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Thursday, 30 July 2009

quickly written article for the NGO forum newsletter...

After getting work experience in the north of Bangladesh with the DFID funded Chars Livelihoods Project, I headed down to Shatkira to meet NGO Forum and Protik Trust staff and see what I could do as an individual and around $1000 to help the relief effort in the wake of the devastating cyclone Aila.

Having come from a comfortable and secure life in the UK (not luxurious in any way but we always had food on the table, a bed, a TV and warm shelter), learning about life in Bangladesh has been a challenge and aroused a deep sense of compassion as I have started to understand the issues involved and how people respond emotionally to the every day struggles and challenges that are largely absent from life in the UK.

When I first arrived, I was jubilant, everyone was smiling and looked happy, everyone was very kind to me and offered to help and I was treated a bit like a prince; but everyday I got closer to the individual truths and feelings that lay behind the smile. In Dhaka the urban poverty, neglected disabled beggars and poor living conditions contrasted with high-rise apartment blocks was difficult to stomach for someone that holds the firm belief that everyone has a right to the basic needs required for healthy living. In Kurigram and the Char area, where I was working with the ultra-poor, learning the dangers they were exposed to, the power structures of the land owners and the local Parishad that often worked against the poor for personal gain, the health risks of poor sanitation, the 'Monga' period of annual starvation, environmental susceptibility to drought and floods, the stealthy take-over of kush-lands by relatively wealthy land owners, the multitude of symptoms of starvation; sleeplessness, stomach problems, gut problems, bruises from bed, aching joints, headaches, fainting, and extreme fatigue. How the Bangladeshi Char dwellers live like this I don’t know, but I have a deep respect and admiration for their resilience and capability to deal with these problems throughout their lives. Everyday I would learn about some new obstacle that got in the way of life that the rural poor would have to overcome to survive, things that made life less precious and more cheap, more expendable. Whether it’s child labour, the corruption of government, the violent and compromised political underground, widespread cholera that’s undeclared by the state, soil erosion victims, rampant domestic violence, or the arrogance of the perceived superiority of many people holding either economic or political power.

This piecemeal discovery of a mountain of problems and the heroic efforts the poor must exert to overcome them was, however, much easier to take in than my first day in the field in Shamnagur.

Having contracted ‘stomach problems’ after drinking some village water in the Chars and becoming substantially dehydrated before receiving treatment at the government run ‘people’s hospital’ in Kurigram lying on a stained sheet in a ward with an abandoned child lying fixed to a drip outside on the floor and a distinct smell of sick human, only feeling profound relief that I was getting some fluids in my system and that my headache was going; I can relate in some small way to having to choose between extreme thirst and water that you know is contaminated and will make you sick, causing even more extreme dehydration.

Dehydration to the extent common in Shamnagur is quite contrary to the normal and proper functioning of your body; you can do little but lie down and rest in a foggy dazed and mentally strange state, often with a blinding headache. Seeing hundreds without access to clean water huddled under makeshift shelter from large leaves and wood and what they could salvage from their now submerged homes, was so sad. Where is UNOCHA? Where is the government? Where is UNICEF? Where is the large, well co-ordinated response to this emergency? Probably being soaked up by beaurocrat’s salaries. I had just come from Palestine, where UNWRA, the UN Works and Relief Agency – a specific body created just for the 750,000 Palestinian refugees following the 1948 ethnic cleansing from villages and towns in what is now called Israel, can be proud to say that it is catering for the needs of the refugees. The Palestinian refugees get a food ration, each refugee camp has a cultural centre where the children and adults alike can take dancing lessons or play music, in a particularly large camp in Jordan there is even a UN school that children are encouraged to attend free of charge. Why is the same not done in Bangladesh? Why do ‘climate refugees’ not qualify for the same support and funding as refugees fleeing genocide, political violence or other natural disasters such as earthquakes? Or should we be asking a different question… Why is it a well co-ordinated response is left to NGOs and is not implemented by government – national or international?

With these questions racking my brain, I bore witness to fields and fields of destroyed crop. Knowing how people lived with such small margins in the Char areas, I was moved by the miles and miles of paddy that had been wiped out with the salt water. Not only was it labour days lost for the poor and lost income for the land-owners, it was food lost for the region which will push up prices, it was lost seed for farmers, and it was also degraded soil. Soil is a living thing and it’s productivity relies on a complex ecosystem of bacteria – I’m sure the balance that is so prized by organic farmers and that even farmers using fertilizer rely on to some extent, will have been upset by the salty and polluted water now sitting stagnant on the brown-grey soil where there should have been lush green crop. Not only the arable farming but also the shrimp farming had been affected, I’m not sure how salt water affects shrimp farms but they looked and smelt pretty dead and I didn’t see more than one pond being tendered to.

On top of the countless homes destroyed by the cyclone and the rising tide, the lack of shelter and poor response from the government and the international community, the loss of labour crops and land, people’s property and savings being washed away into the sea, the poor sanitation and meagre water supply coming from NGOs such as Oxfam, World Vision, Action Aid and businesses with a conscience and a desire to get their name seen on a tank of water in lorries or motor-rickshaws from treatment plants miles away, there was also another dimension to this; the heat.

It was hot and especially humid because of all the surrounding water, and the salty air made things that much worse. It was a warm front coming through at the beginning of the monsoon season when there should have been rain. People were sweating, and it must have contributed to major fluid loss and to a heightened fever and headache in the dehydrated or those with contaminated guts. I was thirsty after a few hours, having given a bottle of water away to a woman sweating on the side of one of the roads, waiting for an NGO to come and fill her jar with clean water; she had been waiting for 3 full days and her family of 5 was awaiting her return. I just thought that the old and the weak that had no strong family member or close friend to care for them or fetch the water or no money to buy their right to life would have dehydrated and died.

