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:

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