural traditions complicate this case. First, divorce in the rural areas of Bangladesh is still frowned upon. Second, when a wife returns to her family, unmarried, she is seen as a burden. The most ironic event of the day was seeing a wedding processional parade through the streets after the first interview. The music was so upbeat and the bride was dressed radiantly in red. All I could hope was that this wedding had a happy ending.

Villages find out about BRAC's HRLS because "barefoot lawyers" travel from village to village and teach these communities the seven basic law systems which include Bangladesh's Constitutional law, Hindu law, Muslim law, local laws, and more. The lawyers teach a 22-day course. This way, through word of mouth, villagers can learn more about their rights so that when the police do not do their jobs, they can rely on the unbiased, free legal services from BRAC.

To lighten the mood, we next visited a BRAC School, which was incredibly exhilarating. The classrooms are brightly decorated and the kids are extremely well-behaved, organized and sharp. A mix between a willing student body and a well-respected teacher make for a dynamic, high-quality learning atmosphere. When we first walked in and got situated, the five group leaders of the class stood
up, introduced themselves in English, then introduced each member of their group in English. At the end of each introduction, the leader would hand the floor to the group leader to their left. After this, the students all stood up and played a game where they clapped in rhythm, said a chant in unison, then one would name a country. Then they repeated the chant and the next student named a different country. All forty students in the classroom named a different country of the world. I think their geography skills surpassed those of eight to ten year olds in many other countries. Finally, we watched four girls perform a dance together while the class sang. I enjoyed watching how much fun the kids had learning and expressing themselves. One of the male students aspired to become a doctor while one of his female classmates hoped to become a pilot.

Finally, our last stop of the day was at the Manikganj Regional Office which also houses AAF, the creators of all the glorious fabrics in Aarong Handicrafts. AAF serves as a small-scale manufacturer with hundreds of workers that dye, stitch, and paint fabrics to make clothing, curtains, and accessories. Seeing people physically embroidering, painting over stencils, tie-dying intricate patterns, and stamping prints on the fabrics convinced me that the clothes I bought from Aarong last weekend are top notch quality. When I told one of the women I bought my top from Aarong, the woman responded (according to a Bangladeshi intern's translation) that she was working on re-creating that top in the upstairs tailoring rooms.

Although I completely sweat through all the clothes I wore today, I cannot believe how much I learned and how much fun I had. My favorite picture of the day, both for its comic relief and greater meaning, is shown below. A father drives his kids to school, letting his daughter take the steering wheel. With his help, he allows his daughter to control her future, navigate her life, and look awesome in the process. In every visit we made today, we saw the overwhelming empowerment of women, and it couldn't have made me happier. Men and women collaborating to reach divorce settlements, men and women double teaming the paint job for a yard of fabric, boys and girls singing songs together at school, and men supporting their wives in launching small businesses with microfinance loans. Of the development work BRAC has done, the empowerment of women is both noteworthy and essential.

I could not stop laughing when I saw this family. I found
this mode of transportation so endearing.
Secondly, the image screams "Girl Power!"

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Destination Ghazipur

Nothing takes it out of you quite like an 11-hour workday spent under the sun. At 95 degrees, I managed to drink four liters of water and did not get sunburned (applause). The interns had a tight schedule today in Ghazipur, about 40 miles away from Dhaka. Here houses one of BRAC's regional offices which oversees five different upazilas (counties) and 59 branch offices. We drove all around the Ghazipur region to learn more about BRAC’s programs and enterprises.

To make a little more sense of BRAC, I think about it as a three-pronged business. Underneath the BRAC umbrella are Development Programs, Social Enterprises, and Investments. Today, we visited a village in Ghazipur and observed the Community Empowerment Program and the Health Program.