The thirst that I witnessed moved me more than anything else I had seen or hear about before in my short stay in Bangladesh, and I was moved to action. Luckily, I had arranged with NGO Forum before that I wanted to construct a Pond Sand Filter – an amazing piece of equipment that doesn’t deplete the underground aquifers like bore holes and deep tube-wells, but instead filters and cleans the rain water collected in ponds, providing a clean supply of water for between 150 and 800 people each day. But it would take 20 or so days to construct and another 40 or so days to come online as the water had to be slowly filtered through the sand – that was 2 months away and people were suffering now. I see water as essential as air to life, not drinking is like living without oxygen – to be forced to go thirsty because of the neglect of those that can make it possible (which is most of us, even if it’s only to contribute in a small way) is a travesty and a very very sad thing to acknowledge. So I asked a local NGO, Protik Trust, what I could do.

Earlier, I had visited the government clinic attached to the local Parishad in Shamnagur, it was over-run and had no clean water of it’s own as the pond, like every other pond in the region that hadn’t been pumped, was contaminated and the PSF was in need of repair. The children and the sick in that clinic were very sick and the drips looked like they needed supplementing with some drinking water – the local market also uses the pond to supply drinking water to travellers. We agreed that this was a key resource to the area and the sooner it came back online the better, especially as if it was not pumped by the time the monsoon comes, it would take a long time to fill the pond again with water fit to be filtered by the PSF. So, I figured out that it would cost only ₤90 to pump the pond if the Parishad was prepared to pay the rest needed to repair the filter; they agreed. When I say ‘only ₤90’, I’m talking about UK standards, in the UK the minimum wage is ₤5 an hour, and while it can’t buy you much at all in the UK, it can buy you quite a lot in Bangladesh – so significantly contributing towards a safe supply of drinking water for a large number of people to use in Bangladesh could be done by me with the purchasing power of only 2 days easy work in the UK (which I do). Perhaps an example of the ‘structural advantage’ the UK has over other economies, facilitated by agricultural subsidies, wars for oil in the Middle East, unfair trade and international mechanisms like the IMF and the World Bank ensuring that UK businesses have access to cheap third world labour to increase profit margins. But this still wasn’t good enough; it would still take 40 days for the water to flow clean from the PSF next to the clinic. Something more needed to be done.

Shahidullah Osmani, the director of the small but effective local NGO ‘Protik Trust’, suggested a buying a water tank and renting a rickshaw. I asked where the water would come from, but Shahidullah managed to get Oxfam to agree to supply the water free of charge. The rickshaw and water tank cost more, but it will run for a month before the funds run-out, and hopefully for longer if Protik Trust can find the funds to continue from somewhere. I went on one of the trips to hand out the water, which was great – 1,000 litres fills about 75 jars – some 10 litres and some 20. It was great to know that some people didn’t have to wait so long for water to come and that there was more to go around, but there still wasn’t enough. We stopped on a quiet spot on the road and within 10 minutes there was a long queue. I was filling jars for a while, and after tipping the bucket to get the last bit of water, there were still 30 women in dire need of water to bring back to their family. It was a sad moment – I don’t know how I would feel if I was in their situation; if I was waiting and waiting for this most essential commodity, and then there was hope – I found a queue, I joined it, I waited for a significant time, and then the water ran out just before I got to it….

However distressing the situation is, however scary the future of the planet is in the face of climate change, however unjust the international economic system, however corrupt and neglecting the government is, however abusive the land-owners, however poor the people, however much suffering there is in the world – we can do something about it; and, perhaps surprisingly, acting on compassion rather than ignoring it or letting it fester inside you, can bring a deep and subtle happiness. My experiences in Bangladesh have spurned me on to do more for the global south, to encourage more action from the rich nations, and to study more about meeting the essential needs of the human population – including the need to stop or at least mitigate catastrophic climate change. If we are going to survive in any desirable state as a human race, it will be because we have successfully and intelligently pooled our resources and worked together in the world to overcome these global challenges and meet our needs.

I feel privileged and honoured to have had NGO Forum’s support and contributed in some small way to their admirable mission to supply all of Bangladesh with sufficient clean drinking water. They have staff with notable integrity and knowledge, skill and understanding, and I hope that this is the start of a more significant relationship between us in the future. I wish NGO Forum continued success in their efforts to bring positive change to Bangladesh.

Saturday, 27 June 2009


How often are we given the opportunity to help? I don't think it comes about that often at all, and I personally think that being a good person is about siezing these opportunities, creating new ones or preparing yourself so that when the opportunity arises you are well prepared. I just feel so lucky and so blessed that I was given such an opportunity to contribute to the relief efforts in South West Bangladesh following the devastation and suffering caused by cyclone Aila.

First, the Pond Sand Filter idea was suggested by a friend of a friend of a friend, and then many many people chipped in, some quite considerably, to make it possible, and I was able to be the humble middle man and see the thing being constructed, and work for 2 hours on construction myself (which I have to say is extremely tough work for a soft-handed western vegan in tropical heat and humidity using what could liberally be described as pre-mechanised construction techniques), to meet the owner of the pond and some of the people that would be using the facility, the local NGO that would oversee the rest of the construction and make sure that it was being used by the people free of charge and that maintainance was being taken care of. That was fantastic and made me feel so privilaged to have been a part of this process.

Secondly, I just fronted some money and worked with PROTIK Trust to provide some urgent water supply to a population to whome the word 'thirsty' is somewhat of an understatement. 78 quid for a 1,000 litre tank, and 12 quid a day for 3 trips from the OXFAM treatment plant (a small french made chemical and UV filter pump in Shamnagur) to the women waiting for water at the side of the road with their steel jars to take back to their family to drink and cook. The Pond Sand Filter will take at least 40 days to come online, at which point it will be desperately needed, but I wasn't that cool with watching all these women looking strangely animal with dehydration when it was in my power to do something about it - yet alone the kids that were left back in the makeshift accomodation. The families do not only need water, they also need food and shelter - but water really is the first priority. A family can go weeks without food no problem except fainting and a few other symptoms like bruises when sleeping, stomach cramps, headaches, fatigue sleeplessness and susceptability to ilness - but without water you cannot go without pain, migrane, madness, delusion, extreme fatigue, and lots of other nasties. Water is life, without it we have nothing. So water was really the priority, there were many other grievances and needs but these were eclipsed by the thirst dehydration and diarrhea.

