Archive for February 2009

Trouble in the Town

Some of you might have been aware of the clashes that happened yesterday in Dhaka between the army and the Bangladeshi Rifles (BDR). It happened two districts over from the one I work in, making it uncomfortably close.

Basically, the BDR are a para-military organization which is responsible for border security. They are the ones who died in the border conflicts Bangladesh has had with India in the past, yet they are among the worst-paid out of any government organization. Compared to the regular army, the BDR live in absolutely squalid conditions and barely get enough money to survive. Added to that is the fact that in recent months, pay has been withheld from them and embezzled by the head of the BDR at the Dhaka office to the tune of a few million dollars. These factors produced a group of about 2,000 underpaid, frustrated and angry people…with guns. The firefight started in the early morning hours on Wednesday and lasted all day. I was with my project in a hotel nearby the office in a workshop so we didn’t have to go home, although anyone who wanted to leave could, as many of our team either live in or close to the affected area and had to get home before curfew was imposed.  The curfew luckily extended only to the immediate area and has now been lifted.

The newly elected Prime Minister Sheikh Hassina has intervened and offered amnesty to the mutineers in exchange for them laying down their arms. Then negotiations went under pay to discuss the future of the BDR and the conditions of its members. Though it calmed rather quickly, the situation is still not completely resolved as the negotiations have to please the rebellious elements of the BDR. The region of Dhanmondi where the uprising orginiated is still under curfew. I was actually supposed to meet someone for an interview there today, but I have just been informed that he is not allowed to leave his house, as the army has shut down the entire dirstrict.

In terms of human cost, though only lasting one day, so far, as reported, the gunfight claimed 50 lives, many among them civilians caught in the crossfire.

For more concrete information, here are two links to read up on:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/26/world/asia/26bangla.html?_r=1&ref=world.

http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=77491

The Daily Star article is older, so therefore the casualty numbers do not match with the New York times report.

What was also impressive to me was what happened while the firefight was going on. As happens in many developing countries unfortunately, the government disabled land-line Internet access and most cellphone communications, leaving us very confused about what was actually happening. The land-line internet connection in my apartment still doesn’t work, even today on Thursday. Rumors swirled around and the various disparate information added to the unease. It annoys me to no end that the government still holds to these antiquated and totally counterproductive measures just for the sake of stability. The withholding of information only adds to confusion and panic, unnecessarily increasing the danger and tension fo the situation. I talked to people who have been living in Dhaka for years and they said that this shut-down of information networks happens every time there is unrest. Without an open flow of information, Bangladesh cannot hope to become truly modern, in whatever sense.

Also, the fact that a disagreement about pay sparked such a violent and brutal uprising just illustrates how little infrastructure is in place here to address these issues. This was the unleashing of anger that was pent up over years and not once was the government, no matter who controlled it, responsive to the needs of the BDR. If the politics of this country continue to waste their time on accusing the other party of corruption instead of building structures and institutions that effectively respond to the pressing needs of the population, there will be no stable democracy in Bangladesh for quite some time.

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More pictures!

The next few are from the roof of my uncle's builing

The next few are from the roof of my uncle's builing

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Gulshan circle from my uncle's flat

Gulshan circle from my uncle's flat

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My street in Baridhara, to the right the Malaysian High Commission

My street in Baridhara, to the right the Malaysian High Commission

Gulshan Lake, looking towards Gulshan-2 from the Baridhara shore

Gulshan Lake, looking towards Gulshan-2 from the Baridhara shore

Cancer-hospital in Gulshan-2

Cancer-hospital in Gulshan-2

The boardwalk

The boardwalk

More Gulshan lake

More Gulshan lake

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Unfortunately too often lined with trash

Unfortunately too often lined with trash

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Into the chaos of Gulshan-2 circle

Into the chaos of Gulshan-2 circle

Part of the circle

Part of the circle

Airport road in neighboring district Banani. Basically the freeway here, it is often clogged but it is still the fastest way to get out of the city

Airport road in neighboring district Banani. Basically the freeway here, it is often clogged but it is still the fastest way to get out of the city

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High rises along KAmal Attaturk Avenue in Banani

High rises along KAmal Attaturk Avenue in Banani

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This "side-street" off of Kamal Attaturk Avenue houses the various new international universities. During the weekday, it is clogged with young students, providing a vibrant, refreshing contrast to the settled and traditional Gulshan

This "side-street" off of Kamal Attaturk Avenue houses the various new international universities. During the weekday, it is clogged with young students, providing a vibrant, refreshing contrast to the settled and traditional Gulshan

And I thought American power lines were bad....

