Sunday, 5 July 2009

Southern Missions

  Last week was a slow week in the office. I am now working on a report that compares the subprime crisis in the United States, which brought the world economy to its knees, and the current microcredit practices in Bangladesh. Essentially it explores the reasons for why lending to the worlds poorest people can be a success, while lending to the poor in America failed so catastrophically, and the lessons that can be learned. Hopefully I'll be able to wrap it up before I leave. 
 This weekend saw yet another epic trip. On Thursday night we took a boat from Dhaka to the southern city of Barisal. The boat was a rusty, old, 200 foot steamer with three decks. The first deck was one large room, with over 100 people spread out on the floor. The scene was more reminiscent of a post WWII refugee exodus than a 21st century ferry, but such are the constant surprises in Bangladesh. The remaining decks comprised two different types of two-bed tiny cabin: regular and VIP - the only discernible difference being a carpet and the pretense of an AC unit on the wall. As we booked last minute, we were only able to secure 5 cabins for the 17 of us. It was a cozy ride. At some point during the night, a few of us found ourselves in conversation with the only other white person on the boat - a dutch missionary who had spent 30 years in Bangladesh and was heading to Barisal to attend the ordination of a Bishop. Needless to say he was keen to invite us and we were equally eager to attend.
 Arriving at the church complex at 6am, drenched to the core after a ten minute walk through intense monsoon rain, was one of the most absurd and trippy moments of my life. Adorned with bright, multicolored, flashing lights, this church and the 2000 seater tent set up for the service screamed Vegas kitsch like nothing I had seen before in Asia. As we watched the nuns set up for the 9am start time, I half expected them to break out in a rendition of "It's Raining Men"....appropriate on so many levels. We ate breakfast and returned for the 3 hour ordination, which was entirely in Bengali, but somehow missed-out on an invitation for the feast that followed. I was most upset. 
 Later that day we took a small wooden motor boat down river, eventually stumbling upon the remotest of villages. We stepped onto land, where the water-logged mud slipped and squelched beneath our bare feet (we attempted to convince ourselves that the silt had some highly therapeutic qualities but I highly doubt this was the case) and were suddenly surrounded by 100+ male villagers. Where the women were hiding is an unsolved mystery. They marched us to their football pitch and we soon found ourselves in a game of 7 of us against their best 7. The remaining villagers and girls from our group cheered from the sidelines. A moment must be devoted to acknowledge the pinnacle of my sporting achievements - this game involved more spectators than all of my other past athletic events combined, and I was not on the substitute bench for even a second (perhaps to the detriment of my team). Team Grameen even came away with a mud-soaked 1-0 victory. 
 Last night we went to the American Club - every big country has their own little country-club (no pun intended) in Dhaka - to celebrate 4th July. We were ridiculously over dressed for the occasion, and it was not exactly what we had imagined. In hindsight, the idea that their would be hoards of beautiful, blond, 20 year old, southern girls desperately seeking out microfinance volunteer workers was a bit of a stretch, but unfortunately there was nothing even close. Nevertheless, as 5 boys we made the most of an open bar, and plenty of fun ensued. 
 This week will mostly involve working on my report, and hopefully a photo-op with Dr Yunus. So until then...

