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?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Weekend Updates

I wanted to post a few updates (and photos!) from this weekend before I head to the village of Ehklaspur today. I'll be in the field with Atsu, Morshed, a Dhaka Univ. student/interpreter and 3 Japanese interns (although Morshed and I come back after 3 days, while everyone else will stay 5). They'll be gathering data for the trial version of the GCC's "One Village One Portal" project- recently renamed 'GramWeb'. It's a village network project to give villages/villagers a place to produce and share data about their village to others and ideally produce income (think web advertisements and selling information reports to international NGOs) and connect with the community (job sites, matrimony sections, village wish-list for policy makers to view, etc.)

It took a week but we've determined that I will be consulting on the visual communication of the GramWeb site, the Village Information Profile (VIP) document/tool (think the statistic report/manual to be used by the Village Information Entrepreneur (VIE) or local data collector/site owner). I need to wrap up some suggestions before I head into work and we head into the village- so I'll leave you with some brief updates.

Over the weekend visited more of Dhaka University, including some fantastical old structures and dorms with my coworker Luku and later my former CM-Q colleague Faheem and his wife Naumi.

I had lunch at Luku's house with his family and later him, his wife Asma, a coworker (Iqbal)and I visited the picturesque Jahangirnagar University about 15 km outside of Dhaka and then visited the nearby National Martyrs Memorial dedicated to the Freedom Fighters.

I met Faheem and Naumi at the New Market (it's 50 years old but eh- the name stuck) area. Sort of like Souq Waqif in Doha but authentic instead of reconstructed. Here's the view of the bridge on my way to meet Naumi and then a view looking down from the barber shop where Faheem was getting his head shaved! (It looks good though! And cooler!)

Faheem and Naumi took me to the memorial of the Mother Language Movement- dedicated to the fight of Bangladeshis against Pakistan imposing Urdu as the official language. The Bangladeshi struggle is the reason behind the UNESCO's International Mother Language Day every year on Feb. 21st. We later had coffee at a cafe and later dinner at Naumi's parents' house. Yummy stuff.

Updates on the village visit in 3 days!

Friday, June 19, 2009

How to use a squat toilet

Funny- I was just going to Google this when Budget Travel included it a recent email newsletter... It still doesn't explain about the hose seen in Qatari toilets or the pot of water with a spout in Bangladeshi toilets... I'm heading to the village of Eklaspur next week and I realized I better brush up on my non-Western toilet technique..

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Train Accident in Dhaka

Colleagues were watching this video on YouTube after the weekly team meeting today and I had to share. (YouTube is blocked at my hotel but not at Grameen Communications--- not sure why. MP3s and movies-even Googling them- are blocked at my hotel as well). Yesterday afternoon a train collided with a bus and 2-3 cars  after the bus and a car went beyond the barrier and got stuck in traffic. Apparently one woman was killed.

The comments on the video show a mix of compassion, despair, responsibility, mean-spiritedness and stupid racism. One must take YouTube comments with a grain of salt or not read them at all, as they quickly become flamewars and I personally find the hateful comments vexing. However, I do have to agree with those that wonder how the camera managed to be set up just so to capture the accident... and what could be done to help people become more responsible drivers.

One hears of the many accidents in Bangladesh and other than the many re-patched dents on nearly every bus, this video represents the first accident or accident aftermath I've seen. In Qatar it seemed one saw an accident or a wrecked car every other day. Thank goodness Qatar doesn't have any railways (as far as I can recall)- or we'd probably have similar accidents with people trying to beat the train or inch a few meters forward.

Driving or participating in traffic in Qatar and Bangladesh (and India and Egypt and Morocco ...) gives me new appreciation for American respect of driving laws. We'll describe someone as a reckless driver or Wisconsin folk will talk about those crazy Illinois drivers...we don't know squat about reckless. I recall seeing SUVs late at night in Qatar take entire roundabouts on their two right wheels... Others' reckless driving habits will rub off or force you to become a defensive and aggressive driver- anticipating that at any moment someone will do something stupid. Others who have returned to the States have warned me that I'll need to watch my driving when I get back, as I'll be in the habit of driving faster and being more 'creative' in my driving. I think I'll combat that by a lack of vehicle. :)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Commuting to Work

Work is located in the Grameen Bank Main Office- Mirpur 2 (or 'dui' ২ দুই) on the same street as my hotel. Grameen is the tallest building around and here from my hotel you can see a view of it in the distance.

