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.

No comments:

Post a Comment