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Birthday Party

 Last week Bangladesh adopted daylight savings for the first time in its history. I am now 6 hours ahead of London and 11 hours ahead of New York. Unfortunately most of the Bengalis do not appreciate that they are now 1 hour ahead of where they were last week, and this has caused a farcical level of confusion throughout the country. Nevertheless, life goes on. And so last Wednesday we visited Grameen Shikkha, which funds education for children under the age of 6. We toured a school and in every classroom we went to, the children had some kind of presentation for us. This usually involved a stirring rendition of the national anthem, or a local variation on "head, shoulders, knees and toes, knees and toes" - I preferred the latter. Grameen borrowers are only eligible for a loan if they send their children to school, which is an important step towards reducing the terrible child labour conditions out here. One months schooling costs 10 Tk, or about $0.15 per student. 
 We also went to Grameen Shakti, a sister company in charge of providing renewable energy across the country. Bangladesh has an energy crisis. I have experienced it first hand on too many occasions. Several times a day, the entire grid shuts down leaving the city with no electricity. Offices, hotels, and nicer houses, have back up generators that quickly (within a minute) restart most operations such as lighting, fans etc. But most people have nothing. And by nothing, I mean either no generator, or, for 60% of the country, no electricity whatsoever. This is the first problem. The other issue is that Bangladesh is such a low lying country, that if global temperatures rise by 4 degrees over the next few decades, which is apparently a not unlikely event, 2/3 of the country will be underwater. And this is one of the most densely populated countries in the world already. Imagine. So obviously for these reasons renewable energy is a big deal out here. Because of its hot climate and huge agriculture industry, solar power and biogas are the big players. We saw mud-hut houses with solar panels on the roof (which a villager pays for using the principles of microcredit) and a contraption that converts chicken excrement into usable energy. Grameen has training centers, where women villagers become proficient technicians with the equipment. They use these skills to provide immediate assistance to people who are having trouble in their own village, and make a good income stream at the same time. 
 On the weekend 18 of us took a 5 hour train to Shrimongul in the north east to visit the tea plantations. We walked through a rain forest and hiked a mountain for pineapples, which were deliciously sweet. We also swam in a lake, which we probably wouldn't have done normally, but saw two fat chinese men swimming in it, so figured it must be OK - I take full credit for that line of reasoning. More alcohol was smuggled to dinner, but it didn't last long. The next day we did a 7km bike ride, which would have been 14km if I had turned around and rode back like everyone else, but instead I convinced a friend to hitch-hike back into town on a truck with me. Best 100 Tk ($1.50) I have ever spent. 
 While away I received the sad news of Michael Jackson's untimely death. I only realized how much of a fan I must be,when I got an embarrassingly high number of emails from friends and family making sure that I was alright! Although very shocked, I'm coping fine, but I will miss the man who can take credit for every cringeful spin I've pulled on the dance-floor and whose "Dangerous" concert at Wembley in 1992 will still go down as one of the greatest nights of my life. 
 Yesterday was Dr Mohammed Yunus' (the nobel-prize winner who founded Grameen) 69th birthday. I have never met the man, and to say that he has a divine aura in Bangladesh would be an understatement. But we knew he was in town, recently back from the states. I decided it would be a good idea to buy a slice of cake, stick in some candles, barge into his office unannounced and sing. So after a little recon mission to find out where his office is (modestly tucked away on the 4th floor of a 21 floor building) we did exactly that. For Jeff, Benny, Miles and myself it was certainly a moment we'll never forget. And we have pictures. 
 Not sure what I'll be getting up to this week, but I'm planning on buying a mountain of DVDs at $1 a pop as well as getting  a wardrobe of shirts tailored for $12 a piece. So until then,