Heath Volunteer Presentation
The Community Empowerment Program was established to give women in villages a podium to speak out. Many times, women feel stifled by their husbands or uncomfortable addressing taboo issues they face. Under the BRAC model, a main speaker is elected to present topic issues and moderate the conversation. The village we visited meets twice monthly for what BRAC calls a “Social Capital” meeting. Today the women addressed food safety issues. They discussed why not to leave food out because bugs which carry diseases can infect these foods. Besides contamination, the hot sun can also cause foods to rot more quickly. It was really great seeing all the women sitting together, and many voicing their experiences and opinions. Their children also crowded around the meetings, certainly interested in all the guests in their village, but also learning the importance of community engagement.

Health Volunteer Presentation

In Ghazipur, BRAC’s Regional Office houses one Health Program Organizer who oversees four health workers. Each of these health workers organizes a monthly health forum in the villages and trains health volunteers on how to monitor diseases and ailments. The ten health volunteers report to the health workers and visit about 250 households each to monitor health in the village.  Today, we witnessed a health forum in the village. The woman sitting at the front of the circle presented from a book which illustrates “The Essential Health Program.” Under this program, there are “ten basic diseases” which the health workers and health volunteers help cure.

One of the diseases, for example, is TB. If a volunteer found that a member of one of their 250 households has experienced a long lasting cold, they will prescribe them the TB treatment. Many times, the symptoms of TB go away after a few weeks of taking the medicine. The health volunteers make sure that the family member continues to take their medicine for eight months. The TB patient has incentive to be treated for TB because of the health education their volunteers give and its contagious nature. The patients must make a deposit when they begin taking their medicine. They have an incentive to take the medicine for the full eight months because at the end of this period, they can receive their deposit, and only when they finish the prescription.

BRAC Nursery
After this visit, we spent the rest of the day exploring a few BRAC Social Enterprises: BRAC Nurseries, BRAC Feeding Mills, and BRAC Dairy. Interestingly, BRAC Nurseries exists at every BRAC Social Enterprise and Regional Office that has enough space to grow a marketable share of plants. This particular site had the seed processing center which packages and distributes various plant seeds such as pumpkin, rice, and squash. The seeds provide high quality seeds to farmers, including hybrid seeds which many environmentalists would frown upon. BRAC’s nurseries do not grow crops, but these plants are either donated to areas which have experienced a natural disaster, or they can be sold on the market. The nurseries are one of the three Green Enterprises that BRAC touts.

BRAC Feeding Mills creates and packages feed for chickens, cows and fish. It was created because BRAC Poultry had trouble meeting its demand for affordable and nutritious seed. The BRAC Feeding Mills created a market linkage for BRAC Poultry and serve this demand.
Got mango milk?

Finally, BRAC Dairy formed because farmers neither received fair nor consistent prices for their milk. They also struggled getting their milk to a market without it spoiling. BRAC Dairy picks up milk from farmers and pasteurizes the milk on site. More recently, BRAC founded BRAC Cold Storage, where the milk can stay cold and marketable. Today, BRAC Dairy has 22% of the market share of milk. I tried some of their chocolate milk and mango flavored milk. I have to say, the mango was surprisingly delicious, and I would probably choose it over the chocolate.

Going to Ghazipur was an incredible experience. I especially enjoyed going into the village and seeing the communities: families, children, men, women, animals. This is yet another experience which makes me appreciate living in Dhaka. The city life is much more hospitable than the rural life. What BRAC does for these rural villages really helps empower the people. The women proudly participated in their meetings, eager to positively impact their communities. The children seemed intellectually curious and eager to learn. I admired the work ethic of these people. In fact, one of the men in the village showed me his business card and told me how he travels to Dhaka every day. He tried to offer me some tea, but I was already forty paces behind the intern group. The people were kind and seemed to understand that they were part of something very special.

Monday, June 11, 2012

When in Bangladesh, Do as the Bangladeshis Do

After a second day of orientation, I am extremely excited about my project for BRAC this summer. I will work with another intern from Bangladesh who goes to school at NYU. She is animated, intelligent, and hilarious. Our task is to document the growth of BRAC's 18 Social Enterprises. As of now, there is no written history of how these enterprises came to be. We will interview people from the BRAC office and the enterprise offices to try and write a story for each of these enterprises. On top of all this, we will write an all-encompassing story about the BRAC Social Enterprises and how they fit in BRAC's business model.

