Monday, November 13, 2006

The Office

After weeks of induction and inaction, I have finally been able to start work, and a minor shock it has been. Firstly, my VSO focal point is the only Bangladeshi who does not like cricket, but lists his hobbies as wrestling (watching), chess (playing) and gossiping. A thrilling collection of interests and hobbies I am sure you would agree.

Whilst other VSO volunteers around the country and the world are going into large, dynamic organisations, mine has but 4 employers, who do less work than I thought humanly possible. On my first day, I entered the office and my focal point said ‘here is the office, now I must work’, and disappeared, leaving me a little bemused by his scuttling away. After 2 or 3 hours, and having read all the English language material in the office, I was able to have lunch, and meet the other three employees: the Executive Director (ED), another researcher and the administrator. After lunch, one erstwhile employee told me that ‘when we finish, we will have a gossip or maybe a sleep’. Lunch started at 12.30, and no one returned to work afterwards.

Day two and I was the first in the office by at least half an hour. I also met another trustee (the ED is one), who is usually teaching at Dhaka University – which my focal point told me was once the Oxford of the East but is now ‘about 37th ranking in Asia – it looks it. I also found out three minutes before that I was to go to a meeting with Plan International – aha I thought, a time to mobilise the supposedly extensive networking skills for which I apparently am sought - but alas I sat through a 2 hour meeting in Bangla. I asked for a summary afterwards, and this lasted 30 seconds.

Days 3 and 4 and 5 were very uneventful, with no work to do. I did do my introductory workshop with the office, a shambolic event in which the ED sat with his hands over his eyes for the whole time. I noticed he did not look at any of the pictures of home I handed round (note: Max, Andy, Michelle, Ania and Paddy, consider yourself introduced to my colleagues). He is incredibly difficult to talk to, because he starts playing with his computer, or reading something, or singing whilst I speak. Yet whilst some have complained, I don't remember being this boring, and I am certain he has not heard any of the stories before…

However, the good thing is that there seems to be a lot that I can do to make some tangible difference. My terms of reference for my placement are to help build participatory research capacity, to build external networks and communications with multilateral and bilateral donors, INGOs and the UN, and to develop literature reviews, research proposals, seek academic and policy publication and some filing. Seeing as they do very little of this at the moment it seems that even a little change could take place, and there are two people who I think I can work with so that they can take over the jobs for when I leave. My hardest task right now is convince the ED that I am not simply a human cheque book upon which DFID will write, and that tee shirts for the team are not priority.

I have managed today to draw up a work plan and will spend the next few days attempting to get the ED to read it and understand what I think I can do and why I am there.

The office itself is quite airy and bright, and just of Panta Path, a major thoroughfare in the city. The political situation is deteriorating again today and I had to cross two barricades to get to work. Tomorrow I may not be able to get there, and 20,000 Rapid Action Battalion soldiers are in place, with the remit to keep order at any cost. On the way home tonight I saw two policemen give a rickshawala a rather unpleasant beating, with a stick and a rifle, and shouted at me for looking. But at least a bedeshi meant that they stopped.

The Awami League opposition has started a blockade of Dhaka, restarting the ‘Dhaka-Seize Programme’. There is serious talk of the army imposing martial law and taking control at the moment. Amazingly this is openly discussed! As I write the water cannon is being set up on the main Mirpur Road (which I walk along to work).

But despite my frustrating, tiring and very difficult working conditions, and the violence, there is some good news: Bangladesh is no longer rated as the most corrupt country in the world by Transparency International – it is now third from bottom. I like to think that I might have had a small hand in that…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

VSO Hard Core

Third Post Down:

The Perils of life as a volunteer in Cambodia:

The Perils of life as a volunteer in Cambodia 2
Leave a comment

VSO Cambodia’s Motto: Burn the Witch; guilty until proven very guilty.