Monday, June 15, 2009

final thoughts

Warning: this blog is very long, special prizes to those who read the whole thing.

As I’m chillaxing in the Dhaka airport, watching the lighting storm (which doesn’t bode well for my flight that leaves in two hours), I thought I’d share some of my thoughts as I’m leaving Bangladesh.

First, I want to comment on the stigma that comes with being a westerner here. I’ve struggled with being a foreigner in Bangladesh; the frustration usually comes in the form of feeling like a caged animal when hoards of eager Bangladeshis stare at me. Today, I experienced another “foreigner’s frustration” when I arrived at the airport. When I got out of the car at the airport today, there was an airport employee waiting for me with a luggage cart with my bags on it. I usually avoid letting people carry my bags for me, because I know they will try to take advantage of me by asking for a big “baksheesh.” Baksheesh literally means “gift,” but in practice, it often means tip. On my first day in Bangladesh, the young boy who carried my bags up to my room asked, in a heavy Bangladesh accent, “you gives my baksheesh?” I knew that he was asking for a tip, so I fished a small bill out of my bag. He looked at it, and then told me that he wanted more. I was embarrassed and found a larger bill for him. I was not quite as embarrassed later when I learned that this particular kid is a huge skeazeball and does this to every foreigner upon their arrival at the Grand Prince Hotel. So, today, I had a feeling that the same thing would happen with this creepy guy that wanted to carry my bags into the airport. I let him push the luggage cart to the door, and then he turned around and told me that he couldn’t go inside because he wasn’t a passenger, and then he asked me for money. I was prepared, and I handed him a TK10 bill, which is about 15 cents, but is a pretty standard tip for that kind of service. He then told me that he wanted TK100. So, I got pissed off, didn’t give him anything, and walked away. I was so aggravated that he tried to rip me off because I’m a foreigner. We’ve been dealing with being ripped off because we’re foreigners since day 1. When a cab driver quotes a price for foreigners, he literally doubles the price that he would charge locals. So, I now always try to get someone who looks Bangladeshi and/or speaks some Bangla to hail a cab for me. I have two Indian friends who speak little to no Bangla, but because they look South Asian, they are usually able to get a fair rate on a cab. When there’s a large group of white interns going somewhere in a cab, we literally hide while a pseudo-Bangladeshi argues over the cab fare with the driver. When we get the OK, we come out from hiding, and we can often tell that the driver is angry when he sees us that he didn’t get the chance to make some money off of the foreigners that will soon be in his cab.

Most Bangladeshis think that everyone in America is rich. On our village trips, we always asked the villagers if they had any questions for us. Number 1: What is your country? Number 2: Are you married? (And if the answer was no, they always tried to marry us off to someone) Number 3: Are there poor people in America? It was always the same progression of questions.

Beggars also ask for baksheesh. When we’re sitting in traffic in Dhaka, people walk through the streets selling random things (popcorn, oversized maps of Dhaka, light-up devil horns- it literally feels like I’m sitting in the stands at a baseball game). Beggars also walk through the streets, stopping at car windows to ask for baksheesh. When they spot westerners in a car, they come over as fast as they can, and stand there asking for money or food until the traffic starts to budge and our car pulls away. We persistently say, “Baksheesh nai,” but they don’t leave. When they roam through the aisles of traffic and see locals, they sometimes don’t even stop to ask for food. But, when they see foreigners, they spend plenty of time repeatedly asking us for money. We always encounter a ton of beggars in Dhaka traffic, and it’s really hard to continue to brush them off. In Banker to the Poor, Dr. Yunus talks about the beggars in Dhaka. He states that he makes every effort not to give anything to the beggars because that only increases their dependency on begging. Giving to beggars does not incentivitze them, and so a pragmatic, economic approach would be to ignore the beggars so that hopefully they search for an opportunity to stop begging. I have seen some sad things in the streets of Dhaka, and it is really, really hard to brush these people off. There are two girls that beg outside of the hotel every day, Rubina and Sharmin. Rubina is probably about 12 and Sharmin is about 7. They stand outside of the hotel every day, wearing the same tattered clothing, and asking passers by for food, water, or money. Sharmin is always happy to see the interns, and she says hello to us with Western hand gestures that various interns have taught her, including high-fives and the classic pound-explode. Rubina, on the other hand, has a much more somber demeanor. It’s really difficult to see such a young girl who has already suffered so much in her life. Some of the other interns often treat them to meals at the restaurant next to the hotel. Despite whatever the literature says, I think it is completely legitimate to blow off economic theory when it comes to Sharmin and Rubina. I’ve never seen a bigger smile than Rubina’s when we tell her to come in to the restaurant and someone orders food for her and her siblings. This is a kind, but also wise, gesture on the part of my fellow interns. Darshan, my friend who frequently treats these kids to lunch, always says that he wants them to come in to the restaurant, wash their hands, sit at a table, and enjoy their meal. He is very adamant that they remain inside to eat, because he wants them to be treated like the humans that they are, rather than eating their food on the curb. Forget disincentivizing them, the most valuable thing we can do for Sharmin and Rubina is to show them some love.