My partner and I will also may have the opportunity to initiate a public dialogue on BRAC's Social Enterprises. This is important because the enterprises have received some criticism because of their for-profit nature. BRAC itself is a non-profit organization, and the Social Enterprises create revenue so that BRAC can eventually fund itself independently. The wholesome nature of these for-profit ventures justifies their existence in my mind. The criteria each BRAC Social Enterprise must meet goes as follows:
1. create job opportunities
2. generate surplus for BRAC in order to minimize donor dependency
3. ensure long term support and contribution toward the sustainability of BRAC’s development interventions
4. become viable investment in the long run in order to act as a hedge against future liquidity crises and donor dependency
With the information we collect, my partner and I will have the opportunity to present our work to the high executives of BRAC, and our work could be published on BRAC's website - how exciting! These next eight weeks will be busy, but extremely productive and rewarding.

To stay sane between our long work days and the constant rush of Dhaka, the interns have sought solace during meal times. Today, we went out for lunch at an Italian restaurant where I indulged in seafood pizza. Then for dinner, four of us trekked to a nearby neighborhood via rickshaw, shopped, and ate fajita vegetable quesadillas. It is fun to see how various ethnic cuisines are interpreted here.

Before tonight, I had not ridden a rickshaw, and the rides to and from the restaurant were certainly special. Because rickshaws run entirely on man power, they take the shortest possible routes. To avoid traffic on the main road, we rode through a slum. This was a fascinating sight and really put Bangladesh in perspective. I previously thought the area I lived in was a decent part of town, nothing special. Now I have realized that I am in the Rio de Janeiro of Dhaka. The slum reminded me of Tijuana, but much more dense. The structures laid right next to each other, literally sharing the same scrap metal walls. People filled the road. Some migrated in massive groups, some sat and conversed in smaller groups, and children played with one another, many not wearing any clothing.

This rickshaw ride was quite pleasant at 5:30 pm when the sun was still out. Once the sun set after dinner, my friend and I who lived further away became concerned about how we would get home. Although they look scanty, the rickshaws are the most trusted and reliable mode of transportation in Dhaka. Interestingly, taxi cabs are not trusted and infamous for mugging passengers. We had the barely-English-speaking reception staff at the other two interns' guest house try to flag down a CNG (small vehicle that runs on compressed natural gas), but they were not willing to drive us such a short distance and miss out on customers going longer distances.

Tonight taught me a couple of things. First, I became very aware of how different I look. The friend who traveled with me is Indian. Many locals approach her speaking Bengali. She must politely tell them "ami Bangla bohlte pari na" (I don't speak Bengali). When beggars walked by us, they came to me and ignored her. While my friend was concerned because she still had her laptop in her purse from work, I feared that any possible attackers would go after me first just judging by our appearances. I wished I could have taken pictures of this slum, but as you can imagine, I am still not entirely comfortable flashing a camera around.

The second thing I learned is how much our culture dictates our comfort levels. In spite of all the negative banter regarding taxis, a couple of the interns said they would rather take a taxi than a rickshaw in the dark. Even though a couple of the local interns had advised us not to take taxis at all or CNGs at certain times of day, a few of the interns passed their advice off as overly cautious. Ultimately, the decision came down to accepting Bangladesh's cultural norms and forgetting the biases we brought from home. My friend and I decided to take a rickshaw together, and I am glad to report that we made it back safely. 

When it comes down to hedging your bets in an unfamiliar situation, sometimes going with the most comfortable option is not the right choice. I am not saying to ignore your gut instincts, but I encourage people to think contextually before going with their first instinct. Following my own cultural norms, I would have called a taxi. I may have trusted the cab driving smiling at me and calling me beautiful. Flattering, right? Maybe this driver would have delivered me home safely, but I was reluctant to deviate from the prior advice I had received. I could have made things easier on myself by calling my pseudo host family or calling a car from my hotel, but it was only 8 pm, and I was not alone. The best thing I could do to protect myself was listen to the credible people around me (local interns, supervisors, my "host family") and not let my cultural tendencies cloud my judgement. Across the globe, my cultural norms no longer apply, and I have to absorb and accept a new set of norms which do apply.

