Sunday, August 12, 2007

Call for Aid - The Bangladeshi Flood Situation Worsens

The situation for flood-affected people in Bangladesh continues to deteriorate even as flood waters receded. Up to 10 million people have been displaced across Bangladesh by the flood waters, and are living on embankments and roadsides in temporary, flimsy shelters. The floods have covered over half the country and in some places are the worst seen in sixty years. Many have died, and diarrhoea, dysentery and other water borne diseases are beginning to spread. In many areas, access is only possible by boat.

The long-term effects of this flooding are only just beginning to materialise. Not only have people seen all their possessions washed away by the floodwaters, but they know that under these new brown seas lie the remnants of this year’s rice crop. North Bengal, the area most badly affected (taking in the districts of Sirajangj, Kurigram, Rangpur and Gaibunda) is also the poorest part of Bangladesh. The only economic activity here is agriculture. Most of the land is owned by a handful of zaimanders, who employ the rest of the population as day labourers in the paddy fields. They can plant three crops a year in most parts of the north. The second was due for harvest around now. That has been ruined by the flood.

In normal years, the fields are harvested and then prepared for the next planting in late August and September. After transplanting the Aman rice crop in late September, the agricultural labourers face unemployment for up to two months as they wait for the crop to ripen and harvesting to begin in December. This has lead to the annual occurrence of Monga – a local, near famine condition – every year for centuries. Labourers have had to sell household possessions or their labour in advance at discounted rates to survive, whilst some move to Dhaka to ride rickshaws and others take small loans at extortionate rates. Many starve and malnutrition, particularly amongst the young and women is very high.

This is what happens in a normal year: indeed, this is something that local people try to plan for and which the World Food Programme and others have activities for to try to mitigate its effects. Yet this year, there will not be any field preparation and planting, meaning people will miss two further employment opportunities; this, and the subsequent harvest. This all adds up to an extremely desperate situation that people are facing in the long term, let alone the daily struggle to keep healthy, clean and safe in 4 or 5 feet of dirty, polluted flood water.

The scale of the emergency seems to have been downplayed by the government, and has not received the sort of coverage in the Western press that such an event deserves. This is mainly due to the slow-onset nature of flood disasters, with their protracted development that is less dramatic than the immediacy of earthquakes and tsunamis, which make much better infotainment. But whilst relatively few have died in the flooding, the after effects look set to be dramatic and disheartening.

INGOs and donors are working through local partners to distribute relief aid, but access is difficult and distribution slow. Clean water and shelter are the main requirements at the moment, as many tube wells have become contaminated by the flooding. Capitalism is making its effect known too: the price of water purifiers has doubled in Bangladesh, making them out of the reach (physically as well as economically) of those that really need them.

There is a desperate need for aid, and as a major INGO making a development contribution, VSO Bangladesh feels compelled to make a contribution. The north of Bangladesh is one of VSO’s strategic working areas and some volunteers living there have been flooded out of their homes, and witnessed some very distressing scenes VSO is not a relief organisation and would not pretend to be, but we do have the benefit of many volunteers with their own networks. Therefore, we are asking you, if you can, to donate a small amount to the VSO Bangladesh flood relief fund. All the money will be given to the Chief Advisor’s Special Relief Fund, which is where DFID and other organisations are channelling their relief support.

VSOB is only asking for donations for this one week, so that we can release the money quickly. If you feel inclined, please click on the link here, where you can donate through Paypal via our IT volunteer Mikey Leung’s account.

I have had limited water supply, infrequent power, knee deep filthy flooding and overflowing sewers where I live, so I can vouch for how the television screens do not capture the stench of the water, or the feel of sewage washing through your toes, or the bites of insects in the water on your calf. Yet I have not had my shack and all my possessions washed away, nor can I not access medical treatment, and I can buy a flight home if it gets too bad. The people of North Bengal are in dire need and face a very miserable and hard time over the next few months. If you can help in a small way, VSO Bangladesh, its staff and volunteers, will be very grateful. The money will be spent by Bangladeshis with the skills and experience in disaster relief, and will be put to good use, and not spent on campaign costs or publications.

