Sunday, June 24, 2007

Cambodia versus Bangladesh

I have just returned from two weeks on holiday in Cambodia, and whilst I could regal with tales of that small country caught between Thailand and Vietnam, but as this is a Bangladesh journal, it maybe more interesting to look at how the two compare. I did find myself looking at the development projects and policies, to see what Cambodian were doing differently. And some of it is almost amusing: in Siem Reap, the town from which one can see the temples of Angkor, JICA (the Japanese DFID) had installed rubbish bins along the river, resplendent with the JICA logo and the claim of technical assistance from the Japanese people – quite why Cambodians needed Japanese assistance to come up with the idea of rubbish bins is not explained, and it certainly cannot be priority for Cambodia, which ‘boasts’ the largest per capita amputee population in the world due to its millions of landmines.

But what is interesting is how much better Cambodia is than Bangladesh. Its major cities are smart, French like centres with proper paving, flowers, ornamental lighting, clean rivers, and subterranean drainage. There is poverty, but the rural houses are larger, the cattle look healthier, children manage to go to school much more often and gender equality and equity is in a better state. However, what is most striking is that whilst Bangladesh seems to be stagnating, and has ever since its conception, Cambodia really has a future. Possessing possibly the greatest temple complex that humankind has ever created is of enormous benefit and is a major global tourist attraction, but in addition the country has invested in upgrading its roads and cities, has discovered a major oil field of its coast and has a relaxed and welcoming attitude towards difference.

Tourism is a major part of the Cambodian economy, and it already received 1 million visitors a year, only 9 years after the Khmer Rouge were finally defeated and stability returned to the country. Given that Egypt received 8 million tourists a year and that Angkor is on a par with the pyramids of Giza, Cambodian tourism is surely going to rocket in the future. It is true that much of this business is foreigned owned – in Siem Reap it is big foreign hotel chains like Sofitel and Meridian, and bars and clubs owned by expats from Europe and Australia litter the major towns, but these are bringing jobs and development with them, as they require good quality electricity and water supplies, and many, many staff. Around the temples, the kids that sell books and postcards attend school in the morning and language classes in the evenings – many that I talked to already spoke English and German or Italian as well as their native Khmer, at only 7 or 8 years of age, and all wanted to be tour guides in the future. With visitor numbers increasing and groups from China, Korea, the US, Spain, and the Middle East, all of these children seem to have real opportunities: tour guides are well paid and their skills are sought after.

With this education – it can be hoped – comes further development as educated people are better placed to demand their rights and force their governments to be accountable. Corruption is a problem in Cambodia but it is being tackled heavily by the development partners, and with DFID and USAID putting lots into HIV/AIDS, this issue seems to be, at the surface, under control. Cambodia is full of adverts for HIV testing centres, billboards advertising condoms and giving information of HIV/AIDS, all of which are unthinkable in Bangladesh, which is still in denial about the realities of the disease within its borders.

Cambodia felt lighter, more optimistic, more hopeful. It certainly helps to have Angkor as a golden ticket to foreign income, but there is a more diversified economy than just tourism, and more people seemed to be getting a slice of the cake. Bangladesh, on the other hand, looks like it has nowhere to go. Its only real resource is its cheap labour (4-5 times cheaper than Cambodia), and manufactures only tolerate the traffic congestion, lack of infrastructure and poor export facilities because labour costs are so low. But, with tarrifs on textiles about to come down in the US, and Africa being opened up to investment (where labour is even more cheap and new infrastructure can be purpose built), it seems that rather than lift off, Bangladesh is about to face decline. There is no tourist industry, there is visible, widespread poverty (there are more Dhakaians than Cambodians), the cities are shabby and dilapidated, and the urban middle and upper classes engage with the public realm only when they can extract something from it. Cambodia and Cambodians are being exploited by textile manufactures, tourist industries, oil companies, development agencies, human traffickers, logging companies and many others. But Bangladesh is not: in a globalised world it remains the case that the only thing worse than being exploited by a capitalist, is not being exploited by a capitalist. This seems to be Bangladesh’s fate.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Driving with Dignity Launch Night

After six months of planning, proposals, field work, preparation, negotiation and cajoling, yesterday our rickshaw puller photographic exhibition was launched at the Russian Cultural Centre in Dhaka, and was opened by the Dutch and Norwegian Ambassadors. I am writing this entry from the gallery, sitting at a desk in an empty white room surrounded by 30 of my photographs hanging on the walls plus some of the rickshaw pullers own photographs, and the ten stories that they told us. It is very strange to have my photos on display for the Dhaka public to judge and debate, but so far today (and the day is nearly over) only four people have visited, so we are not at risk of being engulfed.