Sunday, June 10, 2012


This easily could be a snapshot from a soda, phone, or  laundry
detergent commercial. South Asia Marketing 101: anything
televised presents the opportunity, as in typical Bollywood
fashion, to break into song, dance, and elaborate costume.
After making it through a week being the only intern, let alone the only American on my floor, I was beginning to feel a little lonely. When I told my intern coordinator my weekend plans of visiting a few museums, she urgently objected, saying I could not possibly travel that far (6 km) alone. Per her advice, I spent my entire Saturday reading, watching MTV South Asia, and discovering that I did not have access to American TV online. Because Bollywood can only entertain for so long, I grew flustered at my trapped feelings.

I thought of how easily I could have been in New York City this summer, having the time of my life. Instead of sitting alone in my hotel room, I could have hopped on the subway and sat in Central Park, stood in line to get discount Broadway tickets, gone for a run, or hung out with any of my numerous friends on the East Coast this summer. Although I am fully aware of how dirty, loud, smelly, and pushy New York City can be, I suddenly saw the United States as some kind of promised land. I wondered if this was the mindset of many non-Americans, leading to depictions of ostentatious, gluttonous, limitless America.

Having grown up in the United States, I know it has flaws. I also know that not everyone shares my same love of America. But, the United States has a level of freedom that I cannot exercise here. Traveling "far" distances alone as a young blonde woman is not possible in Dhaka. Even the native women frequently travel in groups unless they have a private driver. This week enlightened me to America's allure.

My loneliness soon subsided when 10 other interns arrived this morning and our official orientation commenced. Initially, they all seemed fairly unclear of their internship expectations, making me feel confident in my one-week jump start. The other interns are from Australia, Bangladesh, the U.K., and the U.S. We are all in different stages of our educations: some Masters Students, one Harvard Law bound, some rising juniors in undergraduate studies. Interestingly, we all are (or were) some mix of economics and political science majors.

I enjoyed a hilarious lunch with two Bangladeshi girls and one of the Americans. The Bangladeshi girls briefed us on their general perceptions of Dhaka. I asked the girls about transportation because the options here are very different from options provided in the States. One can take a rickshaw, CNG (a three-wheeled mini-car that runs on compressed natural gas), taxi, or bus. According to my research, the former two options are strongly encouraged for foreigners. When my fellow American reported that her host family dropped her off at a bus stop to get to BRAC this morning, my awestruck mind raced back to my Lonely Planet Guide. Although this book is not fool-proof, it has been my bible for the past week. Its description of bus transit has been my favorite paragraph, by far. I would say that this paragraph describes Dhaka in a nutshell:
"The only real difference between local buses and long-distance buses is how you catch them - in the case of local buses, literally. It can be something of a death-defying process. Firstly, assess whether the bus will get you to your desired destination by screaming the name of the destination to the man hanging out the door. If he responds in the affirmative, run toward him, grab firmly onto a handle, if there is one, or him if there isn't, and jump aboard, remembering to check for oncoming traffic." 
Did they mention that the bus doesn't physically stop at the bus stop? People hoping to become passengers must run alongside the bus while conversing with a man who literally hangs out of the doorway (there is no door). Remarkably, my American comrade made it onto the bus, but had to get off randomly as the bus neither stopped nor announced landmarks over a loud speaker. The Bangladeshi girls giggled and exchanged some Bangla. When four blank American eyes met theirs, they explained that people vomit quite frequently on the buses. Perplexed, I asked them if I understood correctly. The girls said that if you are driving in a car near a bus, you should never unroll your window because people vomit out the windows somewhat regularly, that is, if they are fortunate enough to score a window seat. We all burst out laughing - how ridiculous! Apparently Bangladeshi people are more susceptible to motion sickness. Who knew?

With a group of evidently more daring kids (students? young adults?), I look forward to embarking on some great adventures together.

