Friday, 15 October 2010

Khulna University

Today is a non-travel easy day ~ or so it starts out ~ a visit is planned with the economics and sociology departments @ Khulna University. The idea behind the visit is that my host is keen to involve the local university in his NGO's regional development work. To date there has been little interaction and my visit is a good opportunity to create new linkages and look at possible opportunities for collaboration.

The visit is a 'getting acquainted' visit and lasts about one hour. The Dean of Economics, Regional Studies and Sociology are present. As is the custom in Bangladesh we are served tea and refreshments. We chat about who does what are present and I make a small powerpoint presentation. A new regional development program has just been set up and may provide the perfect interface for interaction between Khulna University staff/students and the wider region. At the end of the meeting it is decided that another meeting will be useful with wider faculty attendance.

a bit of campus
The rest of the day is spent trying to get a short video made for my presentation to the Global Forum in Washington DC - the equipment, technology and exterior sound hurdles are simply insurmountable and I end up going home without a product but just in time before a massive rainstorm hits the town.

Thursday, 14 October 2010


Today we're visiting Progoti (People's Research on Grassroots Ownership & Traditional Initiative) in the Shyamnagar Upazila (district), a densely populated area in the south-west coastal region of Bangladesh. It is a 3-hr ride from Khulna (6 hrs return) so we set out early. At one point we are a mere 5 kms away from the border with India.

Progoti started in 1973 as a local club for cultural events to create mass awareness about cultural heritage. During Bangladesh's struggle for independence the club members of the club were patriotic freedom fighters.

The Organisation
freedom fighter

In 1988, after the area was devastated by a cyclone and everything was destroyed, Progoti sprang into action and provided disaster relief, rehabilitation and community support. By the mid nineties the organisation had morphed into  local development and environmental preservation organisation, adopting the motto that 'development and progress cannot be achieved without human development'. It runs water management programs (including a water distribution program under emergency response after Cyclone Ayla in 2009) and biodiversity projects supported by the likes of the European Commission, UNICEF and Oxfam. Progoti is also engaged in awareness raising of the impact of climate change in hopes it can prepare local people for the impending threat of losing land, livehood and livestock as the coastal parts of Bangladesh may well be permanently under water in the not too distant future. Already,there is water water everywhere ~ but not a drop to drink as the water quality is very poor.

Progoti has brought together a number of different people for us to meet and we discuss their livelihoods and supply chains. Similar issues brought up in other communities come to the fore here. No access to markets, unfair prices for crops, discrimination against minorities. There are three minority women present who as day labourers earn less than 60 taka/day= less than half a dollar), whereas male labourers earn double that amount (120 taka/day).

Minority Women
middle (wo)men
handicraft producers

We spend time analysing their supply chains and gaps in the system. Given that they are a varied and loose group of people, there is no one solution for this group to propose. What we do go away with is that they all need better information systems and that Progoti would be well served if it could coordinate its environmental awareness raising efforts into a centralised knowledge repository that could be used by way of knowledge brokers during normal times and be particularly effective during times of crises such as cyclones. 

Before we leave the region we visit a 700-year old mosque in an orphanage and the remnants of a thriving 'old city' that once existed in this area.

ancient wall
Cue-ing for food @ orphanage

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Women's Coop Leads the Way

Today is an action day. Having spent a fair amount of time learning and orienting myself, we get down to brass tacks and organise a mini search conference with Arshi and Locos (see field trips 1 & 2 for details on these communities).

Locos is an established women's farming cooperative whereas Arshi is a loose setup of female and male entrepreneurs. We decide to put the two communities together for knowledge transfer and potential collaboration in the future.

the women

the children

the men

When we get there the two communities have already exchanged formalities and are on the way of becoming better acquainted. First we explain the purpose of the gathering ~ knowledge sharing & looking towards the future ~ and then ask each group to talk about their past and their present situations.

explaining the purpose
Locos coop members describe the process of how they turned themselves into a coop ~ they went north to learn from indigenous communities ~ and what components of their existence have improved now that they are a collective. They are pleased to report that their social capital has increased ~ they now have the ear of the government agricultural department; that they have saved enough to be able to extend loans to all their members and no longer need to rely on micro credit; that their spirits have improved considerably and that they rely upon each other in times of need. Almost on cue a village woman collapses down the path and half the assembled rush to her rescue.