Moving on… I had a really awesome conversation with one of the emirates employees at the airport. I greeted him in Bangla, and in typical Bangladeshi fashion, he then assumed that I spoke bangla and started talking to me in the language. After clarifying that I only speak a little Bangla (kitchu-kitchu), he then proceeded to chat with me about my experiences in Bangladesh. I came to find out that he is a social worker who works with an international NGO that just secured funds to build a shelter on the coast to aid victims of cyclone Sidr. Anyway, he asked me some thought-provoking questions about Grameen. He first asked me if I thought Grameen was unique. I told him that no, I didn’t think Grameen was unique, and I told him that BRAC and other NGOs have similar programs. As I’m sitting here now, I realize that Grameen is in fact unique, even if their microcredit operations are not. Grameen is definitely a unique organization, in that they’ve received the most intentional recognition for their work with microcredit (whether they deserved the attention is a different story). He then asked me if I liked my internship. I had to really consider how I wanted to answer this question before I started speaking. Did I LIKE my internship? I wound up telling him that I found it a very informative and rewarding experience, but is that true? My internship with Grameen was informative, I suppose, but I still don’t know if anything that the Grameen staff members told me was true. Yesterday, I found out that the Grameen staff members who preside over center meetings (called center managers) get fired if they don’t achieve a certain repayment rate. So, the center managers will repay the loans for the borrowers if they can’t afford to make their installment. When I learned this, I was shocked. It was one of those moments where you feel like your entire belief system has been challenged. I know that’s irrational of me, and I know that this probably doesn’t happen very often, but still, I was in disbelief.

And now I’m sitting in the Houston airport drinking a margarita (=pure bliss. The guy asked me if it was good and I told him that I’d been in a Muslim country where alcohol is illegal for the past month so it was perfect). I’m so happy to be back in the US- no one is staring at me, I don’t have to speak broken English in an Indian accent to be understood, and there are sports besides cricket on TV.

So back to what I was talking about before my brief 30 hour hiatus… being a foreigner in Bangladesh. I got “randomly” searched at both of the checkpoints in the Dhaka airport. I’ve never been selected for one of the random searches in my entire life, and although I was definitely the minority in the airport in Bangladesh, it still caught me off guard. Being foreign usually has the opposite effect on people in stores and such- when we go to the super market Agora, they never check our receipts when we walk out of the door. But, for all of the Bangladeshis, they always check to make sure that they aren’t shoplifting when they walk through the doors (p.s. just heard some sort of horn from outside the airport and I thought it was the beginning of the call to prayer- I’ve been in Bangladesh for too long).