Friday, June 8, 2012


So far, this blog has been a lot of Bangladesh and not too much blonde. But today, I indulged in blonde paradise: shopping. Before you roll your eyes and close this tab, you should know that I shopped at Aarong Handicrafts, BRAC's most successful social enterprise which has actually become Bangladesh's most notable fashion retailer. Aarong certainly lived up to its reputation; the fashions were to die for. Travelers are generally advised to only stuff their wallets with the cash they need for the day. Thank goodness I followed this advice. Having found my mother ship in Dhaka, I could have spent hours in Aarong Handicrafts and bought at least ten outfits, but my budget limited me to two purchases.

A few reasons why Aarong is awesome:

1. The tops are handmade by BRAC artisans.

2. Many of the fabrics are also created by BRAC artisans. BRAC Sericulture is a relatively new enterprise, and it was created to help supply silk to artisans from Aarong and other fashion retailers.

3. Despite the impeccable craftsmanship, my tops averaged $22.

4. There were THOUSANDS of designs to choose from. As a fashionista who thrives on exoticness, bright colors, and originality,  I love shopping in a store where you cannot find two of the same garments.

Drawbacks included having a budget, approaching the point of too many options, and feeling like a giant. In a country where women average between 5'0" and 5'2", weigh around 100 lbs, and are never found bench pressing, I felt awkward having to ask for a larger size. Ironically, I didn't feel that bad when I struggled to squeeze my bust into a medium top; at that point, I knew that I was not the problem.

Needless to say, women's fashion in Bangladesh is really growing on me. In fact, I have already grown so attached to the purchases I made that they will come to college with me in the fall. I am psyched to return to Aarong next weekend (my "host mom" and I already set the date) and buy a shalwar kameez, which is a top, pant, and scarf ensemble. Next year, Aarong strives to launch an online retailer, an event I eagerly anticipate.

In all seriousness, I am very surprised at how much of an outsider I feel like here in Dhaka. Even wearing a t-shirt and jeans, the most basic outfit an American could wear, saying I stand out is an understatement. Maybe this is the driving force behind my newfound obsession with Bangladeshi fashion. I have also become enthralled by Bangla characters and hope to either take a Bangla language class or purchase a work book. Suddenly, I am overwhelmingly interested in making choices to help me assimilate to the culture.

Maybe I am so aware of my conformist attitude because I have felt very little peer pressure throughout my life. I was always the kid who played what I wanted to play in spite of my friends' preferences. If my friends wanted to play something else, I didn't care and would contently play by myself. This attitude does not fly in a new environment. For example, this morning a couple BRAC employees were in my neighborhood and called me to join them for breakfast. Although I would have rather stayed in and read, I knew what I had to do.

Of course I ended up having a splendid time. The walk over, like most sights in Bangladesh, was fascinating. Next door to BRAC Center is BRAC University, which was also founded Sir Fazle Hasad Abed. Just behind the University is a small road filled with vendors selling fresh fruit, fish, chicken, duck, you name it. When I heard a chicken cluck, I was especially startled to find a pair of cocks nonchalantly suspended by their feet in a man's hand. The vendors' baskets filled with fish jiggled as the creatures writhed in the oxygen rich air. Imagine this scene behind Kravis Center at Claremont McKenna or behind at University of Minnesota classroom on Washington Avenue. I had never seen a scene quite like this.

Finally we crawled into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and shared a classic Bangladeshi breakfast of paratha (cross between a pancake and tortilla) which one tears and uses as a utensil to pick up sabji (mixed vegetables) and eggs. I tried to be as authentic as possible by just using my right hand to eat my meal. At least I did better than I do with chopsticks.