Arshi explains that they are moving towards becoming a coop but still have some way to go. They are aware that it pays to share the burden and are keen to start a 'self-help' credit system. At this point they do not yet have their own capital. Some exchange takes place between the two communities on how to best move forward.

We then ask the assembly to break into groups to think about their future and where they see themselves in 5 years time. Groups form organically and start collectively envisioning their future.
The vision that comes back is comprehensive, if ambitious. A turnover of $1 million taka, a more active role in the supply and demand chain; an increase in investment in skills and capacity building; sustainble water/resource management and environmentally friendly practices; more involvement of youths in the business processes for future sustainability of the community; access to research and ICT; social inclusion of the disadvantaged such as the elderly and handicapped; eradication of the caste system and equal rights for all. Some wish list! 

We finish the session with a mapping exercise and gap analysis, posing four questions: (1) what do the communities currently have, (2) what exists and is needed, (3) what doesn't exist and is needed, and (4) what barriers prevent their progress?
We learn that they have ample human resources, a sound coop structure, the spirit and ability to change, and a seed bank they can rely on.  What exists, but is not available to them is capital resources, information, communication and transportation means, and integrated resource management. What neither exists or is available to these communities includes things like government policy and enabling environments to assist coops and SMEs in the informal economy, better farming technologies, clean water, electricity, infrastructure....and equal rights. The barriers they face include natural disasters, salination and deforestation, red tape and exclusion from existing market syndicates.

By the end of the day's session the two communities have become friends and pledge to continue to work together and share knowledge. There will be seed bank support for both communities, access to organic fertiliser, technology transfer (organic farming), and exploration of joint marketing and supply chain opportunities with possible wider involvement from other communities in the region.  

Although their problems are far from solved, we leave on the optimistic note that there is hope for the future and strength in numbers..
bye bye
two generations

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Mechanical Failure Day

After two days in Dhaka the storm subsides and my host decides it is time we get back to Khulna to continue the work with communities in the Khulna and Jenidah regions. We are working on bringing a few communities together and look at cooperative structures and how ICT can be of help in cross-fertilisation of coops. I've been staying in the Green House, a lovely B&B in Gulshan 2, Dhaka's diplomatic district. They pamper me whilst I linger about with a bad stomach and a headache and I am reluctant to leave.

My host decides we'd best set off early and I rise @ 6:45 AM to make it to the 8:30 AM bus, calculating in the hour+ it takes to brave Dhaka traffic to the bus depot. It's Saturday and I am lucky that traffic is light and I make it to the bus station before my host does. Not that there was any real point in hurrying there, as buses in Bangla don't leave @ their scheduled time and by about 9:30 we hit the road.

Some 2 hours into the 10-hr journey the bus pulls over. Mechanical problems ~ an oil leak of some sort which will run the engine dry, so we're stuck. The driver assures us that another bus is on the way from the depot, but it will take at least two hours before it will get there. About an hour into the wait, the bus driver admits that no new bus has actually left the depot and no bus is actually available ~ so more likely a 4-5 hrs wait ahead..

My host and I confer and after two phone calls  ~ it pays to be connected in this country! ~ he has lined up a private air-conditioned mini van to continue our journey. Before we leave our host demands a refund from the bus driver, but doesn't get far. Demanding a refund from the driver or his side-kick, or even getting them to write on the ticket that the bus broke down ~ they are not authorised to deal with ticket pricing and too scared to put their jobs at risk. They make an attempt to phone head office - no one answers the phone!  This has turned into one expensive journey !

As we speed up the road in our vehicle, we see at least another 5 buses on the side of the road with mechanical problems and decide this must be 'mechanical failure day'. The good news is that there isn't a cue to get on the ferry to cross the river Padma ~ one of the main rivers of Bangladesh ~ and things go smoothly from there onwards. 

Some 12.5 hours after starting out, we arrive in Khulna. In the meantime I've learnt that there is an option to travel by boat between Khulna and Dhaka ~ friends tell me it is a pleasant 14 hr overnight trip ~ and since I will need to get back to Dhaka at least once more before leaving Bangladesh, I ask my host to look into booking a cabin on a boat.

No more buses please !

Going North

The next field visit ~ which lasts 3 days and 2 nights ~ is a considerable change from what I've been used to so far - I am on the road with two business men in a smooth air-conditioned car with a conscientious driver who opens the door for me every time I get in and out and looks most carefully after my belongings. 