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Villages and Beaches

 Its been a while since I was last able to post, due to an action-packed week full of travel. Last Sunday 3 of us arrived at the village of Baneswar, about 400km from Dhaka, braced with an arsenal of weapons-grade insect repellents and various forms of pills, creams and bracelets designed to obliterate anything that crawled within 10 feet of us. My group was all-male since Bangladesh is a conservative, Muslim country where mixed gender sleeping arrangements are not acceptable. 
 The point of us being in the village was to experience the real workings of Grameen Bank. As I mentioned before, Grameen means "village" and so all its borrowers are to be found in rural areas like Baneswar. We were to stay at a branch office, the lowest level (ie closest to the action), of all the administrative sections. It is at the branch office that villagers will come to collect their loans (however they will actually pay the loans back in weekly installments at "center-meetings" in their own village). A branch will cover 15 or so centers, where there are on average 50 women. Branches are overseen by area offices, areas by zonal offices, and the zonal offices by the HQ in Dhaka. 
 But don't picture the branch office to look anything like a branch of NatWest off Kensington High Street. I would have been comfortable walking into that. It was simply a 2-floor house with 4 main rooms on the first floor (we never saw the second floor but from what I can discern it housed a family with small children that enjoyed screaming at 3 in the morning - either that or something more sinister was going on....). The 2 front rooms were used as office space, and then behind was our dining room (which looked just like the other rooms but without the paper work, ie bare floor and walls and just an old wood table and chairs), and our bedroom. It contained 3 single beds, each with a thin metal frame, and wooden planks in place of a mattress. A sheet was placed over the planks, and two lumpy, colorful pillows lay at the top of the bed. A fan intermittently whirled overhead. While this entire scene brought on a wave of adoration and longing for my $12 a night hotel in Dhaka, it wasn't until I saw the bathroom that I came close to throwing in the towel. There in front of me was the infamous squatty-potty, something I had heard so much about, but in a 3 week sheltered tour of the Oberois of India last year, had the great fortune of thus far avoiding. In the same small room was also to be found my open shower, with cockroaches climbing up its walls. I strongly contemplated an overdose of Immodium, but I worried the affects may wear off too soon, resulting in potentially disastrous consequences. I let nature be my guide. 
 Our branch was located in what can only be described as a giant fruit and veg garden. We were surrounded by a cornucopia of mango, guava and banana trees, lentils, aubergines, various types of spinach, and a host of legumes I had no name for. I was suddenly excited for food, and with good reason. We ate like kings. At every meal we had a mountain of white rice, a plate of fresh vegetables with some mild spices and a main dish (usually either a chicken or fish curry). Knives and forks do not exist on a rural Bengali table. To eat, you cover your plate with rice, top it with the vegetables and the meat curry, pour over some thin dal (lentil) sauce, and then using all five fingers, mix up your food creating a bite-size ball, place the ball at the end of your fingers and finally use god's gift of an opposable thumb to shovel this into your mouth. You must only ever use your right hand to touch food. It is the greatest faux-pas to get your left hand dirty. Needless to say I relished in this experience, and from this point on find no further use for cutlery. 
 Attending the center meetings and looking around various houses of Grameen borrowers was simultaneously humbling and fulfilling. While these women clearly had very little, living in mud huts in stifling heat, they showed great pride in what they had been able to achieve with their loans (some had bought TVs, other's had managed to send all their children to university) and were extremely welcoming to us. It seems that the most common investment is to buy a cow, which will be milked for several years, and then sold a few years later (hopefully around a festival time) for a decent profit - often double what they bought it for. This supplements the income their husbands bring in. We did find some instances when the women used their loans to invest in their husbands' companies so that an already established business (perhaps a small electronics shop in the local town) could grow. How this effects divorce rates is as yet unknown. 
 Returning from the villages on Wednesday, I played a quick afternoon round of golf and then took an 11.30pm overnight bus, with 12 other interns, to Cox's Bazar - reportedly the world's largest single stretch of beach, and thus a source of great pride for a country with a rather empty trophy cabinet. Admittedly heading to the beach during monsoon season made little sense for many reasons, but all the cool kids were doing it. And we were in fact blessed with beautiful weather for our entire stay. But the beaches in Bangladesh are a bizarre experience. Women must be covered from head to toe, and men must wear long shorts and T-shirts. As we sat on our sunbeds, two things frequently happened: 1) Merchants, young and old, would try and lure us into buying an enormous variety of different goods, including shells, soft drinks, roasted peanuts, sarongs, hard boiled eggs, and horse rides. 2) A small group of Bengali young men would pluck up the courage to come and talk to one of us, and as this conversation was taking place, more and more people gathered, until, I kid you not, there were around 60 people cramming over one bed, all craving a hand shake and the opportunity to say hi to the white man. To say my ego was subject to inflation this weekend would be an understatement. 
 Unfortunately the food on the beach was something of a let down, as they felt the need to over cook every piece of fresh fish, and deep fry plenty of other good stuff. Due to the strict prohibition laws, it was impossible to enjoy a glass of rose at lunch, but we did manage to smuggle a few bottles of rum (worryingly bottled in Myanmar) to dinner. 
 I am now safely back in Dhaka, exhausted, but excited for more adventures. This week I will hopefully visit some of Grameen's sister companies, particularly focusing on renewable energy and capital management, so until then...