So that was 3,000 litres a day being made possible with another contribution from a family member, a kick-ass local NGO, a tuctuc driver, a container manufacturere and seller, women being prepared to walk long distances with water and jars, the jar manufacturers, the tuc tuc manufacturer, OXFAM for paying for the water treatment, the NGO worker agreeing to let us use the OXFAM water, the engineer that designed the water treatment facility, the French company that built it and it's workers... These things are so interconnected and I cannot really take much credit for supplying water per se, all I did was take the opportunity and fill the gap when it was presented to me. It isn't really even my money in the first place - it's the State's in a student loan, my Granny's when she left me something in her will, my parents when they've given me bits and bobs and i've saved up, the state's when I worked as a carer and the State's and corporate research money when I was employed as a clerk at the Disability Support Office among a few other things... I was just hanging on to it...

One more little success story - I co-opted the local government with the help of Shahidulla Osmani Bhai(Brother) to pay for the repair of an older Pond Sand Filter that was damaged in the cyclone if I pumped out the contaminated water from the pond that it drew water from. This Pond Sand Filter catered for the local government clinic that mainly treated the diarrhea patients from drinking contaminated water. The clinic has been over-full with sometimes 3 people on a single bed hooked up to a drip, which would have disposed of a considerable chunk of their income. The Doctor seemed like a nice guy and was obviously swamped. He was really sad that the government wasn't doing anything with the pond. Well now the pond is pumped and the filter is being repaired - but it will take 30 days to go through the slow sand filter and it will take a few weeks for the pond to fill up again with the well timed monsoon (if the pumping was not done in the next couple of months then the pond would have been useless for another year) rains. So I was under no illusions that it would give immediate help to the diarrhea patients, but I am certain that it will be needed in 30 days time and the water situation isn't going away soon so I expect there to be plenty of diarrhea patients at the end of July when the facility starts working again. It will then help the families and the town and the market to save a bit of income and drink a bit more so they have better health and clarity and strength to go about their day. Many people use this facility and it is much bigger than the Pond Sand Filter that will cater for 800-1000 people built with the money from friends and family. So it was nice to see the government being nudged into grudging action!! (especially as one of the most poigniant criticisms of aid and 'aid dependance' is that it absolves the government of the responsability of looking after their citizens and it means that they get sloppy and out of practice, meaning that the NGO does all the work and when it disappeares of when funding dries up in a financial crises for example, the whole society goes through a lot of suffering that it wouldn't have otherwise). 90 quid... that's all it took, thousands of people's lives improved for 90 quid, the local government paying the rest (70 quidish but maybe more depending on the extent of the damage to the Pond Sand Filter).

So I feel immensly grateful that these opportunities presented themselves to me - I wasn't sure that the Pond Sand Filter was going to be a success never having been to Bangladesh before, I wasn't sure I would get to the Aila cyclone affected region, I wasn't sure that I would be able to find anyone that I could trust and work with, I wasn't sure I'd be able to raise any money, I wasn't sure that I would have any time to help at the end with a full work experience scedule - but a bit of faith and it seemed to work; the help was needed more than I thought it was, people were more grateful than I thought they would be, implementation was easier, NGOs were more intelligent and co-operative, it was just a walk in the park - and quite a nice one at that! (Certainly a lot better than fiddling while Rome is burning, especially when you are the kind of person that always looks at the flames).

I wouldn't say from this that development or aid work is easy, or that helping people is free from challanges - just that I feel really really lucky that I was able to get things going in a week, that the environment was right and that things went well this time, and that many other people connected to the work were considerate, wise, intelligent, flexible, giving, selfless, and playing their part effectively.

So a big big thank you to all those that made the 3 small scale projects possible (that I know have a big big impact to many people's lives), those that worked to earn the money that was given, those that gave it, those that implemented the project, those that thought of things, those that cared and those that did. Big big thank you, I will be grateful (as I am sure the 'beneficiaries' will be as well) in some part of me until I die to all those involved in making it possible.

Monday, 22 June 2009


Small confession – I’ve spent the last 48 hours lying in bed with a headache, sitting on the toilet or spending time in the ‘popular hospital’ funded by a Lutheran organization lying on a bloodstained mattress on a bed next to a baby crying with pain from dysentery.

As I haven’t been able to sleep much, this has really given me time to think about diarrhea and deaths from preventable illnesses (and about how silly I was to eat food prepared by a chef that didn’t wash his hands, or to drink ‘shallow tube well’ water from a village). Well, I’m not sure ‘think’ is the right word as when you’re dehydrated your mind doesn’t work in the same way as usual – it’s more of a kind of lazy frantic thought.

I’m pretty much fine now, after having 2 litres of saline fluids dripped into me, 3 anti-biotic pills, and about 6 men from the program crowding around me to check that I was alright! I feel much better (although still have water-like ‘motion’)

When people die from diarrhea they essentially die from a fever and dehydration that work together to give you an insufferable headache.

I was ‘in the field’ today in the South West, Shamnagur and the surrounding area – Cyclone Aila victims lined the road in their makeshift huts made from bamboo and leaves and contained far too many people to be comfortable and whatever bits and bobs they were able to salvage from their houses that are now resting flattened under sea water.

After walking through an embankment of 11,000 ‘climate refugees’ – unlike Palestinian refugees (which have a pretty terrible life, especially in Lebanon for example), these refugees are, apart from the odd plastic sheet from Unicef, completely ignored by the international relief institutions or the government. They aren’t political enough, aren’t rich enough to be of any value to these organisations and don’t shout loud enough – indeed don’t have a voice at all. They are shut off from the mainland, they have no access to safe drinking water and they are drinking from tube wells that are surrounded by saline water (which you really can’t drink and besides it’s polluted with this strange brown/yellow/green foam), the underground aquifers are themselves contaminated now with numerous nasty bacteria, arsenic that turns the skin black and pains the joints and gives blinding headaches, and salt, which can further dehydrate in such high concentration.

