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. 

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