My first day I was picked up from the hotel in a van for the 5 minute ride to Grameen Bank's Main Office. Kabir, my main contact/coordinator/person? walked me home that evening, citing that in the future I could rickshaw the ride from Grameen Bank to the Grand Prince Hotel (8-10 taka or 12-14 cents). With less trepidation the next morning I struck out on my own, laptop in one hand and work purse on my shoulder. The 12-15 minute walk goes past street vendors, polluted side ditches, schools, piles of trash, bricks, beggars, two-patches of English speaking boys, broken sidewalk and a petrol station. While a rickshaw would be quicker (and less sweaty), I would loose out on exercise and have to deal with small change. So I mostly walk.

On my way home once I saw the most brilliant patch of sunset sky- it looked like a mother of pearl stuck in the clouds. Another time on the way to work, I fell in step behind this man carrying carefully folded and balanced papers on his head. Funny- the street wasn't that empty when I walked- perhaps people disappeared when I took the picture or incidentally were in the right spot to *not* be in the picture. People do stare and I expected that. But I basically pass through unbothered.

After being in Qatar and other parts of the Middle East/Africa- I discovered that my American Mid-West tendency to make eye contact, be smiley and extra friendly can get me in 'trouble'. Namely, I was seen as a huge flirt. 'She catches me eye and smiles- oh, she likes me.' So.... I've gotten a lot better at not making eye contact while still looking around. I'm still polite and smiley to those I encounter or engage in communication, but I've toned it down a bit.

My second work day I went shopping with a Mukta, a coworker, for shalwar kameez. We traveled via rickshaw away from work and my hotel, towards the shops across from the cricket stadium. We had bad luck- either the outfits weren't in my size, were the wrong color, wrong sleeve length, of poor quality, or had a stain on them. She sent me on my way back to the hotel via rickshaw (the video was too dark to get a good view). Both rickshaw rides I felt that I would slip out, and braced myself the whole way, as the rickshaw bumped over speedhumps, road debris and nearly bumped into other vehicles. Great as rickshaws are for the average person in Dhaka and great that they give jobs to thousands of people, they also make the traffic situation so much worse in Dhaka. Rickshaws go against traffic, swerve, stop, and respond slower. I generally feel better in an CNG or taxi- but only *slightly* more so.

(Note: Speaking of commuting- I drafted this post after work but waiting to conference call with Ashir, Project Director in Japan at 6:30pm. We wrapped up at 8pm- already quite dark- and the PD insisted my colleague in Dhaka (Kabir) take a taxi or CNG with me to my hotel before backtracking towards his place. He said it wasn't a good idea for a single person, especially female, to take even a vehicle alone at night.)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Best Mexican...?

I started meeting some other foreigners (my name for myself has changed since coming to BD- in Qatar I was a 'Westerner' and in BD I'm a 'foreigner'- as there are also Japanese here!) in the hotel- essentially all interns with the Grameen family in some way. Many are with Grameen Bank, although I've met a few with Grameen Trust. Most are undergraduates, mainly American, but there are folks from Japan, France, Canada and Great Britain. There are some grad students- law, policy, social studies. I have no idea how many interns Grameen brings in or when (mainly summer? year-round? unknown) but they seem to be in the lobby each time I'm there. Funny- I've never actually seen another intern at the office building. And I haven't met any other interns other than Atsu at GC.