I took many pictures and will put them up but it’s nigh on impossible with Bangladeshi speed Internet connection.

The ‘pond sand filter’ idea was certainly a good one! Ask anyone in the area and no matter what question you pose they come back at you with ‘we need water’.

Not having water is like not having oxygen in the air. In fact, it’s worse than that ‘water water everywhere but not a drop to drink’ is almost the national saying of grievance. Because there is so much undrinkable water around, it’s like not having any oxygen in the air and being surrounded by oxygen masks and tanks that are all contaminated with mustard gas.

After boating around 1 meter above the now redundant paddy fields on sea water, seeing the ‘union parishad’ or local government building jammed with people (it’s a concrete structure that survived the cyclone) but surrounded by a significant depth of sea water, a telephone pole or two sicking out at a strange angle, and countless ‘living houses’ that are demolished, flattened, some little mounds just present a chair and a bed, the whole structure having been blown away, I went to the local government ‘clinic’. The clinic was small but depressing, the people there were packed on 5 beds in a small room, each hooked up to a drip, with ages from about 5 to 65, the 5 year old’s skin stretching over his ribs as he drew long tired breaths, his mother quietly rocking over him (or her actually, the child was so emaciated and bald that I couldn’t really determine the sex). There was a large queue ready to see the doctor. I was escorted outside by Shahidullah so that we could see the pond and pond sand filter next to the clinic that was contaminated with sea water and ‘polluted’. This was interesting for me because it was the same technology that I’m installing in a different area – filtering the pond water of bacteria through a slow sand filter so that it’s drinkable, no matter what’s in it except high concentrations of fine metals like cadmium and arsenic, or sea water and too much salt. Unfortunately this had them both.

The Doctor came out when he Shahidullah and me and shook my hand, Shahidullah knew him relatively well. The long line of patients formed a little crowd around us, looking at me with slight wonder (there aren’t nearly as many ‘internationals’ in Bangladesh, especially the rural coastal south-west, as there are in Palestine). The doctor said that it would only cost 10000Tk to pump out the water from the pond and repair the pond sand filter – literally 100 quid... Incidentally I’m here and I’m sure that if we got 80 quid together the local ‘elites’ would fund the next 20, so email me with a commitment if you feel at all like you would like to help a hospital get a clean water supply a lot quicker than it would otherwise, a couple of hundred small vendors at the local market also use the water for drinking and currently have none. It’s just a shot in the dark that anybody reads this at all, yet alone reads it in time.... Anyway.

So what people are relying on now, is coming in the form of 3000 litre containers transporting safe drinking water on the back of a rickshaw, which comes from an Oxfam treatment plant about 100 km away. The little vans cost 1200TK (12 quid) for the day, which translates to 6000 to 9000 litres depending on traffic etc. I’m just going to fund a few... it would feel kind of wrong not to, especially after speaking to the women waiting on the side of the road for the trucks, one woman I spoke to had been waiting for 3 days, and who’s family hadn’t drunk since. I promptly gave her my litre bottle of ‘mineral water’ (treated water), after which she responded that she had a family of 5, and what was she supposed to give the rest of them?

Thirsty for 3 days.... 3 days without water. I’ve done 3 days without food once on purpose and once when I was sick, but I can’t imagine 3 days without water, 72 hours without water, and you’re basically in a sauna. It’s hot and humid and there’s salt in the air, which somehow kind of makes the thirst worse, she was sweating and probably had been for 3 days, obviously no where near as profusely as I was because she was dehydrated and had a husky throat, but she was still sweating, which was disturbing. How can you sweat with nothing to drink for three days? I’m thirsty just thinking about it and I drank a substantial amount 10 minutes ago.

Climate change is on the lips of every literate person that I’ve encountered. It is real, it exists, it kills, it destroys crops, it pollutes water, it makes things hotter (studies have consistently shown that the locals here can feel it getting warmer, and say that there is something going wrong with the climate, the frequency of floods, the rising sea levels, the frequency of cyclones and, very significantly but not while I’m here – devastating drought). I feel ashamed that I flew here to see it but glad that I can bear witness to what’s happening, show some empathy and some practical help in the form of water.

If you drive around south of Shamnagur, you will see the effect that rising sea levels will have on the rest of the planet. Bangladesh as a whole doesn’t have much hope and is only a couple of meters above sea level in most places, but then again East Anglia isn’t so far above the sea either. Salt kills crops. It’s really important, especially when there is still an incredible amount of food misallocation and scarcity in the world, especially when you have just come from a region that witnesses biyearly months of malnutrition and starvation called ‘monga’ (wanting). Driving past paddy field after paddy field that’s drowned in this polluted water, black and brown instead of bright and lush and green as it should be at this time of year, was a harrowing experience, almost as harrowing as seeing direct suffering, because you knew how important that food was to Bangladesh, and seeing the vast areas of crop failure is like seeing massive destruction of the rain forest, or like seeing a great mass of dead floating fish from pollution, and to me, having been exposed to malnutrition I had this strange vision. It was like the hovis advert where the models are walking through the sunset-lit wheat field with bountiful crop and agricultural beauty, just replace the wheat field with the destroyed polluted mud that used to be paddy and replace the models with starving children looking hopelessly into space with their big wide eyes.

As my friends Simon wisely pointed out on facebook, it isn’t all because of climate change, a lot of the problem is mismanagement by corrupt government, a lot of it is the lack of communal pullingtogetherness, a lot of the suffering is cause by poverty and the Machiavellian workings of the IMF and other international institutions in collusion with the corrupt elites, a lot of the suffering is because of the lack of the UN presence and the failure to respond well to disasters – but there isn’t that much you can do about that from the UK. There is something you can do about climate change. You can drive less, you can take a holiday in the UK, check out Brighton or Liverpool instead of getting sunburn and sand in your pants, switch banks to a more sustainable one like Triodos or the Co-operative, cycle and walk and rediscover these lost treasures, get your electricity from ‘good energy’ or ‘ecotricity’ which aren’t incidentally much more expensive at all, and are cheaper than some of the more shortsighted energy suppliers. I don’t want to tell you how to live, you can figure it out for yourself, I would just be really really grateful if we all did a little less each day to destroy the planet :).