And I thought American power lines were bad....

Banani lake, similar in structure to Gulshan lake

Banani lake, similar in structure to Gulshan lake

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It’s been a while…AND PICTURES!!!

Wow, I’ve been really lazy lately.

I got to visit aother factory last week with my flatmate and her supervisor.  The factory is located in the North of Dhaka like most factories but is different from what I have experienced so far. It is a medium sized factory but you wouldn’t know it from the way it is built. The reception area looked more like a hotel than a garment factory and it just got better from there. The factory floor itself didn’t look very fancy of course but it was light and rather spacious. The meeting room was again ridiculously fancy and for just a few minutes it was easy to imagine oneself in London instead of Dhaka. Now far from being controlled by a foreign company with lots of money gained from oppressing workers, this factory was completely Bangladeshi-owned and is regarded as one of, if not the best factory in Bangladesh. The walls were littered with awards, both from domestic and international partners, exalting the factory’s labor and environmental standards. Having passed a three-day factory audit workshop just the week before I could see how they got all those awards. Nowhere else have I seen so much compliance with labor standards.

We were there because Tara’s supervisor wanted to pitch a new GTZ-initiative to various factories and wanted to get this well-respected factory behind the plan early. The project is a cell-based project which means the following: Since the goal is to empower female workers, GTZ will be hosting a month-long workshop for a select group of female workers and hopefully supervisors and basically educate them about their rights and opportunities for change in the workplace. Thus, the plan is to host this workshop for about 20 women from 5-10 factories and then send them back to their factories armed with knowledge, authority and some funds provided by the GTZ. The hope is then that they will start to pass on those teachings to their fellow female workers and thereby start a civil society from within the factory which looks out for itself and demands justice in the workplace and empowerment for women.

Having listened to basically this pitch, the factory management agreed to participate in the program and even offered to host it in their facilities since they had state of the art meeting rooms. In the smalltalk that came at the end of the meeting we showed our admiration at the multitude of awards that the factory and its company had won. The explanation the manager gave absolutely floored me. He basically said that while he did of course care about labor and environmental standards from a humanistic point of view, he was so adamant about their implementation because, as he said it, it made “good business sense”. I’m not sure if I’m communicating the magnitude of such a statement effectively enough but I was utterly amazed. Finally, here was someone in Bangladesh who had control fo a factory and thousands of workers and actually had a good business sense. He explained to us that the more awards he has, the more contracts he gets with foreign partners, which gets him more money. Having recognized the absolutely crucial role that trust, credicbility and reputation play in business, the manager we were speaking to had been recognized several times as Bangladeshi businessman of the year. It’s hard to describe how good it was to hear him speak about running a sound business with great output and great working conditions, when all one sees every day is the absolute inability of so many institutions, not least of which the government itself, to run a good enterprise. Too much of life here is simply not in that spirit and while I’m not advocating that every street vendor turn into a business-shark, the standard is so low for good business practices here that seeing such a well-run factory is a welcome change from business as usual. Of course, being absolutely jaded by living in an affluent Western society, my standards are too high but simple things like being good to customers and, on a behavioral note, not using the streets as a trash dump and personal toilet.

Anyways, so much for my frustration with business and efficiency here. I’ve heard that the antidote to all of this is simply getting out of Dhaka, a tip I definitely want to follow in the next few weeks. My flatmate Tara was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Chittagong, the second-biggest city in Bangladesh over the weekend and I hope to replicate that trip with some other interns soon. This sentiment of having to exlore things now is especially pronounced since I realized with some horror that my internship will be halfway done by next weekend. Thus, taking advantage of the time I get to spend outside of the office here is becoming increasingly vital.

