Understanding Multiple Realities in Bangladesh: A Play in 4 Acts
Tom Zizys tries to make sense of the development field in Bangladesh.
Mise en scène
How to understand the encounter between the developed world and the developing world? One point of intersection is the exercise of development assistance. One can chart the cash flows, assess the impacts and debate the merits, from beneficial to wasteful. Few are those who do not have an opinion. Removed from the world of international conferences, billion-dollar budgets and PowerPoint presentations, what is the on-the-ground view as experienced through the eyes of an international development consultant?
Setting the stage
Two hours' drive north of Dhaka, along a hectic highway where buses, lorries, rickshaws and SUVs perilously weave and swerve in an intricate melee of cheekiness and daring. I have worked in many countries where Kalashnikovs are a constant presence, but I find this drive a much greater threat to my well-being. We cross the Jamuna River and turn on a side road that takes us to a dirt track, which dissolves upon meeting the flood plain that straddles the edge of this miles-wide river. We board a motor launch and navigate between sandbars to reach an island char. There is a crowd of inhabitants gathered along the shore, who watch solemnly as we scramble up a muddy embankment. We encounter a circular assembly of clay bricks packed solidly into the ground. Here, miles away from truly anywhere, is a makeshift helicopter pad, built for the sole purpose of receiving a visiting dignitary the next day.
Development aid projects are financed largely by foreign countries, multi-lateral international bodies or international non-governmental organisations. The field of international development has evolved robust metrics for evaluating the outcomes of these initiatives, thus validating and improving their practices. But politicians of donor countries and senior officials of development agencies regularly engage in site visits, whose main purpose is to assure their own domestic audience about the value of these programs. Recipient countries and the host projects are greatly motivated to have the end product of this donor funding seen in the best light, but then so is the donor, whose competence and judgment in supporting such projects would otherwise be the target of criticism.
So this char is hosting a walk-about by an influential foreign politician. For two hours we trace the route this distinguished visitor will take, what he will see, what chance encounters he will have with village residents. We avoid paths that are too steep or too narrow, and ensure that the surroundings are tidy ("someone pick up those discarded clothes") but not pristine (the dung, it is felt, should stay).
This is not to say that something sinister is happening here. It would not do to have some foreign dignitary traverse several time zones only to find a deserted village, its inhabitants attending to their cattle or out at the market. Our distinguished visitor needs to experience an authentic encounter and this naturally requires some choreography. But, as with the best theatre, the script offers verisimilitude so as to impart a higher truth. That truth has already been established by evaluation studies tracking improved livelihoods, more assets, and better health. The walk-about is the theatrical expression of these studies, and everyone has their role to play.
A two-world irony
As I help stagecraft this walk-about, I am only vaguely conscious of how surreal this theatre work really is, transporting someone via Business Class and helicopter to play the lead actor role among chickens running loose, fishermen repairing nets and women sweeping the earthen floors of their huts. My real task on this assignment involves sitting in front of a computer all day, using our office's high-speed Internet connection to surf electronic libraries across the globe for best practices in the delivery of health care services to the extreme poor. I download studies from the World Bank in Washington, the World Health Organisation in Geneva and from many relevant sites in Bangladesh.
A few miles away the intended beneficiaries of this research of mine are out gathering tree twigs and dried dung to fuel the fire that will cook their dinner this evening. I could aim for a tone of irony here, this juxtaposition of high technology and bare subsistence, but it would be falsethese char dwellers would not be surprised at the wonders of the information superhighway. On their remote island, despite the lack of electricity, several people have cell phones. They can talk to relatives in Dhaka or have money transferred via cell phone from London. When the battery runs down, they can restore it using a solar-powered recharger.
The only real surprise is why I should have to travel to Bangladesh to carry out such a deskbound assignment. Perhaps my work is only believed if I am seen doing it. It is not enough for me to file a synthesis of these best practices from my home office in Toronto. For some reason I need to be observed toiling in front of a computer screen. Not unlike how the walk-about confirms the physical reality of the project's successes, in spite of all the quarterly reports and annual evaluations. Can we only understand what we see?
From bollywood to the biggest loser
Television gives us much to see, though I wonder how much understanding it imparts. In my hotel room, the TV fare is largely Bangladeshi and South Asian: preachers explaining the Quran, talking heads debating the current political infighting in Dhaka. There are a few shows imported from elsewhere, the odd drama from Latin America or Russia. Most prominent are the dancing couples and choruses from Bollywood movies. I have never been to India, but TV would suggest that these Indians must be the most carefree, melodious and amorous people in the world. The typical snort I hear from Bangladeshi acquaintances when I mention these images of singing lovers is not, I have come to learn, an expression of envy, nor even moralistic censure. It is because Bangladeshis find their neighbours so much not like what these videos portray that the snort is rather an expression of reproach although they, like I, cannot stop watching these fantasies.