Please click here to make a contribution.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Proposal to Alleviate Poverty in Bangladesh

This has been cross posted at Dristipat, a Bangladeshi human rights blog and forum. The full proposal can be downloaded here. Also see Progressive Bangladesh for two articles on the issue.
The challenge was to propose an idea which would have the greatest impact on poverty alleviation in Bangladesh. After nine months of living and working in the country as volunteers, my colleague Tim Sowula and I realised that the answer was all around us. There are many marginalised groups in Bangladesh; indigenous people, farmers afflicted by the Monga famines, HIV sufferers – but they compromise a tiny minority in a country of over 145 million. When the purpose of intervention is to reach as many people as possible at the lowest end of the social scale, the stand-out constituency is the rickshaw pullers. Rickshaw pullers are the essential cogs in Bangladesh’s machine. And they deserve better.

Therefore, through the nationalisation and rationalisation of non motorised urban transport, we propose to incorporate the two million rickshaw pullers in Bangladesh into the formal economy as public workers within a sustainable, pollution-free, low cost urban transport network. If the rickshaw industry were nationalised, passengers would not simply be paying someone to cycle them around, they would be contributing to Bangladesh’s biggest public service, a bigger transportation economy than Biman and the Railways combined. By formalising this enormous economy – 6% of Bangladesh’s GDP – we believe it would be possible to bring economic and social uplift to rickshaw pullers, bring better public transport to Bangladesh’s cities, and reach nearly 15% of the total population. Our proposal is sweeping in its scope but efficient in its implementation. It is a feasible and equitable way of bringing positive change to some of Bangladesh’s most marginalised communities

If an intervention wishes to make as large a social impact as possible then taking account the combination of the community size, and its economic and social contribution and position, targeting the conditions of rickshaw pullers has to be a priority. As bideshis, it seems to us that considering their importance to Bangladesh’s economic, social and cultural life and how hard they toil towards this, the scarcity of reward enjoyed by rickshaw pullers, their lack of rights and lowly status is astonishing. Our proposal would aim to raise their social status, increase their income and ensuring that this is secure, and rationalise the transport of Bangladesh so that it can be more efficient and effective, which is essential for any country’s wider development.
Crucially, the behaviour of users will have to change very little, and the economic cost to them of the change will be zero. Service users would simply find that what was once a private service is now a public one, and they would need to purchase tokens from local retailers, a viable and already tested system for other services. At the same time, every single person who uses a rickshaw in Bangladesh – almost the entire population will become a stakeholder; will directly contribute to the alleviation of poverty, disadvantage and inequity amongst the people of Bangladesh. The beauty of our proposal lies in its simplicity, and economic sustainability. After living and working here it is obvious that Bangladesh, despite the challenges it faces, has some of the hardest working, most patriotic and determined people in the world. It also has wealth, a fluid cash economy – but like most countries, too much cash ends up concentrated in tiny minority. We have tried, therefore, to devise a scheme that can harness that passion, commitment, and surplus capital with the minimum disruption to the cultural fabric of the nation. Nationwide approximately $4.1 million flows in to the rickshaw economy every day. $2.9m remains the property of the rickshaw pullers. The excess $1.2m is therefore money that, were the rickshaw sector nationalised, could flow back every day in to the Bangladeshi state - $529m per year. Given that the Bangladeshi national budget for 2007-2008 totalled $12.63 billion, with $3.83b allocated under the Annual Development Plan (ADP), our project would effectively introduce an increase of 14% to the ADP. And the cost of implementing our proposal? We estimate this to be around $160m, which set against guaranteed annual revenue of over $500m, is certainly justifiable.

This proposal’s five main objectives are designed to have as wide an impact as is possible without causing disruption to this vital transport network. It will bring economic security to the rickshaw puller with the creation of a regular income stream; it will facilitate the raising of rickshaw pullers’ social status by making them formal public workers with rights and responsibilities; it will generate substantial, sustainable capital for investment into upgrading rickshaw garage infrastructure, bringing health and other social benefits to rickshaw pullers; it will incorporate rickshaw pullers into society by making their garages centres of development activity and education; and it will improve the standard of public transport in Bangladesh’s urban centres.

Whilst an intervention of this scale would require careful management and meticulous organisation, we believe that it is far from utopian, or unrealistic given the challenges faced by the government of Bangladesh. On the contrary, an intervention on this scale could only be managed by an authority with the scope and power of the State, and the political incentives to the government for pursuing an eminently realisable goal are obvious. The legitimacy of any government, especially in a democratic system rests on how it manages the welfare of the people under its charge. We believe that our proposal clearly would make a huge positive contribution to the welfare of nearly 15% of Bangladeshis, specifically those who need it most, and the benefits of adopting our proposal outweigh any potential difficulties.