As I wrote in my final report that I turned in to Grameen, my main goal and objective in coming to Grameen was to observe the way microfinance works on the field and draw my own conclusion regarding whether or not it works. Although I’ve seen and learned about a lot of faults within Grameen and microcredit in general, the moral of the story is that Grameen has helped a lot of people. Whether or not they’ve helped 15% of their borrowers or 75% of the borrowers cross the poverty line is another question. But still, as one of my fellow interns said, even if the Grameen Bank only does 20% good, it is still worth it for those people that it helps. My final conclusion is that Grameen has a lot of structural faults and there are definitely logistical changes that need to be made, but the microcredit should still be employed as a means of poverty alleviation. It does work, but for microcredit to be successful in its true form, it needs a very specific kind of borrower. The kind of person that would achieve success with a microcredit loan is someone who is moderately poor, has some sort of marketable skill, and has some formal education and/or business sense. This is a pretty narrow window, and there are many Grameen borrowers who do not fit this mold, which is probably why a lot of borrowers are unsuccessful. I don’t think Grameen does a great job of weeding out borrowers that are potentially unsuccessful, rather, they just “help” them struggle through they system once they are a borrower. It is a fine line to walk though, because undoubtedly there are people who do not fit this mold initially, but they are able to step up to the plate and run a successful business when they are given the guidance and support of the Grameen staff members and their fellow borrowers. The Grameen program for the ultra-poor (beggars) has not been very successful. The premise for that program is that beggars are given a loan and they repay with no interest, at their own pace. I think this is a balance of incentivizing them and cutting them some slack. The incentive for the beggars to pay back is that they are able to take another loan when they pay back the first, and when they are able to make a certain installment per week, they can enter the “credit highway” that is so esteemed among Grameen basic loan borrowers.

Grameen tried to do a really good job of covering up all of the negatives about the way they run their business. They managed to present us only within shining success stories from Grameen borrowers, but we’re not stupid; we know that that’s not the whole story. The guy who I spoke with in the airport also asked me what I thought about microcredit in general. He said that he’s heard that Grameen charges interest rates that are too high and the run their business like a profit maximizing business rather than like a social business. I can definitely get behind this theory- the interest rate at Grameen is 20% reducing, which comes to about 15% yearly, I think. All of the other MFI’s have similar interest rates, all between about 11% and 15%. This is one main criticism of microfinance, and in this context, one can argue that microfinance takes advantage of the poor just like loan sharks do. Another big criticism of the Grameen Bank, in my opinion, is that they haven’t embraced the “credit-plus” notion in the way that BRAC has. BRAC boasts pretty successful schools, health clinic, and other health education programs. Grameen has tried many of these programs, but they have not been very successful, and none of them are sustainable. The BRAC health care clinics are, I think, almost completely sustainable. The problem with many Grameen programs is that they are donor funded, and when the funding runs out, they are done. For example. Grameen is doing a great pilot primary school program right now. They targeted the kids in the slums of Dhaka that are often forced to work for their parents, either at home or some real child labor type work. So, they cannot go to school for the whole day because their parents need them at home. This school program was for three hours per day, but I was impressed by the kids- at least, their spoken English exceeded my expectations. However, the program is only a five year pilot program, so one group of kids is going through all five years of primary school education in the Grameen Shikkha program, and then they will hopefully begin government school. But, the program is done at the end of 2010. BRAC’s primary schools have a similar target audience, but they are not a pilot program. I don’t remember if they are donor-funded or not?? Anyway, I think that Grameen boasts that they have a lot of sister organizations that are helping the poor in many other ways, and in some ways, that is true, but for the most part, I was not very impressed by their sister companies. Grameen Shakti (power) was impressive, but it is still pretty expensive, and it’s hard for some villagers to see the value in getting solar panels for their house, when they already have electricity in their houses (well, except for the few hours per day that their power will most likely go out).

Another fault that I saw in the microcredit system is the perpetuation of gender roles. As I’ve said, Grameen empowers women to a certain extent by giving them the money and some means to meet their basic needs, but it doesn’t go any further. The gender inequality is more blatant in other organizations; in UDDIPAN for example, the biggest loan that is available to women is tk 15,000, while men can take out an enterprise loan for about tk 50,000. Even though the in the case of most Grameen borrowers, women take out the loan and men actually use the funds, at least the Grameen system gives the women physical access to money. It is hard to say what Grameen could do to encourage gender equality, especially in a heavily Moslem society, where women are definitely not equal. They’ve taken some steps; for example, they encourage borrowers to educate all of their children equally and they discourage the practice of dowry, but there’s a long way to go.