On the way back, I also saw a sight I never thought I would see. Like a girlfriend furiously upset with her boyfriend, I saw a police officer slap a rickshaw driver across the face. Everyone in proximity tuned into the exchange. They looked dumbfounded, yet powerless. After a week of thorough news reading, I am very aware of the mistrust many Bengalis feel toward their police force; they are quite outspoken about it in media outlets. Before this all happened, I tried to get a hold of my bank via phone and for some reason the comfort of 911 crossed my mind. At home, if any sort of emergency occurs, I can call 911 without hesitation. Halfway around the world, 911 is nothing but a distant memory. While gaping at this violence made me feel even further from home, it also united me with the Bangladeshis around me who non-verbally concurred that this display of authority is unacceptable in our modern world.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Budget Talk in Bangladesh

Upon completing the BRAC specific readings I was assigned for the week, I spent most of the day catching up on Bangladesh's current events. This has been an exciting week for the country, as it is in the final stages of writing its 41st national budget. The headlines brought me back to last fall semester, which I spent in Washington D.C. The Budget Control Act of 2011 passed in early August and set the tone the semester. On Capitol Hill, the Senate Agriculture Committee (where I interned) tried to push a Farm Bill through Congress before the budget climate worsened. In my classes and down time in my apartment, I couldn't escape debates on the political importance and feasibility of funding one cause over another.

Bangladesh is experiencing these same exciting (or tumultuous, depending on how you look at it) conversations. Their top priority is attracting Foreign Direct Investment. In order to do so, they must reassure investors that their development efforts are succeeding and great returns are to be expected. What I enjoyed the most about these articles was comparing and contrasting the conversations Bengalis and Americans have regarding their respective budgets. Both nations have extreme passions about where government moneys should be spent. They each consider the greater macroeconomic implications of their decisions. On the other hand, the United States and Bangladesh have very different hopes for the roles they wish their governments to play.

The Bangladeshi people are begging their government to more aggressively regulate development funds. Although the government plans and approves upwards of 1,000 development projects every year (some perspective: Bangladesh is the size of Iowa), citizens complain that projects are often left unfinished, giving investors little incentive to invest. Fly halfway across the world, and the phrase "tightening government regulations" only occurs in the most horrifying nightmares. Americans, both democrats and republicans, prefer when the government is non-invasive. Yes, sometimes lobbyists are paid millions of dollars to persuade Congress. Yes, interest groups form in order to draw our government's attention to specific causes. What I mean to say is, there is a reason why the character "Big Brother" of 1984 is so terrifying to American readers.

Bangladeshis do not want to establish a state run by "Big Brother," but they want their political body to start doing its job. I was surprised to read just yesterday that Bangladesh houses two of the most successful non-governmental development organizations in the world: Grameen Bank and BRAC. These NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have filled the gaps which Bangladesh's government has failed to provide. I read an article this morning written by a Bangladeshi man who translates Spanish literature into Bangla (a.k.a. Bengali, the official language of Bangladesh). He discussed a conversation he had with the famous Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. When the translator referred to Bangladesh as a poverty-stricken country, Fuentes defended Bangladesh saying, "Your country is rich in natural resources. Your country is not poor; it is your politics that is poor."

American media spends the majority of its time complaining about our politics: a gridlocked Congress, too many subsidies, and a bloated bureaucracy. At the end of the day, however, I think that our government cares deeply about us. Many countries have political officials that take office for pride, fame, and riches. Maybe I am too optimistic, but I really do believe that the majority of politicians in the United States either dream or once dreamt of changing people's lives for the better, just like myself and many of my peers. These days, an American politician's career isn't nearly glamorous enough for them to pursue it for pride, fame, and riches alone.

Bangladesh hopes to enact more extensive and expansive subsidies. They want their government to follow through with its development plans. All this talk about Bangladesh's budget grabbed my attention because  the people of this country are actually calling on their political leadership to take a more proactive role in their lives. When Bangladesh won its independence 40 years ago, it was the founder of BRAC who took initiative, not the government.  The progress Bangladesh has seen in the last few decades is due largely to their NGOs. The United States has the luxury to push our political leadership away because leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped up when needed. It is time for the Bangladeshi government to grab hold of the reigns which Grameen Bank and BRAC have been keeping warm.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The BRAC Education

View from the 18th Floor of the BRAC Tower
To prepare for the field work and more substantial assignments to come in the following weeks, my supervisors assigned me a hefty reading list of what I dare call "BRAC Kool-Aid." The more I read, the more I love BRAC. Coincidence? Maybe. But, to me, grassroots advocacy really does makes sense, particularly when the process has gradually taken place over the past 40 years. 

