Saturday, July 25, 2009

Final thoughts

I cannot believe the ridiculous amount of negotiating that goes on in Bangladesh. Just in the past 24 hours I have negotiated the price of the following items: multiple rickshaw rides, a beautiful bouquet of flowers, a suitcase, and roadside tee-shirts. I even found a way to negotiate my meeting time with Professor Mohammad Yunus. Yes, you read that correctly. I made the ultimate negotiation! (I was invited to meet him on Thursday but was going to be in Nepal so I will meet him Sunday). I have been trying all summer to speak with him, as he and Grameen Bank are Nobel prize winners, and I really admire the lifetime of work that he has dedicated to eradicating poverty in Bangladesh. The irony is that despite my incessant emails and phone calls to the Bank all summer, I will be meeting him on my final evening (and hours) in Bangladesh. I am anticipating our one-on-one meeting very much.

Interestingly, Grameen Bank is far better known than BRAC on the world scale. Perhaps this is because Dr. Yunus has a very charismatic personality and happens to have a Nobel prize behind his name. For whatever the reason it’s interesting that BRAC was actually formed before Grameen (early 70s), yet the world knows Dr. Yunus, and only Bangladeshis and very interested others know who Mr. Fazle Hasan Abed is.  I marvel at the differences in branding, notoriety, and media reach. I also question how much the drastic difference has to do with management and a concerted, continuous effort to attract media attention.

For this reason BRAC has finally published a book written by Ian Smillie. It’s titled Freedom From Want, and it chronicles the entire history of BRAC, its most important players, and programmatic evolution. I think it’s very interesting that the founder and the majority of heavy-hitting original program directors are still on board. I am fascinated by what will happen to BRAC once the senior management retires and how succession will affect BRAC’s mission.  Grameen and Yunus himself have published very famous books such as Banker to the Poor and Creating a World Without Poverty, but up until one month ago, BRAC had not. Therefore, BRAC staff is hoping that students and others worldwide will read this book, and I attended the official book-launching ceremony last week. Acclaimed Bengali writers, economists and professors were present, and I was interested by some of the critiques of the book.

The book highlights some commonly raised critiques of BRAC itself. For example, some claim that BRAC’s primary schools are substandard in quality. Yes, there are 38,000 schools nationwide serving millions of children, but many question the rigor and quality of what’s taking place within the schoolhouse. Therefore, some critics argued that spreading “generalizing substandard education is doing no child any favors.” Additionally, the BRAC/Grameen competition in Bangladesh was raised, yet many Bangladeshis refuse to cede that such a competition or tension exists. The point that interested me most, however, was BRAC’s relationship with the often-criticized Bengali government. One scholar at the book launch said that there is a “peculiar tension between the state and the third sector” that is involved in a “clandestine state of cold war”. Both parties share a common goal to promote development that is serviceable to all, but constructing bridges between institutions has proven very difficult. He also said that the because Dr. Yunus and Mr. Abed are so well-known within Bangladesh and to varying degrees abroad, the government should use these great men as ambassadors around the world because they have access to kings, presidents and other influential world leaders. Instead, the Bengali government maintains a cold, calculated distance from the organizations when it has great potential to more creatively integrate these NGOs and MFIs into the development process.

I have tried very hard to understand how adolescent girls maneuver and are treated in Bangladesh, but I have realized that I need much more than one summer to do so. In the past two months I have sat in the offices of CEOs and Presidents, the floors of mud huts, the beds of many girls and mothers, overheated city buses and many a rickshaw and buggy in order to learn about the realities of life for young girls in Bangladesh. In this process I have also come to learn an incredible deal about myself and how I react to new, difficult, and often challenging situations.