I’ve learned a lot, gotten an increased tolerance for unpleasant situations, and gained a new appreciation for what I have. And, because I have been asked a few times: here are some of the things that I missed the most when I was in Bangladesh: running, peanut butter, cheese, constant electricity, air conditioning, and wearing shorts/not wearing a scarf. But, more importantly, there are a lot of things that I’ll miss about Bangladesh, including mangos, “no problem,” cha, paying less than 1usd for a meal, rickshaws, and all of the amazing people that I met (including Mr. Sabur and Mr. Babur…).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

From the US of A

After approximately 40 boring but safe hours of travel, I'm back in Louisiana! I have a lot of final things to say about the past month, so get excited for a really really long post within the next few days.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Special stories part II

If not the most rewarding, definitely the most interesting part of my trip this weekend was our visit to the UDDIPAN microcredit meeting. UDDIPAN was our host organization for the weekend. In addition to their microcredit activities, they run several safe spaces for children and many other programs. We were lucky to work with UDDIPAN- we met a lot of amazing people who are truly passionate about their work. The microcredit center meeting that we attended was at the home of one of the borrowers, and one of the cyclones (or perhaps just one of the “normal” floods that plague the coastal areas of Bangladesh) had caused significant damage to her house. There was no floor, just a uneven foundation of mud. There were about 12 women at the meeting, and there was no ceremonial rhetoric to open or close the meetings like I’ve seen at Grameen center meetings (let alone a cultish cheer… long live Grameen Bank…?). The household setting, demeanor of the women, and lack of rituals made the atmosphere completely different from that of a Grameen center meeting. We asked some of the usual questions (can you read, how many children do you have, etc.) and found that their answers were similar to those of Grameen borrowers. However, we then asked them if any of them took loans from more than one MFI (“overlapping”—as an interesting side note, I asked an ASA branch manager what percent of his borrowers were “overlapping” and he estimated 65%. What’s going to happen when the bubble bursts? I’ll come back to this later…). I’ve gotten a stern NO every time I’ve asked this question elsewhere, but in this group, one woman was completely willing to discuss the fact that she has THREE microcredit loans, AND that the reason she took out the second and third loans was because she needed the cash to pay her installments on the first loan. This is one of the main criticisms of microfinance (I would argue, THE main criticism of microfinance from a purely economic standpoint). I was thrilled to hear a woman speak openly about it- and in front of the UDDIPAN branch manager, no less.

One of the other woman then started criticizing UDDIPAN’s operations. She said that the women wanted to take out bigger loans and repay them monthly, rather than weekly. She had a few other various criticisms of their activities, and the branch manager welcomed her comments and encouraged her to continue. What a contrast from Grameen- in the Grameen meetings we had to practically beg the borrowers to admit that they wanted a health care clinic located closer to their village. Although I attributed this to the linearity of their thinking (pre-Grameen, they couldn’t meet their basic needs, now they can, so Grameen = perfect), I now think that there’s much more to it. All the ritualistic practices, the cultish cheer, their lack of willingness to say anything negative bout Grameen- it seems as though it has a lot to do with the way the institution of Grameen Bank has been developed and depicted to borrowers. Grameen is lucky to have Dr. Muhammad Yunus- a charismatic leader who would probably achieve a great deal of success as a preacher in a Southern Baptist church. Professor Yunus has the ability to inspire and mobilize people like few humans do. However, there’s a cloud in this silver lining: could the borrowers be too afraid to voice their criticisms of Grameen bank for fear that their will “anger the Gods?”

Monday, June 8, 2009

Special stories: “I’m on a boat” and others

At 5:34 PM on Thursday, I embarked on a 20 hour boat ride down to the coastal areas of Bangladesh. We left the GP at approximately 3:30 pm in a CNG with a driver who was actually insane.  At one point, two buses were simultaneously merging toward the center of the highway and our crazy driver zipped in between them. He then stopped to buy some bettle leaf (to chew tobacco on) while we were in traffic. But, he did get us to the boat terminal in Old Dhaka in plenty of time to get on our boat, The Launch. The other half of our group was less fortunate. Darshan and Abi were in a second CNG, which broke down in the middle of the journey to the boat terminal. They waited on the side of the road for a while (holding Tiffany’s HUGE backpacking bag and a garbage bag full of chips, among other things) until another CNG arrived to transport them to the boat dock. At 5:15 pm, a mere 15 minutes before our boat was departing, we received a call from Darshan telling us that they were stuck and traffic and would be late. I then started walking through the masses of Bangladeshis on the boat screaming “DOES ANYONE SPEAK ENGLISH?” No. no one on the boat speaks English.  So, I found one of the workers on the boat and started pointing at 5:45 on my watch and (screaming) asking him to leave at 5:45. He obviously has no idea what I’m talking about. He takes a pen and writes 5:30 on his palm and shows me, because he thinks that I don’t know what time the boat is supposed to leave. False.