It may be hard to pitch grassroots advocacy to an American audience, and I think that's because our culture largely thrives on immediate gratification. That is why our country allots us so much freedom. For example, on the way to the airport last week, my mom and I debated what freedom in the context of public transportation means. Today, many Minnesotans regret the destruction of our streetcar system in the Twin Cities 60 years ago. But, my mother so astutely emphasized that destroying the streetcars symbolized freedom; no longer did Minnesotan city-dwellers have to rely on someone else to pick them up, get them to work on time, and drop them off at home safely. Driving ourselves allows us to leave our homes whenever we please and drop ourselves off exactly where we need to be. As the environment changes, many of us are beginning to realize that the freedom to use a personal vehicle doesn't make the most sense. Leaving your home ten minutes earlier to wait in a subway station for the next metro car is starting to look more appealing.

My point of that rather long digression is that grassroots activism is not a quick and dirty mechanism to solve social problems. When I hear complaints that grassroots advocacy simply doesn't work, what I am really hearing is that grassroots advocacy is not working quickly enough. Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the founder of BRAC, laid its foundations just after Bangladesh won its independence from India four decades ago. Sir Abed spent these decades piloting, editing, and perfecting the BRAC poverty alleviation model. It was not until 30 years later that Sir Abed felt his model was good enough to export to Afghanistan, BRAC's first establishment outside of Bangladesh. So, maybe all this reading was not Kool-Aid after all. Maybe Sir Abed really does make a valid point. I mean, being knighted is no farce. 

Sir Abed Being Knighted
Over the last few days, I read BRAC's 2010 and 2011 Annual Reports, which were surprisingly engaging, but the half dozen articles I read today really brought the BRAC's mission to life for me. The manner in which Bangladesh defies all economic development standards truly tugged at my heartstrings. I am almost always one to root for the underdog, and Bangladesh is just this. The field of political economy has grown on the notion that solid political institutions are essential to economic growth, but corrupt leaders and political turmoil amidst a 4% annual growth rate for 15 years in Bangladesh challenges this argument. During this time between 1991 and 2006, Bangladesh also managed to cut its poverty rate by 15%. Today, Bangladesh is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goals and it leads South Asia in most social welfare indicators. Did I mention that Bangladesh did this with two of its national leaders behind bars?

As a rather mediocre economics student, I would like to quote Ian Smillie in his book Freedom from Want: the Remarkable Success Story of BRAC, the Global Grassroots Organization That's Winning the Fight Against Poverty: "[Sir Abed] did not know that, in the years ahead, he would confront and surmount some of the greatest development challenges on the planet and everything he knew about economics, health, and education would be turned on its head." As a Senior Executive Account at Shell Oil, Sir Abel probably got a better grade in microeconomics than me, but his ability to break the rules, not follow them, allowed him to touch the lives of 110 million people. This brings me back to an article I read the other morning, which I found in the college supplement of The Daily Star (Bangladesh's most accredited newspaper). The article was titled "The Nutty Professor." A student from a local university writes about his and his peers' general frustration with an economics professor who constantly challenges the well-accepted economic principles in their textbook. However, the student goes on to conclude the following:
"I have always been a big fan of teachers who went outside the textbooks. They would have their flares of madness, dance on tables and shave their heads to prove their theories. They would give unnecessary assignments, take us out on the field and challenge us to think differently. Maybe in an exam paper, we have to think accordingly but in life, it is just another perspective, and as students, our job is to make that distinction. These teachers are rarely popular, ridiculed by their colleagues and often scrutinized by the administration. Yet, they have every potential to change our lives, our thinking patters and show us the world as we would have never seen otherwise. Does that make them genius? Question remains, what is in fact, genius in our eyes?"
Judging by the way Sir Fazle Hasan Abed has invented a model inconceivable by a run-of-the-mill economist, I would have to say that in my eyes, Sir Abed is a genius, and he has changed millions of lives for the better because of his patience and ingenuity. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Adventure 1