Right, so, my stomach’s back to normal now!! Wohoo! (it’s been a few intermittent snatches at the computer to write this...)

Friday, 12 June 2009

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Child Labour Day

Today is the World Against Child Labour Day, I discovered this only this morning when I was riding back from my friend's house where we were having breakfast; hundreds of children marching and chanting slogans. After rushing back to get my camera, we rode to the front of the march and watched the children go past.

The march was organised by the local NGO 'solidarity', which provides a savings and loans service to the child labourers, taking 10 Tk (10 pence) a week from the little that they keep to help them have some financial independence and to build up a pot of money in case they need to run away from their families or they become sick etc.

After the procession went past, 7 boys walked up to me and asked me what I was doing, so I asked them a few questions.

I am now able to paint a brief picture of 3 boys that I talked to.

Basen was the first, he was the tallest and the oldest in the group, at 15 years old (but he looked like a small and skinny 17). Basen worked extremely long hours, from 8am in the morning until 12am at night, 6 days a week. Basen told me that he had to work otherwise he wouldn't be able to eat. I asked him how much earned a day and he replied "40 Tk, but my master gives me two parotha (small pieces of oily bread) and a banana 3 times a day". 40 Tk is 40 pence - enough to buy 2 kgs of rice.

Ruka was a rickshaw wallah, and earned the highest salary of them all - up to 100 Tk or 1 pound a day. He was 13 years old, and was incredibly malnourished. He said that his parents took all of his money. Ruka was very quiet and was quite spaced out, his eyes glazed over and his breathing seemed weak. Ruka's chest bones stuck out and the NGO worker that was translating for me knocked his chest to demonstrate to me, making a hollow and disturbing sound. He then said that cycle rickshaws are very hard work, especially for a small child, and they needed a higher calorific intake to compensate, which this child certainly wasn't getting. After asking, he said that he had 2 meals a day of plain rice and chilly, maybe with some sobji(vegetable mix) on Fridays.

Finally, I spoke to Rasheed. It was Rasheed that brought me to tears when I got back to the office and had some time to myself. Rasheed was working 8am to 5pm and then 7pm to 10pm at a welder's. Rasheed was earning 60 Tk. a day (60 pence), which is 5.5 pence an hour, and he gets no food. Rasheed was 14. Rasheed had been working at the welder's for 4 years and had only been payed a salary for the last 2 years, so from the ages of 10 to 12, Rasheed was working an 8 hour day (the extra 3 hours only started with the salary), using hazardous equipment and only a pair of plastic 'sun-glasses' for protection from the bright sparks from welding. And all that time, for what was then nearly 1/5 of his life at 10 years old, he was working full time for no salary, his parents kicking him out to do it 6 mornings a week. All he received in payment were 'snacks'. Rasheed then pulled his eyelid down and showed us how yellow the whites of his eyeballs were, and that small black specs from the sparks of molten steel and iron that had pierced his eyes. Stupidly, I was so shocked that I didn't remember to take a picture.
Rasheed's family took 50 of the 60 Tk that he earned daily, and he invested the 10 Tk a week he could afford in the 'solidarity' scheme, leaving him just enough to eat just enough to live. the 50 Tk went towards rent and the younger children, and he had to contribute towards meals with the 10 Tk left over when there wasn't enough, and it sounded like the only thing his parents provided him with was shelter, food, and the occasional beating.

When I asked the children what they wanted to tell people in England, the reply was snappy and strong and simple. "we want our freedom; we want to go to school"

From this picture you must be able to see the age of the children on the march - all of these children are in full time employment and were marching in protest to child labour worldwide.