Our proposal aims to not just improve the educational standard and the physical well-being of the rickshaw puller and their families and dependents, but also socially and psychologically empower the rickshaw puller. They would be freed from their dependency on their mechanical master, the rickshaw, currently their only source of survival and also what entrenches their social immobility. Instead they would be lifted to the level of full Bangladeshi citizens, enjoying rights and benefits, providing a service and carrying responsibilities, paying taxes, and aiding the collection of a vast previously untapped revenue for their nation and its people. By empowering the rickshaw puller and also providing them with material and educational assistance, you are providing them with the opportunity to not only take pride in their work and their status, but also to change it.
Tim Sowula and Tom Wipperman

Friday, August 03, 2007

Corporate Social Irresponsibility

It has been observed for a long time that the beautification of cities has been a project driven by the rich against the poor. Engels makes a great deal of reference to it in The Condition of the Working Classes, showing how the bourgeois of Manchester were keen to remove the repellent and filthy working classes from their sight so that that could walk in cleaner, greener cities for themselves. The enclosure of squares and greens in 19th century London to be turned into gentrified parks for promenading by wealthy Londoners, free from the inconvenience of the poor. Whilst in early modern times this was driven by public bodies influenced by the wealthy, but it seems that in the early 21st century age of hyperinternationalisation and increasing disparities between rich and poor, it is the corporation that is taking the lead in what Engels called ‘Haussmann policy’: the rhetorical construction of the poor as agents of environmental degradation and decay, and their subsequent physical removal to ‘beautify’ the city for those sophisticated enough to enjoy it.

Before (left) people lived on this marginal land. It is not clear where they have been moved to (Right).

On Banani lake, a small stretch of stagnant water sandwiched between the wealthy suburbs of Gulshan and Banani, it is Warid Telecom that is taking this lead. Warid are a new arrival in the Bangladeshi telecoms market, having launched to much fanfare in April. They are a Dubai based company and have aggressively attacked competitors Grameenphone and Banglalink.

Warid's new building

It is also apparent, however, that they are also attacking the poor of Banani who until very recently lived in squats along the edge of the lake. Warid has decided to do its bit – in the name of corporate social responsibility – and fund a beautification project for the lake. It has a new glass office standing on one bank, surrounded by nice shrubs and rock features, but clearly executives were appalled that their view was over a small family of informal dwellers huddled beneath an advertising hoarding.

The improvement scheme

Their solution has been to remove all those families living around the lake and replace them with much nicer herringbone walkways and flowerbeds, proclaiming the wonderful success of this urban ‘improvement’ terrorism on big billboards. Clearly the people whose entire lives were based on the small stretch of marginal land that they crammed into were not consulted, as they were hardly likely to suggest knocking down their shacks as a positive contribution to Dhaka.

So the story of urban environment improvement that has existed for some 200 years continues: the poor are blamed, removed and abandoned so that the empowered and enfranchised can enjoy the city that they see, forgetting about the increasing squalor and depravation that such actions bring about in the ‘insalubrious’ parts of the city. Warid, of course, seem to have no problem with this act of violence on the poor, just so long as they have something nice to look at in between selling sim cards to those very people that they have abanThe new improved lakeside
Of course, it could be worse: on the other side of the bridge, the RAB (notorious for their 3-a-day extrajudicial killings in the huge amount of ‘crossfire’ that characterises their engagements with the enemy) have their Gulshan check point. This consists of a bus shelter style construction in which lounge a number of this all in black, bandanna wearing paramilitaries. Apart from the RAB’s logo, proudly in the middle of the shelter, the rest of the shelter is covered in a huge advert for Nokia. Their slogan – ‘connecting people’ – is plastered across this building. A bad choice of sponsor, surely, for the RAB’s speciality is connecting people between this world and the next, or between a body and a bullet.

Perhaps this callousness is unique to the telecommunications industry, or perhaps its because whilst Nokia would not sponsor the National Guard in the US, or the Counter-Terrorist branch of the Met, it is much easier to be irresponsible in Bangladesh. After all, no one is watching, and no one need find out what you are up to. And seeing as the RAB stop everyone crossing that bridge to check them out, most will see the advert. When they have consumed that message, then they can admire the beautiful lake around them which Warid have created.

Bangladesh's independence

Hardeep Singh Kholi's programmes on sixty years of Indian and Pakistani independence has covered Bangladesh this week

look at the episode 'crossing the border' - August 1st 2007

Its a good summary of the liberation war and an introduction to the nature of Bangladesh and its fierce nationalism.

Have a listen...