A quater of my placement has already gone and I still feel as if I have only just arrived. Been pretty busy here with my placement these past months and with working 6 days a week it feels like an effort to have to compose a post for the blog in the evening or on my solitary day off. But that’s not much of an excuse for taking so long between posts and I’ll make it my New Years resolution to do better. As you can see I’ve added a few more pages to try and give some background into the development issues in southwest Bangladesh. I’ll be adding some more soon and will post links to any articles or policy related information I come across.
My placement is really interesting and the organisation I’m working for is doing a lot of good work in some challenging circumstances. It works on a number of issues (see the page on Uttaran) but one of the biggest projects it is currently engaged in is around the distribution of Khas (public land) to the landless communities in the southwest of Bangladesh. This is a very contentious and sensitive issue in Bangladesh and Uttaran and its staff have faced some harsh consequences because of there work to support the rights of the landless, including the arrest and torture of the Director.
I spent the first few months with Uttaran trying to learn about their programmes and the context in the southwest. The focus of my work so far has been on helping Uttaran to develop their policy/advocacy capacity on issues like land rights, climate change, access to safe drinking water and water management (i.e. flow of rivers, dams, etc) and supporting their networking activities (i.e. with donors and decision makers). I have also had to do a fair bit on the fundraising side, like drafting or editing project proposals and concept notes, which can be a little boring but unfortunately it seems to be the bread and butter of every VSO volunteer placement. The field visits I had have been a great experience but at the same time are often a little unsettling and sad. I recently went to some of the areas that were affected by Cyclone Aila, the people there are still living in terrible conditions which were made worse by the flooding in September and they are very vulnerable to further floods once the Cyclone season starts again in March because the Government have not yet repaired the embankments damaged by Aila. This is an issue Uttaran has been doing some advocacy on so hopefully we can get the Government to take some action soon.
I’ve also done quite a bit of work with the VSO Bangladesh (VSOB) Programme Office helping them to develop a paper for the International Development Select Committees Inquiry into Bangladesh and joining VOICE (the volunteers representative committee) But I won’t go into that too much because I’m not sure I could describe my experiences using language that would be suitable for my Mum to read.
Outside of work I’ve not been up to much. The shock of living in a country where I can’t get a pint whenever I want hasn’t worn off yet. Trying to do a bit of sightseeing when I can but never seem to have the time, the 6 day week really is the bane of my life. I went to watch India Under 23 play the Maldives in the final of the South Asian Football Federation Cup, which was held in Bangladesh. Poor game that finished 0-0 (India won on penalties) but it was only about 35p for the ticket so can’t complain. They should bring in prices like that at Old Trafford.
Dhaka is a pretty tough city to live in and I’ve got to admit that the thought of spending 2 years of my life here got me down for few weeks after the novelty of the first couple of months wore off and it still does every so often. It’s got all the hassle of the big city without any of the benefits. On top of that is the grinding poverty in your face everywhere you turn and people constantly pestering you because you are a bideshi (foreigner), asking for your mobile so they can ‘talk English with you’ which other volunteers tell me (I never give them my number) means you get people phoning you up at 3am asking for money or a visa.
I walk to the office (which is about 30 minutes away) and the rickshaws in particular wind me up everyday, they see a bideshi (foreigner) and think it means you will have money (which to be fair most do) so they either try to overcharge you (which isn’t too bad because haggling is part of the culture and now my Bangla’s has gone from rubbish to bad as they don’t get too cheeky with their starting price) or much more annoyingly for a pedestrian is when they follow you around ringing their bell trying to get you to go in their rickshaw even though you tell them no ten times. But what really f***s me off (sorry mum) is that they sometimes do this when you are crossing the roads. Now crossing the roads in Dhaka is dangerous enough as it is without some idiot stopping his rickshaw in front of you while you’re in the middle of the road so you can’t get past and there are trucks doing 60 mph behind you. I’ve made my peace a little with the rickshaws of late but it must be an amusing sight for the locals to see me booting the back of them and shouting at the driver, not that they have a clue what I’m saying. Of course that kind of behaviour is not very VSO but it makes me feel better.
Fortunately for my sanity Uttaran is a community based organisation and I’ve been able to spend quite a bit a time out of Dhaka in the southwest (mainly Satkhira district which is on the border with India). It is a stunning part of the world and right next to the Sunderban’s, the worlds largest mangrove forest where the Bengal tigers live, but its also one of the poorest parts of Bangladesh. Wish I was based in the southwest to be honest and if anyone is thinking about becoming a VSO volunteer my advice would be don’t let them talk you into a placement based in the capital city!