Yesterday was a long day, trying to ensure that everyone could attend, and would do on time. Bangladeshi time is about half an hour (or more) behind our time, and so whilst the two European Ambassadors arrived on time, the Bangladeshis were very late.

Then we had the ‘who are these people farce’. We had met the Norwegian Ambassador and so we were able to say hello, but we had not met the Dutch Ambassador before. He introduced himself to me and we talked a bit, but my ED and Chairman somehow convinced themselves that this was the Norwegian Ambassador’s husband (or someone else entirely), and so when we were sitting in the anteroom waiting to start, they asked me aloud when the Dutch Ambassador would arrive, despite sitting right next to him. Luckily, it seems that being an ambassador in Bangladesh prepares you for such incidents.

Our launch was attended by five of the rickshaw pullers that we had worked with, plus a load of VSO volunteers and some people from NGOs and multilaterals – Wateraid, Concern, Save the Children, UNICEF, and the British High Commission. It ensured that there was a good audience for our guests, and that we had avoided the risk of the ambassadors addressing an empty room full of pictures.

We had speeches from the editors of two national dailies, and also from my Executive Director and Kamal, a rickshaw puller from Mohammadpur who we had worked with. Kamal was incredibly impressive, given that he has never attended school and cannot read or write at all. We briefed him and gave him the microphone and he was able to talk and talk about the problems he faces. Although the long term impact is pretty minimal, at least for those few minutes he was an equal, with ambassadors, expats, development workers and government officials listening to him and being interested in what he had to say.

It was also very moving to take the pullers into the exhibition hall for a private viewing before we opened it up. I think that when, in February and March, we first met them and said what we hoped to do, they were not really certain and bit wary of us. They did not believe we would pay them 200 Taka (which we did) and they did not believe that they would get a camera to take photographs with (which they did), but to see their pictures handing in a gallery, and their stories on the wall was quite startling for them. Most had never been in a gallery before, as normally they are denied access because of their profession and their class. Rickshaw pullers normally drive wearing lungis, but they turned up wearing trousers and their smartest shirts- they seemed very proud to be part of the project.

Unfortunately, Anisur, the 12 year old who we worked with, was very ill. He really looked very drawn and was showing the effects of nearly a year of rickshaw pulling. The event really revealed the lack of knowledge that such people have: I put a little extra Taka in Anisur’s pay envelope and told him that he should buy an icecream to make him feel better; some of the other pullers then began to ask me how they could treat hepatitis, jaundice and HIV. The lack of education is very difficult to comprehend when even the most ill educated in the West know so much: it was incredibly sad that what I hoped would be a small treat for someone who cannot afford them was actually interpreted as a genuine medical treatment.

Overall my organisation should be very pleased with the outcome. We looked very professional, and lots of people came along. The television stations were there as were the newspapers. My article was published on the day in New Age (click here and scroll down to see it) and this attracted some people. I made the staff give out brochures and their business cards and to talk to people so that they could start to build up a relationship with different organisations.

The aim of the project – to establish my NGO as the leading authority of rickshaw pullers in the country, and to advocate for a respect agenda for rickshaw pullers – was in some way fulfilled. Our media coverage and contacts have ensured that some people are talking about it. The challenge now is to build on the momentum and really drive the organisation forward. I think there are about six weeks in which to do this, and afterwards this opportunity will be lost. So I am hoping that my NGO will start to take some initiative.

The rickshaw pullers, I hope, have valued being part of something and finding someone to pay attention to them. This time round they were laughing, joking and trusting, and there is a strong rapport there that can be built upon for future work. The biggest problem with development work, in my opinion, is when the poor and the marginalised are invited into a new world for a brief moment, then dropped back into their old one and forgotten. I hope that we can sustain the involvement of the pullers that we worked with, as they have powerful stories and are fascinating people.