It’s now 5:20. We have gone downstairs to the entrance to the boat. All three of us are doing intense charades gestures to indicate that there are 2 more people coming and we need to wait for them. It’s 5:25. They start removing the board that connects the boat to the dock. We all scream NOOOO and Tiffany jumps on top of the plank so they can’t move it. The attendant holds up 4 fingers to indicate to us that we have 4 more minutes and then the boat is leaving.  Literally everything in this entire country is 30 minutes late- why is this boat the one exception?? Despite our best acting attempts, no one ever figures out that we are waiting for 2 people. We are all peering out of the boat to try and spot Darshan and Abi running towards the boat, but they’re both Indian, so they blend in with the Bangladeshis. Tiffany is on the phone with Darshan, screaming, “THE BOAT IS LEAVING RIGHT NOW!!!!” Finally, we see the top of Tiffany’s huge backpack bobbing above the hoards of Bangladeshi’s and realize that they’ve made it. They sprint on to the boat just as the attendant is pulling the plank away from the dock.


And now we’re just hanging out on a boat for the next 20 hours. Peaceful… right? No. The same 6 people keep pacing around the top deck of the boat (where we’re staying) and stopping each time to stare at us. We saw the same people approximately every 8 minutes… like clockwork. And here’s the kicker: At 1:30 AM Lisa woke me up. I sat up and realized that someone had opened our window from outside, pushed the curtain aside, and reached his arm all the way in to our room and was shining the light from his cell phone into our room to watch us sleep.


That night, I had a dream that the Launch turned into the Titanic. So every time we stopped at a board and bumped into the shore, I dreamed that it was an iceberg. I then dreamt (very elaborately) that we were running through the boat, scrambling to find lifeboats. Ironically, there were only 2 lifeboats on the boat, and there were probably about 500 people on the boat. I knew that if there was an emergency, one of the lifeboats would have been for the crew and I would have been on the other one. If anything were to have happened, there’s no doubt in my mind that the white people would have been saved first. It is sad how much they revere foreigners.


After disembarking from the boat, we had the pleasure of riding in a tum-tum for about an hour. We were driving through some pretty remote villages, so I was pretty confident that the “hotel” that had been booked for us would be very special. It turns out we were staying at an orphanage, which was very nice (except for the large quantities of animal droppings that lisa found on her bed). Anyway, we spent the rest of the afternoon playing games with some amazing kids- we helped them practice counting in English and they (sort of) taught me how to count in Bangla. That night when the power went out, we taught the kids the Macarena, the stanky leg, and attempted to teach them the electric slide, but none of us really knew how to do it. 

We spent the next day distributing saline and water purification tablets to people on the coast who don’t have access to clean drinking water. Some of them were feeling the effects of cyclones Aila and Sidr, but many of them never have access to pure drinking water.


That day was really challenging. All we could give each family was 3 packets of saline and 10 water purification tablets. One of the women came up to one of our group members and asked if we were rebuilding her house. Another person came up to us and angrily told us that he didn’t care about having saline solution when he didn’t have a house. We saw a lot of destruction, but I’ve seen a lot of destruction from hurricanes, so that wasn’t what got me. I struggled a lot with seeing how these people are marginalized from society- both literally and figuratively. The government can’t buy good land in Bangladesh because the country is so overpopulated, so the only lands that the government can provide to poor people are basically islands. Government housing is often located on strips of land that are bordered by the bay of Bengal on one side and a river on the other side.  However, I never cease to be amazed by the survival skills that these people have. We saw many men (ranging in age from about 6 to 65) walking back to their dwellings, soaking wet, holding fish that they just caught with their hands or with a shoddy fishing net. We heard over and over again how the cyclones are constant, and so the people never have a chance to rebuild before the next storm hits… they literally cannot get a break.