Last night eight (8=৮ or আট 'aat' in Bengali) of us headed up to the 'posh' Gulshan District of Dhaka to have Mexican food. Yep- Mexican food in Dhaka, at 'El Toro'- the only place in Dhaka and apparently the best in Indian subcontinent. It was a 200 taka ($2.90) no-AC 30-40 minute taxi ride. The distance is only about 5 km- that shows you how crazy traffic can be. The place was dark with mainly table candles for lighting, with Native Americans (Navajo and Lakota...?) pictures and sombreros on the walls. Drinks were 'mocktails' (like Qatar) but they let you spike your own drink if you'd like (good knowledge for next time!) My mocktail of lime, tonic and lemon was refreshing. Chips and salsa weren't free (and there were exactly 16 chips to a basket) but they were decent. My Dos Amigos Enchiladas (one chicken, one beef) came with what they called a 'cream-cheese' sauce and rice/beans were extra. The refried beans were close enough, the rice had a faint sweet taste to it (cinnamon?) and the enchiladas were somewhat dry and microwave tasting/looking.  And the Fried Ice Cream wasn't available. Total- 535 taka ($7.60)- an expensive meal in Dhaka. Add another 100 taka ($1.45) for the taxis and we're talking a little pricey- especially compared to the 20 taka ($.29) for lunch at Grameen Cafeteria. (But still cheap compared to the Westin Hotel- an alcoholic drink would be 800 taka ($11.59) but still cheap compared to Doha...)

Would I go back to El Toro? Sure- if others are going. Otherwise, I'll wait for my Mexican from the family favorite- Las Palmas- when I get back to the States.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Practically All-Inclusive Day

Dhaka University- Faculty of Fine Arts

A colleague from GCC (Morshed) invited me and a visiting intern from Japan (Atsu) to see parts of Dhaka on the first day of the weekend (being an Islamic country, weekends are Friday and Saturday, just like Qatar). I took a 'CNG' (nickname for 3-wheeled auto-rickshaw that by law runs only on compressed natural gas) for 20 minutes to the National Museum (100 taka or $1.45). The museum had changed its hours (even Lonely Planet had listed it opened), so in the meanwhile we (and 2 other Bangladeshi friends of my colleague) toured the campus of part of nearby Dhaka University, including the library, fine arts, and language. School was in its one-month summer vacation and the first day of the weekend but students still chilled about.

While briefly watching a cricket match, I received a nasty ant bite that basically for the rest of the day made the top of my foot feel as if someone had step on it with a stiletto. (I'll see how it is tomorrow). We then grabbed a CNG to a local 9 story-mall so one friend could buy a punjabi top for a wedding he would attend this afternoon. Afterwards we grabbed a snack- I had a mango lassi (yogurt & mango drink), Bangladeshi bread with turmeric veggies and we shared another Bangladeshi dish of some sort of crispy shell with chickpeas and veggies, covered in yogurt.

Tasty Bangladeshi Dish

Our hosts had to go pray the Friday Islamic prayer (Jumu'ah) and Atsu and I entertained ourselves for a while. We checked out the numerous music and movie shops selling cheap (70-100 taka or $1.00-$1.45) copies. Star Trek and other recent releases were amongst the titles. We then went to see a Bangladeshi movie in the top-floor cinema, a romantic drama about an impossible (perhaps Romeo and Juliet?) type relationship set in rural Bangladesh (BD). Of course it was all in Bangla but we got the big picture. Prior to the film there was a homemade (but well-done) video plea to donate taka to raise money for a med student who was recently diagnosed with lukemia and needed a 70 take charo(?) (10 million) bone marrow transplant in India to save her life. The ad, played twice, implored the audience to stop her tears, restore her dreams and not let a future doctor die. Numerous signs and folks with donation boxes with also outside the mall for the same cause. Few other interesting observations: video of flag and the BD national anthem played before the film and everyone stood (but no singing), phones whipped out to record the major songs of the film, the man next to us shared his popcorn with us and the 3 hour film had a 5-10 minute intermission.

We needed a policeman to translate our destination to the CNG driver afterward (tourism is not big here at all- so major destinations are not well known by their English names) and we met Murshed at the National Museum. It highlighted many cultural facts, habits, resources and history of BD, including birds, fruits, handicrafts, arts, Language Day and the Liberation War from Pakistan. Atsu and I were somewhat on display as well, as folks stared, followed and may have taken pictures.

It poured while we were in the museum and had to take off our shoes to wade across the driveway museum entrance to the street. We finally found a rickshaw driver to take us to Murshed's apartment (triple the price, as everyone waited for the rain to end and wanted to get home at the same time- 30 taka or 43 cents). Atsu and I met Morshed's wife, sister, cousin, baby and we had juice and mango. His sister then went with us to have 'a snack'- really a 9 pm biryani (rice, chicken and hard boiled egg) dinner for Atsu and I and nothing for Bangladeshis- they normally ate at 10:30/11pm with family. Atsu and I then shared the 150 taka ($2.17) 30 minute pollution filled CNG ride home. 