What is the view of the typical North American television watcher of Bangladesh? Bangladesh interjects itself into the viewer's eyes primarily through one of two ways: regular appeals from charitable organisations for donations or news clips of devastation caused by cyclones or floods. In the one case, destitute, typically orphaned children are profiled, in the other, dazed victims, destroyed homes, ruined crops. The ultimate image is that of a miserable country periodically made more miserable by natural disaster. A country with an exceptionally developed civil society, characterised not by handouts but rather the enabling helping hand of micro-lending, is thus reduced to the stereotype of a pathetic country full of misery and hunger subsisting on foreign handouts while its neighbour sings and dances, suggesting that this neighbour has no experience of suffering or sorrow.
One American show I have seen broadcast on the TV in my hotel room is The Biggest Loser. It is about how a group of very overweight Americans (the women often weighing over 200 pounds, the men tipping the scales at over 300) are sequestered for several months and subjected to a strict regimen, and the winner is in fact, the biggest loser (i.e. the one who loses the most weight.
The show aims to evoke drama : participants are grouped into teams and required to compete against each other in performing certain tasks. There are periodic weigh-ins, showcasing the thrill of lost weight and the disappointment of little or no progress. There is, of course, the internal drama, the testimony of each individual as he or she recounts the challenge, puts into words the emotional journey each of them has experienced during this personal test, and in the end recounting the feeling of renewal and self-esteem, indeed pride, that they experienced during this ordeal.
I think my Bangladeshi island residents would sit open-mouthed watching this obesity salvation narrative unfold. I imagine they would find the sheer strangeness of this spectacle unsettling. My guess is that their sense of irony is not so modern chic as to speculate about a group of people seeking to reverse a lifetime of overeating by engaging in extended physical exertion and embracing what is in essence a near-starvation dietthat is, living for a few months the day-to-day, year-to-year existence of a char dweller. Somehow I doubt they would marvel that this temporary adoption of their underfed lifestyle could bring worldwide celebrity status to this select sample of the overfed, while their permanent undernourished predicament is neither news nor drama. Indeed, their lives, their personal journey, their thrills and disappointments carry no weight at all, except to serve up a tired cliché. That pseudo-suffering should so easily displace real life in the television ratings game tells us a lot about reality programming and what for us is real.
Theatre of the absurd
We are travelling along a busy road in Dhaka. Up ahead, lights on a barrier start flashing. Our driver speeds up, but he cannot pass over the railway crossing before the barrier comes down, impeding our progress. Our vehicle sits idly in front of the barrier as the slow-moving train begins its passage. The train's passenger cars all have their windows open hoping the movement of the train can bring some breeze to the stuffy interior. Many people sit on the roof of each caron one, several children seem to be playing a game.
The lane beside us, now clear of the oncoming traffic interrupted by the train, quickly becomes choked with cars and rickshaws impatient with the idea of queuing behind us. The shoulder of the road on the other side of our car also fills with motorbikes and pedestrians, until a packed phalanx, teeming with machines and bodies, stretches across the entire length of the railway-crossing barrier.
Munir Uz Zaman/Driknews
Finally, the end of the train is in sight. The last railway car passes, the barriers lift on both sides, and there facing us is a comparable mass of cars and people, blocking both the oncoming and outgoing lanes and both shoulders besides.
I remember from my university days a piece of absurdist theatre, where an audience watches a stage filled with chairs. Eventually, artistes file in, sitting in a random pattern until most of the seats are filled. Eventually one comes to realise that they represent an audience as well, the mirror image of those patrons who paid to see a play.
For me, when those railway barriers (curtains?) go up I am shocked to see, not only a completely unexpected sight, but what is also a mirror reflection of how we must look. And I wonder if every view offers much the same: the unexpected, the other, as well as the familiar, the mirror image.
Epilogue seeing the "other"
The realities which ply our thoughts and expose us to multiple imaginations fails to provide a bridge between the manner in which we interpret everything around us and our perception of the 'other'. The realities of the extreme poor in Bangladesh and the voyeurism to with which the visiting foreign dignitary was initiated to that reality reduces the scope for each subject to fully appreciate the other's perspective and imagine the other's life. The extreme poor person is engaged in activity to ensure their daily subsistence while completely oblivious to the relevance of the visit of the 'bideshi (foreign) politician'. Simultaneously, the foreign dignitary is engaged in understanding the success of his government's intervention in the life of the 'other' and ensuring his government receives full praise from the national government and international community for their 'fight against poverty'. Neither party manages to fully engage with the nuances of the other's reality despite an awareness that somehow their lives are intertwined.
The extreme poor agenda does not require a one-size-fits-all policy but it, also, does not wish to decry the efforts of the international agenda for poverty reduction; it simply wishes to reach out to the national decision makers to ensure that their reality is acknowledged and their imagination of the future is delivered. But the current reality remains one of huge disparity. Akin to the jaw-dropping awe with which Bangladeshis observe the macabre reality of the Biggest Losers, the duty bearers will be equally befuddled once exposed to the harsh truth of the life of the extreme poor.
I think about seeing pictures of dancing and suffering and singing and sorrow, and wonder about how rarely we recognise ourselves in the image of the other, and see only what's foreign. I think understanding real life requires measuring not what is different, but actually appreciating what is the same.
The views expressed are those of the author and in no way reflect the views of their employers.
Tom Zizys served as an advisor to the Ontario Provincial Government in Canada and has worked as an independent development consultant in Bangladesh for years.