To be continued…

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


Armed with the naive hope of hearing something real about Grameen, I went on another village visit today. The village was located in an area that is especially prone to flooding, so basically most of the village is under water for a significant amount of time each year. Set back by natural disasters, many villagers are unable to pay back their loans. This branch is considered pretty unsuccessful by the "higher authorities" at the GB head office, because their repayment rate is pretty low. We interviewed one such "flexible loan" borrower. Although it was interesting to talk to her, I didn't get a great answer to the one question that was most important to me. I asked her if there was a sense of shame or embarrassment associated with not being able to pay back a loan, and she told me that she just wanted to finish paying back her current loan so she could take out a bigger one. (Our translator then crafted a very special analogy comparing loan size to an episode of diarrhea. He said that when you have diarrhea you shouldn't immediately eat something that might upset your stomach, instead, you should take it easy for a while. He then applied this to the size of microcredit loans- gotta love bowel movement analogies). I think that one of the big problems with microcredit is that the recipients of loans are largely uneducated and almost always illiterate. Most borrowers have little business sense and no formal education (although they for sure have survival skills), and so their thought process is very primitive. This flexible loan borrower could only focus on repaying one loan so she could immediately take out another, which leads me to wonder whether or not it is a flaw in the Grameen system that she is allowed to take out another loan right away.  Speaking of flaws in the Grameen system, we saw the borrowers do a very interesting and somewhat cult-like cheer for Grameen in the center meeting. "Grameen Bank, Grameen Bank, all hail Grameen Bank!"... accompanied by some gestures that are reminiscent of those of the Hitler youth, in my opinion.

However, we did get a somewhat straight answer (among the Grameen propaganda) to one question that I've asked a few different people- do borrowers take out loans from more than one MFI? Everyone that I've asked so far has said no. This is definitely against the "rules" of the grameen system because it gives borrowers the opportunity to pay back one loan with another loan. And so, instead of breaking the cycle of poverty, they are putting themselves in a new vicious cycle of taking out microloans- like paying your mastercard bill with your visa card. Today, the branch manager told us that yes, they do have cases where women overlap. Finally!! Although he did say that this only occurs with about 5% of the borrowers, and that when it does happen, there are basically no consequences. Additionally, they rely on community members to essentially tell on their friends who are borrowing from more than one MFI. Likely...?

Despite all of my criticisms of Grameen, I don't want to discount the success that  Dr. Yunus and this organization has achieved. All inflated statistics and structural faults aside, the bottom line is that microcredit has allowed millions of people to enjoy lasting and permanent improvements in their quality of life. Many women have been empowered in different ways- I've talked borrowers who have said that since they started taking loans from Grameen bank they play an important decision-making role in their family. The most pressing question for me is, now what? These women are now able to meet the basic needs of themselves and their families, but they still have not achieved social equality. Now, the issue (for me) is, can microcredit further improve the social standing of women? 

Monday, June 1, 2009

frustrations, realizations, etc.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been struggling with the difference between the way the Grameen Intern Coordinators (all of whom are male) treat the female interns and the way that they treat male interns. It is undeniable that our coordinators show some sort of preference for the male interns, and it has been difficult for me to accept that. I’m slowly realizing (with the help of others) that it’s nothing personal. They don’t mean it as a sign of disrespect, but rather, they are much more comfortable interacting with males, and especially, other Bangladeshis. That being said, it is still frustrating to be spoken to like a child and ignored when I am trying to schedule a meeting. But, the longer that I am here the more I realize how little I know about the culture and what a huge role the culture plays in gender roles.  