In terms of curiosities, I got my hair cut today which was fun. After walking two city-sectors over from Baridhara only to find that the travel office I was looking for was closed, I figured I might as well get my hair cut on the way back. After looking around on the mainstreet connecting the city-sectors, I went into the one with smiling white people on the billboard because nothing says great haircut like David Beckham. It was also the cleanest I could find. Of course no one spoke English so after a lot of gesturing about what was desired in terms of length, he got to it. It looked great  but apparently he had spotted a rogue patch of dandruff which he then committed himself to nuking with several hairproducts and some intense washing which doubled as a scalp massage judging by his intensity. Apparently this is what people go to a spa for. After every stage of additional washing I indicated that I had just come here for a haircut but my objections were brushed aside quite literally so I just went along for the ride, figuring that if my hair was ever going to get a spa treatment, it might as well be in Dhaka. So, after around 40 minutes, I left the salon feeling absolutely divine and I had only spent 10 bucks, which of course was probably with some Bangladeshi inflation in it, i.e., massively overcharging foreigners, but I was content. If you ever want to get your hair cut right, come to Dhaka.

In terms of a social life on the weekends, the circle of interesting friends just keeps growing. Being able to spend evenings drinking wine with Nepali, German, British interns from wildly varying age ranges is pretty amazing.

Here are the pictures I’ve been withholding for so long:

The immensity that is the Emirates terminal at Dubai Airport

The immensity that is the Emirates terminal at Dubai Airport

I just love transliterations of English into Arabic

I just love transliterations of English into Arabic

Duty-free heaven in Dubai

Duty-free heaven in Dubai

More transliterations

More transliterations

View from my uncle's flat, and yes, all windows here have bars on them, no matter how high the flat is

View from my uncle's flat, and yes, all windows here have bars on them, no matter how high the flat is

My uncle's flat

My uncle's flat

The street on which my uncle lives

The street on which my uncle lives

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This is hilarious because it makes absolutely no sense in this context. Probably some drunk expat with a spray can

This is hilarious because it makes absolutely no sense in this context. Probably some drunk expat with a spray can

The next few pics are from a park close to my uncle's flat

The next few pics are from a park close to my uncle's flat

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Wonderland, basically a giant Bangladeshi version of Dave and Buster's

Wonderland, basically a giant Bangladeshi version of Dave and Buster's

The next few are from around the neighborhood of GTZ

The next few are from around the neighborhood of GTZ

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It's always good to know your children are protected by plenty of barbed wire

It's always good to know your children are protected by plenty of barbed wire

Since Dhaka is constantly under construction, I figured this might be a good thing to see. Bamboo is used for all buildings in this stage of building and apparently works great to hold up large slabs of concrete, as there is another example of it in dizzying heights later on.

Since Dhaka is constantly under construction, I figured this might be a good thing to see. Bamboo is used for all buildings in this stage of building and apparently works great to hold up large slabs of concrete, as there is another example of it in dizzying heights later on.

10 stories of concrete supported by bamboo. Gotta love bamboo

10 stories of concrete supported by bamboo. Gotta love bamboo

More pictures soon to follow…

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A new place

I had two big things happen to me over the past week and a half: I moved into my own place and was subjected to a beating by my own body.

I had spooted the new place after being referred to it by my boss. It’s in the adjacent part of town to Gulshan, called Baridhara and is like the former’s little brother; smaller but just as filled with expat clubs and embassies. Like everywhere else in this part of town, my room is in a 5-story house, and is privy to a larger apartment. There’s another room next to mine which another GTZ intern thankfully moved into on Sunday. She’s from Nepal and will stay here for six months before starting her Master. I very glad to have company in this rather large apartment and having a flat-mate will provide a nice constant. More on that later.