50% of children in Bangladesh drop out of school by "grade 5" which is somewhere towards the end of primary school, at around age 10. I have met 2 girls that were in "grade 5" that were going to be married off by their parents but the school teacher intervened. 10 years old is really far too young to grow up this quickly, especially as the children are far more innocent at this age than children in England, with no brazen Hollywood films to learn from and a strongly conservative culture. The Bangladeshi people (excuse the generalisation) also seem to be very emotional and sensitive, so the emotional trauma suffered by these children going from innocence to the worst aspects of experience in a matter of days is just beyond my comprehension.
In 2002/03, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) conducted the second National Child Labour Survey (NCLS). They concluded (and bear in mind that the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics consistently comes up with the mildest and most conservative statistics on any given situation in Bangladesh - even down to the population which it puts at 130 million when there is thought to be between 150 to 185 million) that there are 4.9 million working children — 14.2 per cent of the total 35.06 million children in the age group of 5-14 years. Working here means working - there is no such thing as part time work in Bangladesh.
It just goes beyond belief that they had to lower the age range down to 5 to come up with a proportion of the children in full time employment.
You might point the finger at the employers, the politicians, the ILO, the parents, the schools, whoever you think is responsible, but it really isn't as easy as that. Let's try and have a cold look at who is responsible or who has the power to change the situation.
The children themselves: apart from going on marches (which they are doing), I don't know what they could do, if they ran away then they would have to work somewhere else and would almost find it harder to survive as they would have no community to rely on in case of an emergency. They really don't seem to have much opportunity to liberate themselves.
The parents: I need to explore this more before commenting fully, but children seem to be either an asset or a burden depending on whether they are a boy or a girl in society here. If a boy is born then they celebrate the expected income and support over the rest of their lives, and if it is a girl, then the parents look to marry them off as quickly as possible so that there is one less mouth to feed. This is a complete over simplification and an extreme way of describing it, but it was said to me in these words on more than one occasion by Bangladeshi people themselves, and it seems to hold true to what's actually happening to the children. The parents could just eat less, sacrifice more, and let their children attend school - but many of them don't see the point as poor standard primary education that finishes at 1pm in most cases as the teachers usually slack off 3 hours early to earn more money privately tutoring the richer children (the claim is that they are under payed by the state but I know a committed teacher that manages fine, doing his job professionally and getting a lot of flack for it from both the other teachers and some of the parents, but he says that he's not there for the adults, he's there for the children).
Things are tight for the parents; 85% of the country earns less than $2 a day, and we are probably talking about the families that earn less than $1 a day. Do you feed everyone and prevent as much sickness and disease as possible and send your child to work, or do you let the rest of the family get dragged down, withhold medical treatment, a relatively balanced diet, accept a lower social status (mainly decided on how nice your clothes are - people even borrow their neighbour's clothes if they are going into town so they don't feel ashamed), and suffer the physical effects of malnutrition all for a few extra years of what you see as fun for your child, in an environment where children's education isn't valued?
Can you blame the employer? Well there are certainly some very rich businessmen that are probably exploiting children and underpaying them, and those that are living in luxury I would certainly say have a responsibility to look after their employees' basic needs at the expense of their personal opulence and pleasure, but most of the employers of child labour run small businesses on someone else's land. These small businesses are in fierce competition and there aren't that many services to choose from when a population has limited spending power, so there is fierce competition and you sink or swim - employing adults only would be an extra expense that would handicap many businesses and probably see their bankruptcy. Also, if the children are given better working conditions, then wont more parents be tempted to send their children to work?
Can you blame the teachers, schools and government for not focusing on the importance of education? Certainly, there's always more to be done, and the corruption in schools in terms of private tuition is something to be overcome, but without a national income tax how does the government raise the money to pay for the schools?
The accountability and responsibility need to be put higher up the pyramid than that. Yes the community is to blame, yes there is need for culture change, but education and this kind of poverty are relatively new concepts in Bangladesh, industry hasn't been there forever.
For me, it's the corrupt political system, rampant free market capitalism as promoted by the IMF and other international financial institutions, the history of occupation by Pakistan and Britain that failed to establish a decent education system when they had the opportunity, and all those corrupt politicians and "business leaders" and cabinet ministers sitting in Bogra Chittagong and Dhaka, buying new plasma television sets, living in luxury accommodation and driving high end European made cars, while the rest of the country is pining for food. I don't usually have class war mentality, but in Bangladesh, the people that I'm describing have compromised the the functioning of society for corrupt exuberant personal benefit, and it is obviously, starkly, transparently destructive.
In terms of legislation,
Bangladesh has ratified:
UN Convention on the Rights of the Child;
ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (No. 182);
ILO Night Work of Young Persons (Industry) Convention, (No. 6);
ILO Night Work of Young Persons (Industry Revised) Convention (No. 90);
ILO Minimum Age (Trimmers and Stockers) Convention (No. 15);
ILO Minimum Age (Industry Revised) Convention (No. 59);
ILO Forced Labour Convention (No. 29);
ILO Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No. 105);
Bangladesh even has labour rights and the rights of the child embedded in their constitution, created after the liberation war against Pakistan in 1971:

Article 20 refers to work as a right and a duty and a matter of honour for every citizen who is capable of working;
Article 14 states that it shall be the fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate workers from all sorts of exploitation;
Article 34 states that all forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this prohibition shall be an offence punishable in accordance with the law;
Article 28 of the Constitution empowers the State to make special provisions for the benefit of children.

According to the Labour Act (2006) the minimum age for admission to work is 14 years and 18 years for hazardous work. Further, light work for children between the ages of 12 - 14 years is defined as non-hazardous work that does not impede education.

Other laws that define the rights and protections due to children are:
The Children Act (1974);
The Children Rules (1976);
The Bonded Labour Act, 2006;
The Suppression of Violence against Women and Children Act (2000); and
The Compulsory Primary Education Act, 1990.
Despite all these pieces of paper, child labour is not yet illegal in Bangladesh, although labour in factories under the age of 14 is, and anyway, even if it was, there's no way that a poor child would be able to use the corrupt legal system to prosecute the employer, or even afford a lawyer or the court fees.
Bangladesh continues to be a shining example of a nearly perfect 'free' market and the benefits of growth, being one of the only countries to continue with a growth rate above 5% this year. The only problem is that in Bangladesh society is so corrupt, and people so self interested, that the only way to make money is to have some in the first place. Where the IMF advocates 'trickle down economics, I call this situation 'trickle up economics'.


Climate change is really at the centre of what's happening in Bangladesh, and the worst thing about it is that the vast majority of Bangladeshi people live completely sustainably.

Here are a couple of pictures of how Bangladeshi people use the limited means of transport for maximum use:

That's right, a CNG, or 'Compressed Natural Gas' rickshaw (they're all CNG, both greener and cheaper than petrol, and suitable as Bangladesh has small natural gas reserves but not much oil) filled with files, and a school bus bicycle (those are quite common).
When I have been roaring around Rajpur (northern Bangladesh) on the back of Salim or Mohammed's motorbike, I've counted the number of motorised vehicles that I've passed in what must be at least 7 hours of riding busy roads full of cycle rickshaws, bicycles, people walking, cattle, goat, sheep etc.
17 motorbikes
5 cars
3 lorries
2 buses.
at least 6 hours on the main roads. You don't have to wait 6 minutes on a main road near a town in rural England for 27 motorised vehicles to whizz past!
If there's been one resounding request from the native NGO workers when I've asked about what more England and the West could do to help the situation, they say stop climate change, or at least contribute towards desperately needed mitigation that the government just isn't equip to do, such as dredging the rivers, planting belts of trees along the coast and the roads and rivers, helping the poor with security, flood shelters etc. etc.
It makes me feel a bit stupid flying out here in the first place (despite the same people asking hopefully if I will come back to Bangladesh soon).