I had the opportunity to speak with a very eager group of high school interns last week at BRAC, and I was interested in the questions they had for me. One girl asked me if I had plans to come back to Asia to work in the future, and prior to coming this summer I would have likely said “no” with unwavering certainty because my interest has always been Latin America. However, I took a pause and reflected on my answer. Bangladesh has introduced me to living in a Muslim Asian country, and I’ve found that while wearing multiple layers of clothing in the summer heat isn’t fun, it’s manageable. And even though I don’t speak much Bangla I can manage on my own. At the end of the day, poverty is a gripping need all over the world, and while the door to Asia for me is not swinging wide open, it has been cracked; if given a wonderful and meaningful opportunity to work in the region again, I think I would take it. 

I will miss the amazing curries and naan, mangos, women beautifully dressed in saris, rickshaw rides, trying to communicate in Bangla and laughing a lot while doing so, seeing lush rice paddies, interviewing the girls, interacting with the two beautiful maids at the house, being the only girl working out at the Bengali gym, thinking of new ideas for the project, seeing goats and cows on the side of the street, observing children playing and making toys out of very common materials, passing impromptu tea stalls with men crowded around, and being exposed to at least one new thing every day. Things I will not miss, however, include: the most insane traffic I have ever experienced, pollution, sellers attempting to charge me outrageous prices all the time, not being able to go out unaccompanied in the evenings, men spitting (and more) in every which direction, beggars and particularly child beggars who make me want to cry, and incessant sweating during daily power outages.

Bangladeshis on the whole have been a very curious people. The all typically ask me my country, and they are very eager to know how I like Bangladesh. I usually say that I like some parts and not others, and they never cease to ask me to elaborate on the parts I don’t like, but I just smile and say that Banglaesh is “khub shundur” or very beautiful. It is a gorgeous country, but it lacks development and infrastructure in some areas like I have never seen. I will jump for joy the day that BRAC has an interconnected internet network among all of its branch offices so that its staff doesn’t have to travel across the country to manually fill out spreadsheets of information. I will also jump for joy the day that “ready made garment” workers are paid a fair wage. (Note: the U.S. is the largest importer of Bengali-made garments, so I challenge you to do research on where your clothes come from when you buy them.)

Now that I am leaving in a few days a common question is “When will you come back to Bangladesh?”, and I hesitate to answer because the reality is probably never. Undoubtedly I have enjoyed my stay here but for reasons completely different from past travel. I feel as though I have better understood human suffering on this trip. I have talked to girls who no longer go to school because their brothers and fathers squander money. I have met women whose lives have been shattered by poverty. I have traveled the country on a research hunt only to be reminded that the wonderful young girl who works in the house I’m staying in, Parveen, is only 17 and has been working for the family for years. She has largely skipped any semblance of a childhood and is very busy ironing the beautiful saris of the 18 year-old daughter of the house who will soon start university study in America. Parveen only finished grade 5. Seeing the sadness in her eyes disturbs me, yet what shakes my core is that at 17 she is sending money home to her parents to live, and this existence is actually a blessing of sorts for her. What is her alternative? Living in a tin shack with nine brothers and sisters and parents who do not make money. There is a very strong part of me that would love to have someone iron her sari for a day.

I thank the wonderful, hospitable people of Bangladesh for my enlightening and growing experience. I’ve been stretched to dimensions I never thought possible. I would again like to thank Harvard University and Nancy Klavans for their generous support in this adventure, which enabled exposure to and learning from a world I’ve never known. To my readers, thank you for keeping up with my blogs! I hope you’ve enjoyed, and I apologize for my lengthy entries. Brevity has never been my strong point, but I hope through my descriptions you have come to see the beauty, struggles, and potential of this diverse country. 


  1. A good wrap-up.

    Amen to the last sentence. :)

  2. Lauren, it has been absolutely amazing following your summer. In July, I was reading your description about sizzingly Bangladesh while sitting in 105 degree temperatures in Punjab--thanks for the smiles and inspiration! I am so glad your first experience in South Asia has been so fruitful and perhaps I can now rope you in for some future work in the region :) Looking forward to seeing you soon!