Sunday, September 6

Development In(-)Action: North Bengal Part II

“They hung their heads in shame as their mother stood behind them, the end of their sari wrapped around their head and mouth, listening to their children’s grades read aloud to the entire village…”

Last Saturday my friend Maude was gracious enough to let me tag along to watch her work with her NGO.  We hop on the back of her friend’s motorbike that takes us to the river.  Maude turns to me and said, “Today we are going to a char to do interviews.”  We climb onto this long wooden boat with a motor, bamboo roof and wicker mats to sit on.

“Oh, by the way, the trip is almost two hours.”

Staff from the NGO climb into the boat; one is able to speak English, Maude’s translator from the NGO.  They all play card games or nap the whole trip, while Maude and I speak with the translator about Bengal politics and finance.  At one point, the sun was hidden behind the clouds, so we head to the top of the boat.  Quietly we pray that the bamboo will hold us and the three other staff members sitting on the roof under umbrellas.  No worries – it did.  And how refreshing: cool breeze, clean air, no noise or staring.  Laying up there, I could breathe.

We drop off other staff members at different chars and we ended up at Sidai.  The reason for Maude’s visit was to interview teachers and students about a ‘student-friend’ program the NGO started.  A student from the school must tutor a child who doesn’t have the chance to go to school.  Tutoring them enough should bring them up to speed to join school the following year.  Maude needed to see how effective this initiative was by talking to teachers, students and the principal.

As we get off the boat, we must walk through mud barefoot, into shallow, murky water that almost reached my knees.   The bottom the river was super slippery with mud and I kept slippin’ and slidin’ all over.  We get on land, albeit not dry, but solid was all I could ask for.  Walking through this little forest of skinny trees, the ground became less muddy the farther we got from the river.

Then the parade of children began to grow behind us the closer we became to the village.  A couple, a few, several, a dozen, a few dozen…  The children at least keep a safe distance from you.  When we walk through, it’s like the parting of the Red Sea, opening in front and closing behind.  But it’s a sea of little black and dusty faces.

“What is your name?” they ask.  After my response, in their little accented voices, ‘Amanda’ is echoed back a few hundred times.  Maude is speaking with the different staff about the project for the day, while I try to play with the children.  Try’ being the operative word because it’s so hot I can barely breathe.  Plus, I don’t want to drink water in front of a crowd of people who 1) can’t keep their eyes off of me and 2) are fasting.  Ramadan rules my life.

Maude invites me to sit in on her interview with a teacher about the “student-friend” program.  A vital part of interviewing is having a good translator: who understands what you are trying to accomplish, and does not have anything invested in the project.  Maude’s translator was sweet, but because he works for the NGO, he often answered the questions himself without asking the interviewee.  At one point, a question was asked to the principal who responded, “jani na” – I don’t know.  The translator turned to Maude and answered the question himself.  Maude knew enough Bangla to know the response was “I don’t know.”  She said to me, “How am I supposed to help them improve the program if they won’t tell me the truth about how it works?  If they don’t know an answer or are frustrated with something, I need to know so we can fix it.”

Bangladesh is one of, if not the, center of development.  There is a mammoth amount of foreign aid pouring into the country as well as development projects and programs.  The biggest NGO in the world is Bangladeshi: BRAC.  And from my experience, Bangladeshis are very nationalistic, very proud of their culture and country, regardless of its shortcomings (like poverty and corruption).  I found that talking to Bangladeshis here, they only share what they love about Bangladesh, rarely what they dislike.  Other countries I’ve been to like India, Japan, Italy; the citizens will give a well-rounded view of their country – the pluses and minuses.  But as a foreigner here, I am only lectured on the golden qualities of Bangladesh.

I wonder if this overwhelming pride is shared with me because most people assume (rightly so) that I, a foreigner, am here working on a development project.  So many foreigners are coming in to discuss all the problems and things wrong with Bangladesh, trying to ‘fix’ her: from labor rights to how they should kill their chickens.  Constantly they are put on the defense about their culture (especially their religion) attempting to shed a good light to people who often see the dark side.  Their patriotism is reasonable.