My first 'field visit'

After hoping on the back of a motorbike at 8 in the morning after getting up from Bogra, being driven by the inspirational and exceptionally considerate and kind Salim, the project co-ordinator for Kurigram, the town from which the northernmost operations of the Chars Livelihoods Program is based, we arrived at the boat.

Crossing the wide gaping river was great, and I could instantly see how vulnerable these rural communities were to flooding, as the bank of the river only rose 2 feet above the water line of the river, which is currently low and greatly increases its flow when the monsoon coincides with the run-off from the melting Himalayas.

On the way, I had asked Salim if I could stop off to buy some gifts for the local community just in case they offered me things and I was stuck with nothing to give back. Salim suggested chocolate for the children, but I thought that tooth-paste and toothbrushes would be a better idea, not sure how chocolate would really benefit them. So we stopped off at a little shop and I eventually settled for some strips of shampoo and loads of bars of soap.

Once firmly on the Char, we rolled Salim's motorcycle off the boat and rode across 800 meters of sand, and a couple of kilometers of wet paddy field, passing many rural poor lugging heavy objects by foot giving me strange looks as we whizzed past.

When we reached the community, Salim talked me through the most visible parts of the project and took me to one of the 'plinths' - raised mounds of sand about 2 meters higher than the surrounding earth, with napier and long rooted grass planted in the side so that the sand mound stayed in place. The idea is that if you can stick the most vulnerable members of the community on the plinth and install a latrine and a shallow tube-well, then when the flood comes, islands with a toilet, drinking water, 5 households and a meeting point will be left for the people that need it most when they need it most.

Salim took me to one of the community teachings and sat me down next to the teacher, completely interrupting the session.

Basically, the community teachings accompany the other aspects of the project in an integrated approach to dramatically improve the lives of these people that are 'hardcore poor' and have practically nothing to their name, and live on flimsy structures built on moving sand in the middle of a very unpredictable river, with nowhere else to go and no-one else to turn to, no employment except the occasional bit of farm labour for the local despotic land owner, and sometimes a dependant or a disability to cope with on top of this, seasonal hunger and malnutrition, and unaccountable power structures in the rest of society, with no social safety net from the government etc. etc. Basically, imagine 1400 AD England with 6 times the population, regular floods and a volatile environment, and a feudal system that didn't even allow you a blade of grass, while the Baron is laughing away in a pile of gold, wearing some sunglasses and a gold watch - a completely corrupt legal system and no police or institution upon which you can rely.

The community teachings are delivered to groups of 25 or so women, usually with about 5 babies walking around the middle, and one 'community development officer' going through the syllabus with some pictures and a booming voice. The program is split into 7 sections and 52 sessions, with a final 7 session tag on about loans, microfinance and repayments if the community is ready for it. The topics start of easy with 'family, neighbours and society' and 'leadership' in the first section, move through how local institutional structures work in the second section (NGOs, local government etc.), Human rights and your responsibility as a citizen for the 3rd section, 'protection against social evils' for the 11 session long 4th, including 'early marriage' (which can happen as young as 9/10 years old), polygamy, dowries, divorce, and domestic violence. The 5th module goes through disaster preparedness, how to get ready for the Monga period of hunger and despair, prepare for flooding, river erosion, drought, heat waves, epidemics and who to contact in each case. The last two units cover health, the environment, sanitation, anti-natal care, and how the community can strengthen their sense of community and pull together for those who need it.

I sat down in front of the women and everyone stopped and stared at me.

This is one of the most obvious problems with Bangladesh - it's heavily embedded pyramid of hierarchy and deference. Had I been a Bangladeshi 20 year old getting experience with the program, there's no way I would have received the same response; people look up to you because you are white, and seek to put you in charge. Salim calls me 'boss' and 'sir' and jokingly called me 'team leader' today, even though it's me that's wanting to learn from him, it's me that is the underling shadowing him, who has years of NGO work experience.

They are interested in me and we share stories, I ask them a load of questions:

What was the best thing that you have learned during the course? (I had just found out that they were doing finance management - the add on week and had been through the motions of the community teachings for a year)

The response came back after a bit of group discussion that child marriage and domestic violence had been the best two sessions, Salim kindly translated one woman telling me that after the session she had gradually managed to reduce the number of beatings she received from her husband and now they were in a much better relationship. Another woman then told me that they had managed to stop two of the older girls in the community from being married until they were 18. All it took was a 2 hour session and you've addressed an issue and empowered someone to take control of their lives, fantastic! (I was very skeptical of the idea of a government funded organisation educating villagers on what is evil in their society, but it seems to have worked wonders)

How has your diet changed now you have benefited from the program

The response was that the children are starting to drink a bit of milk now and again from the cows that the programme had given to certain members of the community that were eligible, the vegetable patches that the Chars Livelihoods Programme had helped villagers start up with seed and natural compost from the cows and the latrines that they worked into the sand were now providing a balance to their diet and they were already feeling healthier, and put the near disappearance of frequent illness in the community down to the vegetables and sanitation. They were eating between 2 and 3 meals a day now, which which was really nice for me to hear, as I had been reading that the normal diet before was one or two plates of rice a day, usually without anything else except for some chilly which helped suppress the appetite, but occasionally with a few beans or leaves.

Are you happier now?

Yes, much happier, we feel a lot safer and we can think of other things than survival.

Have you had more children now that you are more comfortable?

No, no, no, we don't have to have as many now because we don't need the extra income. Now that there is contraception and we have enough food to eat, we can limit the number of babies to 3.

I didn't want to take up more of their time and felt that I had been extremely privileged to have this much attention and openness about their lives, so I tried bringing the dialogue to a close. Salim suggested that it was a good time to give out the soap. I asked him to ask permission first.

Something really didn't feel right about this.

Firstly, I wasn't expecting the attention and the deference, secondly, I wasn't expecting to be giving to 25 people simultaneously, but imagined that it would be one-to-one gifts after they gave me a meal or showed me their house or something.