In addition to the frustrations that come with being a woman here, I’ve also been annoyed with the inefficiencies of the Grameen business structure, and more specifically, the inefficiencies of the internship program. There are six internship coordinators whose sole responsibility is to schedule programs for the interns that are assigned to them. So, generally speaking, interns spend their first week learning about Grameen and going on a one day Branch Office visit. Needless to say, most interns come to Grameen with a considerable amount of knowledge about the Bank, and so, much of the first week is spent doing pretty much nothing. The second week is generally spent on a four or five day village trip. The remaining time is completely open and it is up to the interns to keep themselves busy. There are no scheduled programs through the internship office, and you basically have to bribe someone who works at Grameen to give you a project to do (often, if you ask for something to do, they will give you data entry, so everyone avoids that). As such, I spent a very frustrating day yesterday meeting with (and getting yelled at by) internship coordinators trying to schedule meetings and programs. We spent the entire day arranging a one day trip to two of Grameen’s sister companies (including an hour where we got yelled at for not talking to the right internship supervisor… talk about bureaucracy).  We then tried to go directly to some of Grameen’s sister companies (whose offices are located in the same building as the internship office) and schedule meetings to learn more about what the companies do. They rejected us and told us that we needed to have our coordinators schedule the meetings. Our coordinators then told us that they were too busy to talk to us and that we could “sit together after lunch.” Everything here happens “after lunch,” which in a heavy Bangladeshi accent sounds like, “Apsa lance.” Also, lunch break goes from about 12 or 1 to 3, because they have to “have a rest” after lunch.  I’m going to miss rest time when I’m back in the US…


So, today, we got to enjoy the fruits of yesterday’s labors. We took a trip to Grameen Shakti, which is a company that provides sources of alternative energy to villagers, and Grameen Kalayan, which provides health care clinics to villagers. We visited a branch office of Grameen Shakti, where we saw the technology center and chatted with some of the employees. We then went to the home of one of the customers of Grameen Shakti. Grameen Shakti installs solar panels on the roofs of people in villages, which can be especially helpful because the electricity is so unreliable in rural Bangladesh. Solar panels seemed so out of place on top of this small house in a rural village, but it does make some sense- they have plenty of solar energy in Bangladesh. We also saw some of the other projects of Grameen Shakti, including improved cooking stoves and biogas fuel. These projects were interesting, but the more interesting part of this visit to me was to see the houses of some villagers that were not recipients of Grameen Bank microcredit loans. Grameen Shakti and Grameen Bank are completely separate, so the people that are customers of Grameen Shakti are not necessarily members of Grameen Bank, so most of the customers have much more money than the other villagers that I have met through my visits to the Grameen bank branch offices. I enjoyed seeing the nice houses in the villages, and I especially enjoyed relaxing in one of these houses because there was a fan and the walls were made of mud instead of tin, so the temperate was ALMOST bearable inside.  


We then visited Grameen Kalayan, so we toured a Grameen Health Care clinic. The doctor there was very young and seemed to have a lot of great ideas for the clinic, but I was discouraged when I asked him what his plans for the future were- he seemed pretty ready to get out of the village and move to a city. I assumed that this would be his response, and I think it is pretty typical for doctors in developing countries to get some experience in a rural village, and then immediately move to the cities for a better lifestyle and more money. Still, I was glad to hear that villagers do have access to physicians for a small fee. They also give villagers the option to purchase a card for a yearly fee, which allows them to see the doctor for just tk15, which is about 20 cents- a very simplified form of health insurance. It seemed as though the clinic was doing a lot of things that were pretty inefficient. For example, there was a staff of about 8 people in the clinic and they said that they see around 20 patients per day. It could be argued that this low turnover allows for improved patient care, but it doesn’t make much economic sense. The staff members also go to Grameen Bank center meetings and tell the borrowers about their services, but for some reason, they do not do any health care education programs?


On Wednesday, I’m going to interview borrowers at an unsuccessful branch office. I’m really excited for this- I haven’t heard anything negative about Grameen from staff members since I got here, so I was surprised that they arranged this visit. This branch has a low repayment rate and a high rate of “flexible loan” borrowers. A flexible loan borrower is someone who has paid back less than 50% of her loan after 6 months, and so the terms of her loan are revised. She then has longer to repay the loan, so the installments are smaller.  


To end on a lighter note, it’s my birthday on Wednesday!!! 

