Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The other side of the street

I've received some comments about the previous rickshaw commute video and thought I'd show you the other side of the street at a different time of day and with the original audio- instead of a soundtrack to cover up my discussion with an Italian about Thailand and traveler's diarrhea (I didn't think you'd want to hear it).

Few items to note in the video- this was about 7-7:15pm on a Monday, so somewhat after the usual work-day rush hour home. This video shows the route I would normally walk to work. Look out for the brief shot of the street kids using ropes as swings on the electrical tower base. The car honking is also strangely quiet in this video as well- when the traffic is really bad it's ridiculous. I got quite use to the constant honking in my hotel room. 

(Videos seem to work nicely when I don't have time/energy to write- as does simply uploading photos to my Picasa gallery. New pictures from the last week's activities will be up in the gallery shortly. I hope to write an update on my weekend trip to Srimangal this evening).

Less than a week left in Dhaka- this month has gone by faster than I thought.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Dhaka Commute

I was about to compose the 'food' post when my stomach was suddenly hit with something funky and the thought of food was less than appealing. It appears I've gotten these stomach cramps about every 1.5 weeks here but so long as that's the worse of it- I'm thankful.

Instead, I thought I'd post a video of my rickshaw ride commute from the Grand Prince Hotel to the Grameen Bank Bhaban (Main Office). It takes about 8 minutes, costs 8-12 taka (~14 cents) and greatly reduces the amount of attention I receive if I walked on the street. Last evening, after walking back in the rain (and get somewhat mud-splattered in the process), I had a member of group of (gypsy?) ladies grab my arm and not let go for a good 15 meters, asking for money. Heartless as it sounds, I don't like giving to beggars, especially in adult ones in the city. Numerous people have told me many of the beggars are drug addicts and if you want to give anything- give or buy them food. A coworker also told me about how recently a syndicate was arrested to using children to beg, often maiming or defacing them. (think 'Slumdog Millionaire'). A child with acid burns or missing limbs can earn anywhere from 3000-4000 taka a day, he said. Same with urban adult disabled individuals- you don't know if someone made them that way or preys on the funds they earn. Another coworker told me it's different in the village- a disabled person is not cared for by their family and truly is on their own. I go back and forth between feeling guilty, heartless and truly believing that investing in other infrastructure will do more than handouts to alleviate the poverty seen everyday.

Side note: You know you've been in Bangladesh long enough when your rickshaw driver drives into oncoming traffic (including massive buses) and you don't even flinch. The rickshaw driver here was more law-abiding than most at the start but later we realized it was probably because he didn't know where he was going... 

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Environment in Bangladesh

Working on environmental issues in Qatar presented its own set of new challenges to a North American sustainability advocate- different government system, low awareness, hydrocarbon economy, developing infrastructure, little economic incentives, low regulation and simply my own lack of knowledge about the country's environment, politics and culture. Bangladesh is a whole different set of challenges.

Low awareness comes into play again but it's compounded by non or low-literacy and education of the general public. The huge population, small and poorly-developed infrastructure, along with few monetary resources contribute to Bangladesh's environmental woes: pollution, litter and poor air and water quality. Social norms and expectations also play a part, as a recent Science Daily article pointed out. If one sees others around them acting a certain way, they follow. In Qatar, it can be a mixed message; while expats, schools and corporations struggle to recycle, I'd have a Qatari male student confess to simply tossing his half-eaten shwarma out the car window- wrapper and all. Cultural norms of having servants/maids clean up after you in Qatar led many students to simply leave their lunch and snack trash throughout the cafeteria. The professors would be agog but that's what simply what these students have known and experienced. 

Given the homogenous population in Bangladesh, individuals receive fairly consistent cultural and environmental action cues- especially regarding trash disposal. I had prepared myself for the garbage and waste situation during my visit to India last April but the issue continues to strike me here in Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshis, young and old, educated and non, think nothing of tossing their wrapper, paper napkin, cigarette package or bag on the street, in the gutter, on the floor or in the water (always a 'public' location).  The trash sometimes collects in an area (removed? by whom?) and occasionally it's burned. 

I though at first this was an education issue- but then I saw a teenage female student toss her napkin out a shop door. My University-educated coworker once dropped his gum wrapper and cigarette package and I had to pick them up. He stopped, startled and commented that he had never thought about it. During the village visit, I'd carry my empty Sprite bottle for kilometers, looking for some designated trash spot, even making a point to ask the UNO (local government official) where I could toss my garbage. Only then did my colleague begin to notice the gobs of bottles, bags and wrappers strewn in the village woods and waterways. He had never noticed before. 

After the visit, this coworker realized that the Village Information Profile (VIP) of the GramWeb project did not have any environmental indicators and asked that I develop some for the next version of the document. I've included indicators asking about waste disposal (organic, inorganic and hazardous), fertilizer/pesticide use, cancer rates, birth defects, irrigation stress, distance to nearest moving water source and other details. By simply getting villagers to consider these topics is a huge step toward greater awareness and action.

Learn more more about the Environmental Performance Index ranking of Bangladesh (Qatar is not ranked for some reason. Perhaps data collection is not done or readily available/freely shared). 

Monday, June 29, 2009

Connecting from here to there

I recently joined BOPSource.com to gain additional insight into working on BoP topics. The site developer posted a video of an interview with a Nepalese man who worked in the Middle East. Curious, I just watched it at work (where I get YouTube connection). Sure, enough- the man worked in Qatar and did not have a good experience. The video brings a face to many of the stories my former colleague Silvia Pessoa and her Immigration Studies students discovered in their research. My own students in my 'Design for People and Planet' course investigated issues facing labors and documented further challenges they faced- high connectivity/transportation/living costs, contract disputes, health issues, abuse, and boredom.

I often wondered about what sort of life these Sri Lankan, Indian, Nepalese, Bangladeshi, Phillipino and other workers left behind (in terms of Sri Lankan, I can't imagine living with with the horror going on the island). Last week in Ehklaspur, I met two women whose husbands were off working in Malyasia or in another part of Bangladesh. Recalling that my students discovered that communication for workers back to their home is often expensive and they imagined that the worker's home village or family wouldn't have a mobile or computer. I found out that yes, it's cheaper to call from Bangladesh to Qatar than vice versa (~17 taka or .25USD a minute, vs. about 3 riyal or 1 USD a minute from Qatar). However, my students would be surprised to see how connected a village could be. This one woman had a mobile, as did multiple other villagers. She spent about 300-500 taka (4.35-7.25 USD) on her phone bill (or if she's BoP [earning <$2 a day] about 3-6% of her entire salary). The woman also quoted the per minute price to Saudi Arabia and Singapore, indicating that she had some familarity of situations with people working in those locales.

Much BoP communication work resides in mobile phone work, as they are portable, can be cheap and can provide built-in infrastructure for other initiatives, such as e-Health or e-Agriculture projects. GCC cites a study where mobile phones are only owned by ~26% of the population but a large of the population uses a phone. (will cite stat later when I can confirm it). How? People have businesses renting out their mobile for others to use- allowing more of the population access to mobile technology. In design school I wasn't as interested as mobile service design and application designs (especially so the privileged can more easily meet up with someone for a cup of coffee) but this mobile work intrigues me. Additional challenge of BoP mobile work: the issue of non-literacy or low-literacy. What to know what it's like to operate a mobile phone without being able to read? Change the settings on your phone (or iPod) to a language you don't know and see how well you do. Limiting, eh?