We're off to Bogra and Rangpur in the north, where these two business men have a substantial  production setup for baskets and small rugs. They run a 'commercial venture with a heart', working with companies overseas who are interested in purchasing goods as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), some going as far as donating 100% of their profits back into the project (which is tax deductable one would assume..). Training is supported by a large international NGO. As such this fits the description of a public-private partnership (PPP).

The business men run some 19 'units' where they employ predominantly women to make the baskets and weave the small carpets. There is one male weaving unit and ~ with an exception or two ~ the supervisors in each unit and those handling the raw materials are generally male.  All together these men employ some 600 people, meaning that they make a difference to 600 village families across a number of locations. 

Although this is piece-work and the income by western standards is pitiful, the working conditions are generally good in that these are not sweat shops. Basket weaving happens sitting on the floor, but it is the customary way. I gain instant respect for these women and the speed with which they make baskets. When I try, I fail miserably ~ my stitches are pitifully irregular and I pull so hard on the fibre that it breaks, creating great merriment among the girls.

irregular weaver
women basket weavers
weaving different sizes

The women work an 8-hour day max.The company has installed fans for ventilation (in several units the fans run on solar power), there are toilets for the staff, proper exit-signed doors, fire alarm systems and even music. The company is keen to achieve the highest possible standard for their production units, looking to get the government 'good' stamp of approval by the end of this year. This stamp of approval means little in Bangladesh (and there are  only a handful of companies who bother to achieve this level), but carries exponentially more weight on the other side of the supply chain. It would be bad form for a touted CSR initiative to be exposed down the line as having been involved in sweat shop dealings. 
carpet weaving
weaving women  

As of November the garment industry is setting a minimum  wage of 3000 taka/month (approx. A$45) which the company promises it will honour. This may not seem much of an income , but it is a great deal more regular (key !) earnings than these women have ever experienced. If turnover is good staff also get bonuses. One of the hardest things, the company tells me is to get these women to understand the concept of employment, meaning that they have to turn up for work 6 days a week. Official muslim holidays are honoured, but many of these women are Hindu and have their own calendar of events, let alone farming, family and child rearing duties, which have a way of interfering with work.

I speak directly (by way of interpretation, that is) to the women to ask if they are happy working for this company. They agree in unison that they are very happy with the opportunity for regular work and that there life has improved considerably. They now have money to buy clothes, send their children to school and some have even bought land (to be farmed by their idle husbands). Their position in the family has improved as they now wield more power being the bread winner in the family. Some are still forced to hand over their entire earnings and the empowerment of these women must predominantly be seen on a family rather than a community level, although there are some women who are taking on leading roles in local government. 

happy workers
The finishing and distributions centre is an amazing sight ~ rugs and people everywhere (photo upload remains painfully slow but doing my best to add pix to the blog's slideshow!).  Rugs drying outside, women putting 21 knots in each carpet, stitching on labels, men running to and fro, getting the rugs ready for pick-up by the trucks, which take the rugs to Dhaka for final inspection and then onwards to Chittagong port for shipment overseas by the container load.

In comparing what I have seen so far ~ communities dependent on micro-credit going broke; communities living on aid such as in the cyclone devastated community preferring to stay dependent and unmotivated as it is a lot easier to get handed money than earning it (according to my host); and communities trying to make ends meet by being day labourers or micro entrepreneurs without access to markets ~ this looks like a win-win model for all. A PPP where where women are empowerment through employment; where the marketing and market access is in the hands of entrepreneurs; and where the NGO perform the task of training and handling funds for current & future projects. 

I am enthused by this setup as it combines ways to reach the poor and extreme poor (Millenium Development Goal (MDG) Number 1 is to alleviate poverty and hunger by 2015 and 10% of Bangladesh's population of 160 million falls into the extreme poor category), which is not dependent on aid or credit and appears to be a successful working partnership. If it is a replicable model is another story, as there are many market-related issues that these entrepreneurs face and solve along the way which would not easily without the right connections and networks.

After a longgg car trip home from Rangpur, I spend the night and the next two days resting in extremely wet Dhaka as the country is in the grip of a massive rain storm flooding roads, bridges and entire villages. I am grateful for the rest as I've eaten some dodgy food somewhere along the way and my stomach is acting up.