They agreed but looked a bit puzzled. I then self-consciously opened up my rucksack and Salim, the community teacher and I handed out the soap and shampoo, one woman swapped a bar of soap for some shampoo strips and said that her daughter enjoyed shampoo. There was a weird atmosphere, and Salim told them that it was an English custom to give gifts when you are visiting, but the inappropriateness of the act just hit me!

They pyramid complex in Bangladesh is heavily related to skin colour, the darker you are being seen as more 'lowly' and paler as 'cleaner' - similar to the Dalits in India. Just to cite some examples, there's a skin bleacher advert that runs between tv programmes with a stick that has different skin colours from pale to dark with numbers on, and a pretty model's skin getting slowly whiter "because I'm worth it" - and when I went to buy a pay as you go sim card in Dhaka, the shop keeper who was about my age put his forearm next to mine and said "your skin is a nice colour, but mine is dark" - to which I said "Yes, your skin is a very nice colour as well" and he replied "no its not, it's dirty, you look like David Beckham" (which is a step up from "Harry Potter" as I was called a couple of times in India a couple of years ago). I hope I'm being over sensitive, but I am genuinely scared that some of the women in the group took the soap as a bit of an insult, like I was calling them dirty. One of them even asked "why did you give us the soap?" - to which I tried to reply that it's nice for me to give gifts...

I left to beaming smiles and I even got a quick round of applause (I hope you're starting to understand how deep this deference runs, and how aid potentially feeds it further).

After seeing one of the small one room, one bed shacks that the families live it, and the cookers that are built into the ground, I left with a strong feeling that I'd screwed up, and an even stronger determination to listen, think, consider, and find the fine line that I should walk that helps the communities in need as much as possible but without taking away any self-confidence or dignity.

Thursday, 4 June 2009


This is some background to the cyclone that I lifted from the IRIN website, the UN's publication, the only thing that it fails to mention is the estimated +500,000 internally displaced persons as a result of the cyclone.

BANGLADESH: Cyclone leaves trail of contaminated water sources
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Men queue up for much needed government relief in southern Bangladesh (file photo)DHAKA, 2 June 2009 (IRIN) - One week after Cyclone Aila struck southern Bangladesh, survivors in some areas are facing acute shortages of drinking water after many water sources were contaminated. “The dire situation has yet to improve,” Mohammad Badi Akhter, Oxfam’s acting chief of operations in Dhaka, told IRIN, noting the government was calling on NGOs to beef up their operations, particularly for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Despite relief efforts by the government, NGOs, the UN and international agencies, thousands of people on islands had yet to receive any kind of relief assistance. Even on the mainland, scores of people were still trapped in their homes, surrounded by stagnant floodwater. “I don’t see any possibility of the waters receding before the end of the monsoon,” said a water engineer from the Sharankhola area of Bagerhat District. This translates into the end of September: the consequences of the storm may turn out worse than expected. “There are seven mouths to feed in my family,” Jahangir Alam of Kolapara sub-district in Patuakhali District said. He had not yet received any aid. Lack of drinking water was forcing many to go hungry as they were unable to cook the food they had received from relief agencies.
Photo: ReliefWeb
Tropical Cyclone Aila's route through Bangladesh as of 26 MayEmbankments washed away Over 1,400km of flood protection embankments were washed away by Aila, exposing thousands of villages just as the monsoon is beginning, the country’s Disaster Management Bureau reported. Each day at high tide, water rushes through the damaged embankments and swamps coastal communities, despite the efforts of local people who are trying to repair them. “More houses are being inundated by the high tide every day... No rebuilding efforts of the demolished embankments are visible. The monsoon is bearing down on us. If the embankments are not repaired, villages like mine will remain under water for the whole of the monsoon,” Mahadev Chandra Sarkar, a school teacher from Gabura Union, Shatkhira District, warned. Diarrhoea The main sources of drinking water in coastal areas are ponds, wells and tube wells, but many have been contaminated. “I had to walk five miles [8km] to get one pitcher of drinking water. All the sweet water ponds and tube wells were flooded by sea water,” said Motia Banu, a resident of Burirchar Union, Borguna District. Media reports on 30-31 May indicated an increased incidence of diarrhoea, affecting thousands. “Diarrhoea is a serious concern,” Oxfam’s Akhter said, adding that in Satkhira District alone 10 people had died of diarrhoea in a single day.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
Stagnant pools of water provide fertile ground for a host of water-borne diseases (file photo)Relief efforts Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund and the government’s Department of Public Health Engineering are working with Action contre la Faim, ActionAid, BRAC, CARE, CARITAS, Catholic Relief Services, NGO Forum, Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid, Save the Children USA, Solidarites, Oxfam GB and Water Aid to improve the WASH situation. UNICEF is procuring 70,000 bags of oral rehydration salts and pre-positioning 12.5 million water purification tablets, essential drugs and 135.7 tons of high-energy BP-5 biscuits. The World Food Programme (WFP) has also pre-positioned 500 tons of high-energy biscuits. “We have mobilised volunteers throughout the affected region. They are providing dry food, water purification tablets and oral rehydration solutions,” Mohamad Abul Quasem, an officer of the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS), told IRIN. BDRCS has also deployed six teams for damage assessments and a tracing team, working to locate missing family members. Organized by the Directorate General of Health Services and the World Health Organization, close to 700 teams of healthcare professionals were now providing medical support to survivors. More than 3.2 million were affected when Alia swept across large parts of low-lying Bangladesh on 25 May, leaving 167 dead and over 7,000 injured. Fourteen of the country’s 64 districts were affected, the Disaster Management Bureau reported, prompting some 145,000 people to flee to cyclone shelters, according to the government’s 1 June situation report. According to government estimates immediately after the cyclone, some 600,000 people were estimated to have fled their homes - some to higher ground, some to stay with relatives and some to cyclone shelters. According to Oxfam, the Ganges-Brahmaputra and Meghna river basin in Bangladesh is one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world. Bangladesh's coastline is regularly battered by tropical cyclones, and one-third of the country floods annually during the monsoon. ao/ds/cb