Also, this picture has nothing to do with the rest of this post, but I think it's amusing. This was taken at the fort we went to in Old Dhaka. Notice the slums in the background. So typical of Dhaka...

Friday, May 29, 2009

various cultural experiences that deserve a blog

After debating (with myself) long and hard about whether or not the following experience is blog-appropriate, I’ve decided that it deserves a shout out, because it was one of the top five weirdest experiences of my life..... I went to a Bangladeshi rave.

There is a guy who works at Grameen who has taken it upon himself to become the unofficial “social coordinator” of the Grameen interns, and so he frequently invites large groups of foreigners to interesting events in Dhaka. anyway, a ticket was required to enter the party, and there were some very explicit rules on the ticket. For example, no one was allowed to “misuse” cameras, whatever that means. Also the party was supposedly “couples-only,” because they didn’t want it to turn into a huge bro-fest, which is what most parties in Bangladesh are, because women generally don’t leave their houses. As an interesting side note, it is illegal for Bangladeshis to consume alcohol. Foreigners may, however, drink alcohol in Bangladesh, although it is definitely not readily available- I’m glad I’m going to be celebrating my birthday here. When we got there, we walked into a room with a dance floor and a bar (there were also large pillows on the floor… sketchy). This room was called the “dry zone.” Then, we went upstairs to the roof of the hotel, and there was another dance floor and a pool. This was called the “wet zone.” Despite the best attempts of hotel authorities, the party did indeed turn into a lot of guys dancing with each other. Although homosexuality is not really recognized in Bangladesh, male affection, interestingly, is not taboo, so it’s common to see men holding hands, and in this situation, dancing with each other. Most of the women there were prostitutes (which was clear because they were wearing skanky pseudo-western clothing- a huge contrast from the salweer kameez, saris, and birkas that ALL Bangladeshi women wear during the day). By the end of the evening, almost everyone had jumped into the pool with his clothing on (I didn't). Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the Bangladeshi men rave with each other and the occasional prostitute.

On a significantly less creepy note, I’ve had some other interesting cultural experiences, including a concert a few nights ago. The first band that played was traditional Bengali music, and they were amazing. there was a guy singing, one beat boxing, and others playing various musical instruments. The music was amazing- it was Bangladeshi folk music. The next band was a cove band of American music. It always surprises me what western influences have made it over here and what hasn’t. For example, I was expecting them to play “classic” American music (billy joel, the eagles, etc.), and I was sorely mistaken. They led off with coldplay and also played some kings of leon (which is a band that I haven’t really heard of, but the song was called “your sex is on fire,” which I found pretty racy considering how conservative Bangladeshi culture is). Again, there were no women at this “party” except for the other interns. It was definitely amusing to hear “indie” music being sung in a heavy Bengali accent.

Today, I went to Sonargaon, the first capital of Bangladesh. The scenery was beautiful, although it felt like it was 120 degrees with 100% humidity, so it was hard to appreciate our surroundings. There was a sweet fort/museum, and they were celebrating an arts festival, so there were lots of locals there. They were a typical Bangladeshi crowd, and as such, we were treated like celebrities. One man came up to me and said, “one picture please?” and then I heard him take approximately 12 pictures. Other people don’t ask to take a picture, they just whip out their camera phones and catch you off guard. Also, there were lots of school children who came up to us and presented us with flowers, after spouting off the only English sentence that they knew (“Hello, how are you, fine thank you, goodbye”… all in one breath). I met a very nice professor and his family, and he requested my e-mail address, so I am looking forward to receiving special e-mails from them. One of the girls that I was with got asked for her autograph. Also, today was the first time that I have seen another group of tourists out and about in Bangladesh. After Sonargaon, we went to see a famous fort in old Dhaka. It was built in the 1600’s, and it is supposedly haunted because the daughter of the Kahn died before the fort was finished. It started raining, so we unfortunately did not get to take a rickshaw tour through old Dhaka, or the much anticipated boat ride through parts of Dhaka. Next time…

In closing, yesterday I was on a rickshaw and the driver suddenly pulled over to the side of the road, stopped the rickshaw, and got off. He then proceeded to relieve himself in the ditch on the side of the road. I guess when you gotta go, you gotta go.