Seeing that the apartment is fairly large and/or because the owner is too wealthy, we have a maid living in the apartment as well.  This is definitely a new experience for me. Moving out of my uncle’s place, I was expecting to find myself in a college-type living situation; cooking your own food, cleaning your place, generally taking care of things yourself. Well, it’s none of that. The guy who lives there is here during the night until 9am and then a maid is here from 9 to 5, after which the other guy comes back again. And they do everything! Both are extremely nice and I have no problem relating to them. However, in their role as maids (?) they make me feel a bit too colonial for my liking, however, everybody else I know here has the same situation. Oh well, the food is good and I think I’ll manage to not practice my common manners for a few months. However, I could not imagine living like a VIP for longer than that.

Just in time for the new place, my stomach decided that this was the perfect occasion for unleashing a thorough case of Traveler’s Diarrhea. Luckily I had left America with enough medicines to fight off the plaque thanks to my mother so after two very uncomfortable days and very little food, I finally got better on Saturday. Ready to take on the world again, I took part in the weekly volleyball game at the German club. Just to show what a cruel mistress she is, Lady Luck decided that having just recovered from a very “cleansing” case of diarrhea, I was overdue for some athletic injuries. Thus, I promptly sprained my ankle, rednering me unable to walk. My aunt took me to the doctor the next morning, a Sunday, and X-rays were taken. Luckily nothing was broken and it was just the outer ligament that was damaged. On the bright side, I have now seen the inside of a third-world doctor’s office and lab, which honestly looks like something out of a 60s film.

Thus, the remainder of Sunday and the entirety of Monday were spent at home. Though I was thankfully provided with a gigantic heap of DVDs by my fellow interns, these two days were nevertheless the longest and most boring days I’ve had in quite a while. As part of Lady Luck’s recurring “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone” program, being deprived of the ability to walk left me appreciative of the fact that in a few days, I shall be able to walk normally again and can then take on the world. Thanks for that reminder.

Last week at work I was fortunate enough to be taken along to a factory inspection tour of two factories on the outskirts of Dhaka. The car-ride took about an hour and in the process I saw very different sides of Dhaka. Slogging through the city traffic was nothing new but was amazed me was how suddenly the main city ended. All of a sudden, we were traveling on a road amidst a sea of never-ending rice paddies. As far as the eye could see (admittedly, there was fog), we were surrounded by lush, green flora. These pristine views were interupted periodically, however, by the bizarre sight of slim but acutally enormous spikes protruding from the ground. I was told these were brick factories and the presence of these harsh reminders of industrialization amidst the pastoral idyllic setting burned itself in my memory. After driving for about half an hour through this murky, dream-like landscape, we arrived at a suburb of Dhaka where the factories were located.

The factories looked like an overdose of Bauhaus architecture and therefore anything but appealing. These enormous bunkers housed the assembly lines on 6 levels. After a brief chat with the head of the factory by the inspector, we were ushered into the assembly hall. There, the workers started with a piece of denim on one end, and, 50 processes, later, produced a pair of jeans. I’m not sure if Adam Smith had this in mind when he called for the minute specialization of labor but it was impressive nonetheless. Our arrival caused quite a stirr as literally every head turned to examine the  pale giant that had just come through from another dimension.

Both factories were the same in terms of set-up but the first, jeans-producing one was bigger. The building housed 6000 people, 500 of which were managerial and/or office workers. 6000 people in one building! I had always imagined factories being one level affairs with a lot of people yes, but not 6 of them stacked on top of each other.

Needless to say, the experience of seeing more of Dhaka left me eager to explore and, if my body stays intact, I plan on exploring the old city on the weekend.

Concluding with the aforementioned case of my new flatmate, I said it will be nice having some consistency in terms of people I’m surrounded with because just in the span of two and half weeks here it has become apparent to me that the fate of the international intern is one of constantly saying goodbye. You find “your people” immediately and them leaving is hard to deal with. Two interns that are leaving this week will leave a hole in my social life here. There are new interns coming to fill that space but I’m not sure if I like this side of working in the international arena. I definitely do not want to work in an arena where you only get a few weks with someone, someone who reminds you of the world you know amidst the strange alien place that you find yourself in, before they’re ripped away from you by that intercontinental flight, reminding you, if only for a moment, that you are alone here. I know that the new interns coming in will be great and that enough of the old ones are staying around to hang out with but nevertheless, this aspect of working abroad is one I had not considered before.

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