Thursday, 11 June 2009

From St. Tropez to the Golf Course

 Weekends in Bangladesh are on Friday and Saturday. Sunday was my first day at work. The new interns sat in the conference room on the 8th floor of the 21 floor"Grameen Bank Headquarters" waiting for the whole group to turn up (we were 9 in total). The last two walked in, a boy and girl (mid 20s) who are at law school in New York. After the initial introductions, I notice Jenny (the girl) staring at me inquisitively. Finally, after several awkward moments had passed, she blurts out "did I meet you on a boat in St. Tropez two years ago?" Perhaps one of the most unexpected lines I have heard in my entire life. I tried hard to think of a time when I was on a boat with a cute American girl (or any girl) in St. Tropez, but I failed. I soon realized that by boat she meant ferry and by St. Tropez, she really meant St. Maxime. It eventually came back to me that we had in fact sat next to each other on the crossing over from Antibes, but somehow ended up on different boats for the next leg. Far less glamorous, but ridiculous nonetheless. 

 The rest of the day was filled with info videos on what Grameen is, how it operates and what its is hoping to achieve. To digress into that for a moment, below is a link to a very useful history of how microfinance came into being:

 So that is how it came to be. Grameen loans almost exclusively to women, since they are deemed more fiscally responsible than men and care more for the needs of their family. Empowering women in such a way also greatly improves the gender inequality that runs through the entire country. It is also entirely village based (Grameen actually means village in Bengali), so no loans are given out to city dwellers. The average loan size is 15,000 Tk. which is about $220 and will be used to purchase livestock, agricultural land, machines (for sewing, cooking etc) and any other kind of investment that the village women choose to make. There is no collateral required for the loan, nor is there any contractual obligation to pay it back. Instead the women organize themselves into groups of five, and each group is supposed to constantly meet, support and aid one another through their investments. Through this group system, there is a strong societal pressure placed on each woman to make sure she meets her weekly loan payment, and this has proven to be incredibly effective - Grameens repayment rate for its entire portfolio is over 95%, proving that the poor are extremely creditworthy. 

Monday morning we took a day trip out to the village. Less than 90 minutes outside Dhaka, we were surrounded by relatively wide open greenery and much fresher air. All 60 women in the village were Grameen borrowers, and we had the opportunity to attend their center meeting (a collection of "5 person" groups is called a center). Most impressive of all was a woman - I named her "SlumCat Millionaire" - who had used her first loan of 2,000 Tk. ($30) to buy 10 chickens, that she tended by her house. She now has a tin hut next to her home, with 1,300 chickens, each producing an egg a day, which she sells to a Dhaka based wholesaler for 6 Tk. (8 cents) an egg. She has her own three-hut complex at the end of the village, cable TV, and a big grin on her face. If you do the math you'll see why. 

 Some other highlights of my week include visiting Gulshan, the only up-market neighborhood, where the embassies and nice hotels are located. The newly built Westin seems like the George V compared to my present accommodation, and I enjoyed a surreal drink in its lounge listening to three pretty East-Asian girls - dressed like hookers - singing modern English pop music (Sugababes, Natasha Beddingfield etc)...very bizarre. Yesterday afternoon, a friend and I managed to find the "Army Golf Club", and as the sun was setting and the temperature perfect, we played 9 holes. We had two caddies, two spotters, two sets of clubs and two pairs of shoes, for a total price of 1,500 Tk. ($22) each. It was an incredible experience. 

 I also visited an inner city slum, where an NGO has replicated the Grameen model to work for the city. The women all agreed that life was better in the village, and when they make enough money they plan to move back (almost all had migrated to Dhaka over the past 20 years). The city is simply a much bigger market, giving them far greater opportunity to earn. This same NGO (Padakhep) also runs a shelter for children that live on the streets. We visited 1 of its 4 outposts, and it was amazing to see how happy the children looked. They are given 2 hours of regular schooling and 2 hours of vocational training, along with counseling to help them get over the traumas they have experienced (such as drugs, and physical / sexual abuse). Apparently over 50% of all street children in Dhaka are reached by shelters like this in one way or another, although I find that number hard to believe.