And of all this day- the only thing I paid for were 2 CNG rides- 200 taka or $2.90. That's it. Bangladeshi culture is that if you are invited to anything, your host pays for everything. I kept inviting them to visit me in Chicago or Michigan, so I can pay them the same outstanding courtesy and generosity they showed me today.

Atsu and I with Morshed's family

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I'll take the local breakfast...

Photo above is 6 pm view outside the front of my hotel in Dhaka.

No updates on the project, as we haven't actually discussed my work. Today was figuring out the shower, discovering breakfast (local breakfast equals roti-like bread with turmeric potatoes and peas, fried egg, and milk/sugar chai), ATM, getting to Grameen Bank main office, meeting folks & the GCC team, experiencing power outages*, walking outside the office for lunch, crossing the street (no easy feat and they drive on the British side of the road), walking home, purchasing a shalwar kameez (3 piece Indian sub-continent suit), working out in the USSR-era workout room and discovering Bangladeshi censorship of YouTube (I can't even Google the word). We discuss my involvement in the GCC project tomorrow.

*I'm staying at the Grand Prince Hotel in Dhaka and while it's no Ritz, it's clean, cheap, safe and works for my needs. The only review I could find prior to arriving in Bangladesh was one disgruntled person who complained that each day, 3 times a day, the power would go off, then on and then the AC couldn't be used for an hour. He thought it was ludicrous and just the hotel trying to save money.

Well...actually- it's not that uncommon. And yes, people are more aware that electricity costs money here. Yesterday as my friend Naumi (well, her driver) drove me to dinner she told me that shops close at 8ish to save power. Today in my meeting with the Managing Director of GC the power went out but after a moment the lights flicked on. As she opened the windows, she explained that the building has a generator for lights and computers (but not for AC) and that the city redistributes the available power throughout the city throughout the day, resulting in periodic power loses. The city can only supply electricity about 70% of the time and in the rural villages electricity is about 30% of the time. I haven't confirmed if the computers stay on or lose data each time. About half an hour later the AC kicked back on and everyone closed their windows. I was in the changing room at the store connected to the hotel with a top over my head when the entire place went dark. We hung out in darkness for about 30 seconds before the generators started up and the lights flicked back on. True to form, my room-AC wasn't working when I got back to my room 30 minutes later and it started up another 20 minutes later. So to Mr./Ms. Reviewer- it's a developing country. Deal. And think about all this next time you flip a switch in the US or Europe or anywhere else power isn't a visible issue...

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Welcome to Dhaka

My location and life have changed dramatically since I've last blogged. (I read recently in the >NYTimes of how blogs now fail at a higher rate than restaurants- and I had to agree- that's me). So here's my update of life since then.

I've been to Egypt, UAE and Turkey. I wrapped up teaching 2 courses and completed my time at Carnegie Mellon Qatar. I got into 2 business schools, waitlisted at 1, rejected at 2 and ultimately decided to go to University of Michigan for a Master of Science. A relationship ended and another...? And now I'm in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Why Bangladesh? Why come to apparently one of the least livable cities in the world?* I like the concept of Base of the Pyramid (BoP) business solutions to develop sustainable living and poverty alleviation solutions. And I'd like to get into the Ross School of Business at Michigan when I reapply this fall. Ross' C.K. Prahalad is known for his BoP teaching and I'm currently registered for a fall BoP course.

I started looking into some sort of sustainable development/BoP internship in India and even applied for one at d.light. But then I contacted a connection I made at the ICTD conference at Carnegie Mellon Qatar (where I was 1 metre from Bill Gates) with Global Communication Center (GCC), an NGO relative of Grameen Communications (GC) and Grameen Bank. Grameen is a microfinance bank that won its founder- Dr. Muhammad Yunus- a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

One thing led to another and here I am in Dhaka for one month to consult with GCC. More on the project later after my first day is done.

*My Bangladeshi friend and former colleague Faheem worried about me citing this data-crunching survey from the 'global north' re: Dhaka right from the get-go, as it could color the impressions I give others. I'll have 33 days to make my own conclusion and hope to document those observations here.