The beauty of my present living situation is that I am staying 19 floors below my desk. Yes, the BRAC Inn is in the same office building as BRAC the NGO. After hearing numerous people urgently tell me multiple times not to go out after dark alone, I became slightly agoraphobic. For me, that means not going outside for about 48 hours. So, I planned an adventure for myself. Since I am not quite ready to haggle with Bangladeshi drivers, I decided to limit myself to somewhere within walking distance. Thanks to my Lonely Planet: Bangladesh guide, I decided to check out Books Express. Here, I could purchase some of the top ten reads to get into the Bangladesh mindset. As a bonus, Lonely Planet also said that the cakes served in Books Express are "epic."

BRAC's chai wallah makes the best tea!
When the work day came to a close, I walked over to the elevator and chatted with one of my co-workers. She is a native Bangladeshi and graduated from a college here. When I told her where I was living she giggled, since it is quite ridiculous that I theoretically never have to leave this building, and said "At least you don't have to deal with the rush hour." As I giggled, my agoraphobia sank in again. Suddenly, the outing I had planned did not feel quite as doable. A Bangladeshi friend of mine from college once described Dhaka as "rush hour in New York City...all the time." But, my cabin fever was hot, and I was going to walk the streets of Dhaka no matter how uncomfortable it was.

And uncomfortable it was. At least the city has pseudo sidewalks; that I was not expecting. But for ten minutes after I returned from my adventure, I could still hear beeping in my ears, and no, the beeping was not coming from outside my window. Bangladeshi drivers honk their horns constantly and incessantly. It is as if they must reinforce their turn signals (yes, they do use their turn signals). If their vehicle does not have a horn, they have a bell or some sort of noise making device. As for pedestrians, Godspeed. At some intersections, there are stop lights, but certainly not walk signs, especially not walk signs that speak to you and warn you that you have fifteen seconds before the traffic light turns yellow, not even red. When I arrived at the loud, busy, scary intersection in Gulshan (a neighborhood of Dhaka), I first looked to the road to determine which cars were moving and which cars were stopped. Confused, I turned to the traffic lights to determine which cars were supposed to be moving and which were supposed to be stopped. Deducing that red must mean "go really, really fast" here in Dhaka, I looked to a group of locals and crossed the road in their midst.

After finally crossing this giant intersection/roundabout/free for all, I faced my biggest fear, the true reason why I had become so agoraphobic. I was terrified to face the poverty that I knew awaited me in the streets. Having to ignore a barefooted four year old girl, who both gently and desperately stroked my arms, turned my stomach. Seeing limbless teens sitting on the side of the road, I couldn't understand how this happened. I began realizing this during my pre-trip vaccinations: I have taken my health care for granted. I don't want to speak for the entire United States, but I think many Americans take their Health Care for granted. Certainly our system isn't perfect; it has its "winners" and "losers." But, we have eradicated so many diseases in the U.S. because of sophisticated sewage systems, organized trash collection, and modern medicine.

Although it may not have looked like it from my perspective, Bangladesh is certainly on its way to great health improvement. BRAC has helped educate millions of impoverished people on how to live hygienically. It has provided assets and trained millions more to provide healthcare to their community members. One of the Social Enterprises I will get to work with which deals with healthcare is called BRAC Salt. It crushes, iodizes, packages, and sells 13,000 metric tons of salt to Bangladeshis every year to help prevent iodine deficiency diseases. BRAC found a way to inexpensively and properly iodize salt, but what's even cooler is that this enterprise was made possible by the 120 Bangladeshis employed by BRAC Salt and the Community Health Volunteers who deliver and sell the salt to their villages. BRAC intends for Bangladeshis to take ownership of their work. Instead of giving hand outs to the kids I saw in the street today, I hope my work at BRAC can help these kids pull themselves out of poverty and into a life of great health.