But from a development perspective, NGOs seek the terrible stories in order to develop.  The reality and truth must be shared, no matter how embarrassing or tragic it is.  For Maude, it was vital for her to hear the reality of the program: what worked and what didn’t.  Money is hard to come by for NGOs and it’s better to know that it’s being spent on effective, positive and well-liked projects than a project that is dispensable.  Tough choices have to be made.  She also understood that it is difficult to come to a char for the first time demanding answers.  It’s intimidating.  As someone working to create change, you have to know the people, have them trust you – so you can trust them that they will give helpful, truthful responses.

It’s slow, which is frustrating because funders want results – fast.  Destruction is easy, development is slow.

Later, we had the chance to sit in on a parent-teacher conference.  And by parent-teacher conference, I mean a conference with most of the parents and all of the students, and a few of the teachers.  The leaders of the NGO read all grades aloud to everyone.  Everyone clapped for the students who received 100s across the board.  One NGO leader turned to me a few times when some boys were called, saying “There goes the next President Obama!”  I know it was said in pride of the student, certainly, of course - but no girl was remarked as being the ‘next Hilary Clinton’ or even their own Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.  Girls are still devalued, but that's my next entry...

The student who failed and were lowered in rank – they hung their heads in shame as their mother stood behind them, the end of their sari wrapped around their head and mouth, listening to their child’s shortcomings said aloud to the entire village.  The leaders of the NGO end with: “You should pay more attention to your child and their school activities.”

I sat there in the heat, burning at this NGO.  I don’t think competition is ever a good way to teach children.  Instead of competing with other students in the village, the child should work and be pushed to the best of his abilities.  Unfortunately, it is about 99% sure that these children aren’t going to grow up to be the next Prime Minister, or even a political leader.  They live in a village surrounded by water with little electricity and a school that just arrived three years ago.  It’s not negative -- it’s reality.  Instead of them competing for first rank and grades, they should just be learning to improve their quality of life by reading and writing.  The first place to start is by not announcing grades aloud, because both the children and parents were humiliated in front of their friends and neighbors.  One-on-one meetings are much more effective: the teacher, who knows the student, can talk to the parents about their child’s progress: both positives and negatives; not a NGO leader who stops by a few times a month.

Also, the NGO was telling parents, “pay more attention to your children.”  Let’s think about this: do you honestly think that the parents, after sitting in a hot room for two hours, half of them embarrassed that their child did poorly, will actually go home to ask their children about their day, because some man told them to in a lecture?

One-on-one meetings again are effective, because the teacher can sit down with the parents and find out how their home situation is.  Maybe little Ahmed is sleeping in class and failing because his father lost his job so little Ahmed works after school while his parents scramble to find work at night, leaving little Ahmed to watch two other siblings because his mother can’t afford birth control.  A large meeting could not discover this – you must be one-on-one with a person to understand their needs, the reason for their needs and the capacity they have to do something about it, and what role you can play.

I can’t blame the NGO for these shortcomings.  Too often do development programs fail not because they were ineffective, or they had bad leadership – but because funding is lacking.  A lack of funding leads to a lack of capacity so unfortunately, it might not be feasible for this NGO to perform one-on-one meetings because they can't afford to pay overtime to the staff that might be overworked.

What's shameful: I hear that because there is not much structure here in Bangladesh and no follow-up or registration, some NGOs exist for profit with a façade of charity.  Maude told me that one NGO built a well right next to another well in one village just to state on their Annual Report that they ‘provided a new clean well for a village up north.’  It was a façade to boast for funding, but utterly useless to the village who already had a well.

It’s a tricky business, which is unpromising because so much good could be accomplished with development research and studies -- it shouldn’t have to be a business. 

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