The heat really has been the hardest thing to cope with. My pastel colored cotton shirts end up soaking wet and many shades darker after less than an hour outdoors. I often have to shower 3 times a day, for fear my stench will attract mosquitos to my room, and have realized now how pathetically out of shape I must be. 

 Next week I will be spending 5 days in a village that is 400 km from Dhaka, where they have no electricity and therefore no fans or AC. It should be interesting.

 Depending on how exciting my weekend is - I am going to a party with a bunch of locals at the Radisson hotel tonight - will determine whether I post before I leave for the village, so until then


Saturday, 6 June 2009

System Shock

 I arrived yesterday afternoon at 4pm local time. It is insanely hot out here, and the humidity makes it much worse. Driving to town from the airport, the roadsides appeared very similar to what I had seen in India. Hundreds of small stalls stacked together in the dirt tracks, mainly pedaling foods and crafts. The traffic is as bad or perhaps worse if that is possible. Rickshaws, CNG's (which stands for compressed natural gas, and is the same as a tuk-tuk in Thailand), small cars, buses and trucks all honk and compete for space on what little amount of drivable road they can squeeze into.
 Part of the drive was actually stunning, as the road is surrounded by rivers and deltas, banked with palm trees and other lush greenery. It was surely the affect of this scenery, and the fatigue from the flight, that induced me to leave my blackberry on the seat of the taxi, never to be seen again! 
 The Grand Prince Hotel is not "grand". Far from it.  It sits 2 floors above a sort of Bangladeshi mini Wal-Mart. My "blosom single" room has AC, carpet and a rock hard single bed. Most curious of all is the door at the end of the room. It opens into a fairly large shower, but within this space are to be found my toilet, sink and mirror. While shocked at first, I can now testify that the convenience of this situation is, in my experience, unmatched.
 I struck up conversation with some Americans in the lobby (the hotel is mainly filled with Grameen interns), and asked them if I could join them for dinner. Much to my fear, we ended up at a place down the road that was quite possibly the most run down restaurant I had ever seen. To make matters worse, we were seated on the top (3rd) floor and it was smolderingly hot. The room was packed. And for good reason, because my chicken bone and lentil soup, marinated roast chicken breast with rice and naan, and condensed cream and rice noodle pudding (clearly a subcontinent favorite) were all delicious. And with a bill that came to $16 for 7 of us (ie just over $2 a head), I was pretty speechless. 
 Today we went to the Zoo and saw some malnutritioned Indian lions, and then I met two more girls in the lobby and ate lunch with them close to the hotel. I treated them both. Our bill for 3 currys was $1.80. After lunch we took a CNG to a very up-market store that had beautiful saris and kaftans on several different floors. Nothing was more than about $20. 
 This evening I went to the parliament building, which is an incredible piece of geometrically inspired architecture. Unfortunately they were in session while we were there, so we couldn't get around to the front. My night ended with some friends and some Bengalis at a fast-food restaurant called "Delicious Food". Delicious it was. So far they only have one outpost, but are looking to expand, so watch this space. 
 Tomorrow will be my first day at the bank, so until then, 

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Setting Off

As most of you know, I am leaving this evening to begin my adventures in Bangladesh. I will be interning at Grameen Bank  - the institution attributed with founding microfinance. I will also be staying at a $12 a night hotel, flying into the start of their monsoon season and generally being thrown way out of my normal summer comfort zone. 
I will use this blog as a way to update all of you - friends and family - who have either expressed a genuine desire to know what I am getting up to or a sadistic curiosity to see whether I can stick it through. I am not sure how accessible internet will be when I am there, nor if my bbm will work at all, but I will make every effort to ensure I update this as often as possible. I will even try and get hold of a camera to spice this up with pictures and videos. 
So until next time from Dhaka,